Altman Ron Mann

Altman Ron Mann
Photo by Michael Grecco
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Most documentaries about filmmakers feel like easy layups. The director title card might as well read curator. All that's required is to line up the talking heads, and then kick back in the editing suite and cherry-pick the subject's finest shots. Ron Mann tries to get around this with an approach that angered his financiers: He interviewed celebrities like Bruce Willis, Robin Williams and Julianne Moore, but he only asked them one question, "What does Altmanesque mean to you?" This is more gimmicky than profound, and like many of Ron Mann's editorial decisions, vaguely annoying.

Though formulaic, some stylistic touches do accomplish a bit more than your standard A&E-tier biography. We get a peripheral sense of Altman as a flim-flam man who conned his way into his early opportunities, as a generous father and husband and as a hard-drinking partier. Clips mined from over 400 hours of archival footage, including unreleased short films, show Altman at his most avant-garde and innovative.

Innovation is something Altman never shied away from. After burning his bridges as an elite television director, he was fired from his first feature for filming actors speaking concurrently, something he'd later perfect on M*A*S*H; he'd later develop techniques for recording actors that were inconceivable at the time, but have since become industry standard. All of this is portrayed with an appropriate mix of veneration and journalistic removal. Mann doesn't fawn over the auteur's works; he objectively catalogues Altman's many triumphs and the equal number of cockeyed misfires. (Popeye, anyone?)

It's a utilitarian effort that will remind serious fans of Robert Altman's wonderful gifts, and alert those who've only seen Gosford Park to seminal films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Three Women, California Split and The Long Goodbye. But any kid in film school could have accomplished that. When a middling filmmaker like Mann makes a documentary about a nearly peerless one like Robert Altman, what can he express that the Altman canon can't say for itself?

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