I ran into Canadian documentary filmmaker Ron Mann the other night. He’s got an announcement here in Cannes for his new documentary. The subject is Robert Altman, the late, great iconoclastic director of M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville and Gosford Park, among other films.
The documentary will follow Altman from his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., to his 2006 honorary Oscar (he died later that year), and will be co-produced with Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed. There’s a lot of material to cover. After he returned from the war, where he flew bombing missions in the Pacific, Altman settled into a busy career making industrial films: “More than 60 of them,” said Mann. “And tons of TV work.”
The project was officially announced today in Variety, with Reed issuing a release calling Mann “the perfect choice to examine and celebrate Bob’s monumental life and art. I have no doubt Bob would be happy and may well be smiling right now.”
The television shows Altman made included everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Bonanza and Combat! episodes. In fact, Altman was well into his 40s before he got his big break with the antiwar comedy, M*A*S*H.
One interesting connection between Mann and Altman: Mann made the film Grass, on the history of pot in the United States; and Altman, a board member of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) was an enthusiastic pot advocate.
I met Altman, briefly, 15 years ago when the Cannes festival was celebrating its 50th anniversary and held a dinner for all directors who had been in competition. (Ingmar Bergman, by the way, declined to attend). I was stuck in a corner, far from the action, with some Greek and Italian and American journalists. I recall that one of them decided he was offended by the name Starbucks, reasoning that the coffee chain was trying to appeal to people obsessed with celebrity and money.
It didn’t seem polite to correct him: (“Well, there’s this character in a novel called Moby-Dick …”). Seated next to me was a young native American woman, whose name I don’t remember but who turned out to be Altman’s assistant. Every half-hour or so, either Altman or Reed kept leaving the famous-directors’ table to come over and check in that she was enjoying herself. And at the end of the evening, they even thanked me for keeping her company. For someone who had a slightly curmudgeonly reputation, Altman certainly seemed to treat the people close to him well.