Saturday, January 13, 2007
Altmania: "That Cold Day in the Park" (1969) / "Images" (1972)
caught the double feature last night of two early Bob flicks, both basically about women going crazy. "Images" is the much more well-known film, and seems to have a pretty good reputation, but i wasn't that into it at all. i enjoyed "That Cold Day in the Park" a lot more. it dealt with some of the same subject matter and moods, but in a much subtler way. "Images" was really labored, arty and pretentious, almost like a parody of an art film in places. there was good stuff there, but it wasn't half as mysterious and great as "Cold Day."
for some reason, i had been under the impression that "M*A*S*H" was Altman's first film, but apparently, it was just his breakthrough one. if you look on IMDB, he's got a ton of movies stretching back to the early '50s--go figure. anyway, "That Cold Day" is from '69, three years before "M*A*S*H."
it's the story of a rich, lonely middle-aged woman, Frances (Sandy Dennis), living in British Columbia. one day during a rainstorm, she looks out the window and sees a youngish man (Michael Burns) sitting in the park alone. she goes down and asks him in and he stays with her for a few days. it pretty quickly becomes obvious that she's fixated on him in an unhealthy way and things progress from there.
at first, i wasn't that into the movie. it has a pretty sappy and oppressive score, at least in the early sections, and this really reddish, monochrome, sort of dated look to it, and it takes it time plotwise. basically you're seeing this woman move about her apartment and take the guy in and feed and clothe him and all that, but you just can't really see where the movie is going. the man is at first totally mute; Dennis keeps trying to get him to speak, but he won't say anything. the first sign of life he shows is doing this really weird, almost striptease-like dance for her when she plays him some records--that's a hell of a scene and it marked the point where the movie started to get interesting for me. you start to realize that she's terribly lonely and if not in love with this guy, at least totally enchanted with him.
Sandy Dennis is a really awesome actress, just very endearing and sad. she's very prim and British and she has this sort of puffy, pale face; it's very pretty, but it always sort of looks as if she's just been crying. she's just a poignant person to watch.
the movie takes some exceedingly weird turns. Dennis's apartment has this really stuffy, aristocratic air, and Altman does an amazing job of creating contrast when we see Burns leave. he goes and visits his gorgeous, debaucherous sister, Nina (Susanne Benton), living in this sort of hippie pad/houseboat. she's got this cheesy boyfriend who says "groovy" a lot and is really into weed. anyway, so as soon as Burns gets there, he starts talking really straightforwardly about this crazy lady that's been taking care of him, which is pretty shocking since he's been mute for like 45 minutes. you can tell that he's sort of been touched by her feeding and clothing him and the rest, but his sister and the boyfriend are laughing about the whole thing and being pretty flippant. it's just a really intense change of atmosphere: the spacious, pristine apartment to a cramped houseboat where this dissipated couple lives.
anyway, things get weirder and weirder. Burns brings Dennis back some--get this--pot cookies and there's an amazing stoned sequence where she's like gazing raptly at her feet and hands and the two play blind man's bluff. the tension here is pretty intense; she wants him so bad at this point and he's basically just leading her on. the next day, Burns's sister comes by when Dennis is out and he keeps telling her to leave but she won't. she just insists on sort of luxuriating in the bath and she's basically trying to seduce him and it's clearly driving him crazy. (i'm surprised that Susanne Benton doesn't really seem to have had much of a career after this; she's an absolutely gorgeous and tantalizing and magnetic presence in these scenes.) you can tell he's torn b/c on one hand he finds Dennis ridiculous, but on the other hand he feels protective of her. you don't really get to know Burns's character that well, but he's pretty fascinating even so.
sorry about all the damn plot summary. it's just that the plot is made up of these sort of mundane events that seem insignificant but take on a lot of weight. the movie just sort of creeps along, growing ever more perverse. i won't really get into the final sequence and spoil things, but let's just say it's really shocking the amount of ground the movie traverses. at the beginning it feels like a relic, almost like a movie from the '50s, but by the end we're firmly in seedy, fucked-up '70s territory.
as for the Altman-y aspects, there's a good amount of the overlapping dialogue happening, and some really cool examples of that wandering-camera stuff i talked about in the "Vincent and Theo" entry. i know it's been said a million times--someone, i think it was Andrew Sarris, called the style "polyphonic" and that's damned perfect--but this is really probably his most recognizable stylistic move as a director; it really seems to be in basically all the movies. also, there's a great cameo by the Altman mainstay Michael Murphy--you know, that tall, preppy, drawly dude who plays the assassin in "Nashville." him interacting with Dennis is just priceless; like Elliott Gould at that time, he just had this amazing naturalness to his acting--he always seems to be sort of playing himself. as my friend Kyle said of Gould in "California Split," it's behaving, not acting.
anyway, i guess this movie doesn't play much, so see it if you ever get the chance. there's definitely elements to it that are really dated, but there's some really unforgettable stuff and definitely a strong Altman flavor once the movie hits its stride.
compared to the creeping, gradually accruing tension of "Cold Day," i found "Images" frustratingly blatant. from the first moment, it announces itself as a "difficult," "experimental" film--whereas "Cold Day" builds imperceptibly to a state of feverish madness, "Images" starts there and stays there. in respect, it's very dated, very sort of wanna-be Euro. it's certainly not a total washout--it's visually stunning, for one--but i have to admit i was pretty bored by it in spots.
basically it's about this gorgeous British woman (Susannah York) who's a children's-book author. in the first few minutes, it's pretty clear that she's out of her mind; she's plagued by these audiovisual hallucinations of past lovers and she's on the verge of a total breakdown throughout the movie. she insists that her husband take her to their cabin in the English countryside to unwind, but alas, she can't escape the fact that she's totally fucking bonkers.
anyway, so the visuals are really where this movie is at. the countryside is absolutely gorgeous: waterfalls, rolling green hills, beautiful autumn panoramas, and all conforming to this drab, wintery palette--you almost feel like you're catching a cold from watching the movie. it just has this wonderfully damp, dark, chilly, British look to it, just incredibly lush.
but the whole simulation-of-insanity thing is really overboard and tedious. two minutes can't go by without some menacing, atonal clang on the soundtrack, accompanied by a vision of the ghost of one of York's dead lovers, or some other horrific hallucination. York does a good job considering the circumstances, and as i said, she looks absolutely gorgeous, but there's not really much to the character. there's some psychosexual stuff sort of bubbling near the surface--she apparently has a history of infidelity and she can't seem to break the habit--but nothing too well-defined, or for that matter, compelling.
the supporting cast is much more interesting. first, there's York's three lovers, Rene Auberjonois as Hugh, Marcel Bozzuffi as Rene and Hugh Millais as Marcel (whoa, that's really weird; i didn't notice that little name game that was going on until i looked up those actors on IMDB). they each have a really different vibe: Rene is witty and Continental, Marcel is lusty, bearish and perverted, and Hugh is bland and dorky but somehow kind of endearing. throughout the movie, she's sort of ping-ponging between these men in her mind; you're never really sure what's a flashback or a hallucination and what's actually happening.
the other character of note is Cathryn Harrison as Susannah (well, what do you know, there's another actor-charater name swap for ya; Bob, you so clever), Marcel's young daughter. she's a beautiful girl and a great actress; her character becomes fixated on Susannah and seems to idolize her, and she does a great job of conveying this adolescent vibe of straining for maturity but still being a kid. the scenes between her and York are really intimate and tender; Altman films them right up close while they sit by the fire doing a puzzle and they just make a really striking pair. all the actors in the movie really have strong looks to them.
but alas, Altman jerks you around so much that you just grow numb. the movie has an ostensible climax, but it doesn't feel any more momentous or stirring than any of the 700 other "ooh-how-scary" phantasmagoric outbursts that have come before. i just wasn't buying a lot of the "disjointed" vibe; it just felt very contrived. the movie was at its strongest when it was quiet and subtle, just like "Cold Day" was most of the way through.
one thing "Images" made me think about is Altman as a writer versus Altman as an adapter. "Images" was an entirely original idea, whereas so many others--"Short Cuts," "The Player," "Prairie Home Companion," "Popeye," etc.--were adapted. actually, "Images" was apparently based on some children's book that Susannah York wrote, and there are passages from it in the narration, but as far as i know, the story of the schizo author is all original. anyway, something to think about.