Saturday, November 21, 2009

3 WOMEN 1977

Films that invite repeat viewings are my favorite. If the complexities of plot and character are authentic (and not simply incomprehensibility posing as profundity), each viewing unearths new pleasures and a deeper understanding of the film's themes.
Robert Altman's 3 Women is such a film, and it is, quite literally, a dream.
Shelley Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux
Sissy Spacek as Pinky Rose
Janice Rule as Willie Hart
Altman claimed that much of the basic structure of this genuinely mesmerizing discourse on identity theft came to him in a dream. There is little reason to doubt this assertion, given that 3 Women unfolds in the same shifting rhythms and fluid, non-linear logic of a dream half-remembered.
Altman regular Shelley Duvall plays Millie Lammoreaux, the Palm Springs femme non-fatale of the Purple Sage Apartments: a garishly mauve modernist complex that looks to have sprouted out of the ground like a cactus flower in the flat, arid landscape of the desert. Millie is an attendant at a spa for the elderly and fancies herself an irresistible man-trap.

Oblivious to the fact that to almost everyone, she is either invisible or insufferable, Millie blithely floats around on a lemon-colored cloud of delusion fueled by romantic longing and women's magazine clichés.
The lone dissenting voice is that of Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), the childlike, slightly spooky new spa employee who sees in Millie "The most perfect person I've ever met."
If Millie's personality is overdetermined, Pinky's is as unformed as an infant's (she has so little in the way of history or possessions that she could be a visitor from another planet). But since she is the only person to ever reflect back to Millie her own image of herself, the two enter into a mutually beneficial roommate/friendship relationship that has the "worldly" Millie giving the unrefined Pinky lessons in life. Lessons she learns all too well, as it turns out.
Lemon Satin and Tickled Pink
Millie's apartment is an overwhelming medley of sunshiny yellow and white.
It gives the impression of living inside an egg

The 3rd woman of the title is Willie (Janice Rule), the enormously pregnant, mostly silent artist who spends all of her time painting cryptic, luridly violent murals of anthropomorphic reptile people.

Willie is married to the hyper-macho Edgar (Robert Fortier), a swaggering, womanizing, former TV stunt double ("He knows Hugh O'Brian!") with whom she shares ownership of The Purple Sage Apartments and the town's lone hot-spot, Dodge City: a run-down, western-themed bar/ghost town where off-duty cops come to drink beer, shoot guns and ride dirt bikes.
Robert Fortier as Edgar Hart
With the introduction of the almost spectral character of Willie, 3 Women begins to take shape as something grounded increasingly less in reality, yet something more chilling and unsettling than fantasy. As the ad copy on the poster read: "1 woman became 2, 2 women became 3, 3 women became 1."

This one is a true original. There is something so fascinating in Altman's use of magic realism in exploring the twin phenomenon of personality and identity as things both contagious and fluid. He creates unique characters and a world that is real but jarringly off-kilter (not in that self-conscious, Cohen Brothers way, mercifully). And in the finely observed details, 3 Women is often heartbreakingly funny while being downright eerie.
Craig Richard Nelson (A Wedding) and Sierra Pecheur portray Dr. Maas and Ms. Bunweill, the unrelentingly practical-minded operators of the health spa. Displaying inverse traditional male and female characteristics, the pair appear to have undergone a personality transference of their own.

What gets me about 3 Women is that no matter how unusual the characters and how off-rhythm their interactions are, everything feels as if it comes from an emotional and human truth. The characters may be amplifications...their traits and behavior given a surreal, dreamy oddness...but weirdly, it's that very quality that makes them come across more genuinely. It's as though you're watching people who have had their most hidden, inner selves moved to the surface.
For example, no one has probably ever met a person as rabidly devoted to the "Cosmo Philosophy" of femininity or those loopy "Kraft Kitchen" home economist credos as Millie in real-life (at least I hope not). But her embodiment and complete faith in the "How to Catch a Man" propaganda women have been fed for generations makes her character less an object of ridicule than someone we recognize and perhaps even empathize with.
The "fixin's" for one of Millie's characteristically indigestible socio-gastronomical nightmares

Shelley Duvall gives one of the best performances of the 70s and certainly what I consider the best of her career. She can take a character comprised almost exclusively of derisible (if not absurd) characteristics and finds the humanity within. Though audiences are encouraged to laugh at Millie's ever-thwarted attempts at maintaining an air of sophisticated insouciance at all times (try as she might, she can't seem to prevent her flowing skirts from getting caught in her car door), one can't help but feel empathy for her poignant quest to mean something to herself.
Sissy Spacek, an actress able to project earthiness or other-worldliness at will, is remarkable in a role that requires her to be an enigma, but not a blank slate. Her ability to convey a childlike innocence without coming across as mentally challenged is attributable to Spacek's questioning; she seems to be taking information in like a computer. I love her transformation(s). She has inhabited three distinct women by the film's conclusion.
There's something a little terrifying in the kind of woman Pinky "becomes" after her accident
Janice Rule really surprised me in 3 Women because, prior to this film, I had only ever seen her in the truly atrocious Dean Martin Matt Helm film, The Ambushers -1967  (it's a Matt Helm film, did I really need to add the "atrocious" part?). If you ever want to see the definition of "reluctant sexpot," check out that film. Rule, decked out in a comic assortment of skimpy, mod outfits, is the glummest, saddest-looking sexist eye candy you've ever seen. In each scene, her every glance seems to transmit her wish to be anywhere else but there. 
Given that as a first impression, I was pleased to see her in what appears a more comfortable environment as the most puzzling member of Altman's trio. The same solemn sadness so distracting in The Ambushers is present here, but to infinitely more pleasing effect.

The recurring motifs of water, mirrors, and other reflective surfaces give 3 Women a hallucinatory quality well-served by its haunting score and the flat, dried-out Palm Springs locations. The expansive emptiness of the land takes on the look of  Dali-esque dream landscapes.
3 Women
Pinky- "I wonder what it's like to be you think they know which one they are?"
"Perhaps we are the same person. Perhaps we have no limits. Perhaps we flow into each other, stream through each other, boundlessly and magnificently."  Ingmar Bergman  Fanny and Alexander 1979

For years Woody Allen has been knocking himself out superficially channeling Ingmar Bergman, and here Robert Altman hits a bullseye his first time out with this incontestably American nod to Bergman's Persona.

What I've always related to in 3 Women is how it so poetically speaks to the need to connect and the essential human desire to be acknowledged. Looking at the film through the eyes of the college kid I was when the film was released, I'm aware of what I shared with Millie: pretentiousness, the need for self-invention (or re-invention). Also, what I shared with Pinky: a fear of growing up and a wish to remain childlike; a longing to care for and be cared for by someone.
Watching the film now as an adult, I find myself stunned by the keenness of its observations and touched by how gently Altman treats these damaged characters. Ultimately, I find 3 Women to be one of Altman's most humane works. And, after all these years, it remains, hands-down, my favorite of his many excellent films.
Pinky- "I had a bad dream."
Millie- "Dreams can't hurt you."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I saw Barbarella for the first time in 1968 at the age of eleven (I know, what was my mother thinking?), and for years it remained this extraordinary little gem of a film that no one else seemed to appreciate or even see. I saw it so many times that it came to signify one-third of the cinema trifecta that cemented my lifelong love affair with the movies (the other two being Rosemary's Baby and Casino Royale…the cool one with the Bacharach score).
In the ensuing years, fashion designers, photographers, and pop stars too numerous to mention, borrowed from it so extensively that it has become a mainstream/cult hit. To my unending chagrin, the many delights of Barbarella that once spoke exclusively to me are now superficially embraced (and largely misinterpreted) by text-addicted teens and iPhone-addled adults in suburban home theaters across the nation. To clarify, I don't know if I mind Barbarella reaching a broader audience so much as I mind a movie of such exuberant creativity being saddled with the dull and lazy classification of "camp."
Jane Fonda as Barbarella
John Phillip Law as Pygar
Anita Pallenberg as The Great Tyrant
David Hemmings as Dildano
Milo O'Shea as Durand Durand
Made at a time when the chief pop-cultural preoccupations were space, spies, sex, and rebellion, Barbarella was an intentional pop-art put-on; a sci-fi comic book spoof of drugs, un-sexy sex, and fashion as fetish. It may not be exactly what the '60s looked like, but to a sheltered, Catholic pre-teen, Barbarella is PRECISELY what the '60s felt like.

Enticed by posters and TV ads that enthusiastically beckoned, "See Barbarella Do Her Thing!" I went to see Barbarella with little knowledge of what to expect. So you can imagine my thrill and delight when, within the film's first two minutes, I discovered that Barbarella's "thing" involved performing a zero-gravity striptease while a tres-groovy theme song rhymed Barbarella with Psychedella on the soundtrack. WOW!
The image of the almost impossibly beautiful Jane Fonda floating naked around a fur-lined spaceship while animated credits none-too-successfully concealed her nudity was a vision that burned a hole in my retinas and remained tattooed on my psyche ever since.
In a career of so many memorable and challenging roles, it must pain Jane Fonda to know that one of her most assured screen performances was in a film she spent the better part of the 1970s trying to live down. But really, she has nothing to be ashamed of. Years of appearing in bubble-headed Hollywood sex comedies prepared her well for the wide-eyed hijinx of this five-star, double-rated, Astro-navigatrix. Along with most of her body, Fonda as Barbarella displays an intelligence and winning comic timing that makes clear that she carries the entire film (plus several pounds of hair) on her shoulders.

The sequence where the angel Pygar flies Barbarella to the evil city of Sogo is a Frazetta illustration come to life. Though the special effects are primitive, the sequence has a vitality and sense of fun that is a stellar example of the kind of magic that movies do best.
Barbarella's mini-missile projector vanquishes another enemy

Barbarella is one of those films that is so visually way out that you could enjoy it just as much without sound. The wonderful Lava-Lamp production design by Mario Garbuglia and iconic futuristic costumes by Jacques Fonteray & Paco Rabanne display a great deal more ingenuity and wit than the script.
No one passes out quite like Barbarella
Barbarella and Sogo Resistance leader, Dildano (David Hemmings), try their hand at an Exaltation Transference pill 
Barbarella in the Black Queen's Chamber of Dreams
By any serious standard of what makes a good film, Barbarella falls short. But over time, many "good" movies have proven unwatchable (Seen Chariots of Fire lately?), while many films dismissed at the time of their original release have gone on to become classics (The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane).
By no stretch of the imagination is Barbarella a classic (well, it IS a classic of sorts). But classic films do share one thing…they endure by having created a kind of perfect reality within the framework of their narrative.
And in this, Barbarella is a film that looks better the older it gets.
Marcel Marceau as Professor Ping
Ruminating on the druggy 1980s and the part it played in the jumble that was ultimately the film Xanadu, playwright Douglas Carter Beane said, "When you watch 'Xanadu,' you can see the cocaine on the screen."
Well, a 60s variation of the same can be said for Barbarella. Some serious mind-expanding drugs had to have been behind what's on display here. A fur-lined spaceship that looks like a flying Avon compact, blind angels, murderous dolls, orchid-eating exiles, killer canaries, a sex machine (no, not James Brown), a giant hookah in which swims a semi-naked man …it never stops!

Sure, by today's standards Barbarella's special effects are almost comically primitive (Pygar's flying is more like wind-blown dangling), but it ultimately turns out to be part of the film's charm. For 1968, this stuff was a considerable step above most of the kind of cheapie sci-fi/fantasy films I grew up on, so I was enthralled. I love movies that transport me, surprise me, and render the fantastic tangible. Every time I watch Barbarella, it reintroduces me to that kid-like part of me that can still be left thunderstruck by movie magic.
Barbarella and the evil Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) are rescued from the burning city of Sogo by the blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law). When Barbarella asks why he's saving the very woman who tried to have him killed, Pygar replies, "An angel has no memory!"

Jane Fonda signed this for me on May 6, 1976, when she came to Sacramento City College to give a speech on behalf of her then-husband, Tom Hayden. I wasn't a student, but I knew I couldn't pass up a chance to meet THE Barbarella in the flesh. I remember zippo of her speech, but I do recall that when I managed to catch her before she was being whisked away in a VW bug driven by an aide, she kindly signed my photo, laughing at the image of herself. 
Poster art by Robert McGinnis

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


"It's hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous." Nathanael West The Day of the Locust

America is a country that believes in dreams. We're encouraged to follow our dreams; we're induced to dream big; we're promised that if we believe in our dreams enough, they will most certainly come true.
But, of course, not all dreams come true.
The Day of the Locust is a dark vision of losers on the fringe of Hollywood, a city built on dreams. The question the film posits is: what happens to dreamers when they realize their dreams have betrayed them?
During the mid-70s, America was in the throes of a nostalgia craze that swept up all of pop culture (from fashion to music) in an idealized preoccupation with the 1930s. Perhaps this is why, when John Schlesinger's epic, multi-million dollar adaptation of Nathanael West's sour indictment of the Hollywood dream machine (and, in turn, America's willingness...even need... to be duped by its promises) hit the screens, audiences responded as if they had been kicked in the stomach.
After the soft-focus 30s kitsch of The Great Gatsby (1974), I guess no one was ready for a glamorous, all-star, nostalgic horror film.
Karen Black as Faye Greener
Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (yes, I know...)
William Atherton as Tod Hackett
Burgess Meredith as Harry Greener
Geraldine Page as Big Sister
 As a story of the lost and lonely lured to California by the promise of an unattainable dream, The Day of the Locust, written in 1939, is as relevant as ever. Look at the faces of the so-called journalists and paparazzi behind TMZ, and you'll see precisely the kind of predatory bitterness and resentment West wrote about seventy years ago.
The Day of the Locust is one of my all-time favorite films, and I admire it immensely, yet I readily admit that watching it is not entirely an enjoyable experience. I remember back in 1975 when my family and I saw the movie at a theater in San Francisco (on a double-bill with Nashville, no less), the climactic riot scene brought my sister to a state of heaving sobs. And during the cockfight sequence, someone behind me exclaimed, "This is worse than 'The Exorcist'!" It is an amazing, sometimes breathtaking, film, but it's no walk in the park.

Its visual style. It's a nightmare vision of Hollywood that looks like a dream.
The San Bernardino Arms, where many of the film's characters reside
Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Ennis House, built in 1924  
"We were looking at the pool, and somebody, Jerry Appis, I think, said it needed a dead horse
on the bottom, so Alice got one. Don't you think it looks cute?" 
Interior of the Wright house: Glamorous, cold, empty

Karen Black has publicly expressed her lack of fondness for this film, but I suspect this has more to do with the well-publicized behind-the-scenes tensions than with her performance. While clearly a controversial choice for the siren that leads men to their destruction, I find it to be one of the finest performances of her career.
As the vain and shallow temptress who thinks her theatrical pretensions are evidence of talent, Black achieves moments of genuine pathos.
She would be comical if she were not so pathetic. The delusional Faye Greener can't distinguish false posturing from genuine feelings.

The Simpsons may have forever dampened whatever poignancy the name Homer Simpson ever held, but Donald Sutherland is such a heartbreaking marvel in this film that, were it a more widely seen movie, his repressed and lumbering Homer would be the one eclipsing the cartoon doofus. In a movie of so many spectacular, full-scale set-pieces, one of the most powerful moments is a simple scene of Sutherland sitting in his sun-baked garden, eyes heavy-lidded with sadness.
He is the picture of loneliness and idle longing, his nervous, tension-filled hands betraying a repressed frustration. And when the camera moves in for a close-up, the light barely catching a tear falling down his cheek...
...the effect is devastating.

I really love how they use faces in this movie. Fellini-esque in the way the people are captured in tableaus of desperation and unidentifiable hunger. It's like getting a celebrity-eye-view of what fans must look like.
Watching, looking, and voyeurism are running motifs in The Day of the Locust. Everyone seems to be looking outward for something they lack within.

Was there ever a sequence as grotesquely surreal as the apocalyptic "The Burning of Los Angeles" riot scene that caps this movie? At this point in the film, things have reached such a tense and tortured pitch (there seem to be two or three different climaxes) that not only are the film's protagonists all keyed up, but so are we. As a Hollywood premiere erupts into a mad mob scene, we in the audience may find ourselves feeling the cathartic release of violence without even knowing it. It is one of the most compellingly visual sequences ever captured on film.
 The banal rendered nightmarish
Horror has a face
The Day of the Locust: burnt offerings and a human sacrifice

Hollywood rarely gets it right when it turns its lens upon itself, but The Day of the Locust is, for me, one of the finest films about Hollywood ever made. As one who loves film for its ability to feed our dreams, I appreciate how The Day of the Locust explores the potentially destructive, ultimately empty allure of the dreams Hollywood packages and sells to us.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009