[5 December 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The difference between men and women transcends clichés and simplistic psychobabble. It surpasses planetary platitudes to Venus and Mars and hormonally charged cheats to spell out a specific, basic diversity. If you want to believe all the bullshit, the X and Y chromosomes have never seen gene to gene, and a battle royale of the sexes has existed as long as there’s been biological gender. The conflict between the reproductive roundelays exists as a perceived never-ending engagement between emotion and detachment, machismo and tenderness.
Even under today’s enlightened code, the sapien of the species is supposed to be programmed to hunt and gather, fight and conquer. Under this Neanderthal new deal, the so-called weaker sex is predestined to bear the children, nurture their needs, and serve the warrior in whatever way he wants. But somewhere in the social firmament, an agenda-based movement was started, a faction to finally free the female, to make equality and parity a priority, no matter the sexual category. For the most part, it has half-worked. We have elevated the woman to the status of a strident know-it-all, the best bet for figuring out the glass ceiling corporate scheme and making sure our kids are raised right and barely irregular. In the new millennium, the female has been stripped of her physical identity, fostered by a non-stop diet of deception and expectation to become both dominant and submissive, mother and father. But decades before, it felt like women could actually overcome, that they could defeat the male monster of the id and run the world better.
3 Women is this feminist pre-manifesto deconstructed. It’s the notion of femininity diagrammed and dissected. It’s the final act of the paternalistic society’s stage play as the good old boy network is swept back into the primordial ooze and the non-objectified superwoman takes control of the political climate. It’s a film as figment, a fractured mirror on the caregiver and the careless. It’s magnificent. It’s frustrating. And it’s one of the best movies of the 1970s.
Millie Lammoreaux works in a geriatric spa in the desert of California. One day, she is asked to train a new girl, a childish imp named Pinky Rose. Among her co-workers, Millie is a vacuum, an empty space where no one dares tread, but Pinky finds the mannered gal fascinating. She even begins to emulate her. When Millie’s old roommate moves out, Pinky takes her place and soon, she and Millie are inseparable. Millie brags about the boyfriends she has (which don’t exist) and her skills as a cook (which are questionable at best). Pinky just absorbs it all, drinking in the dry, droning personality. Millie takes Pinky to her favorite drinking spot, an off-road tavern built around a ghost town theme called Dodge City owned by Willie and Edgar Hart. They also own the gals’ apartment complex, the Purple Sage. Willie is an artist. She paints strangely erotic alien murals. Edgar is an ex-stuntman who hides his machismo behind a roguish rummy’s grin. Willie is pregnant with their first child.
Millie soon realizes that Pinky is becoming far too much like her. She feels her life disintegrating and her identity slipping away. When a planned dinner party for friends falls apart, Millie hits the town, looking for excitement. When she comes home with her far too familiar “date,” it drives a wedge between her and Pinky that results in a near-tragedy. The resulting psychological fallout from the event leads to personality and paradigm shifts, with roles reversed and even lost. Another tragic event leads to a final resolution between Willie, Millie, and Pinky. It is these 3 Women who must reclaim the nature of the female, to save it from being constantly eroded away by everyone around them.
Without a doubt no single director better represented the auteur nature of the experimental 1970s better than Robert Altman. His string of important, groundbreaking motion pictures, beginning with 1970’s M*A*S*H up and through 1978’s A Wedding marked a streak of stellar innovative directorial romps, each one testing the cinematic limits of audio, visual, storytelling, and acting. Altman believed in himself first, his images second, and the actors third. If the first three things gelled, then the narrative and the audience would take care of themselves. His technique revolved around seeing life unaffected through a totally stylized, myopic view. He allowed dialogue to overlap and disappear, letting the viewer fill in the blanks and overhear only what was necessary in order to secure his point. He never let subject matter unnerve him and treated all issues, from war to love and back again, as if they were composed of the same emotional sentiment (and usually, he was right).
Somewhere in the early ‘80s, after the misunderstood Popeye suggested he had lost his way, Hollywood and the creative community gave up on Altman, figuring that his impressionist mantle was usurped by such strong, dreamscape directors as David Lynch and—recently—Paul Thomas Anderson. But Altman is to American movies what Fellini was to Italy or Kurosawa was to Japan. He took the typical Tinsel Town language for film and retranslated the text, breaking down barriers where need be and reinventing the jargon whenever it was required. Movies would not be what they are today without the idioms imagined by Robert Altman. He remains a truly monumental figure.
That is why 3 Women is worth celebrating. It represents Altman’s ultimate interior masterpiece (it can be argued that both M*A*S*H and Nashville have bigger scopes to scrutinize). It is a magnificent mixture of reality and fantasy fashioned into what in the end looks like an attempt at a modern mythology made out of the snippets of sense memory. Based in a personal dream that Altman once had and liquid in its tone poem parameters, it’s a film that suggests just the slightest amount of story, but manages to create an entire eerie universe out of visuals, location, and intention. It contains perhaps two of the best performances ever given by actresses on film and manages the Herculean task of turning the deserts of Southern California into an oasis of unfulfilled dreams and lonely lost souls. 3 Women is all about the process of dignity development, of discovering who you are and what you represent within the natural order. It moves beyond its simple men versus women, us versus them philosophy to paint a portrait of humanity as a work in progress. As the tagline (taken from a French movie poster) suggests, it’s the saga of how one woman entered into the life of two others and found a facet that eventually connected them all. The way in which this intermingling is accomplished, though, leads to questions of sanity vanquished and innocence vanished.
On the most basic of levels, 3 Women is a movie about personality theft. It’s the story of how an unfinished female named Pinky enters into and subsumes the life of a lonely medical assistant named Millie. Millie is also an empty entity crafted out of advertising and social stigma. She is formed out of fashion magazines, educated by articles she reads in the beauty parlor periodicals, and is living a life in which all homes and gardens are better and her housekeeping incurs a seal of goodness. Yet she is all but invisible to those around her. She is ignored and mocked—never to her fragile face, but behind her ever-bending back—and yet feels utterly connected to the individuals around her. When Pinky walks in, she is childhood and brattiness personified. She disregards the rules and shirks her responsibilities. To this wayward woman-child, the world is a playground and everything’s a toy, including Millie’s existence. Thus begins the slyest of plans: the gradual takeover of Millie’s quintessence, of her knowledge of processed foods and quick kitchen shortcuts. Pinky wants to take all the hopes, the dreams, and the designs that this isolated social butterfly has fixed for herself and swipe them, using them to create the soul she is sorely lacking. How this psyche stealing occurs and the backlash that results from it are at the core of 3 Women‘s plot.
There are other elements of individuality at play here, issues hinted at by Altman in his treatment of the ancillary characters. We meet a set of twins and learn how their identities are as different as their outer shells are so very much the same. The façade plagued singles scene is also explored, with the swinging residents of Millie’s homestead, the Purple Sage Apartments, reduced to nothing more than players in an arcane alcohol or beer ad. All the men have one-syllable names like Tom or Dave, suggesting the one-night stand nature of their being. The woman are interchangeable and unimportant, more like arm candy than actual paramours. And then there are the elderly, those exiled members of society shipped off to homes and spas to pass away their final days out of sight of the young. These non-descript collections of wrinkles and memories are either dismissed outright (Pinky’s aged parents attend to her when she is in need, and she claims they are imposters) or ordered around like inventory in life’s holding dock. All Millie’s potential dates are unremarkable, assembly line residents at a local hospital, indistinct doctors who hit on her when they sense she is vulnerable (and easy), and the carbon copy crowd down at Dodge City, who shoot, either a gun or the bull, as a means of making a small connection to the “dudes” around them. Indeed, men are the litter along the landscape in 3 Women‘s wonderland of women. They represent a necessary evil, something that society says each lady should strive for. But they rarely appear to be worth the effort, and oft times become more expendable than dependable.
On a deeper, more monumental level, 3 Women is the representation of a new mythology for the female, a reinvention of the traditional Greek design with all its classical internal elements accumulated and acclimated for the new world order. Plainly stated, Millie is our hero, our wide-eyed fool who has lived with all the aspects of her life neatly arranged and organized. There have been no real experiences except those that she’s read in magazines or heard about on television. Into that ordered and sheltered void comes Pinky, a temptress, a disrupting force of naughty nature looking for a victim for her mental vampirism. She plans on stealing Millie away from herself, as both a suggested and actual detachment for her current existence. For Millie, paradise is Dodge City, a garden of earthly delights draped in men and meaning. Within this exterior ecstasy of exhibitionism lives Willie, the mentor, the driving force for femininity in reservation. She offers both a goal and a warning for Millie, a chance to see what she could become, both for her benefit and detriment. Lingering around this playground for unrequited passions is the beast, Edgar: violator, instigator, and unapologetic ruiner of all around him. Throughout the various locations for this interpersonal quest are mandalas, murals to spiritual anarchy and role-playing redolence that serve as an omen for the shape of things to possibly come. It is up to Millie to weed through the temptations and the tribulations, to experience the suffering and the sanctuary to come out clean and reborn on the other side. Her saga, her epic poem of personal growth and acceptance, is the new legend Altman is making.
He is also rescaling the family dynamic for a new culture based in divorce and nuclear unit dissolution. Millie needs to find her place in this scattershot hierarchy, to move beyond the marketing suggestions for career gal glory and discover what her actual life is all about. Pinky just wants to be Millie, and when she can’t accept the unexpected responsibility, she reverts further to a state of near womb-like regression—even attempting a return to its watery depths. Willie just wants to be a mother, to validate her socially mandated place as a mature married woman. The agonizing act of birth, an incident that changes all 3 Women forever, underlines the beginnings of what would become the eventual youth coup of all communal ideals. We no longer live in a world where adults dictate the rights and duties owed and won. Instead, parents hoping to protect their offspring mandate the limits to freedom and liberty for all. Without a child to certify Willie’s place—artistic ability being totally unimportant—the trio of ladies need to reconfigure their formation, to link into each other and form a new kind of reciprocal relationship. So when the ending reveals the final design these females have constructed, we at last understand our current state of anxious affairs. They become like Shakespeare’s weird sisters in Macbeth, or the Fates from Greek folklore. They are predicting the path that many will soon follow while weaving their own life strand. Their lasting configuration is one being created by Clotho/Millie, shaped by an optimistic infant named Lachesis/Pinky, and controlled and ended by the final word of wisdom, Atropos/Willie.
Yet there are other elements of the fairy tale, symbols and icons that reveal the truth inside this sometimes surreal character study. Altman’s use of visual representations is legendary, but nowhere is it more prominent than in 3 Women. Water is a major thematic image in 3 Women; it’s tide turning, cleansing, life giving, and essence drowning properties are present in almost every single frame. Millie and Pinky work for a geriatric home where mineral springs provide the majority of the medicinal healing. Willie uses the bottom of swimming pools—both abandoned and active—as the canvases for her freaked out mosaics. Pinky meets one of her two Fates at the hands of a body of liquid. And all the women are finally bonded by an event that starts with the breaking of water and utilizes the liquid to protect and surround a prenatal life.
It requires acting of a rare and dazzling tenure to make all these implied personalities and personas come to life, and Altman finds an amazing cast to carry it with breathtaking grace. Shelley Duvall has never given a better performance than she does here, managing the magnificent feat of turning the jabberbox joke Millie into a truly remarkable heroine. In this pitch perfect turn, Duvall plays the pattering misfit with no internal monologue in a strangely involving and sympathetic manner. She personifies the outcast so well that you instantly connect with her cockeyed attitude and suffer the setbacks and insults right along with her. Sissy Spacek is so shockingly benign in her portrait of a manipulative demon that she transfixes you every time she is on screen. Pinky goes through the biggest personality arc in the film, and yet Spacek never makes the psyche shifting obvious or overt. She merely “becomes” someone new, assuming the identity that she so desperately lacks. And then there is Janice Rule, a trained New York stage actress, essaying the complicated and mostly silent role of Willie Hart, the haunted, melancholic artist. Married to a man who is now a stranger to her and compelled to paint murals of tortured sexual beings in jackboot tableaus, hers is a performance of the eyes and the posture. Rule’s Willie seems to be encumbered with the weight of all women on her shoulders, full to bursting with the hopes of all mothers-to-be. Through this absolutely staggering performance, Rule finds a way to show knowing and naïveté, familiarity and foreignness in almost every move.
And they have all come to take their place in Robert Altman’s cinematic masterwork. 3 Women is his living art. Altman uses his camera as a paintbrush, his performers as his oils, and the desert as his canvas to blend and smudge and spackle together a work that transcends its elements to mimic the greatest of great works. Altman’s direction can be mannered and manipulative at times, but here he seems completely liberated and fluid, moving his mysterious motion picture along on his skill with tone and his ability to engage. Like David Lynch, who explored his own split personality parameters in the equally evocative Lost Highway, this is the closest Altman’s ever come to capturing a dream on film, and the results are spellbinding. 3 Women is a lost treasure from the 1970s, as important in the oeuvre of auteur theory as Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. It represents the pinnacle of American moviemaking, the opportunity to see a unique voice functioning well within his aesthetic capabilities while exploring new areas of motion picture nuance. From its tiny moments of observed excellence to the purposefully opaque fantasy sequences and shot selection, 3 Women is a classic of monumental proportions, a timeless elegy to the moment where women stopped being victims or chattel and reclaimed their femininity for the whole world to witness. 3 Women is one of the rare films that completely understands the concept of womanhood—from cradle to grave, from child to child bearer. How a man of many craftsman colors could conceive of such a stoic statement is unbelievable. 3 Women is the new myth, the starting point for the legend of gender relations. And it’s a perfect example of what makes movies so magical