Altman's Orphans

Oak Street Cinema brings the neglected offspring of an American master in from the cold

Our greatest party-thrower and group-photo taker, a jazz-style improviser and master assembler of colloquial, discordant voices, a marijuana-fueled zoom-lens operator and the transformer of almost every American endeavor into a metaphor for our crapulent politics, Robert Altman is also--whew!--the most exemplary democrat of the cinema. (Substitute a capital "D" if you must.) He took movie storytelling away from that of heroic individualism and moved it toward community portraiture--in the process changing the way we think about both stories and people. And he has brought a lyricism to the screen that could previously be found only in the works of William Faulkner and Duke Ellington.

Sporting 16 of the director's three-dozen-or-so features (at least 10 of them in pristine archival prints), "Robert Altman's America" (at Oak Street Cinema through July 2) provides as diverse a banquet of American subjects and forms as there has ever been under one roof. The Altman we celebrate--the one for the history books--is the Whitmanesque Altman: the symphonic-encyclopedic Altman, the maker of slyboots masterpieces that, for all their churlish satire, have a sea-to-shining-sea sort of reach. Like Whitman, Altman wants to contain all possible human experience within the borders of a single work. The result is a uniquely ecstatic arrangement of narrative rhymes, fatalistic collisions, exquisite found moments, and, above all, thematic threads that converge, split apart, and then reconnect in the most unexpected ways. With movies such as MASH (1970) and Nashville (1975), Altman invented the multilevel storytelling form that--mark my words--will be the template for 21st-century cinema.

One-third of a body of work: Sissy Spacek (right) in '3 Women'
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
One-third of a body of work: Sissy Spacek (right) in '3 Women'

But some of the director's greatest work doesn't fit within the genre that he invented, the genre for which he has been canonized. The forgotten Altman--the Altman of Quintet and Images and 3 Women (all of which are screening in the Oak Street series)--is the brush-clearer of the interior landscape. As much as the filmmaker is obsessed with the party as allegory of the body politic, he is also the pioneering master of a profoundly asocial cinema. Like Strindberg surveying the torpid, dreamlike stage settings of To Damascus and Ghost Sonata, Altman maps the territory of shattered psyches with geographic precision. Many of his most striking works are by no means as group-centered or as "naturalistic" as Nashville or Short Cuts--which is to say that his most doctrinaire critics would likely lambaste them for their "bourgeois individualism." But in the rampantly commercial culture we inhabit, Altman's commitment in these underappreciated films to a delirious subjectivity feels nothing less than heroic.

Upon its release in 1979, Quintet (screening at Oak Street on June 12 and 13) was deemed one of the greatest blunders ever perpetrated by a major director. Its alleged folly portended Altman's long walk in the indie wilderness throughout the Eighties, from Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (June 20 and 21) up until The Player (June 22 and 26). Seen today, Quintet--perhaps the most bitterly unloved of Altman's many orphan projects--reveals itself as a visionary work that evokes and handily outdoes the mystic sci-fi of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Stalker. In it, a man (Paul Newman) and a pregnant woman (Brigitte Fossey) push their way through a snowy, postapocalyptic wasteland--an eternity of whiteness marred only by the black of Dobermans ravaging mounds of dead human flesh. Altman seems to pattern the images after the giant black-on-white forms in Robert Motherwell's "Elegy for the Spanish Republic" series--and, indeed, the entire movie is an elegy for a fallen global republic. One simple directorial choice pegs Quintet as a masterwork: Altman shot the film's interior scenes in the ruins of Toronto's mammoth Expo 67--the theme of which was "Man and His World."

As the fur-swaddled survivors play a win-or-die game called Quintet (conceived, legend has it, as Altman's own variation on his beloved backgammon), they are haunted by enlarged photographs from Expo 67--images of a Vietnamese beggar, a black woman and her child in the rural South, the terrified gaze of a starving infant. Combined with Dan Pierson's haunting (and oddly moving) 12-tone musical score, the Expo 67 shots convey a staggering sense of waste and grief. The Darwinian savagery of Quintet amounts to an even more annihilating caricature than The Player's vision of Hollywood, but in this case, the bitter landscape is entirely psychological, and entirely Altman's. Every image--including the stunning one of Newman's character discovering the inside of a "directory assistance" service center, with tinkling glass mobiles in lieu of phones or computers--seems to have been piped in directly from the filmmaker's unconscious.

 

Aside from the personal appearance of Altman regular Elliott Gould for a Q&A session following Friday's screening of The Long Goodbye (tickets are available at the theater in advance), the Oak Street retro also features an event of significant consequence to Altman connoisseurs: the screening of the director's nearly lost 1972 film Images (on June 9 and 12). According to the filmmaker, Columbia Pictures saw fit to destroy the film's negative, leaving only a handful of 30-year-old prints to roam the earth like hungry ghosts. (Altman donated his own 35mm print of the film to the UCLA archive, and it is that print that will be on view at Oak Street.)

Alas, I have seen only a milky, eighth-generation VHS dub of Images, but even under those conditions, the film is stunning. A creepily curdled mélange of Repulsion and Persona, the movie features the superb Susannah York as a children's-book writer moldering in a tiny house in a remote Irish village. (York herself wrote the text of her character's magnum opus, "In Search of Unicorns"--and, intentionally or not, it's deeply unsettling.) Confusing her husband (Rene Auberjonois) with her late lover (Marcel Bozuffi), the writer shuts down and melts down; the movie evokes the feeling of waking from a nap just after the sun has set--or the feeling of a newly forgotten nightmare. One of the highlights is John Williams's spare, violent score, which apes the unnerving violin concertos of Alfred Schnittke. In Images, Altman is so attuned to his dream states that he achieves a sort of cinematic autism; like Quintet, the film demands that its viewers experience (but not necessarily interpret) what they're likely to find extremely disturbing. (These movies might have had a chance in commercial terms if they'd been born in the era of Waking Life and Mulholland Drive.)

Speaking of dreams, the mind boggles at the thought of Altman entering Alan Ladd Jr.'s office on the 20th-Century Fox lot in 1977, telling the studio chief about a dream he'd had, and walking out with a deal to shoot 3 Women. (I remember the movie playing to an empty house at the multiplex where, as a child, I had come to see Fox's other summer product--a new science-fiction film by George Lucas.) In it, a shy, withdrawn woman named Pinky (Sissy Spacek) connects with the other oddball at her workplace, the vain Millie (Shelley Duvall). After these two spend a day drawing retirees into a physical-therapy sauna, they return to their little two-bedroom in Pasadena, and Pinky stares in awe while Millie lectures on how to get a man. Needing her junior partner's attention and acquiescence, Millie heaps contempt on Pinky, whom she blames for scaring away all the cute guys. Pinky is so browbeaten that she jumps off the second-story walkway of their apartment complex--and it is with this leap that 3 Women takes off into terrain never before mapped in movies.

Indeed, not counting 2001: A Space Odyssey, there hasn't been a more original movie made in the studio system than 3 Women, which defined aspects of American life not represented either before or since; with all due respect to Nashville (June 29 through July 2) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (June 14 and 15), it is, I believe, Altman's finest achievement. The film's trippy yet airtight narrative begins in the affectionate mode of a Raymond Carver story, then springs into a Jungian cloud world that makes the last third of Apocalypse Now look like yesterday's racing form. When Pinky plunges into the building's swimming pool and cracks her head open, a new personality--an über-Millie--creeps in. (Maybe this personality comes from one of the homicidal satyrs seen raping lizardlike women in a painting at the bottom of the pool; in any case, this image, seen through wiggly waves, is among the most nightmarish in all of cinema.) What follows in 3 Women is not a schematic, Persona-like trading of places, but rather an exploration of the fragility and impermanence of identity--one that defies all laws of genre and characterization.

I should say that I have seen the film 30 times or more; it has radically informed my understanding of families, of growing up, of how to tell a story, and, above all, of women. Probably each of us has at least one work of art that affects us as deeply as a beloved friend; 3 Women is undoubtedly one of mine. I am tempted to say that this degree of love for the film should disqualify me from evaluating its merits objectively; for me, it's not so much a movie as it is a living thing. In any case, it isn't only Altman who gives the film its special quality: The performances of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall are among the all-time greats. (Those critics who attack Altman for his supposed misogyny should be forced to revisit 3 Women and its spiritual twin, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.)

To stretch one of 3 Women's Jungian metaphors a little further: If Altman's ensemble pictures are his weightlifting sons, his dreamscape movies are his poetry-writing daughters. And the secret is, they're much tougher than they look.

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