Special screening celebrates director Robert Altman

The film culture of Waterville, Maine is far underrated. As hosts of the Maine International Film Festival, local movie buffs ensure that some pretty incredible events take place in Central Maine on a regular basis. This past Saturday, Nov. 1, Railroad Square hosted a screening of Altman, a bio-documentary on filmmaker Robert Altman, and brought his wife, Kathryn Reed Altman as well as one of his actors, Michael Murphy, to answer questions after the screening.

Robert Altman was one of the greatest directors of our time. He has made 39 films including McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, M*A*S*H*, Popeye and A Prairie Home Companion. He’s worked with actors like Meryl Streep, James Caan, Robin Williams, Shelly DuVall, Julianne Moore and just about every famous name I could think of. He has directed shows for most major TV networks, and he founded Lion’s Gate Entertainment. In 2006, the year of his death, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences awarded Altman the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Altman made innovations in making on-screen dialogue more realistic. He was fired from early direction jobs because he would have characters talk over each other to mirror more realistic speaking patterns instead of following film conventions. He also redefined how contemporary filmmakers view the idea of “genre”: he often went against all filmic expectations associated with a particular genre (i.e. we would expect a Western film to have a fast-paced shootout) and instead defied Hollywood norms (in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a film that could be classified as a Western, we see slow tracking shots and the action is less of a focus than the dialogue and characters).

Altman’s monumental challenges of cinematic conventions were accompanied by his rejection of the Hollywood systems. He was known for greatly disliking the way mainstream films were made, and he actually created a film to critique his contemporary directors titled The Player. With its infamous 8-minute opening shot, The Player summarizes everything that Altman had a problem with: the idiotic ideas that are often pitched, the corporate environment, and the hierarchical structure of the film world, among other things.

Altman’s bio-documentary, filmed by Ron Mann, frames the famous director’s success by asking some of his most famous stars: “What does it mean to be Altmanesque?” Mann filmed the stars in close-up talking heads in front of a black background, and their answers determine the focus of the following segments of the documentary. For example, one actor defined the term as  “Never giving up,” and Mann showed us a struggle within Altman’s career, like losing jobs because he wanted to direct films in his own style. Another star mentions that Altmanesque means having fun making a movie, and Mann showed scenes from the “dailies,” which happened at the end of every shooting day, during which Altman would screen the footage they’d filmed that day, and the cast members would drink and party together.

The film ultimately provided a better understanding of who Altman was, taking him away from his mysterious behind-the-scenes presence and focusing on the character of the man who re-invented cinema. However, Mann rarely focuses on the films themselves. He briefly introduces Popeye as a major failure (when, in fact, it did make a significant amount of money, according to Kathryn’s post-film commentary.) He barely discusses the cinematic techniques that made Altman so influential, and the only real success we see Altman experience is when Mann uses old footage of Altman winning “Best Director” two times at Cannes. Toward the end of the film, we, as an audience, have no idea whether Altman’s impact on cinema was positive or even lasting.

Mann began the film with a quote from Kathryn saying that Altman thought of films as sandcastles: you spend a long time working on one, and people enjoy it while it’s there, then the tide comes and it’s nothing but a memory. As a prominent filmmaker, it is humble that Altman thinks his films could ever disappear like sandcastles would, but as an audience, we don’t know whether to believe this or not.

What Mann fails to really assert is the fact that Altman will have a long lasting impact, not only in his films, but also in the way that he redefined conventions and reformed Hollywood filmmaking.

Kathryn and Michael Murphy provided interesting commentary after the film, mainly to assure the audience of the positive, dedicated personality that Altman maintained through all of his 39 films. They discussed how fun it was to work alongside him, and gave a better insight into how he truly never wanted to stop working. Murphy discussed that among all of the directors he’d worked with (Woody Allen, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Tim Burton, among others), Altman was the best person to work with because he valued his actors and allowed for freedom to improvise and didn’t always plan a film out shot-by-shot, letting actors develop their own characters and allowing for a better film.

Though Altman is successful in summarizing the lengthy career of an incredible director, the film is best accompanied by a panel of people who can reaffirm Altman’s love for film, without which, the film is merely Mann’s ambiguous telling of the director’s success.

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