Given the who’s-who of collaborators and acolytes of the late Robert Altman assembled for this feature-length tribute, it would have been all too easy for director Ron Mann to let the film turn into a loose, digressive — indeed, Altmanesque — jamboree of war stories and portable wisdom. But to great, stirring effect, “Altman” charts a different course, drawing on a wealth of existing material to tell the filmmaker’s story largely in his own, brashly eloquent words, and through generous clips from his massive, admittedly uneven, always uncompromising filmography. The result captures Altman the artist and the man, the one inseparable from the other, about as well as any two-hour film could hope to do. The pic makes its broadcast debut on Epix Aug. 6, following its June 20 premiere as part of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s ongoing Altman retrospective.
Working closely with Altman’s widow, Kathryn, and his frequent producer, Mathew Seig, Mann draws on a treasure trove of archival material (family photos, homemovies, unreleased short films and rare behind-the-scenes footage) to illustrate Altman’s journey from WWII fighter pilot to Kansas City industrial filmmaker and his early flirtations with Hollywood: a co-story credit on the 1948 RKO noir “Bodyguard,” and his 1957 debut feature, “The Delinquents.” The latter film brought Altman to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who enlisted the young director for two episodes of his CBS anthology series — the start of a prolific career in episodic television during which Altman honed his craft while chafing at the aesthetic constraints of the advertiser-controlled medium. When Altman drew on his own wartime experience for a shellshock-themed episode of the Vic Morrow “Combat” series, he was fired for his efforts; when Kraft balked at his desire to cast a black actor in an episode of their weekly “Suspense Theatre,” he quit TV altogether.
Altman’s early days in the movie business were scarcely smoother sailing. He was fired by Jack Warner from the editing of his first studio-backed feature, “Countdown” (1967), for one of the very traits — the use of multiple overlapping dialogue tracks — that would go on to become his signature. Then he retreated to Canada for the low-budget indie “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969). But “MASH” (1970) brought him back to Hollywood and bought him the creative freedom to continue making pictures there, on his own terms, for most of the next decade — none of which came close to replicating “MASH’s” box office success. Some of those films have since deservedly entered the canon (“Nashville,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”), while others loom as overlooked masterpieces (“The Long Goodbye,” “Thieves Like Us”) and still others (“Health,” “Images”) remains as obscure as on the day they were made. Per the director himself, in one of “Altman’s” most amusing passages, then-20th Century Fox board member Grace Kelly was so aghast at the sight of her friend Paul Newman in Altman’s little-seen 1979 sci-fi allegory “Quintet” that she pressured studio head Alan Ladd Jr. to resign on the spot.
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But then, as Altman himself makes clear in the dozens of interviews and public appearances Mann draws on here, he rarely concerned himself with matters of public taste and commercial appeal, making the movies he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them — a free radical whose path only occasionally collided with the zeitgeist over the course of his exceptionally varied six-decade career. That Mann lets Altman himself be our guide proves invaluable, his sly, teasing growl of a voice explaining — in his plainspoken, Midwestern way — his love of actors, large ensembles and improvisation, the halcyon days of American moviemaking in the 1970s, and his indignation at what the studios later came to represent.
When Altman’s own words fall short, voiceover testimonials from Kathryn and sons Robert and Stephen (both longtime members of their dad’s crew) fill in the gaps, as “Altman” takes us through the filmmaker’s lean years in the 1980s (following the implosion of “Popeye”), his self-imposed Parisian exile, and the remarkable comeback that began with the landmark HBO series “Tanner ‘88” and continued apace through “The Player” (1992), “Short Cuts” (1993) and “Gosford Park” (2001). Yes, everyone agrees, Altman put his work first and his family second, at least until his final years, but it is said without any resentment, the old wounds long smoothed over.
Mann also stages original interviews with such close Altman collaborators as Keith Carradine, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman and Lily Tomlin, as well as longtime fan Paul Thomas Anderson (who served as Altman’s insurance-dictated “backup” director during the 2006 shooting of “A Prairie Home Companion”). But in a bold formal stroke, he asks each of these subjects — elegantly photographed in medium closeup against a black background by Mann and d.p. Simon Ennis — only a single question: to define, in their own words, the term Altmanesque.
Altman famously likened making films to building castles in the sand (and even named his production company Sandcastle 5). The waves of time, though, have little eroded Altman’s films, and it is the primary accomplishment of “Altman” to simply set them before us once again, side by side and rock solid.