Ron Mann’s 2014 documentary about the great Robert Altman had escaped my notice until it surfaced on Amazon Prime this weekend. With one of the most spectacular canons of work imaginable to select clips from, Mann does a nice job of touching deftly on the key works and providing a refresher course for fans, plus a tantalising crib-sheet for those unfamiliar with the great man’s work.
Altman defied categorisation; the film starts with an attempt to define the terms Altmanesque, and a bevy of collaborators provide very different yet accurate answers as to what his work might mean; these contributors range from Bruce Willis to Robin Williams, to Lily Tomlin to Julianne Moore, and the range of their answers tells a story in itself. Altman tackled narratives as diverse as Richard Nixon and Popeye, but always with a subversive attitude. His innovative treatment of sound-editing and recording is discussed, and his counter-cultural attitudes remained solid, even when his films were mainstream hits. Of course, critics may carp that Mann gives more time to tv work Tanner ‘88 as opposed to hidden gems like Thieves Like Us, but Mann’s selections at least service a narrative thrust about Altman’s development, and his use of home-movie footage adds depth and makes Altman; The Movie more than just a well-chosen clip-reel.
Atman made several genre-defining masterpieces, from M*A*S*H* to The Long Goodbye to Short Cuts, but also came a cropper with such oddities as Quartet, Popeye and Health; Mann works both success and failure into his profile as he worries away at the definition of the term. Altman’s early battles with Jack Warner, his stage-adaptation run in the 80’s his wonderfully odd Brewster McCloud, his comeback with The Player all get a airing; Mann doesn’t look too much into the director’s dark side, but cheerfully celebrates the influence and the detail of Altman’s career. You could make a ten hour mini-series from the same material, but Mann’s spry assessment of Altman’s considerable artistic worth will do for now.