Director: Ron Mann
Major Players: Robert Altman (archive), Julianne Moore, Bruce Willis
Out Of Five: 3.5
Here’s one for the film fans. A documentary about the life and times of director Robert Altman (1925 – 2006).
And that’s Altman in a nutshell. But it was one heck of a life – a real rollercoaster ride, with soaring highs like M*A*S*H and The Player and plunging lows like Popeye. And it was a career that started in the way he meant to go on: while working on the TV series Combat!, he showed one of the lead characters suffering from shell shock. He’d been told not to include the scene, but the studio boss was away, making it too good an opportunity to miss. He got the sack. Not that it held him back.
He may have had a difficult and unpredictable relationship with Hollywood and the studios, but he still took cinema in a new direction. His trademark overlapping dialogue meant finding a new way of recording sound so that none of it was lost. So he made sure each actor had their own microphone, enabling the audience to choose which conversation they wanted to hear.
And he added a new word to the lexicon of cinema. “Altmanesque”. Each section of the film starts with somebody who’s worked with Altman giving their own definition of the word and the segment takes it as its theme, as well as moving the story along. Robin Williams calls it “expecting the unexpected,” Bruce Willis says it means “kicking Hollywood’s ass” and Lyle Lovett’s definition is “storytelling”. Altman regulars Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Keith Carradine and Lily Tomlin all have their say as well and they all have a different take on it. Other descriptions include, “Characterised by naturalism, social criticism, subversion of genre”, “not conforming to predictable norms,” and “indestructible.”
Even a casual film goer will have come across a handful of Altman films. M*A*S*H is probably the best known, but that’s maybe because of the long running TV series that came afterwards – mainly with different lead actors but one or two from the original film, Gary Burghoff as Radar in particular, in a part he never really escaped. Anybody who’s enjoyed Altman’s films, as I have, will find this a fascinating and affectionate look at his early days, revealing aspects of his career and character that explain his later work and reputation as a rebel, almost an enfant terrible.
But he didn’t just make films. Yes, he started in TV, but who knew that he’d worked on Bonanza? He regularly directed in the theatre as well, including Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues over here at The Old Vic. It was panned and it doesn’t feature here, but he directed it in the year of his death and the film doesn’t dwell on his ill health in later life. And the reason is that Altman didn’t dwell on it either. He was determined to complete his last film, A Prairie Home Companion, so reserve director, Paul Thomas Anderson, really never got a look-in.
Altman is a film that preaches to the converted. Fans of his sprawling epics like Nashville and Gosford Park will be in their element. Will it make any converts? Possibly – but Altman’s movies were an acquired taste. Tackling the documentary without seeing any of his films would be to do it a disservice. But if you know his movies, you’ll totally get it. And love it. And want to watch his work all over again.
Altman goes on limited release on Friday, 3 April.