The fact that someone’s name can be used as an adjective says something about them as filmmakers – and anyone who knows anything about filmmaking can understand exactly what it means. Robert Altman is just such a filmmaker and this is probably why Robert Man, director of the documentary about Altman’s life, has chosen to ask each of his celebrity guests what the term “altmanesque” meant to them. Of course the exact wording varies from guest to guest, but these answers alone constitute a wonderful insight into the art and soul of the man. He was a maverick, he took chances, he did not give up and saw things in a way no one else seemed to be able to…
Given that Altman’s main cinematic aim was realism in all things, the style of the documentary is very fitting indeed. Candid interviews with those who knew him best – his wife, his family and his friends (some famous and some not) – come together with Altman’s family home movies, behind the scenes and archive footage of the man himself to give us a fascinating and ‘real’ picture of what the great filmmaker was really like. My personal favourite moment was when Altman, later on in his life, matter of factly explained to an interviewer how he got his first job making films – having blagged an acquaintance to get him onto a set and introduce him around he just “lied about his previous experience and got the job”. Lying about your previous experience is neither new nor unheard of; but it is the blasé way Altman talks about it in the setting of an interview that sets him apart. It is also pretty much a summary of what makes him a landmark filmmaker – his dedication to showing life as it was, artistically – but unapologetically.
He may have been acclaimed as a genius (and in fact he still is), but through all his life, Altman’s career was defined by his will to break away from the laid-down Hollywood “rules” and instead hold a mirror up to life as it is, not as it “should look on the screen”. It is mind-boggling to think that a director of Altman’s calibre was fired from a series by Warner Brothers, mainly because he wanted the actors’ dialogue to overlap – it did, however happen. From sound mixing, to storylines, to genre conventions, the rulebook just flew out of the window and Altman, consummate gambler, risked everything – and on a couple of occasions, he actually lost everything – in his quest to make movies the way he felt was right.
In this context, Altman being the historical figure in filmmaking that he is, I do wish the film had analysed more the true cinematic importance of Altman’s canon of work, as opposed to just glossing over various important points. To use an example, let’s go back to the anecdote I took from the film – the bit about Altman lying about his experience. I found Altman’s reply – “Yeah, I just lied” – awesome, but I do wish the documentary had expanded upon this little remark (and others). After all if he hadn’t pulled it off at that time maybe we wouldn’t have the Altman filmography we have today. Yet director Robert Man choses to simply mention it in passing. I can see that this could be seen from a perspective where, if there is a lot to be said about something, one can chose to mention everything or pick a few points to analyse closely… Man has clearly gone for the former. And while the documentary is an affectionate and honest look at the life and times of Robert Altman, it would have benefited from a bit – just a little bit mind you – of depth and analysis.
Altman is a brilliant film if you’re a beginner. It’s a great introduction if you don’t know a lot about Altman (and I would be the first to admit I don’t know nearly as much as I should). But those who are very familiar with the works of the great director will find little that interests them in this documentary. True, the interviews with his family are fascinating, true I found it enchanting to see the home videos and the insights into “Altman behind the scenes” but well…less could be said about the fact that Altman is a genius and more could be added as to WHY this is the case, and frankly it would have made for a more satisfying “meal” all round.