Altman (2014)

Dir. Ron Mann

There’s nothing remotely Altmanesque about Altman, which, given the practically fetishistic load the movie hangs on the word, seems disappointing. (One wants to like the presence of past Altman collaborators giving definitions to the word, as I know I did when Michael Murphy went first. It was when I realized Michael Murphy wasn’t coming back to say anything else that it got really messy.) In an effort to touch on everything, the movie is little more than a timeline and informs us little more than a timeline would about the most conventional choices to discuss Altman’s career: M*A*S*H and Popeye probably get more time than any other movies, with Altman’s television origin story, NashvilleTanner ’88The Player, and Gosford Park receiving second billing. Only Tanner ’88 feels like a bold choice among these; the strangeness of Brewster McCloud, the dreaminess of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the weirdness of 3 Women, the vastness of Short Cuts are undersold, to say nothing of the movies like Thieves Like Us or Quintet or Prêt-à-Porter, which are shown for mere seconds before disappearing from the screen entirely. The movie is most interested in glazing over his career and not in litigating it differently than it has been litigated by past reviewers and audiences. What’s disappointing about it in practice is that it decides to stake out a middle ground which is not necessarily pleasing to anyone. On one hand, the movie’s rapid procession through the vast majority of his oeuvre means that it serves as little more than a cursory introduction for people new to his work. On the other, his aficianados are likely to feel cheated by the lack of specificity brought to all but a few films.

The devotion to the conventional view of Altman’s filmography means we lose what is most “Altmanesque” about it, for there are certainly elements as weird and unpredictable in his lesser-known work as there are in the greater ones. (The minor Altman given the most time is A Prairie Home Companion, and that’s because it’s the man’s final film and one that rather explicitly features an angel of death.) Furthermore, the fact that Altman praises most highly the moneymakers or Oscar darlings of his career, like M*A*S*H and Gosford Park, is a sign that the evaluation stage of the documentary was airmailed. I do not ask and certainly do not expect anyone else to share my opinion that Nashville is the greatest movie in the history of American narrative feature films, or that Short Cuts is superior to The Godfather Part II. But it sure wouldn’t have hurt the documentary to have an opinion which would make it stand out. Rehashing the old takes on those movies adds nothing to the conversation, and it’s not as if those old takes are gospel, either. More recent critical evaluation has been kinder to Popeye, for one; both Vanity Fair and the Chicago Reader have revisited their stances on the film within the past five years. And M*A*S*H has, for its part, not aged particularly well given that no small number of its jokes are based on the sort of sexual harassment that should never have qualified as funny.

Altman also makes a really puzzling decision in showing clips from Altman’s movies: just about all of them, especially the movies that least deserve to be revealed in such a way, refer back to the end of the picture. Why is the scene from Nashville the scene where Barbara Jean is shot and Winifred takes the microphone? Why is the scene from Short Cuts the earthquake? Why choose the freezing death of McCabe in McCabe & Mrs. Miller? Other scenes in those movies would have served the purpose just as well; it’s yet another choice that smacks of a lack of imagination.

There’s something slickly PR about Altman down to the involvement of his family, a quality that the director this film is made about would have instinctively recoiled from. One wonders if the narration by his third wife, Kathryn Reed, or the narration by his children, or the usage of basically meaningless home movies has something to do with an undeniably whitewashed portrait of Altman.

Reed mentions that when she met Altman, it was on set and he was a little hung over. Even for a Hollywood personality, where alcoholism or drug use are basically a sign that you’re serious, no further mention is made of Altman’s predilection to indulge in both. If Altman wasn’t an alcoholic, he was the closest thing to it; he was also fairly open about his fondness for pot. The movie says nothing further about either. Or, take the movie’s portrait of Altman as a cuddly, sardonic family man. In the interviews and talks we see with Altman, he lives up to it. Certainly he was popular among many actors. But in private or at work, we know he was as “difficult” as any director who ever lived. He was frequently hungry for credit he probably didn’t deserve, as when he publicly downplayed (the longtime blacklisted) Ring Lardner on M*A*S*H, and then did something quite similar on McCabe. Lily Tomlin’s role in Nashville was based on some aspects of Louise Fletcher’s life, and the part was designed with her in mind; without even telling Fletcher, Altman dropped her from the film. How one shows, for a bio-documentary, the scene in McCabe where Warren Beatty sits in the snow and has it blown into his face over and over again without mentioning that Altman did it to get back at Beatty for what he perceived as a difficult shoot is beyond me. That was every bit as much who Altman was as the guy who cast his grandson as Swee’Pea in Popeye, and not acknowledging it (or his grocery list of personal flaws) is the silliest hagiography. Like Kent Jones of Hitchcock/Truffaut, who never once mentions the allegations Tippi Hedren made against Hitchcock, Ron Mann seems terribly afraid to take the plunge and admit that his subject may not be a good man.

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