The image of a sandcastle kicks off “Altman,” director Ron Mann’s look at the life and work of Robert Altman. The filmmaker behind movies like “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville” and “The Long Goodbye” once compared making movies to building sand castles, a metaphor he found so powerful he even named his production company Sandcastle 5.
Then later, just before the end credits, the sandcastle disappears. It’s a simple but effective visual summation of Altman’s ethos, build it, watch it go and start all over again.
Mann worked with Altman’s family and colleagues to piece together the personal and professional life of one of the mavericks of American film. The result is a comprehensive documentary that traces Altman’s work back to his roots in industrial filmmaking in Kansas City, to becoming one of television’s most in-demand directors to his iconoclastic work for the big screen. Woven into that narrative is the personal story of the director’s relationship with his wife and business partner of four decades Kathryn and their children.
The story is told in their words—Altman’s reminiscences are culled from 400 hours of footage from his public talks and interviews—accompanied by film clips and unseen until now home movies and stills.
Additional colour comes from the famous faces of Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, the late Robin Williams and Elliott Gould, who each answer one question, “What does the word Altman-esque mean to you?” The wide range of answers, which often are pared down to one word or a short phrase, provide a curt but effective glimpse at the unique multiverse Altman created in his life and work.
The result of all these elements is “Altman,” a beautiful and naturalistic portrait of a man, not just his work. It would have been impossible to go in-depth on each of Altman’s 39 films in just ninety minutes, so Mann concentrates on capturing the spirit of a man who built sandcastles over and over again.