|The idea that there are people who have not seen all or most of Robert Altman's films fills me with sadness and EMPTINESS.|
Dir. Ron Mann
Starring: Robert Altman, Christine Altman, Kathryn Reed Altman, Robert Reed Altman, Stephen Altman, Michael Murphy, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robin Williams, James Caan, Keith Carradine, Elliott Gould, Philip Baker Hall, Sally Kellerman, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin
Review By Greg Klymkiw
It's the most, about the most, by the most.
Allow me to elucidate.
Robert Altman is one of the ten greatest American directors of all time. I furthermore insist that Robert Altman is one of the ten most important American artists of all time.
If anyone has any doubts about my lofty proclamations, they need to view Altman, the new picture by one of the ten greatest doc directors in North America, Ron Mann, who's also the most astonishing archivist-as-storyteller-as-director in the world - of, like, all time. If you don't believe me, just eyeball Mann's dazzling array of cooler-than-cool contributions to the art of cinema like Comic Book Confidential, Twist, Tales of the Rat Fink, Grass and Go Further.
Mann's herewith delivered a genuinely important bio-doc of the genius maverick director and I'll, uh, go further (pun only intended upon rereading this piece for editing) and happily admit that Altman is a picture that exceeded all my expectations by being the most perfect film biography of Robert Altman that I could ever want. You see, there are three things that always drive me up a wall in most bio-docs about artists and Mann avoids all of them.
They are as follows:
1. No eggheads telling me why Altman is important. I know already.
2. No bullshit celebrity interviews with adoring actors being actors and acting out their feelings about why they loved, or even hated, working with Altman. Who needs it? Besides, Mann gives us something a hell of a lot better.
3. The movie includes just enough biographical information that doesn't have to do with his filmmaking career. What's included on this front is there, to be sure and from the most ideal perspective. What isn't, is inadvertently, or perhaps, intentionally addressed by virtue of how Mann has so exquisitely sculpted the film. And you know, if I wanted to know more about Altman's non-film-related life, there are plenty of places to find it. There's no reason for any such details to clutter this sleek, impactful 96 minutes.
Mann has always been a master of research and he continues this tradition by painstakingly scouring every available visual and audio interview that Altman ever gave and ingeniously selecting just the right nuggets so that we get his biography in his own words. Mann supplements the filmmaking journey with poignant interviews with Altman's family (and private home movie footage) to reveal the more intimate aspects of Altman's life. He takes us through Altman's entire filmography from early screenwriting efforts, short films, industrial films, his first feature film (that I genuinely love, but Altman professes to hate), his brilliant television directing career (wherein he addressed issues of import that drove his sponsors and bosses crazy) and then, through each and every film he ever made - replete with generous film clips and terrific tales of butting heads with the studios, inventing whole new cinematic storytelling techniques and ultimately settling into a variety of independent modes of production which eventually yielded one of his richest periods prior to his honorary Oscar and death.
One of the most inventive aspects of Mann's approach is to offer up a definition of the word "Altmanesque" and then assemble what might be one of the most impressive lineups of guest stars for any such film and present each and every one of them in exquisitely composed and gorgeously lit shots, reminiscent of the Vittorio Storaro-photographed "witness" sections of Warren Beatty's Reds. Instead of submitting us to tried and true interviews with his witnesses, Mann asks each and every one of them one question - to define "Altmanesque". The answers range from almost-predictably mundane or obvious to exquisitely ideal and in the case of the late, great Robin Williams, short, sweet and perhaps what might be the ultimate final word on what it means to be "Altmanesque."
Each one of these sequences are astutely inserted throughout the picture as intros to the various segments of Altman's life as a filmmaker and indeed, act as marvellous bookends to each section.
The biography proper begins, ever-so briefly, with Altman's life in the military. It is here where I'd hoped the film might elaborate and, indeed, occasionally touch upon throughout the recounting of his filmmaking life. While it's not a hard and fast rule, I've always felt that some of the greatest American films and filmmakers have brought a wealth of life experience to their work, and none more so than those who experienced the horrors of war.
Given Altman's early Jesuit education (nothing can beat this in my humble opinion), his turn in military school and, at age 18, flying in over fifty WWII bombing missions seems to fit his talent for filmmaking like a glove - especially in terms of the subject matter he was drawn to and the various techniques of naturalism he either outright invented or expanded upon.
I've often placed Altman in the same sphere as John Ford, George Stevens, Frank Capra, Sam Peckinpah, Samuel Fuller and Oliver Stone, et al - those men who were directly exposed to the horrors of war in a wholly American context. It's an experience that led to films, from all of them, that will not only last forever, but continually broke with cinematic storytelling conventions. While these thoughts occasionally crossed my mind in the early going of Altman, they soon dissipated as Mann began taking us through Altman's filmography, including, but not limited to MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye and Nashville. These are films that will live forever because they capture the essence of humanity in ways that most pictures never do and it's not just Altman's groundbreaking techniques at play here, but something far deeper and rooted in a perspective that's very personal and wends its way in to the work itself.
At the end of the day, the very structure of Mann's film addresses this in a subtle, but very real way.
Though I'd not like to dissuade anyone from seeing Altman for any reason whatsoever, I do think it's important, if not even incumbent upon its viewers to have experienced Robert Altman's important canon. To think that anyone has not seen all, or most of his work fills me with a strange kind of sadness, and, if you will, emptiness. Altman is a film that will no doubt inspire whole new generations to seek out the man's films. This can't be discounted in any way, shape or form.
I will declare, though, that knowing, loving and feeling like my own life would have been incomplete without the joy of growing up with Robert Altman, is the kind of added value that allows the deepest core of Mann's film to move me beyond words.
In that sense though, Mann's film is, in and of itself, the true added value.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Altman is in limited theatrical release in Canada via FilmsWeLike, including a run at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox. In America, it can currently be seen via Epix. It will eventually be broadcast in Canada via TMN and Movie Central.
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