Robert Altman is one of the most remarkable, influential and singular directors in the history of American cinema. A true renegade director whose entire career was focused on subverting genres and undermining the very system he worked for. It was a rocky career but Altman usually got what he wanted, never sold out and made nearly 40 films. And while he never won an Oscar (then again, neither did Kubrick nor Hitchcock) he did in the end get a much deserved honorary Oscar. He tackled so many subjects (war, film-making, country music) and genres (western, sci-fi, film noir) and always did things his own way, churning out such masterpieces as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts. He also made a few not-so-good movies, but even his failures were interesting in some way. The man is a legend.
This of course means that we were bound to have a proper documentary on this man’s career, he deserves it.
But, the documentary Altman, ain’t exactly it.
If you’re a big fan of Robert Altman, like this writer is, Altman certainly is an enjoyable time at the movies. It’s always fun to hear the man talk, to go through his career and watch behind the scenes footage and learn about his early career and see him on various talk shows and panels talking about this and that. Altman is fast paced and lively and filled with good material, it doesn’t waste much time and manages to keep you engaged as long as you’re interested in Robert Altman.
But it’s really not much of a documentary nonetheless, more of feature-length TV show and a major glorification. The movies skims over a lot of material, skips a lot and really just portraits the man as a kind of saint which he was far from being. Robert Altman was, reportedly, an alcoholic drug addict who often cheated on his wife and many called him a megalomaniac. Like all geniuses, he was a flawed man. We all know he was a great man who made great movies and Altman is not really telling us much we don’t know. Sure we do get to hear a little about the drinking and that he neglected his children but even that is treated lightly.
What’s most interesting about this movie is seeing footage from all the early TV stuff and short films he made (much of which was never released), as well as some lovely home movies made by him and his family, and that you do get a little sense of how his style evolved. But only just. Then again he had a long and eventful career and the movie probably needed to be 3 hours to properly delve in to the evolution of Altman’s style.
Altman is still a very sweet documentary and if you simply look at it as a love letter to Robert Altman it does the job, but this he deserves a documentary with more depth and insight. Scattered around the film are bits were various actors who worked with Altman (including Robin Williams, Julianne Moore and Elliott Gould) make their own definitions of the word “Altmanesque”, if only this movie had been a little more Altmanesque.
The Good: Seeing all the archives of material from Altman’s early career.
The Bad: The lack of serious insight and probing into Altman’s persona, it’s a little too much glorification.
The Altman: The footage from all his early stuff is fascinating, the most fascinating being from his short film “Pot au feu” which simply consists of various people smoking pot, such as housewives and fishermen.
Overall verdict: 6.4/10