Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Robert Altman: Images

I came to Robert Altman late but he has now become my favourite modern American film maker. (David Lynch also has a special place in my heart and moreover he belongs to a younger generation.) Interestingly this 1972 venture sees Altman venturing into a territory Lynch would make his own a decade later. In the interview on the DVD Altman says that he first got the idea of the story from watching Bergman's Persona and at first he just had a single scene in his mind - that of a young woman mistaking her husband for a stranger and running off in fright when he tries to kiss her in bed.

The final finished story is difficult to summarize. It basically is a series of episodes over a few days from the life of a young married children's author Cathryn (played brilliantly by Susannah York) who suffers from hallucinatory fantasies about strange phone calls, ghosts of dead former lovers and a friendly neighbour attempting to rape her, as she and her husband have retreated to an eeriely remote place in the hills. This place might itself be part of her imagination since it looks more like a dreamscape. The film was actually shot in Ireland and it looks spectacular as captured by Altman's regular cinematographer if the period Vilmos Zsigmond.

More than Persona the film it reminded me of was Roman Polanski's Repulsion. In Repulsion it was sexual repression and pathological shyness which drives the young girl over the edge, while in this film it is the guilt of a previous extra-marital affair coupled with her own feelings of insecurity which makes her see things which may not be "real." She is afraid and suspicious of her husband's philanderings which makes her imagine phone calls with mysterious female voice informing where her husband might be. She feels guilty and is afraid of her past which makes her see her dead lover in person who she then tries to "kill" for real. One of her neighbours and house-guests tries to seduce her and may be since she is conflicted about her own desire she interprets it as an attempted rape resulting in a grisly scene similar to the one in Repulsion. "Woman having rape fantasies" is something that will make feminists nervous but this is only what I thought of. The film itself is too inconclusive and totally open to other interpretations.

His Persona inspiration is much more obvious in 3 Women. This film suffers a little in comparison because unlike in 3 Women we don't really see Altman's sharp and critical observations about how people talk and behave in the company of others, which is arguably what makes him so special and where his real strengths are. It is far too much introspective and interiorized. It is still much more than just interesting. I specially loved the way he weaves the children's story that Cathryn is writing and which she narrates on the soundtrack. A complex interleaved soundtrack is another Altman signature. Just like in complex deep-focus based mise-en-scene in which the viewer has to consciously decide which part of the frame to look at, in a Altman's film he has to decide which part of the soundtrack he should listen to. He also has this fantastic ability to make actors seem like real people and turn real people into actors. The camera is always moving, there are no lingering close-ups and no iconic shots. Stars or secondary characters all merge together in one background.

As I said before the the outdoor landscape shots are extraordinarily beautiful and evocative. Altman in the interview says that he deliberately kept the place from being specific so that it would have a dream-like quality and he succeeds brilliantly. This wintry, cloudy, fuzzy, somewhat impressionistic quality of the image was there in a lot of his other films of the period (McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us) but this actually exceeds even all those other efforts. I personally love Altman when he is being satirical and critical but this self-consciously "arty" Altman also belongs in the top-tier.


puccinio said...

I actually have never felt ''Persona'' to have that strong an influence on ''3 Women'' as it does obviously in ''Images''. ''3 Women'' to me has more in common with Antonioni like ''The Red Desert'' or ''Zabriskie Point'' among others, than ''Persona''. Not that ''Persona'' is not at all an influence on ''3 Women'' just that people have emphasized that so strongly that some idiots actually think of it as a remake of ''Persona''.

''Images'' on the other hand is very much influenced by the Bergman and it picks up where Bergman stopped and takes the theme into newer territory. Or rather it brings it right into the daily life of a working, intellectual woman applying it's themes directly for it. And I actually don't see it as "rape fantasy" either. Feminism in it's easiest forms tend to codify such behaviour into one mould when it's actually very complex.

The other thing which ''Images'' has in common with ''Persona'' is that it is a chamber piece. A small cast(though slightly bigger than ''Persona'') whereas in ''3 Women'' the supporting cast, the surrounding players and the community that it portrays is very much part of the film's landscape. It's actually considered the most accurate film about L.A. Desert Community.

I think ''Images'' is one of Altman's greatest films. When it came out it got bad reviews and bad box-office but it has it's cult. Susannah York called it her favourite of all her performances. What the film struck me most of all was the way that it blends the objective and subjective view the character had of herself. And then as the film progresses slowly it kind of breaks that divide, especially in that famous and still scary scene when in her imagination, Hugh Milais's character suddenly becomes her husband like he possesses him. And then the reveries of that Children's book(written by Susannah herself for this film) have this great poetic quality. The score(by John Williams, of all people) is fantastic as well.

Alok said...

Yes I forgot to mention the score, it is wonderful as well, specially when it plays alongwith the narration of the story (which was written by York in real life).

3 Women is not really a chamber piece and that's what makes it a very different film from Persona even when the central idea is the same. His visual style in 3 Women is also markedly different and he is also in his usual social-critical mode, where I must say he is much more sure-footed than in a totally psychological chamber drama (he is still pretty good there too).

I am sure there are lots of other films which portray a subjective, interiorized view of a female pysche.. As i said I was thinking of Polanski's Repulsion all the while.

I did read about the reception of this film. Now we praise all these great 70s film and call it the last golden age of hollywood but the truth is that most of these films didn't do very well at that time. Images didn't even get a proper release, even after getting selected for Cannes film festival. Same for his other little known film from the same period - Thieves Like Us. I think apart from MASH and Nashville none of his films really met with any commercial or mainstream success.

puccinio said...

As i said I was thinking of Polanski's Repulsion all the while.

Well there you are dealing with a fairly simple case of psychopathy of a woman who is obviously repressed and sexually frustrated and the like. It's well-made but not as deep and complex as ''Images''. Great Deneuve performance though.

I think apart from MASH and Nashville none of his films really met with any commercial or mainstream success.

Actually according to Altman, the film of his that most people have seen is ''Popeye'' because while it had the reputation for a flop(which it wasn't at all) it became a cult children's film which parents saw with their kids and gave to babysitters and the like, years later Altman was happy to find that many kids would hum music from his film.

Altman's films were never big box-office but the point of the 70's was that he was part of the mainstream. In that his films were still better distibuted than independent or foreign films today. His films also recieved funding from studios and the like and he has(by his own admission) always had final cut. The reason directors call it a Golden Age wasn't because art-films were blockbusters but because they were part of the mainstream movie culture. Like today's generation makes a big deal out of seeing films in subtitles and the like which was never the case for the earlier generation.

A film like say, ''3 Women'' addressed the same audience who might have seen those 70's disaster movies, ''Jaws'' or silly sex comedies of the 70's not an audience of university students studying cinema, philosophy and other humanities and the like.

These films were largely low budget as well so it wasn't a big deal for the studios to fund them since they get good returns by making enough films that they'll get few box-office hits and the like. What ''Star Wars'' changed was the sheer greed of it all. In it's defence, it was a generously budgeted film and not really envisioned as a big blockbuster and was envisioned as a sci-fiction homage and little more. It's great success not only in ticket sales but also in sales of merchandise around the film gave people the idea that it's smart to make ONE film that earns that much money in one go rather than make several films and share the returns.

Film-making as a business is a gamble in that you can never be 100% sure that your film despite all commercial potential will be a box-office success or not, the golden age of Hollywood bosses had the good sense to make as many movies as possible, so that they have a better chance to make back costs-of-production rather than pinning all hopes for finance on the shoulders of a few films which not only pushes away the creative film-makers but is insane economics as well.

''Nashville'' by the way wasn't a box-office success either but it was a film that was very important in America in the 70's and in repeat viewings and later home video sales more than made back it's cost-of-production.

In the 80's, Altman had to go independent and he shifted to France as well. He made filmed adaptations of popular plays of the 80's. ''Streamers'', ''Secret Honor''(with the shortest Altman cast of one man, Phillip Baker Hall who plays Richard Nixon), ''Fool For Love'' and ''Beyond Therapy'' and then worked on TV to make ''Tanner '88'', a parody documentary of a fictional Democract candidate's run for the presidency(it's an absolute must watch for contemporary audiences for obvious reasons). ''The Player'' was a big box-office success so that brought him back into the mainstream.

Alok said...

I read about Tanner '88 and it sounded interesting. Will try to check it out soon. Nashville is also startlingly prescient in examining the peculiar way political campaigns intersect with popular and celebrity culture in America.

Jaws and Star Wars definitely had a debilitating effect on hollywood in the long term...that short-term corporate mentality still rules the movie studios in hollywood.

serious cinema has certainly become a "specialist" interest now but the easy availability of DVDs and also internet makes me feel a little optimistic, with lots of secondary information even though mostly basic and introductory material so easily available to anybody now. At least now you don't need to be a newyorker or a parisian to be cinephile.