Robert Altman's films often reveal in dreams the strangeness of being alive. This more than anything sums up the timeless greatness of Altman at his best, and starts to convey what’s lost when cinema is thought of as commodity rather than art.
Editor's Note: “An Artist and a Gambler: Robert Altman Remembered,” an extended retrospective of Altman’s work, including That Cold Day in the Park, 3 Women, Buffalo Bill and the Indians and nearly two dozen other films, opens at the IFC Center in New York City on 5 January, and runs through 23 January 2007.
I had a great time making Cold Day in the Park, no fucking bosses around.
-- Robert Altman, quoted in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
The story of Robert Altman is in a way Hollywood’s story, too -- or the story of a particular part of Hollywood at a particular time. This would be the period spanning roughly the Summer of Love and the Iran hostage crisis, or, to think of it another way, the years between Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967) and Apocalypse Now (1979). The late ‘60s and ‘70s saw a raft of thoughtful movies unlikely to be made today, including Midnight Cowboy (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), Harold and Maude (1972), The Conversation and Chinatown (both 1974), Nashville (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Blue Collar (1978). A new pack of directors were granted unprecedented latitude by studios cowed by their inability to reach a suddenly unpredictable public. Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdandovich, Alan Pakula, and Sidney Lumet all broke rules that seem almost inviolable today, with moody, patiently paced pictures that often ended tragically and embraced strong anti-establishment sentiments.
Of these directors, Altman comes closest to making his body of work into a record of this period. Not only did his ‘70s output avail itself of the era’s unique opportunities, he also chronicled the counter-revolution that followed as the conglomerates steered Hollywood toward the perpetual hunt for the next blockbuster. Scorsese, for instance, made his first serious picture, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967), at around the time of Wild Angels and was active throughout the ‘70s, but rarely did his movies take movies for a subject. UCLA film student George Lucas got off to a promising start with THX-1138 (1971), but its commercial release was so disastrous that he promptly renounced any ambition to make serious pictures and instead walked point for the blockbuster movement.
Only Altman’s eclectic catalog of films traces the changing contours of the industry itself. After a long stint directing television, industrial films, and a low-budget juvenile delinquency picture in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Altman finished the surreal psychodrama That Cold Day in the Park, the same year Easy Rider came out. Cold Day concerns Frances (Sandy Dennis), an isolated single woman living in Vancouver who takes a mute young boy (Michael Burns) in off the streets and over time becomes sexually obsessed with him. Trapped in a social circle of doters and dowagers, Frances is shaped by their stodgy customs; she can hardly connect with the boy other than to pepper him with questions he can’t or won’t answer, and engage in lengthy, despairing monologues about the dead end her life has become.
We learn long before she does that that the boy’s muteness is only an act. When he sneaks off to meet his sister Nina (Susanne Benton) and her boyfriend, they gossip about Frances through a haze of pot smoke and booze. Frances and Nina could scarcely strike more of a contrast (though they both evidently share a fixation on the boy; in a very curious scene, Nina makes a half-joking incestuous pass at him). Nina’s comfort with the then-emerging mores of the anti-war movement stands opposed to Frances’ near-pathological inability to reconcile her submerged desires with her aversion to all manner of sexual appetite.
At the time of Cold Day’s release, such generational conflicts were foregrounded in just about every aspect of social life. Altman himself was rather caught between these competing forces. Although his next picture, 1972's M*A*S*H, established him as an A-list director, the irony -- as Peter Biskind explains in his rumor-happy book on ‘70s cinema, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls -- was that Altman “was a good 20 years older than, say, George Lucas.” He conducted his projects in a convivial atmosphere (Biskind writes of a party mood at the dailies during the shoot of M*A*S*H, “with cast and crew unwinding from the day, drinking, and smoking pot”). M*A*S*H, of course, is famous for being a prototypical American anti-war movie, ostensibly about the Korean war but plainly a critique of Vietnam. Still, Altman’s background is unlikely to be mistaken for Abbie Hoffman’s. During World War II, he co-piloted B-24s in bombing raids over Japan, and one of his steadier early jobs came at the helm of the gung-ho TV series Combat!, which, he told Salon's Stephen Lemons in 2000, he was still quite proud.
It’s a terrible thing. We don’t know the number of people in life who aren’t equipped for it. Who aren’t educated for it. And that’s the way I felt about both Pinky and Millie... These were two lost souls that were courageously trying to make their way through life in the way that in their own minds, they thought was acceptable.
--Altman commenting on 3 Women
Throughout Cold Day, Frances is absorbed in a tense, internalized struggle to stave off psychosis -- Dennis’ square-jawed, schizoid performance here presages Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle -- and Altman would continually return to the theme of the tortured outcast, ill-equipped to contend with the world around her.
An even more mysterious film than Cold Day, 3 Women (1977) concerns sad sacks Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who meet while employed by a spa and solarium for the care of the aged. Millie fancies herself popular but is in fact a pariah, so desperate for acceptance she puts off everyone around her. Time and again Millie dogs coworkers or attractive men, trying to strike up conversation, oblivious as they roll their eyes or find excuses to walk away from her. Pinky, though, is blissed out and naïve enough to buy Millie’s self-presentation as a socialite and looks up to her in doe-eyed wonder, until Pinky suffers a head injury and undergoes a Phineas Gage-style change of personality. Almost overnight she transforms into a sociopath, using Millie’s social security information to doctor her own employment records, joyriding in Millie’s car, even stealing her would-be lover (the equally sad-sackish Edgar, played by Robert Fortier with the fumbling machismo of an inept Elvis impersonator).
Pinky’s two radically different frames of mind have in common that neither permits a firm point of rest, any identity aside from the tenuous one she constructs by defining herself relative to Millie. Pinky “was like a soul,” Altman explains on the 3 Women DVD commentary, “that had appeared on the planet and said, ‘How do I make myself a person?’” She does this by first mimicking Millie, then actively stealing her identity, but in the process, she loses sight of herself, which Altman indicates variously. At one point, Pinky gazes longingly at Millie through a pane of glass and Millie’s reflection eclipses her face. Millie is also eclipsed by images; Altman describes her as “a victim of magazines and movies” as she rummages through her mailbox, defining herself based on fashion photos, poo-pooing an underwear ad and gleefully receiving a new catalog from Neiman Marcus.
This notion, the dissolution of the itinerant self in images and ideals, is a variation on another Altman theme, an abiding interest in simulations. Here he includes not only the obvious technological simulations that so distracted contemporary science fiction pictures (Solaris, Westworld, Futureworld). For him, simulation is already endemic, pervasive. So, Millie takes Pinky to “Dodge City,” a desert watering hole replete with touristy frills: a mock tee pee, a plastic snake lurking under a Styrofoam boulder, a long-unused putt-putt course. “Is this Disneyland?”, Pinky exclaims girlishly, as she sprints from Millie’s car and pretends to hang from a prop noose. On the DVD commentary track, Altman calls the “Dodge City" his film crew built for the shoot, “close to being truthful,” a faithful recreation of the sort of mockup one generally finds in the contemporary American West, one whose relationship to the original Dodge City is already at several levels of remove.
It's probably no coincidence that the cornerstones of the American fantasy industry -- Roswell, New Mexico as much as Hollywood and Las Vegas -- tend to appear in the desert. Such is the nature of the landscape, flat, featureless, and hot, that it lends itself to abstraction, if not feverish imaginings. At the same time, it can be a strange, lonely place. “The people who live in the desert live further apart,” Altman ruminates while discussing his decision to set 3 Women in the California Mojave. “The desert is like an elephant’s burial ground. People go there to die.”
Injuns gear their lives to dreams. And what an injun dreams, no matter how farfetched, will wait until he dies to come true. The white men -- they're different. The only time they dream is when things are going their way. I'm no expert on the subject, but it seems to me that what Sitting Bull does is a hell of a lot cheaper than mounting a Wild West show... which is dreaming out loud.
--Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or, Sitting Bull’s History Lesson
“You are now in Codyland,” says Major John Burke (Kevin McCarthy) in the first few minutes of Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), by way of welcoming Chief Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts) onto the set of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show. At this point in the film it’s not yet terribly clear what’s going on. The movie opens with a series of disjointed shots of Cody’s troupe -- including Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplain) and assorted extras -- rehearsing their acts. Because you don’t know whether their project is a movie or some other sort of performance, whether Buffalo Bill and his coterie are real or actors, or even when all of this is supposed to be taking place, the anachronism of the term “Codyland” might well pass without notice. The movie benefits from this surreal sense of timelessness, since one gets the impression Altman’s real subject in Buffalo Bill is show business in general, not any particular medium at any particular moment in history.
By 1976, the DNA of the American film industry had started to shift, influenced by the runaway success of the feel-good American Graffiti (1973) and the special effects showpiece Jaws (1975). The New Hollywood auteur movement, though not yet dead, was beginning to falter. A previous historical transition is reflected in Buffalo Bill: Cody, his career as a soldier in the American-Indian wars at an end, hits on the idea of the Wild West Show as a way of memorializing the halcyon days of the Old West by reenacting them with exacting verisimilitude. But, as is often the case with such simulations, the Wild West Show aspires to much greater authenticity than it can provide. For one, although the driving forces behind the show repeatedly make overconfident claims about its impartiality -- “We’re the only producers to show the red and the white without taking sides,” brags Nate (Joel Gray), Cody’s business partner -- really the outfit is overt propaganda for white colonialism, painting the Native Americans as bloodthirsty pillagers and rapists. When Sitting Bull reveals that he’s agreed to perform only so that he can draw attention to the falsehood of this, Cody and his entourage set about ridiculing and marginalizing him. Gradually the show, plenty corny to begin with, becomes more and more farcical, though this hardly affects its popularity. By the end, even President Grover Cleveland comes out to have a look at it.
It's easy to see here parallels with mid-’70s America, so recently haunted by its own crimes in Vietnam and anxious to turn back the clock to some made-up idyllic past. Unsurprisingly, Buffalo Bill, billed as a comedy though often a dense and difficult work, flopped at the box office. The national mood was evidently more closely suited to fare like the following year’s Star Wars, which, not unlike Cody’s Wild West Show, was unembarrassed to substitute visual spectacle for narrative truth and trade in a stubbornly idealized mythology about the heroics of armed conflict.
Altman would later return to the theme of show biz decadence, though perhaps never again as effectively, his most notable such effort being the exceptional but vaguely gimmicky The Player (1992). But his main interest in film has never been historical (“History,” says Altman’s Sitting Bull, “is nothing more than disrespect for the dead”) or political critique, but something significantly more personal. The germ that eventually became 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, and the mystical Indians in Buffalo Bill are transfixed by dreams, pre-rational visions that in their irreducible strangeness convey something essential about the strangeness of being alive. This more than anything sums up the timeless greatness of Altman at his best, and starts to convey what’s lost when cinema is thought of as commodity rather than art.