Overlapping dialogues

Robert Altman:
The Oral Biography
by Mitchell Zuckoff
(Alfred A. Knopf)

Of course Robert Altman gets an oral biography. What better way to tell the life story of a filmmaker whose trademark was overlapping dialogue that offered many levels of information and occasionally competing takes on reality? Not that there's much substantive disagreement voiced in Mitchell Zuckoff's book. As captured here, Altman was generally a pain to Air Corps pilots, producers, studio executives and any other authority figures that tried to rein him in. He was generally worshipped by actors, to whom he gave enormous freedom in creating their roles and, via that freedom, his movies, which were often groundbreakingly brilliant (1971's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1975's Nashville) and frequently pretty dire (1980's HealtH). He was a generous spirit, a mean drunk, a devoted husband, an indifferent father and a spendthrift with a compulsive work ethic, all at the same time.

Born into a middle-class family in Kansas City, Mo., in 1925, Altman's trajectory followed that of many American men of his generation. He served in World War II, married and started a family, and settled into a career — in his case, making industrial films for a hometown firm. Altman's ambition eventually led him to Hollywood, though, where he further honed his chops in TV. He was 44 by the time 1970's M*A*S*H made him the hottest new director in town; his creative knack and anarchistic spirit led to a string of successes and experiments through the '70s unparalleled by any other post-studio-system American director, from eccentric folly Brewster McCloud through Raymond Chandler reboot The Long Goodbye to dreamlike harbinger 3 Women. He didn't, and perhaps couldn't, keep it up, but he continued to make a movie almost every year and "came back" at least twice (with 1992's The Player and 2001's Gosford Park) before his death in 2006.

Zuckoff interviewed Altman for a more straightforward book about his filmography shortly before the director died, leaving the author to regroup with the oral-bio format. It should come as no surprise to any fan that this account is full of entertaining anecdotes (e.g., freewheeling Altman versus perfectionist Warren Beatty), but then there isn't much surprise here in general. When not addressing early biographical material or delving into the director's most-loved movies, Zuckoff settles for toggling between brief visits to film sets and round-robin discussion of Altman's character and personal life. As such, Robert Altman lacks serious analysis and doesn't probe very deeply even when it tries, leaving it enjoyable but far from essential.

This review was originally published in the Baltimore City Paper.

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