ROBERT ALTMAN is one of the all-time greats, known as much for his iconoclastic approach to Hollywood as his formal innovations. It's a little odd, then, that Ron Mann's documentary Altman is so tidy and conventional. Altman's star rose and fell and rose again, but the ups and downs of his tumultuous career are presented here with hindsight's placid assurance that Altman will eventually earn his rightful place as one of filmmaking's most respected directors.
The doc steers a chronological course through Altman's career: His early work in television, the great success of M*A*S*H, the disaster that was Popeye, his return to critical success with The Player. Mann splices archival footage and film clips with voiceover narration from Altman's kids, his wife, and Altman himself, in clips lifted from panel appearances and interviews over the years. The portrait that emerges is as affectionate as it is unsatisfying.
Frustratingly, Mann's interviews with some of Altman's most notable collaborators consist of only one question: How they would define "Altmanesque." The conceit ends itself to glib, overly reverent responses. "Expect the unexpected," Robin Williams twinkles. Bruce Willis, lantern-jawed: "Kicking Hollywood's ass." Presumably these actors would've had interesting things to say about Altman's process, how he worked with actors, how many drugs they were all doing during Popeye—but all of Altman's insights toe a strict party line.
For challenge and edge, better look to the films themselves, two of which are screening along with Altman. The NW Film Center has cannily timed the screenings to coincide with the release of the latest film by Altman protégé Paul Thomas Anderson: Inherent Vice revels in its debt to The Long Goodbye, and we should all write thank-you notes to the NW Film Center for the chance to see both films on the big screen in the same weekend. Also on offer: Altman's profoundly unsettling 3 Women, featuring Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall as roommates locked in a dreamy and mysterious power struggle.