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Altman - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

The casual movie-goer might be confused by the introductory short films that precede SIFF's presentation of the documentary Altman at the Egyptian Theatre this week. These are Robert Altman shorts presented without context or explanation (although SIFF's website does note the inclusion of these pieces "uncovered during the production of the documentary"), and after the third one ran, I began to wonder if I misunderstood and this was just a presentation of shorts.

Mercifully, the presentation then moves into the actual film, 95 minutes chronicling the highs and lows of the director's career from beginning to end. It's too bad those shorts aren't more interesting, because for some of us they are a real test of patience. A film tribute to a man's wife for her birthday; a surrealistic vignette of a party that includes a bartender at the bottom of a pool; and an at least somewhat amusing paean to smoking pot. Generally none of them as fascinating as they sound. All of these are from the sixties, predating Altman's breakout hit, M*A*S*H (1970).

It seems Altman spent several years directing television in the sixties, after lying his way into an "industrial film" studio job in his home town of Kansas City, and then making his way to L.A. There he wasted no time breaking rules, some of which earned shows Emmys, but which also got him fired from jobs. He was barred from his debut film, Countdown (1967), for featuring overlapping dialogue, the one thing that arguably most defines his entire body of work.

How interested you'll be in director Ron Mann's portrait of Altman really depends on the depth of your knowledge of Altman films and how big a fan you are. Some biographical documentaries transcend hardcore fans; others are really just for the fans. Altman, realistically, is an example of the latter. Mann never probes very deepy into Altman's personal life, in spite of narration by his wife and children, some of whom spent years working on films with him. We get small snippets of information about his home life, but the topic stays dedicated to Altman's films, the decisions he made to get them made, and the hows and whys of their successes and failures -- from his highly celebrated Nashville (1975) to the box office disaster that was Popeye (1980).

Altman is peppered with stars who worked with Altman over the years, each of them answering one solitary question: "What does 'Altmanesque' mean?" Predictably everyone has a completely different answer, although we all know the general consensus among film buffs is that it simple refers to well-made films with ensemble casts of characters who speak over each other.

Altman continued to make movies clear through the age of 81, both the year he released A Prairie Home Companion (2006) and the year he died, a great film to wind up being his swan song. Given his age, this means that even by the time he made M*A*S*H he was 45 years old. For all of his best and most memorable work to be made in the second half of his life is pretty impressive.

That said, while Altman is generally engaging, it underscores the fact that the best way to appreciate him is simply to see his films. SIFF, understanding this, is presending a different film each night after a mid-evening screening of Altman, as well as other daytime showings of The Player, Popeye, M*A*S*H* (Saturday night only), Gosford Park (Monday night), Nashville (Tuesday), Short Cuts (Wednesday), and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Thursday). Altman plays between 6:00 and 6:45 each day throughout, and it is fascinating to see one of his films right after seeing it. But it's not required viewing, even for film buffs, the way the original films being presented are.

Robert Altman is the unique filmmaker given a decent portrait in ALTMAN.

Overall: B-
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