‘Altmanesque? Expect the unexpected’, laughs Robin Williams. We hear his voice before we see him. The sudden appearance of his face against the black background in the middle of this documentary, and his familiar crinkly eyes as he laughs, makes me catch my breath for a second. He is just one of a handful of prestigious actors interviewed with a singular question – what they think ‘Altmanesque’ means – who clearly thought the world of the man.
Thought. The realisation that Robin Williams is no longer with us stops me in my mental tracks for a little while and totally hijacks Altman’s gig. Is this one of the last films he was involved in? Definitely. It is an emotional moment in an increasingly emotional doc, which steadily journeys through Robert Altman’s uncompromising directing career up until his death in 2006, using a myriad of archive footage, interviews and photos, and closely cultivated with his wife Kathryn. It’s all pretty simplistic storytelling, and Ron Mann certainly doesn’t try to be too quirky or clever in a way that its subject certainly was. But perhaps because of this back-seated decision to let facts tell the story, Altman’s character – his motivations, his priorities, his public and private personas – filled the screening room. My heart swelled with compassion for him, and I left feeling I knew exactly what kind of filmmaker, and man, he was.
As far as illustrating the highlights of his career go, ALTMAN does the smoothest of jobs. From the early TV days of controversy (he was fired from Vic Morrow’s “Combat” series in 1963 for vividly depicting shellshock syndrome, which he had experienced first hand as a fighter pilot in WWII) to the Hollywood studio skepticism of his signature overlapping dialogue technique (Jack Warner furiously fired him from his first backed feature COUNTDOWN in 1967 when he cottoned on to what he was doing) to finally beating the odds with M*A*S*H’s roaring, Palme d’Or-winning success, the message comes across loud and clear. If the system wasn’t getting it, the system was going to have to change.
Not that he bothered much with impressing. What Mann makes obvious, not only in all the interview footage of Altman talking in his own words but with the words of his long-time producer Matthew Seig, and many other contributors including his two sons, is that the director merely flirted with Hollywood when his own innovative agenda needed a bit of a commercial boost. Everything from his reverence of his actors, whom he considered to be the most important part of production, to his love of improvisation and chaotic crowd scenes (NASHVILLE) and recklessly ambitious later projects such as GOSFORD PARK, fiercely carried him through six decades of filmmaking. It was a career built on passion.
Ultimately, the lasting impression from ALTMAN is that the man was hopelessly devoted to his wife and family – so much so that in the end his devotion finally superseded his rival passion of filmmaking. The story pointedly leads us to this truth with a home video of his last thanksgiving, which shows him presiding proudly over his family as they gleefully partake in festivities. It felt right that this part of his character was emphasised, because it was clearly the most important part – the bit that outlived everything else. However we were all in the room to see a documentary about Altman the pioneering filmmaker who relentlessly shocked the world. So it was a nice touch, I think, that the story was then wound back to his career in the very last scene – an interview with his wife. She tells an anecdote about him during WWII, when he went to see a matinee screening of BRIEF ENCOUNTER out of boredom.
It sounded like one of those life-changing moments that are so unexpected you can only attribute their occurrence to magic. His boredom continued for a little while longer as he watched the ridiculous film compiled of clipped English airs unfold (and if you think about it, BRIEF ENCOUNTER really is ridiculous on so many levels). Thirty minutes later he had fallen in love with Celia Johnson, and was sobbing. And that’s when he realised, his wife explains, that it ‘wasn’t just a movie.’
Filmmakers are magicians. They believe so strongly in the magic of their art that they spend their life trying to cast their spells on us. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the meaning is lost in translation. But the point is, Altman never stopped trying, right up until his death, to convert his visions onto the screen. He obviously wasn’t just in it for a slice of the filmmaking business pie. He was in it for a shot at having the same scrambling effect on his audience that Celia Johnson’s tear-stained face on a train platform as she said goodbye to her lover for the last time had on millions of people around the world. And it seems such a tenuous link; how strange that David Lean’s classic British love story would inspire this reckless, whirlwind-of-a-Yank filmmaker. If there’s one lasting impression we can take away from ALTMAN, it’s, as Williams said, to ‘expect the unexpected’, which is what what the man taught the filmmaking world, against all odds, and what the medium itself continues to teach us as generations of new filmmakers roll over. What a legacy.