In Which Olive Oyl and Carrie go Head to Head for the Sake of the Female Id, an English lad and an Australian bloke re-enact the tortured soul of American masculinity, Nick Nolte tries not to crumble, and Robert Altman smiles down from the heaven he didn’t believe in.
When you’re watching Robert Altman’s ‘3 Women’ on Blu-ray, it would be easy, if potentially clichéd, to equate the grain of the image with the seriousness of the director’s intent. It’s like looking at the lined face of an old professor; but on Blu-ray you can see inside the lines. Everything looks so clear on the just-released Criterion edition, and the California desert images are so evocative of a world that hasn’t yet left the Old West behind that it almost makes you yearn to be watching it on a scratched and faded print at an isolated Drive In. The trouble with Blu-ray is that it makes everything perfect, which sometimes crowds out the space for an imperfect human response. It can be a bit like looking at the Grand Canyon: contemplation is invited, analysis pretty much impossible. (Think of the difference between watching ‘Attack of the Clones’ in high-definition [on disc or theatrically projected] and the first time you saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in a theatre; the fact that ‘Empire’ felt more substantial wasn’t just because it has a better script and you were six: the grain and the matte paintings and the models and, yes, even the performances, were more real than a computer can generate, or a digital image can convey.)
But a perfect film deserves perfect presentation, I suppose. So ‘3 Women’ has what it warrants; and it wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of mild insomnia-induced hours the other night. Given that the idea behind the film came to Altman in a dream, we were on solid ground. And when the camera opens us into a swimming pool in which young people are guiding the elderly toward their metaphysical exit, we the audience are being born too, so the shift in consciousness that comes late at night - reflective, open to something new - meant it was natural for me to be along for the trip.
Altman was an intellectual artist of the most engaging kind: his camera, fluid, as Bruce Cockburn would say, like the wind in grass, inviting us to observe just like he did, around and near the action, but never in it. He was a man of vast tastes (too easy it is to suggest that because his films had a certain demeanor that the themes were unified - I mean, c’mon, this is a guy who had Anouk Aimee take all her clothes off to make a satirical point about fashion, put US army medics in a Last Supper tableau as a preamble to suicide, and had Harry Belafonte invert everything we think we know about Harry Belafonte so that he could channel Christopher Walken into a jazz era Missouri psychopath). The intellect and tastes here engage the question of what it means to be human - so far, so much that’s-the-point-of-art, I guess - specifically what it means for its trio of female protagonists to be human in a world that wants to make them into machines; either as workers in the factory farm, or as the receptacles of men’s lust or anger, or as the bearers of the very image of humanity by having children.
These are not likeable people - played by Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule - walking around in circles in the water as they’re dying. Their faces are frightening, their behavior irritating; they invite pity at best, and sometimes fear, because you wouldn’t want to get too close to them, partly because they are carrying on the surface that which you fear most about yourself: that you will never know who you are, that you will always be alone in the world, and that you will spend your life trying to impress people who don’t give a damn.
The murals that Rule is painting in the swimming pool evoke archetypal myth; but the pool obviously has to be drained to permit the paint to dry: it’s a barren space for her to project her fantasies. The 3 women seem to be animated only in their dreams: when Spacek’s Pinky convinces herself that she is someone else; when Duvall’s Millie thinks of the near-ridiculous cowboy Edgar; when Rule is painting ancient stories without ever uttering a word herself. No one could accuse Altman of wanting to be someone else - or at least no one could accuse him of being obsessed with trying. Is this the task of living: to avoid wanting to be someone other than who we are? Maybe. But is his coruscating critique of the lives of these women just cynicism? Does the fact that the film opens with people walking round in circles, waiting to die, suggest nihilism on the part of its director? I don’t think so. ‘3 Women’ is the work of a man in love with cinema (not just the obvious antecedent in Bergman’s ‘Persona’, but the mythic American West too, and there’s even a touch of ‘The Exorcist‘ in the nightmare sequence toward the film’s climax) - and just as Kubrick saw ‘The Shining’ as an optimistic film because it avers a belief in an afterlife, you can’t be entirely cynical if you’re in love. There’s a very telling moment when Millie walks in on an elderly couple making love, on a night when they are distressed by something that has happened to a loved one. Bad things happen, but you can still live; as a certain other film-maker/lover might say. We’ve mislaid some of the tools that might be useful in determining how to function as a whole person; the task for now is to figure out how to figure out who you are without stealing someone else’s soul.
[Brief note: I’ve been thinking about something that Thulsa Doom, the bad-bad-BAD guy in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (which I saw for only the first time this month), says to the Austrian oak at that film’s violent climax, so derivative of the final encounter between Willard and Kurtz that it’s a good thing John Milius wrote that film too otherwise Francis Coppola would be the new Art Buchwald. Thulsa Doom killed Conan’s mother when he was a child; and Conan has pursued vengeance against Thulsa Doom ever since. When he is just about to kill his enemy, Thulsa Doom suggests that this might not be in his best interest, because his whole identity has been so shaped by revenge that he will not know how to live after eradicating his enemy. ‘It will be as if you never existed,’ says Thulsa; and for a moment I thought that Milius was going to tell the truth about retribution: that it serves to perpetuate, not heal, the wounds of violence. But such moments of philosophical clarity do not a Dino de Laurentiis 80s epic make; so Conan cuts Thulsa’s head off, and all is well. Just such a kind of vengeance drives Pinky in ‘3 Women’, and in one of the most surprising collisions of artist intent I’ve seen, you can see a populist male version of ‘3 Women’ at your local multiplex right now. ‘Warrior’ is a far more thoughtful film than its posters suggest; in fact, it may be the post-9/11/Iraq war/war on terror/WTF just happened? movie we’ve been waiting for. Two angry brothers and a broken dad isn’t the most original narrative trope, but neither is love conquers all; doesn’t mean it can’t contain vast emotional truth. ‘Warrior’ is about the need to transcend the violent shadow and the avoidance of anger alike; about how being a man who hopes to do justice to the calling of being human requires integration of what is too simplistically called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’; about how people deserve a second chance, not least because your desire to withhold that chance from those who have harmed you may actually be continuing your own experience of woundedness. It’s a wonderfully engaging, brilliantly edited, emotionally honest film that moved me. Its vision of what the integrated US American male could be is the inversion of Conan’s path: violence begets violence until someone is willing to change the script. We need an interruption.]