There really is no other filmmaker quite like Robert Altman. Outside of Kurosawa and Kubrick, no director has been so consistently defiant in his resistance of conventions and complacency of craft. Altman has tackled so many varying genres that it is impossible to say what the man prefers, although there is a distinct, unmatched style that, while often frustrating, creates a sense of participation unlike more dictatorial artists (i.e. Spielberg, who practically dares you not to find him endearing). Passive consumers of entertainment are almost certain to loathe Altman, for he not only resists categorization, but apparent meaning and coherence, which makes his films some of the few that warrant repeat viewings. His dream-like 1977 effort 3 Women perhaps signaled the end of Altman’s decade-long dominance of independent Hollywood (not to be regained until 1992’s The Player), but it stands as one of his most insightful, inspiring works. And although no one can agree on the film’s true essence, its ability to stimulate discussion is one of its finer qualities. If there had been a consensus, it is very likely that the film would have faded into irrelevance. In many ways, though, the film had been forgotten, as until its recent Criterion DVD release, it was out of print, unavailable even as a battered VHS copy. Fortunately, however, it is now ready to be seen by a new generation of cinephiles; the two or three of you who aren’t dribbling all over your chests in anticipation of Spider-Man 2.
It is fitting that the film, in part, is based on a dream, although on the commentary track Altman readily admits that only the setting and the actresses came from his unconscious state. Typically, the film’s “story” and direction took shape as a result of improvisation and the imaginations of the actors themselves. For example, Shelley Duvall’s character was crafted largely by the actress, including the diary entries that are read in the film as well as assorted quirks and traits. As such, Altman is the most generous of directors; delegating not out of insecurity or laziness, but rather out of the firm commitment to authenticity. In this way, 3 Women, like nearly all of Altman’s major films, never feels theatrical or false, even if the contents seem inspired by a world decidedly not our own. But this is where Altman redefines what we should expect from “reality.” Accustomed to linear, “logical” cinema that progresses according to the strict guidelines of three-act drama, we are quick to label as “rambling” or “pretentious” that which insists that storytelling can never really be as clean as we would like. People, and therefore “characters,” are messy, absurd, and don’t always know why they do things, even if they act as if they do. Altman is perhaps the first — and certainly the most influential — who has understood that film can be like life if you are not adamant about straight lines.
3 Women, despite its somewhat ethereal quality, is a tale of identity and the very nature of self, even if one must hunt around for the clues. We first meet Pinky (Sissy Spacek), a vacant, childish young woman who seems to appear out of the mist to begin work at a health spa for senior citizens in the California desert. There she meets Millie (Duvall), a chatty, obnoxious woman who seems to believe that an unending stream of verbiage is perhaps the best way to avoid the pains of living. Millie trains Pinky in the ways of the spa and eventually they become roommates, but this is light years away from a typical “buddy” film where life lessons are learned and a crisis brings everyone together. Instead, Pinky begins to adopt the mannerisms of Millie, with the full intent of appropriating her personality. It is reasonable to believe that Altman is suggesting that in a culture devoid of real meaning (and swimming in clichés, catch-phrases, and commodification), we are unable to ascertain who in the hell we are. Altman alludes to this in the commentary where he discusses his fascination with the sorts of people who don’t really have anything to say and no real sense of their own character. Pinky, he believes, is like so many who are ill equipped to live a contented life and therefore “borrow” that which they believe will allow them to survive. Millie, on the other hand, has learned from magazines and pop culture the “rules” of getting by, but she remains so self-absorbed that she is oblivious to the fact that she is largely ignored (and mocked) by everyone she meets. She’s the sort of person who walks behind others, talking all the way, without waiting for any kind of response. It’s one-sided to be sure, but she’d never acknowledge that anything less than a conversation has taken place.
And then there is the mysterious character Willie, a pregnant woman who runs Millie’s favorite hangout, Dodge City, and spends her time painting swimming pools with bizarre reptilian images. Willie’s husband, Edgar, is a cartoonish lout; a ridiculously macho gun nut who flirts as if he is anything but a piggish clown. Edgar is the key to, well, something, as events transpire late in the film that alludes to a murder, but then again, we can’t quite be sure.
Obviously, Altman does not reduce matters to a murder mystery, and the “death” serves a higher purpose, one that may or may not have to do with suffocating patriarchy and how it inhibits female growth and identity construction. Or perhaps not. Again, it is the genius of Altman that he provides plenty to lead in the direction of metaphor and social criticism, yet there are enough scattered crumbs to allow for the exact opposite interpretation. It is telling (or not) that Willie’s male baby is stillborn, and when we last meet the trio, they have switched identities and seem to be living an idealized existence without any male influence. But rather than throwing feminist politics in our face, the final images hint to a dissatisfaction and a replication of the same power/passivity issues that women deal with when connected to men. Are human beings, then, doomed to struggle with issues of power regardless of gender? Are we fooling ourselves with the belief that men are the problem? Knowing Altman, at bottom a blissful misanthrope, he would never be so naïve as to elevate one gender at the expense of the other. He has always demonstrated a fondness for women (and is one of the few directors who gives great parts to actresses), but the tensions of community are always more pressing.
No one review or analysis is going to have all the answers, and I don’t stake a claim on anything. And yet, one can imagine Altman encouraging discussion, regardless of where it might lead. He has an idea of how people behave and what might motivate our decisions, but it is up to us to nod with recognition or recoil with insecurity. And, along with the stunning widescreen compositions, fully realized performances, and assured direction, we get the wonderful throwaway lines ––those muttered, barely audible glimpses into the real heart of humanity. It’s what we say when we think no one is listening. That is the essence of character.