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.
The first time I saw Robin Williams was on 90 Minutes Live with Peter Gzowski, a Canadian late night talk show that aired from 1976 to 1978.
Thirty-five years later, I can still remember the frantic burst of energy that emanated from my television that Friday night. Gzowski grinned as the comic careened through their chat, jumping from joke to joke, impression to impression, including Williams’s take on the world’s most intelligent child. “I find most adults very banal, but I’ll talk to you anyway.”
“Where did you get that character from?” Gzowski asked, “Was it based on anyone?”
“Me, basically. As a kid.”
“Were you brilliant as a child?”
“Yes, and as a young man, too,” replied the impish 27-year-old.
The stand up comedians I had seen on television wore suits and told one-liners. This was stream of consciousness, a wild look at a comedic mind that didn’t work the way I was accustomed to. For six minutes it felt like an alien had taken control of my TV, a life force like I had never seen before.
Appropriately enough, soon afterward he appeared as Mork, the extraterrestrial from Ork, on Happy Days and his career was officially launched.
For the next 35 years Williams was a constant on our screens, big and small. His first starring role in a movie, 1980’s Popeye, was met with critical scorn and a weak box office, but Roger Ebert had praise for the star, calling Williams’ “perpetual squint and lopsided smile” completely convincing.
Moving from strength to strength he embarked on a remarkable run of films, earning the first of three Best Actor Oscar nods for Good Morning, Vietnam and winning an Academy Award for his work as an empathetic therapist in Good Will Hunting. A handful of Golden Globes celebrated his work in Good Morning, Vietnam, The Fisher King and Mrs. Doubtfire.
He leaves a diverse legacy from the laughs of The Birdcage, to the drama of Awakenings,to the chills of One Hour Photo, the seize-the-day uplift of Dead Poets Society and the ad-libbed brilliance of Aladdin. Every decade since that appearance on 90 Minutes Live has given us a memorable Williams performance. He will live, on the screen at least, with three more films scheduled for release this year and next.
Everyone has a favourite Robin Williams character. For me its Parry, the treasure hunter in The Fisher King. It’s a funny, bittersweet performance in a movie that mixes fantasy and reality in equal doses.
“I’m a knight on a special quest,” Parry says, words that could apply to the comedian’s crusade to entertain in weird and wonderful ways.