Altman premiered last night and will play for a while on Epix before it sees a theatrical release following a screening in Venice. Back in June, Variety‘s Scott Foundas got an early look: “Given the who’s-who of collaborators and acolytes of the late Robert Altman assembled for this feature-length tribute, it would have been all too easy for director Ron Mann to let the film turn into a loose, digressive—indeed, Altmanesque—jamboree of war stories and portable wisdom. But to great, stirring effect, Altman charts a different course, drawing on a wealth of existing material to tell the filmmaker’s story largely in his own, brashly eloquent words, and through generous clips from his massive, admittedly uneven, always uncompromising filmography. The result captures Altman the artist and the man, the one inseparable from the other, about as well as any two-hour film could hope to do.”
Robert Altman “would assemble crowds of actors, give them the hint of a story, encourage them to improvise in Babels of overlapping dialogue and let the canny chaos spill onto the screen,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “That tactic applied from Altman’s first signature effort, MASH in 1970, when he was already 44, to A Prairie Home Companion, released just before his death at 81 in 2006, and with Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding, HealtH, Popeye, The Player, Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter and Gosford Park in between…. Mann convenes an all-star cast—[Sally] Kellerman, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, Julianne Moore, Elliott Gould, James Caan, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Lyle Lovett, Philip Baker Hall—to remember the good times and underline Altman’s unique contributions to a bracingly unruly period in American film.”
Altman is “an admiring, loving, family-endorsed portrait of an ever-restless artist who both worked within and bucked the system while turning out nearly 40 idiosyncratic films in as many years,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. “But everyone knows that Robert Altman’s life and career were far more turbulent and tempestuous than the one depicted here, so a more uncensored documentary would one day serve as a welcome companion piece to this smoothly assembled, understandably laundered account.”
“He was far from the only prickly guy in Hollywood,” writes Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times. “He tells of an encounter with Jack Warner, who had reluctantly hired him to direct the 1967 film Countdown, even though Warner had told Altman to his face that he didn’t like him or his work. Sure enough, Warner was infuriated after watching some of Altman’s dailies, the raw footage from the shooting. A subordinate related Warner’s displeasure this way, Altman recalls, ‘If you want to hear what he said, he says, “That fool”—meaning me—”has actors talking at the same time.”‘ Altman’s use of multilayer soundtracks went on to become one of his signatures.”
Allan Tong talks with Ron Mann for Filmmaker and Kathryn Reed Altman, Robert Alman’s widow, and Bob Balaban are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show (16’42”). Hillary Weston talks with them, too, for BlackBook. For Variety, Brent Lang asks a few people who worked with Altman what they think of the doc.
Bonus viewing. For Esquire, Nick Schager presents “10 of Robert Altman’s Greatest Moments.”
Updates: “Why so much interest in a man he never met?” the Toronto Star‘s Peter Howell asks Mann, who replies: “Because he was America’s greatest filmmaker. Absolutely. Growing up, his films were different. He reinvented the language of cinema. As Martin Scorsese said, he had the audacity to treat cinema as an art form. He was America’s Renoir or Fellini or Kurosawa.”
The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman opens today and runs through August 31.
Update, 8/9: For Vanity Fair, Julie Miller talks with Lily Tomlin about her memories of Altman—and Criterion’s Michael Koresky writes that Tomlin’s Linnea Reese in Nashville “may be the least eccentric, most subdued major character in Altman’s panoramic satire of the country-music capital. Tomlin is an emotional anchor in a film full of wayward souls and pompous pills.”