There never was a filmmaker quite like Robert Altman. And as “Altman,” the new documentary from director Ron Mann, makes clear, there’ll probably never be another like him again. This is not just hyperbole. The facts of Altman’s long storied rise to prominence are so particular, and so entirely specific to him and to the type of filmmaking industry that existed back then, that it’s hard to see quite how another Altman could be forged. En route to auteurdom, Altman didn’t so much beat a new path as part the waters, which closed quickly behind him. Which makes this film all the more valuable a document of a maverick’s rise to a level of respect so high he joins the select group of filmmakers (Hitchcock, Welles, perhaps Tarantino), who have an adjective coined from their name.
“Altmanesque” is a word that recurs frequently in the documentary, which is otherwise mostly composed of archive interview footage of Altman himself, along with home movies and clips from his films, largely narrated and story-fied in voiceover by his widow, Kathryn. Punctuating the flow is a series of brief talking heads spots devoted to the many famous faces who worked with or were influenced by Altman, and each of them is simply asked to define what “Altmanesque” means to them. At first, the cursory nature of the individual replies feels a little too surface (and the spots are oddly lit, with faces seeming to swim up out of the blackness), but soon the sheer number of them begins to build a bigger picture. As the brief thoughts of this illustrious ensemble merge into a collage in the mind, an appropriately mosaic-like picture emerges of Altman’s effect on the film world. At the same time, we realize that the definitions the various actors and fellow directors give are as illuminating about them as they are about Altman. Bruce Willis chooses “Kicking Hollywood’s ass,” Lily Tomlin says “Family” and, causing a gasp in the audience, first at his appearance and then at his eerily prescient words, Robin Williams suggests “Expect the unexpected.”
The film is not an expose. It is narrated by family members, and while at one point Altman’s son mentions that his father was not around a great deal when he was young, it is with a marked lack of bitterness, as there seems to be a tacit acceptance that what kept him away was worthwhile. Instead, the film is an affectionate “official” biography of his career, and that’s all it needs to be to continually engage.
Altman’s rocky start (if ever there was a life story with the heartening moral that genius can occur a little later in life, after years and years of toil, this might be it) is a summary lesson in the value of perseverance. First working as a writer, he found he wasn’t even welcome on the sets of the movies he worked on, let alone encouraged to think he might step into a director’s role at any point. And so, partly through lying about his experience, he went to work in a small studio where he was allowed to direct industrial films with titles like “How to Run a Filling Station.” These small productions gave him the opportunity to learn every aspect of the filmmaking process, and he soon got a foothold in TV, and rose to become one of the most sought-after television directors of the late 50s and early 60s.
Here his maverick streak revealed itself. He won an Emmy for an episode of “Combat” that depicted shell shock against the express wishes of the show’s producers. But quitting that world for reportedly very principled reasons, he experienced a period of doldrums before his film career flared to life, really breaking out with “MASH,” of course, a script that no one else wanted to do (he is introduced on “The Dick Cavett Show” as “The 15th man asked to direct ‘MASH’”). That film, as well as being massively successful, was revolutionary, particularly in terms of its overlapping dialogue, and is now seen as establishing the style of filmmaking with which he would become synonymous. With “MASH,” Altman became “Altmanesque.”
“Altman” goes on to trace the many highs and lows of his subsequent career too—it is especially insightful about the catastrophic flop that was “Popeye”—right up through his health troubles to his death in 2006. His retrospectively heartbreaking acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar has its moment too (giving us all another series of pangs when the footage cuts to the applauding audience and shows both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger in attendance), but the latter portion of the film is less revelatory than the earlier to any halfway diligent student of film. And certain latter-day misfires, like “Pret a Porter” are breezed past, or ignored altogether. Were it any other filmmaker, we might suggest that this portrait of the man as beloved and admired by all might be a little rose-tinted. But Altman is beloved and admired by us too, and so “Altman”’s warmth and affection for its subject entirely chimes with our own. [B]