Ron Mann's Altman tries to define the indefinable

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      Author Peter Biskind presented a dark portrait of Robert Altman in his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Through the filmmaker's own words, those of his friends and colleagues, and a feast of archival material, we see a very different person in Ron Mann’s new documentary, Altman.  

      “Bob hated that book,” say Mann, calling the Straight from his Toronto office. “That’s why I made the movie. To contrast that image that he had.”

      “That image” was of a hard-drinking wild man whose battles with the studios and anyone else were driven by deep reserves of depression and self-loathing. In his movie, Mann avoids any kind of pop-psychologizing, preferring to celebrate the work and life of “America’s greatest filmmaker.” It’s a love letter, in other words, and a welcome one.

      “Henry Gibson I think says, ‘It wasn’t a drunken party, we were working,’” says Mann. “There’s this kinda mythology of Bob being reckless. Well, of course you’re being reckless if you’re a studio head, because you’re going off script! You’re reckless if you’re talking to the screenwriter of M*A*S*H because you’re going off script. What I really got was a kind of love vibration from everyone. And really—everyone.”

      Mann worked closely on the film with Altman’s widow, Kathryn (“If you want to know where overlapping sound comes from, just go to dinner at the Altmans,” he says) and he also managed to muster a bunch of the director’s most iconic colleagues—including Elliott Gould, Lily Tomlin, and Michael Murphy—to sit in front of the camera and offer their take on the meaning of Altmanesque. Their answers are as wide-ranging (and satisfying, and essentially indefinable) as the man’s incredible body of work.

      Beyond that is the biographical material Altman left behind at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. These home movies, interviews, TV spots, which Mann poured over—“It was like he left this trail for me to follow,” he says—capture the playful side of the man (nude Altman party pics!) In contrast to Biskind, that “recklessness” came out of Altman’s endless drive to both innovate and capture truth, even when he was working in TV in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

      In one of his TV interviews, Altman recalls being fired by Jack Warner from his first film, Countdown, because he used overlapping dialogue. “But Bob admired Jack Warner,” adds Mann, “because he was part of that school that took chances and made films from the gut, and gambled. Today they don’t gamble. Corporations make franchise movies that are market-researched. And if you want to talk to someone at the top, there’s no one at the top. And that ramblin’, gambling rebel filmmaker isn’t there as an example.”

      Indeed, countercultural cred aside, Altman comes off as a genuine tough guy; every bit as tough as Sam Peckinpah or any of his generational peers. “He’d been to war,” as Mann points out, “and he was a little older than everyone else.” It took a lot of bullheadedness to get those moves made since Altman was changing the medium so dramatically—especially in his ‘70s heyday with films like M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, or 3 Women.

      It was during a press conference in 1977 for the latter film—perhaps the most poetic and mysterious in his entire canon—that Mann had his first brush with the man himself, and saw all those contradictions up close.

      “Bob was super cool,” Mann recalls with a chuckle. “I used to hitchhike around Europe and I found myself on the beach at Cannes. I slept on the beach for years, and I saw a bunch of Bob’s premieres there. The closest I ever got to Bob was at a press conference and I just remember there was Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall and Bob, and he comes out, and the first thing he fucking talks about is, ‘What’s the football score?’ Because he had, like, $10,000 going on some team. And I just thought, ‘Man, I really like this guy.’”

      Altman screens at the Cinematheque, November 7-10

      Follow Adrian Mack on Twitter @AdrianMacked