DIR: Ron Mann • WRI: Len Blum • PRO: Ron Mann • DOP: Simon Ennis • ED: Robert Kennedy • CAST: Julianne Moore, Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, James Caan

Let me be upfront about the fact that on a scale of Altman worship, I’m closer to agnostic than true believer. What is undeniably true is that the inventive director enjoyed hugely creative purple patches across several decades and his highs represent real pinnacles in filmmaking. A pioneer in both technical and artistic terms, Altman radicalised both television and film with his approach to dialogue, acting and sound. His impact on the cinematic landscape is undeniable.

Yet when contextualising any career, shouldn’t we look at it in its totality? What weight do we give then to the misfires, disappointments and outright calamities? Apparently none – judging by this bright, brisk doc on Altman’s sprawling career that is never less than interesting. Yet never more than superficial.

Not speaking ill of the dead has morphed here into not being critical of the dead. The metaphor of a film being as decorative, illusory and temporary as a sandcastle bookend the film and director Ron Mann engineers his own film as if to give credence to this credo. This project even bucks my almost automatic admiration for any filmmaker displaying the discipline and rigour to cut their piece to the running time sweet-spot of ninety minutes or so. For once, I wanted more. And I doubt I’ll be alone in that desire.

As Mann races through Altman’s back catalogue, the initial pleasure of pace and momentum is eroded as the conscious exclusion of genuine substance and dissenting voices becomes apparent. Only slivers of discord remain. The Altman family are depicted as a wholesome harmonious bunch but tantalising glimpses of a story untold or ignored emerge from one son’s admission that he mainly worked on Altman’s set as a way of seeing his father. Curiously, the one fit of pique from on-set footage has Altman stalking around the Sally Gap during the shooting of Images in this country in 1972.

Meanwhile, more weight is given to some very famous Hollywood heads cooing their admiration for Altman but as a leading American critic pointed out, where are the regular recurring members of Altman’s ensemble of character actors. Even the editorial decisions within this imposed framework are curious. To the best of my knowledge, Altman only worked with Bruce Willis fleetingly whereas, despite appearing in some of his earliest work, Robert Duvall seems pointedly absent.

The documentary is at its best focusing on Altman’s early years in TV and industrial films. The groundwork and experience of this era apparently inspired an artistic fire to stretch beyond the suffocating restrictions of TV. Yet his first forays into film met instant resistance and interference from studio heads. And so it was to be for the vast majority of his career. According to Altman himself, the majority of his creative quantum leaps were taken when Hollywood studio bosses were out of town or looking the other way. There are quotes galore throughout and no opportunity is missed to paint Altman as a colourful maverick.

Surprisingly the sole critical voice within the piece is Altman himself. In public interviews, he is affable and charmingly self-deprecating about his output. The advances Altman encouraged in sound are rightly acknowledged as is his less known return to television where his series Tanner ‘88 was a incipient model for establishing the entire genre of ‘mock-doc’. Regarded by Altman as his best work, this early HBO show pitched a fictional presidential candidate into the heat of a very real electoral campaign. The fake candidate played by Michael Murphy was taken seriously and folded into the media circus of factual talk shows, town hall debates and tour buses with shocking ease.

Altman was also a precursor to how Woody Allen would enliven and elongate his career by adopting a European dimension. Licking his wounds from a woefully misconceived take on Popeye, Altman retreated to Paris and, trading on a reservoir of goodwill and his critical standing, he continued to make films that ranged from low-budget experiments to trifling Euro puddings that uniformly found little commercial or critical traction.

Thankfully, there literally was a Hollywood ending for Robert Altman. Invigorated by taking a caustic swipe at the studio machine with The Player, Altman enjoyed a golden years’ renaissance with Short Cuts and Gosford Park providing final reel highlights.

There are the bones of a great documentary here but just the bones. Leaving one asking – where’s the meat? The marrow? The gristle? Altman’s career is worthy of more than a skimming pass. What remains here would suffice as a pure celebration piece at a gala in his honour but Altman was never about fluff or sparkly distraction.

All told, Altman made nearly forty films in his career. I’m not saying for a second that there aren’t little gems littered around those critical peaks that connected with the zeitgeist. However, it strikes me that for all his raging against the Hollywood system, the output of Studio Altman had as many hits and misses as any studio slate.

James Phelan

68 minutes

Altman is released 3rd April March 2015

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