The Bottom Shelf

Weird Altman

By now you’ve got a pretty good idea of what constitutes a Robert Altman movie, assuming you’re doing the right thing by reading this piece last. (Come on, people, it’s the Bottom Shelf here! Go back and read all the smart folk writing about the masterpieces like Mashville, Chieves Like Us and McCain and Barney Miller first.) Altman’s all about freewheeling naturalistic portraits of communities, big-picture kaleidoscopes of Americana with huge casts of odd-looking character actors mumbling over each other. He’s certainly not one of these inward-gazing obsessives like Bergman, Polanski or Lynch, building artsy-fartsy movies out of cryptic imagery, spooky soundscapes and dreamlike narratives.

Or is he?

Join me now on a harrowing odyssey into an alternative universe — a largely unseen and unsung subsection of the vast filmography in question. We could call it Altman’s Interiors or alt.Altman, but I prefer to think of the genre these peculiar cult objects occupy as simply Weird Altman. If the Altman we know and love was born with the critical acclaim and mainstream popularity of M*A*S*H in 1970, imagine how different his career might have been had that success come a year earlier with the release of That Cold Day in the Park.

You’ll have to imagine really, really hard, and that’s assuming you can even find a copy of the movie, released long ago on VHS and never on DVD. True to its title, Cold Day is hard to warm up to. Based on a novel by Peter Miles, this pseudo-psychological non-thriller concerns Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis), an affluent but lonely woman who spots an elfin young man (Michael Burns) shivering on a park bench outside her Vancouver apartment during a rainstorm. She invites him inside and gives him food, warm clothes and a bedroom, whereupon she learns that he is apparently mute. This works out perfectly as she loves to hear herself talk, and so the overnight guest ends up staying for several days. Although the spritely fellow is unable to thank her in words, he does perform an Irish jig while wrapped in a towel, which seems to convey the proper sentiment.

Just as we begin to suspect he is actually a leprechaun, the houseguest makes a midnight exit through the window and down the fire escape. He interrupts his sister Nina (Susanne Benton) in mid-coitus with her boyfriend, at which point we learn that the young man is neither homeless nor mute. Nevertheless, he keeps returning to his cozy set-up at Austen’s apartment, blissfully unaware of his hostess’s increasingly unhealthy fixation on him. He learns the extent of her obsession too late, after she has nailed all the windows shut and imprisoned him in her lair.

That Cold Day in the Park was a box office flop and didn’t fare well with the critics, either. You can find the original New York Times review online and chortle at the hilariously prudish Howard Thompson’s disgust over the film’s “sleazy scenes. ” At one point in the movie, our young protagonist and his sister bathe together, after which she attempts to lure him into the sack. Hey, it was the 60s, man, but Thompson is having none of it. “These scenes also cue in some four-letter expletives and a complete strip act by Miss Benton,” he fumes. “For that matter, the camera seems fascinated by the bare shanks of Mr. Burns, as he traipses through the apartment clutching a towel.” Heaven forfend!

Bare shanks aside, Cold Day probably deserved the cold shoulder it received. At best it’s an embryonic Altman; aside from a brief appearance by future mainstay Michael Murphy, the scene most in keeping with the filmmaker’s body of work is a harrowing visit to the gynecologist (complete with overlapping background dialogue) that anticipates Dr. T and the Women by more than four decades. Other stylistic tics, such as slow, soft-focus zooms into reflective surfaces, manifest themselves here for the first time, but Altman’s empathy for his characters is practically invisible. Sandy Dennis is a standard-issue cold fish, and the presence of Michael Burns as the wide-eyed man-child suggests only that Altman had not yet made the acquaintance of Bud Cort.

If nothing else, Cold Day served as a dry run for Images, Altman’s freaky 1972 descent into feminine madness. For many years, Images could be seen only in rare theatrical retrospectives or on a hazy nth-generation VHS bootleg. Indeed, it was oft rumored that Columbia Pictures had destroyed the original negative, but the film’s 2003 DVD release put the kibosh on that theory. (And while it’s great that the picture is now widely available and that Vilmos Zsigmond’s usual stunning cinematography has been restored to full crispness and clarity, it is the duty of the Bottom Shelf to advance the heretical notion that Images was actually a more haunting, disturbing viewing experience on the bootleg tape, when its images were at their murkiest. But anyway.)

Like Cold Day, Images hinges on a woman with issues between the ears. In this case it’s Catherine (Susannah York), a schizophrenic writing a children’s book about unicorns. While waiting for her husband Hugh (Rene Aberjonois) to return home from work one night, Catherine received a series of ominous phone calls from an unidentified woman warning her of her husband’s infidelities. As it turns out, it is Catherine who has been unfaithful, as we learn when the couple takes a vacation retreat to their cottage in the countryside. Catherine is visited by not only her current lover Marcel (Hugh Millais), but former lover Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi) who is, curiously, long deceased. These visitations are anything but linear; at various points Marcel and Rene appear without warning, sometimes shifting identities with each other or even with Hugh. On some level, Catherine is aware this can’t all be real, and she attempts to rid herself of these hallucinations in the most expedient manner: with knives and guns. And then ... how to put this without spoiling the climax? Her actions lack the requisite clarity of mind to be entirely successful. In fact, things could hardly go worse.

The director himself would likely be loath to frame it in these terms, but make no mistake: Images is a horror movie, and Altman pushes all the right buttons with his array of creepy effects. He employs a nerve-rattling soundtrack (by John Williams, no less) featuring wind chimes and bizarre electronic noises courtesy of Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta. He makes the most of the film’s remote, nearly mythical location (although shot in Ireland, the setting remains a mystery) and shows that he is not above exploiting the subtly unnerving qualities of whispery voices, creepy children and imaginary Frenchmen. It’s a virtual certainty that Stanley Kubrick watched Images a time or two before embarking on his own exercise in horror The Shining — both films tap the same vein of surreal psychosis. (At one point, Catherine watches herself pull into her own driveway from a faraway cliff, and you can’t help but flash on Jack Nicholson gazing down into the miniature hedge maze in the Overlook Hotel, tracking his wife and son as they navigate its corridors.)

Images probably takes itself a little too seriously (its Euro-artiness is most apparent when the end credits roll and we see that the characters share their names with the actors, but that Rene played Hugh and Hugh played Marcel and so on) and it may not add up to much more than “Wimmins - they sure is crazy!” But it’s an unsettling creepshow nonetheless.

Despite the fact that Susannah York goes all in with her performance, embracing the madness and even supplying the spooky “In Search of Unicorns” narrative layered over the proceedings, her guilt-ridden serial adulterer isn’t much more than the flipside of Sandy Dennis’ repressed spinster. Neither Cold Day nor Images offers compelling evidence to change the mind of anyone who views Altman as a misogynistic filmmaker, but the third entry in this loose trilogy of crazy lady features is another matter.

As the story goes, 3 Women was born as a dream Altman had one night while his wife was hospitalized with a serious illness (although it’s clear that the movie was at least midwifed by Bergman’s Persona, just as Images bears a genetic resemblance to Polanski’s Repulsion). Three key elements bubbled up from the director’s subconscious: the title, the two lead actresses (Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek) and the desert setting. Although the story came later, it certainly has nightmarish qualities of its own.

Duvall is Millie Lammoreaux, an eldercare worker at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center, a ghastly mausoleum of decrepitude overseen by penny-pinching misanthropes. Millie is enlisted to train new employee Pinky (Spacek), a wide-eyed waif fresh off the bus from Texas. Pinky comes to adore the relentlessly inane Millie, whose incessant chatter about recipes, home decorating tips and cute guys is roundly ignored by the rest of the staff. (It’s apparent that Millie has found her ideal job; the elderly patients are a captive audience for her babble.)

Pinky’s fascination with Millie becomes an unhealthy obsession once the two women become roommates. She reads Millie’s diary, tries on her clothes and generally follows the Single White Female playbook. We get a hint that something kooky and existential is going on when we learn that Pinky’s real name is Mildred — same as Millie’s. One night Millie brings their landlord Edgar (Robert Fortier) home for a roll in the hay, despite the fact that his wife Willie (Janice Rule) is pregnant. This so upsets Pinky that she jumps from the second floor balcony into the swimming pool, plunging into a coma. When she wakes, she is not the same person.

Altman has described Pinky’s transformation as “personality theft, ” but Pinky hasn’t stolen Millie’s actual identity. Rather, she has become Millie’s dream-self, the idealized version of her that only Pinky can see. The real Millie is delusional in her own right — all of her gabbing about her famous dinner parties and men constantly asking her on dates is nothing but hot air. The new Pinky, on the other hand, is as confident and popular as Millie always imagined herself to be.

Then Pinky has a dream, and before you can say Mulholland Drive, things get even stranger. Identities shift yet again, there is a possible off-screen murder, and the line between reality and fantasy is all but obliterated. The final twenty minutes of 3 Women represent some of the strangest filmmaking of Altman’s career, but the movie as a whole is something of a hybrid between Weird Altman and the director’s more celebrated style. For all the metaphysical psychodrama, it’s yet another indelible exhibit in the gallery of idiosyncratic Altman communities. From the depressing geriatric spa to the swinging singles apartment complex to the run-down Wild West saloon with its shooting range and dirt bike track, Desert Springs is a keenly observed diorama of Me Decade kitsch.

With her mustard Pinto, hideous floral print furniture and tuna casseroles, Millie would seem a perfect fit for this world, but she’s not really part of the community. She is ignored both at work and at home; the other residents of the Purple Sage apartment complex might as well be phantoms gathered around the pool. As pitiful as she may be, however, Millie is one of the most fully imagined characters in all of Altman’s work, thanks to Shelly Duvall’s empathetic performance. Just as Susannah York provided the unicorn story for Images, Duvall kept a diary in character as Millie, passages from which are ladled over the film in voice-over. She came up with many of Millie’s gibbering monologues, including her risible 70s recipes. (“Spray the Cheez Whiz on the Sociables, then put an olive on top. ”) It’s a meticulous portrait of a woman whose entire lifestyle has been cribbed from the pages of McCall’s and Good Housekeeping.

Spacek turns in an effective variation on her naïve woman-child roles from Badlands and Carrie. Janice Rule is the movie’s most puzzling enigma as the third woman, Willie, who spends most of her time either working on enormous murals depicting gargoyle-like sea creatures or lying around looking stricken.

The murals are a recurring motif throughout the movie which, like Images, has a tendency towards overt artiness. If 3 Women is a bit too symbol-heavy and color-coded, at least this time Altman takes a more playful approach to his pretensions. For example, throughout the film Millie is predominantly seen in yellow, while Pinky favors (duh) pink. Before a failed dinner party, Millie unpacks her groceries to reveal two bottles of wine: Tickled Pink and Lemon Satin. That’s funny stuff on several levels. And then there are the twins who work at the rehab center, about whom Pinky ponders: “Do you think they know which one they are? Maybe they switch back and forth. ” Again, this is not especially profound; it’s more like junk food for thought, and the movie is loaded with it.

For a long time 3 Women was another of the lost Altman movies, unavailable on video and generally perceived as another post-Nashville failure, jumbled in with the likes of A Wedding and A Perfect Couple in the mind of Joe Cinephile. Its reputation appears to be on the upswing now that it’s available as a spiffy Criterion Collection release. As for Weird Altman, he still surfaces from time to time. Quintet certainly qualifies, but I’ve already said my piece on that subject. Eerie atmospherics pervade his mid-80s period of stage-to-screen adaptations, from the paranoid midnight-of-the-soul ambiance of Secret Honor to the chilling dust-to-dust coda of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. A penchant for magical realism is a more recent development, manifested as a tornado in Dr. T and the Women and an Angel of Death in A Prairie Home Companion. Even in twilight, it seems, Altman has a few tricks left up his sleeve.