Where to begin with Robert Altman? We could start by saying that he was one of the finest directors America ever produced. We could rhapsodise about his movies’ ever-evolving effect on pop culture. We could even discuss, at patience-testing length, his influence on the greatest filmmakers of today, a list that includes Paul Thomas Anderson among many others. Or we could just touch on each of these briefly, without going into too much detail and therefore result in a slipshod overview of his life work – which is what Altman, the latest documentary on the great director, sadly turns out to be.
Robert Altman was many things, all while being resolutely himself – even in the face of critical derision, or audience apathy. What he was, without question, was an artist: a glance at the movies he’s directed will urge you to drop your jaw close to the ground in reaction to the number of groundbreaking classics he had completed. M.A.S.H., Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player, Gosford Park, McCabe and & Mrs. Miller; all testaments to what Western cinema could produce. There used to be an argument, years ago, that America didn’t have a Felinni, or a Bergman: they certainly found it with Altman, a master of control, pacing, comedy, and through a deep respect for his actors, a nuance much envied by his peers. This is all information we’ve learned from the new documentary – so if you want an educational tour round his work and many achievements, then it functions adequately enough.
Sadly, Altman lacks the most important aspect of great documentaries: truly getting at their subject. Director Ron Mann decides that speeding through the man’s back catalogue is a substitute for genuine insight, and the ample opportunities to delve into what made the man tick with those that were close to him – chief among them, his wife Kathryn Reed. Alas, the most illuminating moments of the doc is when Altman himself is on camera: eloquently spoken, bright-eyed and brimming with anecdotes, it’s clear that he is a subject worthy of such adoration and a brilliant documentary. It just happens that this isn’t that documentary.
Altman may be rote and uninspired, but there are moments of pleasure; although it smartly dispenses with talking heads most of the time, the sporadic face-to-camera appearances of celebrities including Robin Williams, Julianne Moore and Bruce Willis, are superb. Each ponders on what the popularised film term ‘Altmanesque’ means; their personal insights are profound, funny and on-point, things that the movie itself isn’t. By all means, watch Altman to brush up on your knowledge of the man’s movies, but don’t watch it to find out much about the man.