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Critical Essay by Kathleen Murphy
SOURCE: "A Lion's Gate: The Cinema According to Robert Altman," in Film Comment, Vol. 30, No. 2, March-April, 1994, pp. 20-1, 24, 26, 28.
In the following essay, Murphy discusses some prevailing images from Altman's films.
In Provence, Vincent Van Gogh centers his easel in a field of glorious sunflowers. Robert Altman's camera darts about frantically, catching closeups of golden novas and overviews of entire restless constellations. Neither the director nor the painter can settle on framespace; like some sorcerer's apprentice, nature has generated a vertiginous profusion of forms, each potentially unique flower a momentary stop in a grid of pulsing yellow light. Finally, Van Gogh surrenders to chaos, smearing black pigment over his empty white canvas with a maddened hand, then tears a clutch of sunflowers out of the earth. Vased but still potent, these selected shoots become rich loci of thickly layered yellow-to-ochre pigment in painting after painting.
This extraordinary sequence in Altman's Vincent and Theo at once terrifies and intoxicates. Our vision is assaulted almost to delirium by the natural world's hot flux and largesse. Overcome and outcast by the sheer plethora of external phenomena, the artist-hero according to Altman must find some access to the heart of the matter. Racking focus, riding a slow zoom, framing a crowded, multiplaned field of vision, Altman's hungry eye can never get enough to contain the whole mystery. That unsatisfied appetite can feel like an abyss inside, dissociation or death.
The christs, madonnas, holy ghosts, magdalenes, and judases of Altman's mythology are all looking to take communion in some kind of company of saints. Though they fall far short of finding definitive food, family, and shelter—even in dreams and art—the director's high-flyers, private eyes, soul-snatchers, lovers and other strangers pattern a cinematic nervous system unparalleled in its complex vitality. Like some of his real and imagined communities (Lion's Gate, Presbyterian Church, Popeye's Sweethaven, Philip Marlowe's apartment building, La-La Land), this collection of eccentric synapses hangs on the edge of things, connected only by suspension bridges.
Altman's images work like poetic metaphors, each one webbing outward within and beyond its home-film, an ever-widening gyre that takes in his whole oeuvre. Tease out for a moment that thread of gold from Vincent and Theo: thirteen ways of looking at a field of sunflowers. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, islands of golden light signal a whole range of sanctuary for the eye, from McCabe's striking the match that starts a movie/town, to the proliferating lamps and fires that glow against wilderness gloom, to a cold-comfort church in flames that unites a community, freezing out the maverick soul who dreamed up Presbyterian Church in the first place.
Mrs. Miller's plates of scrambled eggs shimmer like soul food, but she's no fertile Van Gogh, whose blackened teeth ally him in taste to gold-crowned McCabe (Warren Beatty), done in by a restless scrim of sunlit snow-motes. Constance Miller (Julie Christie) is a conspicuous, tidily corrupt consumer who knows the value of food and keeps it locked up in her heart. Paul Gauguin's her crueler kin, a judas who deliberately designs his food into aesthetic forms that are meant to kiss off and madden his better half. When Vincent Van Gogh (Tim Roth) lets wine flow out of his slack mouth, he is assenting to his degenerating mental health, but also flaunting the holy appetite that drives the way he takes in and passionately transubstantiates the world.
McCabe's an expendable auteur of lucrative mise-en-scène; Presbyterian Church's payoff will accrue to real moneymen after he's gone, just as, in modern-day auction, Van Gogh's sunflowers pan out in the millions. Mrs. Miller, McCabe's art director and accountant, focuses in on the brown bowl of an opium pipe until its curve becomes the molten edge of a sun. The poetry that McCabe had in him speaks out largely in warm shelters built of rich yellow lumber and his symbiotic attachment to his "Beautiful Dreamer," the whore with a heart of gold (literally), who sucks solar heat and sustenance into her very pupil as snow swallows him up. McCabe's crouched shape prefigures Theo Van Gogh's (Paul Rhys) naked form in a dark cell, his body bent, his face and arm upraised to moonlight, Constance made constant to the point of lunacy.
Van Gogh's struggle to find a way to look at his field of sunflowers falls on the same spectrum that carries BBC Opal's (Geraldine Chaplin in Nashville) skirmish with a screenful of yellow school buses she reduces to journalistic banalities. Further down the line, Three Women's Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) uses a little imagination to color-coordinate her apartment, clothes, and car in shades of yellow, as though symbolic sun might fill and warm the void of her ghostly existence—though it's Sissy Spacek's Pinky Rose who will grow large with Millie's personality: an embryonic stage in the evolution of a trinity of women into self-sufficient matriarchy.
"We are all alone … on parallel lines," raves Mrs. Hellstrom (Viveca Lindfors) during A Wedding, the ritual that is supposed to "merge the interests of community and nature." Presiding spirit over yet another flawed union, matriarch of family and the movies alike, Lillian Gish lies dead upstairs throughout the festivities. When one of Altman's Miltonian storms drives the members of his teeming anti-family down into the basement, a born-again Baptist leads them in a comforting chorus or two of "Heavenly Sunlight." Altman's camera eventually rises to the sky, as blue and noncommittal as Nashville's ending.
Gish is on the same wavelength with Nashville's country-music queen Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley)—they share sweet smiles, dreams of what "My Old Idaho Home" once was, and death. Neither can be sustaining angels; as with Louise (Sally Kellerman), explicitly angelic mentor to Brewster McCloud, scars are where their wings were. The antithesis to these sweet-faced patron saints is Three Women's Dirty Gerty, the witchy head that, spitting in the face of humankind, screeches a mocking death-rattle laugh. The only angel in A Wedding is a black, blank-eyed penates at the door of Gish's home—its frozen posture and lack of affect an echo of Barbara Jean-wannabe Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) and her paralyzed stance against a fake Parthenon pillar in the aftermath of a kind of ritual murder.
Let the sun go for awhile, and track blackbirds. Brewster's fairy godmother carries a raven as familiar; presumably its shit adorns the dead faces of those who would ground her protégé—and it must share in Louise's terrible birdcry of bereavement signaling Brewster's fall, his flesh now too much with him for flying. Her white witchery is no match for Dirty Gerty's miring of all human endeavor. In The Player, moviemaker Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) never aspires to flying; his white-robed gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) makes him at home in her blue cave of unfinished, self-reflexive paintings; and both of these beautiful dream-stealers rest comfortably in mud baths. Leaning back arrogantly on an ebon couch, black-clad arms spread wide, Mill judases his jilted girlfriend and acutest critic (Cynthia Stevenson): "You'll land on your feet. You always do."
Louise's birdcry of awful loss and incipient madness is echoed by Brewster (Bud Cort), who doesn't land on his feet, and the crows in Van Gogh's wheatfield, the violent black lines that slash his Provence sky. Self-wounded, Vincent disappears into the landscape he would have painted, loosing a coven of crows into the air, as though his soul had flown up in agony.
In Short Cuts, where Dirty Gerty mostly reigns, Dr. Wyman (Matthew Modine), just one among many cuckolds, turns his white-painted clownface to the camera, opens his mouth wider than a mouth should go, and shrieks an Invasion of the Body Snatchers version of Louise's heartbroken caw. He might be one of his wife's canvases, hyperrealistic variations on Munch's "The Scream." When faultlines finally fracture under and within pool cleaner Chris Penn and he beats down the hateful flesh that so unmans him, a flock of birds explodes out of the underbrush, madness on the wing. At the beginning of M∗A∗S∗H, wartime whirlybirds transported bloodied souls for healing; by Short Cuts, the blackbirds (camouflaged in patriotic red, white, and blue) spray America's City of Angels with a pesticide in the "war against the medfly." Maybe medflies are what we become after we've fallen so far from grace.
What refuge is there from blackbirds? Altman wheelers-and-dealers such as M∗A∗S∗H's Hawkeye and Trapper John (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould) and California Split's Bill and Charlie (George Segal, Gould) work desperately to be insiders, their cooler-than-thou shticks thin insurance against getting frozen out, disappearing, breaking down. Altman's eye so powerfully authenticates the illusion of community—among hotshot medics or gamblers on a winning streak—that when the house of cards collapses we're left with nowhere to go.
In the profoundly elegiac California Split, Bill and Charlie trip off to Reno's Land of Oz to rake in what they're missing—money and meaning. After Altman's rich movies take us in by offering food and shelter, they often conclude by striking the set and drifting off toward nothing. In the aftermath of his exhilarating run of play, during the final moments of California Split, George Segal's naked, utterly emptied expression reprises that of the tired boxer who much earlier gazed blank-eyed out at his energized audience: "It don't mean a fuckin thing." Altman's no warm-hearted wizard: When Segal, shattered, announces that he has to go home, fellow-player Gould nails him—and us as audience: "Oh yeah? Where do you live?"
Altman's isolatos partner at their peril; their projections and symbionts may be sanctuary or the death of them. McCabe's a "dealer … who wants to trade the game he plays for shelter" (a line from one of several Leonard Cohen songs that "narrate" McCabe and Mrs. Miller), but he's evicted from his House of Fortune—and every other refuge—by the efficiently business-minded whore and man-killer his less focused character cannot contain. Three Women dreams a fluid world in which twinning can anchor hollow men and women in increased visibility and co-dependent sanity. The murals painted by Willie (Janice Rule)—cannibalistic, lizard-like aliens, red of tongue and claw, poised outside an urban maze of sterile concrete boxes—are the nightmare aspect of McCabe's civilizing vision. They also preview the mute laughers? screamers? Marian (Julianne Moore) paints in Short Cuts, which ends with a pan from a party on the artist's patio out over a polluted city constructed on potential abyss.
Three Women's Millie Lammoreaux begins as an invisible soul who babbles self-aggrandizing formulas for living that no one listens to. Cast out of even the fragile shelter of personality, she takes final shape as mother superior of a convent house that might be the last standing structure in Altman's dissolving world. In the film's finale, this angular, American Gothic antithesis of a fairy godmother matter-of-factly warns her progeny—Pinky the tabula rasa and Willie the aborted artist—that "it's time to come inside."
There's comfort in that invitation, but also chilling cadences. At the beginning of McCabe, a long lateral pan follows the first coming inside of the postlapsarian poker-player, and Altman's promising trajectory draws us into his movie like any brand-new, privileged "Once upon a time…." By contrast, the six-minute-long shot that opens The Player gleefully touts itself as tour-de-force, piggy-backing on Touch of Evil, promiscuously attaching itself to anything that moves, and playing postmodernist peeping Tom at a studio window—framing insider Griffin Mill as he receives pitches for sequels, remakes, and rip-offs.
Mill—half Mrs. Miller—won't be frozen out of any picture that matters. Eventually masterminding the takeover of his Hollywood House of Fortune, he lives happily ever after in a blandly edenic movie, his celluloid dreamgirl by his side. This is heaven as imagined by those who would buy into the satanic recipe for art benignly recommended by the doctor-"angel" (Jean-Pierre Cassel) who tries to make a pet of Van Gogh: "People need shelter even in paradise."
What's inside can be as "deceiving to the eye" as movies, as empty or as pregnant. The shack at the end of Three Women might be only a false front, like the James Dean Disciples' cherished Riata, or as deserted and debris-filled as the last Woolworth's in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean. "Sincerely" is the song that finally unites and celebrates Jimmy Dean's trinity of 5-and-Dime dreamers: the de-breasted sex goddess (Cher), the deluded mother of a god's son (Sandy Dennis), and a Janus-gendered transsexual (Karen Black).
"If I could just walk into the painting, shut the door, and stay there forever," yearns Theo Van Gogh, just before the daughter of his brother's whore appears to try just that, squatting to take a pee in a panoramic, trompe-1'oeil beach scene that presages a wraparound Imax movie. Cut out of dead Vincent's imagination, blocked Theo can't make water—and is shut up first behind the door of his bathroom and then that of a madhouse cell, the fatally constricted space of a self divided from nourishing ideal. Much earlier, Vincent sketched like a man possessed when his prostitute-model settled down on a chamber pot, and lifted her lived-in face up to windowlight. All of Altman's froggy souls slide that line between shit and a fantasy of flying. (McCabe's metaphysic is the last word: "If a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his ass so much.")
Often Altman's shattering souls sojourn in glass houses, where epiphany seems as accessible as light: Images' Green Cove, where doors open and shutter like lenses; the much-windowed Wade beachhouse in The Long Goodbye; the 5 and Dime split by a Cocteauvian mirror; Laundromat's garishly neon-runed picture-window; the video-screened confessional in Secret Honor. Such Altman interiors are kaleidoscopes filled with bright shards of a past coterminous with the present, the most private and irreducible parts of ego and experience.
No other working director measures such depth in surfaces. Altaian's movies are one, a round-table banquet and mystery play celebrating the persistent aspirations of his low-down knights and unfaithful ladies. His vision does not finally diminish us, though this is a Swiftian artist who can document our every smallness. Altman's greatest gift is his genius for images that can be critically framed, but resist being frozen into stop-motion significance. They lodge in memory like land-mines that never stop detonating.
Short Cuts' Lady in the Lake is one of those images. Altman's male triumvirate (Fred Ward, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis) fishes around, pisses on, and Kodaks her submerged and violated flesh. Her cold corpse is no catch for their larder; it's just the shell of a downcast muse who will never gift an artist-Arthur with sword or wings. And yet in the pesticide-drenched City of Angles, a poolman has assured us from the start that "water's the safest place to be." Robert Altman's golden eye has never stopped reflecting on this and other mysteries in the lifecycle of the medfly.
This section contains 2,454 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)