Jumbo, sympathetic trek through the incredibly productive life of hard-drinking, maverick, anticommercial film director Robert Altman. Seen up close and at moderate length, Altman's 20 feature films and countless TV shows reveal a towering talent oft gone awry--bored, unfocused, and credit-hogging but often unrecognized for his real successes as an independent. From Kansas City, Altman is the son of an insurance salesman so prodigiously charming that he could sell a policy to a cigar-store Indian, and of a mother who was "a perfect, all-American heartland Mom." The Altman who emerges from this biography is sometimes lovable, often "scrambling, wretched, vindictive," and envious ("At Elaine's Restaurant. . .Atlman always made a point of sitting with his back to Woody Allen"). Often recriminating, broke, and flying about on a creditless credit card, he resents not having had his directorial breakthrough (M.A.S.H.) until past 40. Before cutting all ties with Kansas City at 36, Altman made some 60 industrial films, then in Hollywood spun out endless episodes of serial TV shows (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, The Millionaire, Kraft Theater) before knocking off a set of respectable B-pictures and getting bis big shot at M.A.S.H. In this he developed his trademark ensemble effect of overlapping dialogue and dozens of actors occupying the eye and ear. Gradually he gave up full scripts and began inventing characters via the actors. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, both Warren Beatty and Julie Christie wrote much of their own dialogue and helped focus the story of the two leads rather than vitiate it into a group effort, which may account for this picture often being thought of as both Altman and Beatty's warmest. Not that many of Altman's group pictures aren't buoyant good fun, with Altman respected by his fellow participants, whose input is welcomed. Huge but not heavy and--for film buffs--not to be missed.