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Stars: Christine Altman, Kathryn Reed Altman, Robert Reed Altman, Stephen Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, James Caan, Keith Carradine, Konni Corriere, Elliott Gould, Philip Baker Hall, Sally Kellerman, Lyle Lovett, Julianne Moore, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis

Director: Ron Mann

Once a filmmaker has been hailed as an auteur, critical comment on every movie he (or she) has made or goes on to make tends to be critically viewed through rose-coloured glasses.

From a reviewer’s point of view, there is intellectual safety in precedence.

There’s no doubt that Robert Altman achieved 100 per cent auteur status early on in his career as a director of feature films.

His classic satirically comic anti-establishment take on the Korean War with M*A*S*H instantly established him as a one-of-a-kind filmmaker and marked him as an auteur whose future films could be valued as individually-made rather than studio-created.

His movies that followed M*A*S*H, among them Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, Nashville and A Wedding, are interestingly discussed and dissected here by Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann in a heartfelt documentary that assumes Altman’s genius right from the start and guides the film on lines that prove that assumption was correct.

And so we are treated to a collection of actors he worked with, among them James Caan, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Julianne Moore and Bruce Willis, speaking to camera to define Altmanesque and to confirm his genius and auteur status.

For Gould, Altmanesque was “Life, liberty and the pursuit of truth”, Robin Williams described it as “Expect the unexpected” while Bruce Willis thought it to mean “Kicking Hollywood’s ass”.

Mann’s journey through Altman’s life takes as its basic thrust the concept of the filmmaker as a genius, an approach that makes absolute sense when you realise that the late filmmaker’s widow Kathryn ((they met when she played a nurse in a TV episode of Whirlybirds he directed), other members of his family and various coworkers were seriously involved in the making of the film.

Valuably, this involvement delivered fascinating family footage to round out Mann’s biopic, along with behind-the-scenes moments during the making of his movies.

I found the section of the film charting Altman’s rise to feature film fame the most interesting.

Having served in the forces during WW2, he went back to his hometown in Kansas where he cut his celluloid teeth making commercials, including the eminently instructive How to Run a Filling Station.

Hollywood followed, with Altman becoming a lauded director of popular TV series, among them ‘Hawaiian Eye’, ‘U.S. Marshal’, ‘Peter Gunn’ and “Bonanza’ to his credit.

His first feature film, the understandably unremembered science fiction drama Countdown (produced by William Conrad, best remembered as overweight television series crime-fighter ‘Cannon’) brought Altman into conflict with Jack Warner who objected to his use of overlapping dialogue.

A Cold Day in the Park followed, after which his critically commented career as a maverick filmmaker/auteur caught fire with M*A*S*H.

Mann’s film is replete with extracts from his films as well as episodes from his work and offset life and is consistently fascinating, instructive and, occasionally revealing but it is never quite able to distance itself from unconditional worship of its subject.

Altman is a valuable film. But, unfortunately, it is also just a tad more hagiography than biography.

While I realise that I may be rather too often be regarded as overly cynical regarding the critical over-popularity of auteurism, my view is not entirely groundless.

Long ago when I worked in television and auditioned and/or certificated films for television screening, I invited a noted intellectual film critic to join me in watching a TV movie called Nightmare in Chicago.

The film was poor, in fact not even good enough for ITV.

The critic agreed with my opinion and condemned the movie in no uncertain terms.

However, he had missed seeing the opening credits, a deliberate ploy on my part.

I ran them again and, when he now saw that Nightmare in Chicago had been directed by Altman, he suddenly now realised that the movie he had so rightly dismissed was, in fact, replete with unique Altmanesque tropes and touches.

Now that’s true auteur appreciation.

Alan Frank

USA 2014. UK Distributor: Soda Pictures. Colour.
95 minutes. not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 2, Swearing 2.

Review date: 05 Apr 2015