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film review

Getting fired was something of a habit for Robert Altman, who chafed at the advertising-driven television formulas.Michael Grecco Productions

Ron Mann's new documentary Altman, an affectionate, moving portrait of the legendary director of such era-defining movies as M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, California Split and Nashville, begins with two men on a beach, building a sandcastle. The process is accompanied by a song, Let's Begin Again, written by Robert Altman. In voiceover, the director, who died in 2006, begins talking about how making movies is a little like building castles out of sand.

Though the creative collaboration with cast and crew is temporary, the record of those experiences over his almost 40 movies survives. It's a tribute to Mann's film that it leads you from Altman's life back to his films, and makes you want to see them anew.

Altman is very much a family collaboration, told largely with the salty eloquence of the director's voice, but also with narration from his wife, Kathryn, and the couple's two sons, who worked on his film crews. What we get is a broad overview of a six-decade, up-and-down career, as well as samples from Altman's films, television shows, photos and home movies.

We see how the filmmaker's long apprenticeship, making industrial films and then mainstream television, gave him the confidence, like a jazz improviser, to work spontaneously on the set. It was a quickie teen film, The Delinquents (1957) starring a young Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), that caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, leading to a busy period as Altman directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and shows such as Bonanza and Maverick.

But Altman frequently chafed at the advertising-driven television formulas. He was fired from the Second World War series Combat! after inserting a plot about a shell-shocked American GI who mistook a German soldier for a friend. Getting fired was something of a habit. Studio boss Jack Warner fired him from a feature film about a moon launch, called Countdown, when Altman employed a technique he later became famous for: having characters arguing over top of one another.

His breakthrough was the anti-war satire M*A*S*H (1970), starring with Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland. At 45, he became a hot property and counterculture figurehead. But instead of making a comfortable commercial follow-up, he shot a weird fairy tale, Brewster McCloud, starring unknowns – Bud Cort and Shelley Duvall. Next, he went to British Columbia to shoot what he called his "anti-Western film," McCabe & Mrs. Miller. (Altman named his first production company Lion's Gate, after the Vancouver bridge.)

Throughout the 1970s, now seen as a golden age for American independent cinema, Altman upended genre expectations in films such as Thieves Like Us, California Split and The Long Goodbye, and offered his definitive sardonic American bicentennial statement with Nashville.

But by 1980 and the failure of his expensive Robin Williams vehicle, Popeye, Altman's Hollywood career faltered. He directed theatre, worked in video, taught a course at university and adapted plays for the screen.

Perhaps the most Hollywood-like aspect of Altman's career, however, was his comeback. The return started with the ahead-of-its-time HBO mockumentary Tanner '88, and led to The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Gosford Park (2001), The Company (2003) and his final film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). He received an honorary Oscar for a lifetime of work at the 2006 Academy Awards, just months before his death. Though often painted as an obstreperously anti-establishment figure, Altman's gratitude on awards night was plain-spoken and heartfelt. "No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have," he told the audience.

Though made for television (including The Movie Network and Movie Central in Canada), Mann's film is up to the Altman standard of unconventionality in his handling of celebrity interviews. Instead of straightforward endorsements, he asks each person, posed against a dark background in a studio, the same question: Could they define the adjective "Altmanesque"?

Keith Carradine, Gould, Bruce Willis, Paul Thomas Anderson, Julianne Moore and Lily Tomlin give it their best shot: sociability, collective play, freedom and iconoclasm. Together they suggest something gritty but elusive, like those grains of sand that slip through our fingers, but sometimes can be grasped and shaped into castles.

This review originally ran on Aug. 1, 2014.