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Doc explores how Robert Altman built career on shifting ground

Altman kept his strong convictions about politics and film despite having otherwise mellowed with age, his wife says.

Michael Grecco Productions/MGP, Inc.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Len Blum
Directed by
Ron Mann
Robert Altman, Kathryn Reed Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Julianne Moore, Robin Williams and Bruce Willis

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 sand castle. The process is accompanied by a song, Let's Begin Again, written by Robert Altman. In voice-over, the director, who died in 2006, begins talking about how making movies is a little like building castles out of sand.

Though the creative collaborative 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 – which will show at the Classics program of the upcoming Venice Film Festival – that it leads you from Altman's life back to his films, and makes you want to see them anew. Conveniently for fans in Toronto, 18 of Altman's feature films will be shown in a retrospective, Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Aug. 7-31. The retrospective opens with Mann's film, and will be attended by Mann and Altman's widow, Kathryn Reed Altman.

Altman is very much family collaboration, told largely with the salty eloquence of director's voice, but also with narration from 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.

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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 directing 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 counter-culture 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.

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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 celebrity endorsements, he shoots each person, posed against a dark background in a studio, and asks them 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, those grains of sand that slip through our fingers, but sometimes can be grasped and shaped into castles.

If you were in the film business over the past 30 years, Altman wasn't hard to meet. But somehow, Mann never had the experience. The Canadian director behind Comic Book Confidential, Poetry in Motion and a dozen other counter-culture-oriented documentaries, had idolized Altman, written essays about the director's work in university. Mann had gone to Cannes at 18 in 1977, saw the premiere of 3 Women and attended Altman's press conference. Both Mann and Altman publicly supported the pro-pot National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Mann had even shared TIFF's Mavericks program with Altman in 2003, and befriended Altman's protégé, director Alan Rudolph. All of which leaves the impression that Mann didn't really try to pursue the connection.

"I probably would have been too intimidated," he says.

After reading Mitchell Zuckoff's entertaining 2009 book Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Mann decided that Altman should be his next film subject. Zuckoff told him he needed to meet the director's widow, Kathryn. Mann swung an invitation to the 2011 Torino Film Festival, which had compiled a complete retrospective of Altman's work, and Kathryn was attending.

He sent her a note and three days later she invited him to lunch, along with Altman's long-time producer Matthew Seig and the actor Michael Murphy. They spent the day together watching films, and she asked him to send her his DVDs. Later, she invited him to visit her in New York and gave him carte blanche on the project, including access to binders full of family photo albums.

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When Mann announced the Altman doc at Cannes in the spring of 2012, he had barely scratched the surface of the research. He spent six weeks going through 900 boxes of material at the University of Michigan Altman archive with an assistant, digitizing 15,000 images, and sourcing hundreds of interviews. As an afterthought, Mann asked Kathryn if there were any home movies, and they found a trove of Super-8 footage and a bundle of unfiled home video, all of which can be seen in public for the first time in Mann's film.

"I literally killed myself on this," he says, only slightly exaggerating. His one promise to Kathryn was that he would not screw up, "which sounds easy enough, but I swear that promise kept me up nights. I really love Kathryn."

Kathryn is a key to understanding Altman's character, his irrepressible sense of mischief. In the film, she recounts how she met her husband in 1959 on the set of a TV show about rescue pilots called Whirlybirds. Both had been divorced. Their first encounter sounds like something out of a Bogie and Bacall script: "How are your morals?" Altman asked by way of introduction. "A little shaky," she answered. "How are yours?" Six weeks later, they were married and she was pregnant. They stayed married for 47 years, until his death.

I was curious why Kathryn Altman put her trust in a Canadian filmmaker she didn't know.

"Let me tell you," she says in a phone interview from Los Angeles, "I'd wanted someone to do something like this for a while, but hadn't found the right person. When Ron approached me, I liked him but I didn't know anything about him, so I did my research. People I trust said, 'Well, he's an excellent documentarian but he's … kind of quirky, not middle-of-the-road.' And I thought, 'Well, that's right up the Altman alley.' After talking to some more people, and looking at his films, I decided he was the guy. After seeing the film, I think I was absolutely right.

"There's a sweetness to the film all the way through, but it also kind of hits you here and there," she adds. "Of course, for me to have an opinion about it is ridiculous. I'm too emotional about it. I've seen it three times now and I'm still all aflutter."

She is slightly annoyed about one quote in the film, when one of her sons says that, in the early years, Altman put work ahead of family. She insists that was never the case.

She also says her husband mellowed with age: "In his approach to life, love and humanity, yes. But he didn't mellow in his strong convictions about politics and film and himself. He never got sloppy about things."

There were two defining qualities in her husband's character that never changed: resilience and humour.

"When he had a setback, he was unbelievable," she says. "I'd be devastated, thinking we were finished. He'd be down maybe 10 or 20 minutes, suffering in silence. Then he'd have a plan, or a plan to get around it, or to forget about it. I joked that he was Elastic Man, the way he'd snap right back. I don't think you can learn that. You're born with it.

"And he was so funny. Humour is what attracted us to each other, and what kept us together. Bob was fun – that was the bottom line."

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