Ron Mann’s new documentary “Altman” is a stylish, tightly packed memoir of the late director who has been called the father of American independent cinema.
Most people know the titular Robert Altman for his films “MASH” (1970), “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) and “Nashville” (1975) but he was an incredibly prolific and controversial director. Many of his less mainstream films and shorts aren’t widely known. “Altman” shines a light on some considerably lesser-known titles.
The film will premiere at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center this Friday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. After the first screening there will be a Q&A with Ron Mann and Kathryn Reed Altman, Robert Altman’s widow, who collaborated heavily with Mann during production. It’s showing through Oct. 30.
The viewer is sure to leave the theater with at least a couple new Altman films on their to-watch list. The downside to consolidating so many films into a 96-minute documentary is that many great films are skimmed through. Altman’s films often require one or two viewings to fully appreciate, and a few minutes of voiceover can’t do them justice. Nonetheless, Mann deserves credit for keeping the length of his documentary short and approachable.
This isn’t for lack of content though. The documentary is pieced together with clips from Altman’s myriad of films and shorts.
He uses rare interviews, film clips, archival images and interviews with Altman’s wife, sons and contemporary colleagues. Mann’s sources are intimate and direct. He deftly collages behind-the-scenes footage, unreleased short films and even home videos and family photos. The result is dark, chaotic and tremendously visually appealing. Altman’s own words are used to narrate the various images and film clips that flash by, lending a very personal tone to the documentary as a whole.
With so much information to draw upon and subject matter that is so, well, Altman-esqe, it would have been all too easy to create a stagnant mass of unconnected trivia. But Mann weaves his documentary together with care, sewing together pieces of Altman’s films and his personal life.
Altman himself isn’t critiqued, merely remembered. There are no secret revelations, no attacks on his character. It’s a surprisingly affectionate portrait of a man who some considered dangerous.
Altman was a maverick who garnered a lot of controversy in his life from both producers and the public. Even he admitted at the end of his life that work always came before family, but this is grazed over in the documentary. Altman is presented as a kind pariah as Mann focuses more on his life in relation to his movies, rather than who was really behind the film reel.
Overall, “Altman” tells the story of a visionary, an innovator, a family man and a madman. The cinematography is breathtaking, and the action is fast paced and engaging, if at times a little confusing. It’s great jumping off point for anyone who’s never heard of Altman and a real treat for those who want to know him and his films even better.