A visually striking enigma that rewards repeat viewing, '3 Women' plays in the Roxie's Altman series.

Altman Versus the World

Dennis Harvey September 20, 2010

When Robert Altman died nearly four years ago, he left behind a roll-call of latterday American cinema classics—from MASH (1970) and Nashville(1976) to The Player (1993), Short Cuts (1994) and Gosford Park (2001)—few could argue with.

But Altman was as prolific as he was indiscriminate, argumentative and difficult by industry standards. Few major filmmakers survived so many bombs, creative and/or commercial, with their auteurist reputation intact.

With good reason—Altman’s commercial flops included a great deal of his best work. Six relatively lesser-known but distinctive Altman features, nearly all from his 1970s peak period, comprise the unique Roxie Theater series Robert Altman Vs. . . . September 20–22. It offers up three thematically organized double bills that give you a heapin’ dose of how this American director could transform genre tropes into something unrecognizable.

Or simply start with the unrecognizable and stay there. The Altman vs. Teenagers program starts off with 1970’s Brewster McCloud, which arrived hot on the heels of MASH—the war comedy that abruptly lifted him from journeyman ranks as a TV episode and occasional feature helmer to a full-blown director-as-star. Made on a low budget with lower expectations and no marquee actors (though it created several), MASH shocked 20th Century Fox by becoming one of the year’s biggest box-office and critical hits.

Ergo MGM was thrilled to let this new golden boy (albeit a 45-year-old one) do whatever he wanted for his next effort. Then they were less thrilled—a lot less. Bud Cort (a year before Harold and Maude) plays Brewster, an odd youth who lives in the Houston Astrodome’s disused fallout shelter and has an obsessive interest in flying. Not the friendly-skies kind—no, he wants to actually become a bird of sorts, even if that means building his own mechanical wings and quite possibly dying trying.

Written by Doran William Cannon (also responsible for the famous all-star whatsit Skidoo), this surreal seriocomic fairy tale surrounds its hapless hero with a gallery of other weirdos played by the likes of Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy, Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton, Stacy Keach and Shelley Duvall (a shopgirl and nutrition student dquo;discovered” at a party by the film’s location scouts). Nobody dquo;got” Brewster McCloud at the time—it’s still an unpinnable mix of eccentric and unpredictable elements. But over the years it’s acquired a cult rep, finally getting released to DVD just last month.

Buried even deeper in the Altman oeuvre is 1984’s O.C. & Stiggs. On the surface one of his more overtly commercial projects—as a giddy teen comedy based on a National Lampoon story—it was nonetheless shelved by the studio for three years, then barely released and dumped into home video. Even Altman considered it a failure (noting that he hated his screenwriters, and vice versa).

Yet this bizarro tale of two adolescent boys (they’re like Ferris Bueller’s evil twins) wreaking general havoc on a variety of Arizona citizens is too crazy a mix of satire and sheer silliness to simply ignore. Where else under one cinematic roof can you find Jane Curtin, Jon Cryer, Tina Louise, Dennis Hopper, Cynthia Nixon, Melvin Van Peebles, Martin Mull and King Sunny Ade?

Tuesday’s Altman vs. Friendship bill pairs two wildly disparate features that should make for a terrific tonal/stylistic contrast. Both are arguably among the director’s finest works. 1974’s California Split was another movie that looked like a hit—stars George Segal and Elliott Gould were at the height of their popularity, the film was a sort of dquo;buddy” caper comedy arriving just months after The Sting spun that genre into box-office gold. Yet the comedy here turns sour, as did the film’s commercial fortunes. Still, this fascinatingly knowledgeable film about two compulsive gamblers who briefly join forces is jam-packed with quirky detail and quirkier characters. Its shambling yet astute observational tilt is quintessentially Altman, complete with overlapping dialogue galore.

On another planet entirely is 1977’s 3 Women, one of the director’s rare forays (others being Images and Quintet) into a European art-cinema mode, in this case quite explicitly Bergmanesque. The almost catatonically shy Pinky (a wraithlike Sissy Spacek) is taken in by coworker Millie (Duvall), who fancies herself the sophisticated epitome of modern womanhood but is more like a parody of consumerist brainwashing. The two woman gradually merge and exchange personalities under the mute watch of a mysterious third played by Janice Rule.

Based on dreams Altman had, shot semi-improvisationally without a finished screenplay, 3 Women is a visually striking enigma that rewards repeat viewings. There is nothing else quite like it—well, except maybe Bergman’s Persona, which Altman admitted was a major influence.

Finally, Wednesday’s Altman vs. Noir program lines up two crime stories that, naturally, play like anything but standard suspense melodramas. There is surely no more idiosyncratic interpretation of a Raymond Chandler novel than 1973’s The Long Goodbye, with Gould as a strictly soft-boiled Philip Marlowe. Here, that famed private dick can hardly stop getting punched around (or staring at his Playboy Bunny-like neighbors) long enough to solve a convoluted case. His modern Los Angeles stomping grounds, by turns decadent and desperate, has room for a wide range of slippery types ranging from Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt’s not-so-idle rich couple to Laugh-In’s Henry Gibson and even (in an uncredited bit part) Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Willfully straying far from its source material, this is in large part a woozy comedy that takes queasy stock of the City of Angels in an era of coke and quaaludes. Yet it can also turn on a dime into cold-shower horror: An actress named Jo Ann Brody, never heard from before or since, is the unfortunate recipient of one of the most shockingly cold-blooded whims in movie history.

Altman’s next film was another in his long line of critically acclaimed films that couldn’t get a break at the box-office. 1974’s Thieves Like Us, based on the same vintage pulp novel that fostered Nicholas Ray’s classic They Live by Night a quarter century earlier, exchanges Goodbye’s glittering urban cynicism for the doomed pathos of dquo;heartland” rural poor forced into criminality during the Great Depression.

Duvall (again) and Keith Carradine, already paired in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, are promoted to leads here. They’re two sweet kids who’ve been knocked around since birth, yet are still naive enough to believe their love is just one last bank job away from safe harbor. (The gang’s matriarch is played by Louise Fletcher, a year before Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Thieves Like Us is a soft-focus but never soft-minded tragedy that feels authentically "period” in every beaten-down or untrusting face onscreen. It’s a downer that of course had little appeal to audiences who’d just enjoyed the Depression as a colorful backdrop for dashing con men’s hijinks in The Sting. But hey, when was the last time anyone bothered reviving The Sting?  

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