Filmmaker Ron Munn is best known for the 1999 cult cannabis documentary Grass. From watching that documentary and its indictment of the “war on drugs”, one can draw logical conclusions as to why he chose to celebrate and chronicle the life of American auteur Robert Altman in this new offering.
The film begins with a title card that writes “Altmanesque adj”, which acts as a reoccurring motif to string the film together, as many a-listers, including Julianne Moore, Bruce Willis and James Caan, offer their own interpretation of the word. The narrative begins in Altman’s early life in Kansas, moving on to his first steps into writing and filmmaking, right up to his final feature A Prairie Home Companion, and his passing in 2006. Throughout are unreleased home videos, on-location “making of” clips, a mixture of voice-overs and talking heads from his family members, and archival footage of Altman himself.
It’s important to note that one needn’t be a fan or familiar with Altman’s filmography to appreciate this documentary, for Munn does a terrific job in not alienating newcomers. This approach is both complementary and detrimental to the finished product; as it wishes to invite new film fans to Altman’s work, it at times opts for high appraisal on his innovative style. Be it in technology, in narrative form, in dialogue, or in the American political paradigm, it allows a point of reference for newcomers to feel welcomed. This is emphasised by an early rhetorical question by film critic Pauline Kael: “Why aren’t there American Bergmans and Fellinis?”
In refraining from delving deeper into the psychological complexity of Altman’s family life – one of his sons notes that Altman put filmmaking first – it misses the opportunity to bring to the forefront the complexity of his character. This results in a one-sided documentary. It must be noted this is only a minor nitpick, though, given the tone as a wholly celebratory one, which it never apologises for.
Altman understands it is to reflect on the vast talent that was the late Robert Altman, and bring to the forefront some forgotten gems, notably his time in Europe during the 1980s. Fans of Altman will revel in seeing their personal favourites reviewed with such glee, and those unfamiliar will be in for a treat, to see the many innovations he contributed that contemporary filmmaking now take as the norm.
Altman is released nationwide on 3rd April 2015.
Watch the trailer for Altman here: