Sunday, June 29, 2014

3 Women

Shelly Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Altman at Cannes, 1977

3 WOMEN                 A-                   
USA  (124 mi)  1977  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.  Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look:  the movies and the newspapers.
—Joan Didion, from the opening essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968

Another one of Altman’s difficult and enigmatic films, a mix of comic absurdity and morbid tragedy, intentionally featuring few commercial prospects, creating a uniquely original desert landscape where it’s hard to survive without learning how to adapt, where women are caught in a no man’s land of macho culture that creates female victims that don’t fit anywhere, that aren’t really appreciated or valued, even to themselves, where they have to go through some absurd Kafkaesque psychological metamorphosis just to be able to live with themselves.  With this film, Altman completes his “Female Subjectivity” Trilogy, coming after That Cold Day In the Park (1969) and Images (1972).  What immediately strikes one about this film is how it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, where one can’t help but be mesmerized by the uniqueness of such a rare work of art, like the murals on display throughout, where the artist Bodhi Wind, now deceased (struck dead while stepping off a curb in London), is barely known, yet the supreme beauty of the overall artwork on display is haunting for being such an undiscovered secret.  Perhaps compounding the overall sense of loss and devastation is learning what happened to these artworks, which were painted specifically for this film in cracked and decaying swimming pools that had been abandoned in the heat of the desert.  After the film was completed, they were eventually demolished to make way for new housing units, where one mourns the loss as one would for a particularly effecting death.  What’s equally interesting is that this film was buried in the vaults somewhere, barely seen by anyone, confounding critics at the time of its release, not released on home video for some 27 years, where the reappearance is like a rebirth, all of which is reflective of the cyclical themes of the film, where Altman’s movie actually preserves Bodhi Wind’s artworks, like a time capsule, while introducing an unfathomable mystery that goes along with the director’s own artistic imprint. 

Altman’s film is about breaking down the barriers and destroying the illusions that leave women so powerless, believing in the hype, the false magazine brand of what a woman should be, how she should look or dress, how she should behave, and what is expected of her in order to be considered a success.  And when her life doesn’t live up to that idealized dream, the weight of the world falls on her shoulders, plunging into a culturally imposed psychological abyss where she must rediscover her own existential self-worth.  Sort of a women’s version of Waiting for Godot, where the missing qualities in the lives of everyone seen onscreen seems to be waiting for deliverance by some mythological entity or unknown force, as suggested by the demonic power of the artworks, to be fixed and made whole again, as they are such pathetic examples of miserably unhappy human beings.  Using a slowly building, dreamlike narrative that accentuates delusion and abject sadness, where characters are seemingly trapped by cliché’s and the banal ordinariness of their lives, this is one of the most achingly lonely films you’ll ever see.  Shot in sweltering heat out in the Southern California desert somewhere, perhaps near Palm Springs, the film targets the evils of the banal, where apathy seems the most despicable of all human conditions, where no one cares about anybody else, who they are, where they’re from, what happens to them, whether they live or die, as it’s all the same when you’re so self-absorbed that you simply don’t give a damn.  Instead of the abnormal psychological neuroses from Images (1972), this film features lost souls that are courageously trying to make it through life in a way that is acceptable to them.  The comic humor of the first half gives way to a more carefully observed grimness and disillusionment by the end, where the impact is like watching glass shattering, leaving one stunned, forced to witness more than one can bear, and perhaps even traumatized by the unusual turn of events.  Altman fixes it so it’s hard for the viewer to find a point of entry to this film, making it difficult to identify with any of the characters, as they’re all so disoriented, absent any identifiable personalities, so it’s the situation they’re in that finally matters, where it’s all about a personal transformation, requiring a revelatory shock of some sort to catapult one out of their mindless complacency, like the apocalyptic effect achieved in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).  Certainly after the passing years, there’s little else out there like this, making the viewer value the uniqueness of the experience even more. 

1 woman became 2
2 women became 3
3 women became 1

Whether intended or not, this seems to be the written formula for the film, neatly written out methodically like a recipe, offering guidelines for how to proceed.  Yet due to the singular nature of filmmaking and art, no two directors would turn out the same product, which seems to be the fascination here, as despite our similarities, we are all uniquely different, both in our reactions to the same thing, and our levels of appreciation.  Altman has written a birth to death, and rebirth movie, where Shelly Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux won the Best Actress Award at Cannes, as did Susannah York for Images (1972), and while she’s marvelous as this chatty Cathy character who talks endlessly in empty cliché’s to people who aren’t even listening, living her life out of magazine advertisements that tell her what color combinations to wear, how to decorate her apartment, what recipe’s to follow based on the amount of time needed for preparation, viewing herself as the most popular girl in town even as people really want nothing to do with her, it’s Sissy Spacek as Pinky Rose that we can’t take our eyes off of.  Both performances are extensions of their earlier roles, Duvall in Nashville (1975) and Spacek in BADLANDS (1973), but she’s so unbelievably childish, seen early on blowing bubbles in her coke glass through a straw, seemingly without an idea or thought in her head, an empty vessel waiting to be filled, where she latches onto Millie, thinking she is the most wonderful person in the world, telling her “You’re the most perfect person I ever met.”  What she brings to this film is pure innocence, surprised by everything as if she’s never seen anything before.  Despite the title, the film is mostly about the involvement of these two women who become increasingly dependent upon one another, until later in the film they merge into something altogether different.  Pinky comes into the film with no history, no foundation, where we know nothing about her, where she appears to be a blank slate, while Millie acts as our tour guide throughout the film, as she loves to explain the rules and guidelines of the world as she sees it, talking to complete strangers about her active social life as if she’s known them all her life, where her delusions are constantly exposed, even as she can’t see them.  So while Pinky’s yearning to be like her, attached to her like a following shadow, Millie wants everybody to respect her and pay attention to her, but nobody else likes her or could care less about her, which is simply heartbreaking throughout. 

One constant throughout the film is water, a rare and valuable commodity in the desert, but it’s given a near mythological depiction through the constantly recurring artworks which seem to move in and out of our consciousness, like the flowing of water, accentuated by opening and closing sequences shot through a wave machine, which may symbolically reflect amniotic fluid, the initial body of water that gives warmth and life to a growing fetus.  Appropriately, an early shot shows extremely old and frail people at a rehabilitation health spa being led by young girls into a heated exercise pool of mineral water, where they may as well be returning to the birth water of their origins.  It is at this spa that Millie and Pinky meet, where Pinky is the newcomer that needs to be trained, where there is a pair of identical twins, Polly and Peggy (Leslie Ann and Patricia Ann Hudson) working there as well, where Pinky, who is initially fascinated beyond belief (“I wonder what it’s like to be twins…do you think they know which one they are?”), is warned, “We don’t like the twins,” a thought lingering throughout that is never explained.  The twins, however, are attractive young girls that live in their own zone and aren’t the least bit helpful, having no use for anyone else, where they seem to have nothing to give, even to themselves, much like the couple running the spa, where Sierra Pecheur as Nurse Bunweil runs a tight ship, barking out orders and instructions, getting on everybody’s ass, much like Nurse Ratched from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST (1975).  The owners don’t seem the least bit concerned by their patients, but are more suspicious of government inspectors getting a look at their financial records, trusting no one, where all that matters to them is making money, as most likely they are cooking the books.  This sense of blindness is accentuated by Millie’s cheerful façade, where she pretends to be something she’s not, continually ingratiating herself to others, whether it’s neighbors or coworkers, where she doesn’t have lunch at her own job site, but goes to the hospital across the street and invents conversations with people, making herself the center of attention, which is initially darkly comic, considering no one is the least bit interested, but it’s followed by ridicule.  They always seem to be whispering under their breath, talking about her, even as they ignore her.  In Millie and Pinky, we have two lonely outcasts, where there’s a steady stream of meanness that flows throughout this picture, which seems somehow connected to social standing, where the most popular are easily the most dismissive of others.  

Pinky moves in with Millie at the Purple Sage Apartments, owned by a former stunt cowboy Edgar (Robert Fortier) and his wife Willie (Janice Rule, wife of Ben Gazzara), a mysterious pregnant woman who paints the striking and unsettling murals, while Millie also takes Pinky along on her evening visits to Dodge City, a deserted ghost town in a Wild West motif, featuring a dilapidated bar with an Indian teepee, fake rattlesnake, gun range, and dirt bike track out back, also owned by Willie and Edgar, where Willie can be seen working alone with her paints, dressed like a gypsy.  This lone bar off the side of the highway is typical of the Southwest, featuring exaggerations that don’t quite work, where Fortier, who is also a carpenter by trade, helped build the Dodge City set.  Millie talks incessantly at the bar until Pinky guzzles an entire mug of beer, followed by several loud belches, where Millie is simply bewildered, staring bullets through her in disbelief.  People that live in the desert are more distant, living in extreme spaciousness too vast to fill, where it offers a certain aura that the film takes advantage of.  We discover the desert reminds both Millie and Pinky of Texas, where they’re both from, apparently, and Altman uses a brightly exaggerated color scheme that contrasts from the barren wasteland outside.  Additionally, this comments upon their barren interior lives, where Millie proudly exclaims, “I’m known for my dinner parties,” which consists only of dehumanized packaged, processed food.  Willie is the third woman who barely utters a word throughout the entire picture, played like a Silent era movie star, always conveying a certain sadness, seeing right through her alcoholic husband who also hits on young girls, as if this is a sign of male virility, where his credo is, “I'd rather face a thousand million savages than one woman who’s learned how to shoot,” (all 3 women learn how to shoot by the end), finding him a pathetic excuse for a husband, where now she can’t even speak to him.  Instead she paints these dreamlike, surreal murals of reptilian female figures under the domination of an enormous male monster inside empty swimming pools.  In contrast, at the Purple Sage Apartments, these same artistic paintings are seen under the bright blue color on the floor of the swimming pool where people are continually seen lounging about grilling hamburgers.  Millie invents a romance with Tom, her neighbor, who himself invents a cough to keep her away, where they call her “Thoroughly Modern Millie” when she joins them decked out from head to toe in yellow, where she is the object of snide remarks and whispered snickers.    

Supposedly coming to Altman in a dream, where he visualized the briefest outlines of an idea, the film is shot in an impressionistic style that Altman likens to a watercolor that starts out as one thing, but eventually evolves into something else, a visual idea that can grow on you, like memory recollections, or a painting with music, where the camera is a window into this strange and mysterious world, where the seductive nature of the mural paintings lures the audience into this enchanted place.  The anxiety ridden musical score by Gerald Busby, who plays the Reverend in Altman’s next film A Wedding (1978), is dissonant and atonal, perfectly reflecting the restless unease of the characters who remain in a state of constant transition from one place or time, where sudden actions can happen abruptly and feel disorienting.  Altman loves to use glass or mirror reflections, doubling or tripling the images, offering a  window into the soul of sadness, also a view through an aquarium, a device used later in Short Cuts (1993), at times feeling as if we are underwater.  In all likelihood an extension of Images, Duvall’s entire performance is fraught with exposed flaws and vulnerabilities, where she devised much of her own quirky dialogue about tuna melts and hula lessons, made her own costumes, decorated the apartment, created her own recipes, even did her own grocery shopping for the movie scenes, but most importantly also wrote her own diary entries that Pinky devours first chance she gets.  While Millie is filled with self-inflated pride, following the magazine advise, taking it all very seriously, repeating catch phrases that she thinks will make people like her, Pinky has nobody, and is so completely lost that she begins to steal Millie’s identity, pretending to be like her, initially wearing her clothes and claiming she hates tomatoes after overhearing Millie express a similar dislike in order to form a closer bond with her, eventually escalating to more, actually taking over the writing of the diary and assuming her personality, but not until after a traumatic event lands her in the hospital, where the hospital coma sequence is duplicated in Short Cuts.  Even after turning on Pinky, angrily blaming her for her own shortcomings, seeing her in a coma afterwards strikes a nerve, where Millie’s standing up for Pinky is a way of standing up for herself.           

The film’s journey takes a baffling turn, where afterwards Pinky becomes a version of Millie that she could only hope to achieve, becoming very sure of herself, with a newfound confidence and swagger, where all the guys Millie imagined she was with are actually lining up to be with Pinky, a change of circumstances that has her floored, seeing her turn into a mean and coldhearted person.  But Millie remains her friend, even when humiliated and treated with scorn, becoming her more timid and submissive follower in passive disbelief, remembering that Pinky was the only one who actually admired her.  This exchange of identities shown in an entirely different light is not altogether new, as Altman experimented with it in Images, superimposing the faces of Susannah York with a young 12-year old girl, reflected together in mirrors, and it was used to wondrous effect in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), where the evil Mrs. Gulch morphs into the Wicked Witch, not to mention Dorothy’s helpers are all transformed versions of real people she earlier encountered.  But in Altman’s hands, it’s a puzzling transformation, where Pinky has a similar dream sequence, a stunning montage of previously seen footage appearing in a different light, bathed in waves, giving the appearance of being underwater, perhaps a return to the womb, where the sleeping body is immersed in an amniotic fluid, reformulating new visions of themselves, taking what they need from one another, where each is a mirror reflection of one another cast in a new light.  The dissonant musical score emphasizes a sense of metamorphosis and renewal, where they are all trying to overcome this feeling of loneliness.  The film suggests our DNA is so close to being exactly alike that we exaggerate our personalities in order to distinguish ourselves from one another, and God forbid we’re exactly like somebody else.  Yet even when drawing what we can from each other, everybody’s personalities are their own, even identical twins, who have the capacity of feeling alone and unloved.  We all react differently to the inevitability of death, or the death of a child, for instance, where humans are never actually prepared for the force of impact, where the individualized emotional recovery afterwards perhaps redefines who we are, as we are never quite the same again, reconfigured into completely different human beings.  This impressionistic mosaic suggests nothing less than a rebirth completes the cycle of life, with the 3 women becoming a single composite personality, perhaps a fuller, more completely evolved species of women, where ultimately we all embody the same human spirit, as after all, this is only a dream anyway, where Millie consoles Pinky at one point after a bad dream, “Dreams can’t hurt you.”    

Saturday, June 28, 2014


IMAGES                     B+         
USA   Great Britain  Ireland  (101 mi)  1972  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

I’m not really making love with him.  That will make anything all right. 
—Cathryn (Susannah York)

Made at the peak of his creative powers between McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973), two of the director’s most memorable works, Altman made this strange little film about schizophrenia, the second of his “Female Subjectivity” Trilogy, coming between That Cold Day In the Park (1969) and 3 Women (1977).  While it’s not hard to imagine a little girl living in a fantasy world of fairy tales and dreams, viewed as the picture of innocence, yet here’s it’s a beautiful grown woman who appears equally stuck in an imaginary world, a strange and haunting place where the world is not as it seems, where reality comes and goes with the whims of the imagination, all running together creating a peculiar netherworld, much like the macabre and sinister universe of Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932), but this is the world as she sees it, where she seemingly floats in and out of both worlds, as the film takes place almost entirely inside a woman’s subconscious.  It’s interestingly one of the least Altmanesque films the director has ever made, where it doesn’t feature overlapping dialogue, a multitude of characters, multiple themes, several events happening simultaneously within the same frame, or an improvisational feel, instead it has a narrow focus, perhaps his most complete foray into the horror genre with its array of creepy effects, venturing into the Dario Argento art house horror genre to reveal one woman’s descent into madness.  Susannah York won the Best Actress Award at the premiere in Cannes, where Sandra Dennis in That Cold Day In the Park is a direct link to Susannah York here, offering a striking performance as the central character Cathryn, where the camera never leaves her, as Altman uses a more experimental style to capture a woman caught between two worlds, both merging into one another, with a brilliant sound design by musical composer John Williams and Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta, mixing wind chimes fluttering in the breeze with special sound effects to reflect her altered state of consciousness, where the audience is continually questioning what is real and what isn’t.  Cathryn has a complacently bourgeois husband Hugh, René Auberjonois, who sees the world as it is, representing one reality, combined with the world as it appears to her, where the majority of the film is reflective of her continuously fluctuating interior moods.  When viewed as a cultural oppression of women, there seems to be little fallback position, as Cathryn both rebels against and then withdraws from her real husband, inventing alternative options only through an abnormal psychology, perhaps viewed as unfathomable by men, where throughout the trilogy Altman deals with the crises of women through various internalized neuroses.  On the other hand, it’s not too far fetched to see the film as a portrait of an artist, seeing the world much as Cathryn does, where the jagged edges of creative artistry continually fluctuate and evolve over time.      

Originating from an Altman idea, the film is brilliantly shot in Ireland around a lakeland location of Lough Bray, County Wicklow by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with breathtaking panoramic vistas capturing a wintry desolation, where much of this film has a painterly appearance, beautifully mixing the natural pastoral beauty outside, occasionally delving into fantasy, with exquisitely designed interior sets by Leon Ericksen that reflect a super modern look, where each door or room leads to another world, all feeding into Cathryn’s psychosis.  Opening with a story that she’s writing that at the same time is taking her into a world that is frightening, the entire film is layered in a children’s book called In Search of Unicorns, a children’s fantasy novel actually written by Susannah York that she narrates throughout, where the story is her escapism from her twisted sense of reality, finding comfort in the safety of children’s images, where things the audience sees appear to be other things to her.  Throughout the film, the presence of the camera gives the viewer the intimate effect of being outside looking in, where there are strange incongruities throughout, becoming a fascinating portrait of mental instability, much of it captured with dreamlike imagery.  The audience is immediately struck by her distorted sense of reality, where she suspects her husband of sexual indiscretions that exist only in her own mind, which is probably her way of avoiding her own indiscretions.  Perhaps the biggest jolt is when her husband Hugh turns into someone who isn’t there, René (Marcel Bozzuffi), a ghost from the past who has come to pay a visit, where the “visitor” remains to her just as real as anything else.  While she tries to ignore the reappearance of these haunting apparitions, knowing in some instances (a dead lover) they’re not really there, but they inevitably lure her into their sexual fantasies where she relives past experiences in her life that are most likely based on real occurrences, where for her, the present and the past exist simultaneously, like a kind of involuntary time traveling, which is especially evident in a scene when she stands atop a hill overlooking a view of herself pulling into a driveway below.  It’s not a stretch to think this influenced Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), with Jack Nicholson similarly gazing down into the maze at the Overlook Hotel, tracking his wife and son as they navigate its corridors. 

When her husband Hugh takes her out to their country estate, a dream cottage beautifully located on a lake and within walking distance of a majestic waterfall in what appears to be a magical forest with a herd of sheep running free, Cathryn continues to see visions, having violent episodes often when she’s left alone, where the world closes in on her much like Catherine Deneuve’s hallucinations in Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1965).  Haunted by unwelcome memories that she tries to suppress, and the thought of a lonely childhood where she was often forced to “invent” friends, we’re never told specifically what is ailing Cathryn, or if the frequency and intensity of her schizophrenic episodes have grown more acute.  Instead, alone with the subjective point of view of the central figure, the audience is reeled into the same claustrophobic existence where these episodes are conspiring against her.  Hugh also brings home a creepy old friend, Marcel (Hugh Millais), who has recently obtained custody of his 12-year old daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), who bears a striking resemblance to a young Cathryn.  The lecherous Marcel instantly hits on Cathryn, much like René, with both characters (along with her husband) feeling almost interchangeable, where they obviously have some history, though it’s Susannah that attracts the attention of Cathryn, where they’re both seen attempting to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of what turns out to be the country house where they live, where it’s clear in Susannah she sees a younger version of herself, fused together in a mirror image out of Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), where the lines of reality are blurred, mixed with the fantasy elements of the story and the nearby magical forest.  Marcel’s perceived sexual aggressiveness is fended off while at the same time succumbed to, where he tells her, “You know what you are?  You’re a schizo one minute fighting like a tiger and the next all love and kisses.”  Because she imagines characters that don’t exist, she can’t distinguish whether his sexual advances are real, though she eventually confronts her “visitors,” awakening something deeply unsettling inside that resembles a madness within, where eventually the dead mix with what’s real, and she’s left questioning what she’s done.  Cathryn is always quick to invent fictitious scenarios to explain what otherwise resembles a catastrophe, as schizophrenics that live with this condition are used to covering up their hallucinations, where they routinely invent excuses or lies to convince others that everything’s all right, even as they are slipping further into the void. 

By the end, Altman’s film resembles the surreal landscape of David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997) with its infamous identity schism.  Cathryn drives along the road at night returning back to the city for what she believes is her waiting husband, where she encounters along the way, among other things, haunting images of ghosts, including one of herself beckoning for help, “Let me in Cathryn.  What’s the matter with you?” where she is literally fighting for control of her own soul, which appears fragile and easily lost in the mist.  She thinks she has a handle on her visions, growing elated at the thought all the ghosts are gone, leaving her feeling somewhat euphoric, driving ecstatically through a phantasmagorical world of brightly saturated colors, illusion and hallucination, where Altman loves to use shots through glass, odd camera angles, zoom in and out of focus, or use mirrored images that serve as reflections of the past, providing an altered expression of reality, where the camera sees what Cathryn sees throughout, a window into schizophrenia.  The entire film plays out like a nightmarish fever dream that literally breathes psychological intensity, using eerie and atmospheric sounds of percussion along with weird images that seem to offer a view of the occult.  The film is an impressionistic drama that takes us on a mysterious journey into the maze of a mental labyrinth, where each twist and turn leaves us even further removed from where we started.  By the end, Cathryn remains an Alice down the rabbit hole enigma and has only retreated further into her stories, where her grip on reality is even less tenuous, relying upon the kindness of others, “Hugh will be here in a moment and we’ll see who’s here and who isn’t.”  The complex and smartly thought-out film is well acted, beautifully constructed, and not like anything else Altman has ever done, where he presents the fear and isolation associated with a personality disorder, showing how little support and actual communication is offered, reflecting the depths of alienation and trauma.  One of the clever touches is Altman creating characters using the real names of the actors, where Cathryn is played by Susannah York, Susannah is played by Cathryn Harrison, René is played by Marcel Bozzuffi, Marcel is played by Hugh Millais, and Hugh is played by René Auberjonois.  The film was originally released in Chicago at the Biograph Theater on a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don't Look Now (1973), both emotionally cold films, but dreamy, psychologically obtuse thrillers having much in common, particularly in the extraordinary visual compositions and artful expression of a fractured reality, but this is one of the few Altman films that actually excels in weaving a tightly constructed narrative.     

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!