Friday, June 27, 2014

That Cold Day In the Park

THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK              B            
USA  Canada  (113 mi)  1969  d:  Robert Altman

I want things to stay the way they are.

I remember my mother never stopped saying how lonely she was after my father died.  She kept talking on and on, always reminding me how little company I was for her. 
—Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis)  

Born February 20, 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri in a family descended from the Mayflower, Altman had an upper class background, raised in Catholic schools, graduating from a military academy in 1943 when he enlisted in the Air Force at age 18, becoming a crewman flying over 50 bombing missions in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies.  When he was discharged in 1947, he studied engineering at the University of Missouri, breaking into the motion picture business by accident, writing short stories and screenplay drafts at age 20, selling RKO studios the script for THE BODYGUARD (1948), which he co-wrote with Richard Fleischer.  When a move to New York City failed to jump start his career, he returned to Kansas City in 1949, accepting a job as a director, writer, cameraman, and editor of industrial films for the Calvin Company, directing about 65 industrial films and documentaries by 1955, securing $60,000 in financing for his first feature film about juvenile delinquency in Kansas City, entitled THE DELINQUENTS (1957), purchased by United Artists for $150,000.  While a primitive work, more of a teen exploitation film, it does contain naturalistic dialogue, an aesthetic associated with Altman throughout his career.  Moving to Los Angeles, he next co-directed THE JAMES DEAN STORY (1957), an exploitive documentary capitalizing on the recent death of a legendary movie icon, and while it was a box office disappointment, it did attract the attention of none other than Alfred Hitchcock, who hired him to direct several TV episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957-58), but after just two episodes, “The Young One” and Together,” Altman was fired.  His exposure, however, led him to a successful career working for several television companies from 1956 to 1964, directing various episodes of Whirlybirds (1958-59), U.S. Marshal (1959), Bonanza (1960-61), Combat (1962-63), and the Kraft Suspense Theater (1963).  According to Robert Altman's "7 secret wars", Altman directed nearly the entire second season of Bonanza, claiming “they’re some of the darkest in its 14-year run,” while also suggesting “Altman's dark style was better suited for the gritty war stories in the series Combat.”  Television also allowed Altman the chance to experiment with narrative technique as well as develop his trademark overlapping dialogue, while at the same time learn to work with speed and efficiency on a limited budget.  Despite his apparent refusal to conform to network requirements, causing frequent firings, Altman was never out of work for long, as his wealth of experience continued to attract work in a burgeoning television industry.  His success allowed him to form his own production company, Lions Gate Films in 1963, but his prolific gambling debts nearly brought about its demise, eventually forcing him to sell his interests in 1981.  One of his episodes about a serial killer for the Kraft Suspense Theater, “Once Upon a Savage Night,” was expanded to a feature length film, commercially released as NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO (1964), where he did not work again until he was hired to direct a low-budget space thriller called COUNTDOWN (1968), but he was fired near the end of the project for his refusal to edit the film to an acceptable length.      

The recognizable Altman style was not much in evidence in his first few studio efforts, but that would change with his next film, THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (1969), a disturbing psychological drama financed by inheritance money from the Max Factor cosmetic empire, shot in Vancouver (circumventing the Hollywood unions), where the film screened out of competition at Cannes and features a dazzling directorial style.  The opening shot reflects the cold, subdued atmosphere of melancholy where the camera follows a woman as she takes a winding path home through a park in Vancouver, zooming in and out, constantly altering the focus, stylistically underscoring the significance of duality, where something sinister is going on under the surface, while the camera holds her in the frame during a lengthy pan where at times the sun explodes onto the lens, as the camera continually keeps up with her all the way home.  Immediately we get a taste of a unique visual style, beautifully shot by László Kovács, where there is also ample evidence of an overlapping soundtrack, with the camera keying on one subject while the soundtrack is dominated by the improvised conversations of others nearby.  The film was a critical and box office disaster, followed up by a comical adaptation of a little-known Korean War novel satirizing life in the armed services, a film passed over by more than a dozen other filmmakers, where production was so tumultuous that stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland attempted to have Altman fired due to his unorthodox filming methods.  Upon its release, however, MASH (1970) was widely hailed as an instant classic, winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and five Academy Award nominations, with Ring Lardner, Jr. winning the Best Adapted Screenplay, becoming the point in Altman’s career when he was recognized as a major talent.  THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK is the first of what might be called Altman’s “female subjectivity” trilogy that also includes Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977).  The focus of the film is Sandy Dennis as Frances Austen, vulnerable and overly naïve, actually one of the better performances of her career as a seemingly oversensitive, unmarried wealthy woman whose desperate loneliness is so acute that her psychological state of mind remains questionable, where one gets the impression, through oddly out-of-place extended confessional revelations, that she is extremely fragile and weirdly out of touch, symptomatic of the Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie syndrome where she is isolated from the outside world even as she associates with others.  The film’s greatest strength lies in its suffocatingly repressed atmosphere, where the characters live in self-imposed prisons, which is fully sustained throughout, even as the story itself disappoints, showing little sympathy for anyone onscreen, feeling like a well-crafted studio concoction figured out ahead of time, as so much of what’s memorable is the glossy, artificial stylization.  Interestingly, it was during this filming that Altman discovered the music of Montreal native Leonard Cohen and his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen FULL ALBUM ... YouTube (41:38), so prominently featured in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), both films shot in the dreary dampness of Vancouver.    

Perhaps Altman’s only real stab at a genre film, this is a grim, uneven effort that veers into the gothic horror realm, where Frances is listlessly entertaining a group of older guests when she spies a young man sitting on a park bench in the rain, who holds her rapt attention throughout her party, where her gaze out the window through the Venetian blinds remains fixated, eventually inviting the young man (Michael Burns, known only as the Boy) inside where she offers him every hospitality, food, a change of clothes, a hot bath, and even his own private room.  While she rambles on in an extended monologue, talking incessantly, he remains mute but passively accepting, which allows Frances to delve into her own private world, one of manners and politeness and orderly décor, barely concealing her sexual attraction as she has her eyes on him all along.  In a bit of a surprise, she locks him in his room at night, guaranteeing he’ll be there in the morning when she serves him breakfast in bed.  While she goes out on meaningless social engagements, it’s all a distraction from her real intent which is to return to this young man later in the evening.  As the day progresses, however, it unfolds in dual sequences, one where Frances visits her gynecologist, sitting apart from the other women who remain unseen, yet their voices dominate the soundtrack, reflecting a psychological schism in her character, and one where the Boy returns home, escaping out the window and down the fire escape, living in a cramped apartment with his sister Nina (Susan Benton) and her boyfriend Nick (David Garfield, son of John Garfield), where we soon learn he has a voice and a noticeable attraction to his sister, who continually flaunts her sexuality in front of him.  The Boy describes the overly generous treatment he has received from this strange woman whose lavish attention obviously still fascinates him.  When Nina hears she gave him a bath, she comes to the apartment to see just what her brother has gotten himself into, and treats herself to a luxurious bath, despite her brother’s protestations that the woman is expected back at any minute.  Paying him no mind, she casually strips completely naked in front of him, where she seems to thrive on his sexual powerlessness, making him a passive onlooker, provoking him at every step, until eventually they are both splashing around in the tub together.  Altman ratchets up the tension with shots of Frances returning home while the mess created in the bathroom turns into a disaster area, holding the shot at length as he builds the suspense. 

When she returns to the dark and quiet of her home, the audience is clueless what to expect, though it does have the feel of gloom hovering in the air.  After puttering around the apartment putting things away, she discovers nothing is amiss, entering the Boy’s bedroom, speaking to him anxiously, even crawling into bed with him, finally offering herself sexually, only to discover a doll and some stuffed animals under the covers, where she lets out a blood curdling scream.  Enraged in disappointment, she waits for his return, where her calm demeanor and impeccable manners helps set the trap, but not before he returns with pot-laced brownies, where they play a sexually charged game of blindfolded hide and seek, where soon she’s in a state of childish bliss, eventually peeking through the keyhole into his room, completely distraught to discover he’s left through the window again.  Only then does she decide to take matters into her own hand, bolting the windows shut to lock him in, keeping him prisoner next time.  The oppressiveness of her apartment, with each object perfectly placed, belies the underlying psychological turbulence, where the viewer is witness to plenty of fractured mirror images, shooting people through objects, like glass or candlelight, where humans are seen as abstract reflections constantly moving in and out of focus, bringing to mind Fassbinder’s elegantly shot but as yet unmade CHINESE ROULETTE (1976), both opulent uses of dual imagery through mirrors to show a deteriorating psychological rift.  The cold precision and austere formality in each case is created through artificial means, while also creating an exaggerated, near hallucinogenic state of mind.  Altman is obviously fascinated by the marginalized female character and the lengths that she’s willing to go, where the extent of her disturbance is never fully realized until it’s too late, shown through calm and tranquil surface imagery, where even the viewer has a hard time believing what’s actually taking place as it seemingly evolves with the calculating shrewdness and detachment of a chess match, yet hysteria eventually supplants the existing reality, much like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960).  If the story weren’t so coldly literary, following an orderly story logic without the meandering Altmanisms that would later define his true talent as a director, it instead feels overly technical and even cliché’d, dropping the homosexuality angle of the Boy from the book, also a club with performed sex acts, but featuring another sexually repressed character who can only unleash their inhibitions through violent means.  That she mothers the Boy with affections and sweet talk throughout is a mere diversion from her real intent, feeling a bit too calculated and overly obvious by the film’s end, where the better film is the slow build-up of tension through meticulous detail, where the extent of psychic disorientation does come as a surprise, where perhaps the film is ultimately about a strange and mysterious passivity resembling normalcy that has the capacity to turn destructive.      

When asked if he ever looks at his older movies, Altman replied, 

I look at them.  And there’s nothing I’d change in any one of them.  They’re finished works, reflecting a specific film experience.  To change them would be like doing plastic surgery.  And, honestly, I like ‘em better than I did at the time.  I looked at That Cold Day In The Park recently and I wanna tell you, that’s one hell of a movie!

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