In the late 1960s to late 1970s, as the veteran directors retired, a new generation gradually took their place. Associated with “New Hollywood,” these young and diverse directors, often in their late twenties and early thirties, were considered “movie brats. ” These new directors Some of the more famous were Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Spielberg, and George Lucas; all of whom had an intense awareness of film history, worked with quotations and remakes, and created extremely successful films. With an influx of new directors, it seemed fit that they would take over the industry entirely.
However, director Robert Altman, born around twenty years earlier and being significantly older than his “movie brats” successors, Altman remained essential to the industry. Post mid-1970s, it was less commonplace for efforts to be put toward maintaining Hollywood art cinema. The new directors were focusing on box-office revenue and the production of both action-oriented and youth-oriented, blockbuster films with radiant special effects. Two films that demonstrated such qualities were Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars. Altman persisted for efforts to be continued.
He, as well as other older directors like Paul Mazusky and Woody Allen, ventured into the American art cinema. Altman had to work at a rapid pace during the 1970s as he completed more than a dozen films. He also had to compete with the younger generation of Hollywood that was producing huge blockbuster hits. Though rather than trying to create an action flick, Altman stayed true to his roots and produced films primarily based on the character’s emotions rather than plot. Two specific movies in which Altman emphasized shifts from objective reality and subjectivity of the character are Images and 3 Women.
In 1970, Altman directed M*A*S*H*; a film praised for its uses of humor with a topic as heavy as the Korean War and for becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year. However, Altman’s films did not always prove to do exceedingly well at the box-office. McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye created a few years later were generally well received and proved to be moderate earners. His films That Cold Day in the Park, Brewster McCloud, and Thieves Like Us evidently all became box-office disappointments, even though the three generally received good reviews from critics.
Although Altman’s movies are not always top box-office earners, they are still habitually the subject of a lot of critical attention. Such is evident with his film Images where the movie didn’t garner a lot of praise for Altman, even though the film might have been considered a peak for other directors. It was released between the films “McCabe” and “The Long” and as mentioned previously, they were moderately successful. They received more acclaim and attention resulting in less appreciation of Images upon its release on-screen and it’s availability in today’s time.
For this reason, the film can be compared to Francis Coppola’s The Conversation. Although a great movie, it was only considered to be a minor significance to Coppola’s career coming between the crowd pleasers and box-office smash hits The Godfather and The Godfather 2. Images was shot in the wet autumn months of 1971 in Ireland. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival the following May. It was there that Susannah York won the award for best actress. York credited her role as Cathryn in the film as the role she is most proud of.
Although taking home an award, Cannes audiences were primarily confused. Images isn’t the type of film an audience would feel sympathetic towards. It’s somewhat complicated to follow and comes off as cold. However, it’s not as nearly as hard to comprehend as the first reviewers of the movie suggested. As film critic Roger Ebert states, “[The film] is a technical success but not quite an emotional one. ” Because Altman was a hot ticket item in 1971 with M*A*S*H*; Columbia Pictures took the distribution rights of the film and entered it in the New York Film Festival.
Unfortunately for Images, neither Vincent Canby nor Roger Greenspan (two dominant film critics for the New York Times) took up the movie to review. It was then left to Howard Thomson, a journalist and film critic for the New York Times nicknamed “mishmash” for writing brief reviews for films. Thomson made no exception for Images, leaving it only with an imperceptive review. The film never went on to have a traditional commercial release in America. Essentially the film is about a children’s author and housewife Cathryn (Susannah York) who receives several phone calls on a gloomy night in her London home.
The voice on the other end is a female stating that Cathryn’s husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) is having an affair with another woman. Hugh comes home seeing his wife in grief and tries to comfort her. He vanishes and another man is shown acting as if he was her husband. Frightened at the sight, she screams and backs way, later seeing the figure change back into the “image” of her husband. Hugh feels that her angst is a result of stress and her budding pregnancy. He takes her to vacation at an isolated cottage in an attempt to relieve some stress. As she stays there, Cathryn dives farther into foreboding delusions as the stranger reappears.
It becomes difficult for her to distinguish what is happening in reality and what’s just going on her head. Images shows a lot of subjectivity through its characters because of the extreme personas of the characters and the situations they are placed in. Cathryn begins hearing sounds and hallucinates constantly. She feels guilt sexually after envisioning encounters with two men that are not her husband. One is a sinister Frenchman who asked to be shot by Cathryn to exorcise his ghost. After he apparently falls dead, it is shown that her husband’s expensive camera is all that was really shot.
The other man is more realistic, portraying a neighbor who’s infatuated with her and believes Cathryn has rape fantasies and needs strong care. She bares an attraction to him but also feels guilt. She eventually stabs the neighbor with a kitchen knife eventually “killing” him. The husband Hugh is relatively the only normal character of the film. He never completely comprehends the extent of his wife’s mental horror. Truly having his wife’s best interests in mind and acting as an ideal husband, Hugh thought relocating her to a more isolated place would relieve her of woes.
He’s a typical simple American who is addicted to dumb jokes. What Cathryn actually feels about him is only pointed at towards the last 20 minutes of the film where she tries killing off a ghost she incorrectly sees as her other self. Altman’s introduction of his characters and plot comes off as him trying his hand at feminist tax. For one thing, there’s barely any scenes that don’t revolve around the main protagonist Cathryn. Her character isn’t compelling which somewhat dooms the film from the beginning. The male characters come across as jerks.
Altman’s goal seemed to make a point about the way movies objectify women, turning them into the “images,” the film’s title indicates, for the consumption of male viewers. After all, Cathryn is only a little more than something for the men in the film to enjoy. Cameras figure plainly in the film’s mise-en-scene. Her pointing and shooting a gun (a symbol of male power) is yet another example of Altman’s use of gender associations. Although Altman’s point is clear, it seems like he went about delivering the message in a cliched way. In terms of objective reality, every image revealed rovides a lot of suspense and anticipation of what effect Altman will provide next.
However it is somewhat difficult to find the reality as it is one of Altman’s most abstract films. It is full of so much symbolism and images that it reflects the work of Bergman and Kubrik. These “images” consist of shimmering water and tinkling ornaments. They are astonishing beautiful “images” cut often by shocks of Cathryn’s sensibilities. One daunting scene that does not occur in her head is when she is writing her story and watching ponies, but a dog and frantic sounds break the peacefulness.
Altman wrote the film entirely, but the children’s story that accompanies some of “the images” was composed by Ms. York. This blends art and actuality. The film also has a wonderful use of color that separates the protagonist Cheryl from her ambience in a particularly unique and incomparable way. A few things that this movie can be credited for is its complete originality and uniqueness. Images is a very bizarre Altman film. For a filmmaker who characteristically produces works with large ensembles and layered dialogue, Images feels more blunt and almost claustrophobic.
One thing that makes it so different is that the visual style is more lyrical at some points while jagged at the others. Another difference is that the dialog does not overlap. In charge of photography was Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the best cinematographers of the seventies and Altman’s favorite cameraman at the time of production. He does an amazing job with his photography by remaining with the woman’s point of view while never suggesting at what is really going on. Altman added a clever touch to interchange the character’s names with the actors that portray them.
Susannah is played by actress Cathryn Harrison and Cathryn is played by actress Susannah York. Another switch of names is shown in the characters of three actors: Hugh played by Rene Auberjonois, Rene played by Marcel Bozzuffi, and Marcel is played by Hugh Millai. Altman’s demand of the audience’s senses is both nontraditional and expert. The fragmented style applied to the movie will definitely not please all senses to each audience member. However its witty script, brave look at a twisted inner world, and the eerie atmosphere the film creates is enough to keep one’s attention for the films entirety.
If that’s not enough, there is always the pleasure of watching characters played by phenomenal actors Altman is so famous for providing. American film critic and film/animation historian Leonard Maltin described the film best in stating the film was “difficult but fascinating” and that it comes off as “off-putting at first, but worth the effort to hang on. ” It is a definite must see for Altman admirers who want to see him in a new style. Altman doesn’t worry about the defenses needed for his film, but rather simply creates a spiritual and poetic vision letting logic and caution fall in the depths of the films beauty.
Whether or not Altman produced a commercial success, didn’t change the pace at which he put forth films. Five years after Images was produced, Altman came out with the film 3 Women. The idea for the film came to Altman in a dream. It was because of Allen’s success with filmmaking; 20th Century Fox approved the movie before he had a definite script. Although it was original intention to film without a script, he eventually had one made before filming. This script was more like a “blueprint,” which he regularly did with previous films.
The film centers around two women whose characters are in keen contrast with one another among their first encounters. The third woman the title hints at is a minor character but has a key supporting role, although not first recognized to the audience but gradually can be understood. Essentially the movie tells a story of three women whose characters change and merge, until finally, in the perplexing ending scene, switch roles. 3 Women, although praised for its uniqueness, was not very popular at the time. American audiences may not have even recognized its release at the time. Why you might wonder?
A little movie directed by George Lucas bearing the name Star Wars was released in the same year. The three women the title hints at are Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule who live in the same apartment complex in the desert of California. Duvall plays Mildred “Millie” Lammoreaux, who works as a physical therapist at a senior care center. She comes off as very confident about her charm and her appeal to men, even though the men she goes after openly mock her. Pinky Rose, played by Spacek, is a young, naive, and childlike woman from Texas who too gets a job at the senior center.
With Millie’s roommate moving out, she is forced to find a new roommate, after accepting the conditions, Pinky becomes that new roommate. Rule plays the supporting yet vital role of Willie Hart, the pregnant wife of the landlord of the apartment complex. She gives off an incredibly sad aura as she moves with a gloomy silence, keeping isolated from other people. Willie is a muralist who makes visually appealing yet moderately unsettling murals; one in which is painted at the bottom of the apartment pool depicting godlike creatures, absurd men, and women who annoy each other.
The opening scene of the film reflects roles of each of the three women that women in general often play. Willie, the pregnant wife, represents a mother. From the mural she is painting in the pool, one can determine that she seems very sad. Millie reflects a teenager in that she is often very interested in the opposite sex. She is an odd character in that she obsessively gives recipes to others and tells them how she organizes them by the allotted time, even though no one seems to care. Pinky, when first introduced at the clinic, comes off instantly as immature and naive just like an average child.
During lunch, she blows bubbles through a straw into her drink and later plays around in a wheelchair, pretending as if she was a patient. Along with making faces at the workers, she says to Millie, “You’re the most perfect person I’ve ever met,” resembling a young child admiring their cooler older sister. As with Images, this film is also extremely subjective in terms of the characters. Each character has an excessive emphasis on their moods, attitudes, and opinions. There’s no subtly in any of the way the characters act.
Millie, as explained in the previous paragraph, is portrayed as an annoying friend who talks excessively. We’ve all experienced or know someone who has experienced a friend like this before, but someone having a personality as dramatic as Millie is just unusual. The audience quickly understands how desperate she is to find a man. Tom, a neighbor who works the grill during poolside dinners, is someone Millie fancies a lot but can’t get attention from. She even tells Pinky that he has asked her out on dates but she’s always been too busy to accept; clearly an act of desperation over someone she cares fantasizes about so deeply.
During her lunch break she eats and sits with the doctors, consisting of only men, rather than her co-workers even though it’s more expensive. Her efforts are useless in that they still don’t really acknowledge her. Her last hangout spot to socialize with men is a local bar/ recreation area, owned by Edgar and bartended by his wife Willie. The boys too preoccupied with shooting at a gun range and riding bikes outback, provides yet another obstacle for Millie to find someone. Pinky too reflects the extreme of a personality behaving as some would call childlike.
She is a withdrawn woman trying to begin a new life in California, refusing to go into specifics of her past life. The way she looks up to Millie after knowing her for less than a day is extremely odd. Most people emulate people, especially when they are the new one in town as Pinky was, when they are popular or are known for doing something good. They think by acting similar to that person, they will share that same sense of praise and popularity. What’s strange about Pinky’s situation is that Millie isn’t your ideal role model and is the complete opposite of a popular girl.
Millie is more of the nerd that’s oblivious to what other people truly think about her. It brings to the question, why would anyone want to duplicate Millie? Also, what made Pinky not want to keep her past life hidden? Altman was very creative in creating Willie’s character. Although Willie doesn’t have many lines in the film, shown mostly with her paintings instead of with people, her supporting role is necessary for the flow of the movie. With a macho husband possessing such an extravagant personality, it wouldn’t be hard to miss her character entirely.
Although withdrawn from social interaction, it is made evident that she is still caring. After Pinky attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the apartment pool, Willie didn’t hesitate to jump in and save her. Also in the final scene, even though Willie and Pinky were both messing around with her husband, she still decided to take them in and let them work at the bar with her after the “accidental” death of her husband. The three women make a complete 360 from polar opposites, into a family.
The objective reality of the film is evident through its use of the visual representation found in the mirrors and the water. Mirrors and reflections represent the way Millie views herself. Through the mirrors, we begin to understand Millie’s obsession with looking good, something she is proud of accomplishing. Millie is always beautifying herself by making small changes to her clothes, touching her hair constantly to make sure her curls are intact, and perfecting her makeup. She looks at her reflection, apparently adoring what she says looking back at her, even though no one can figuratively see her.
The mirror and the reflections represent Millie’s invisibility to other people in that when you look in the mirror, you are the only one to take notice of what’s reflecting back. Water is also extremely prevalent in the film’s entirety. Each of the three female protagonists of the film is associated with water in one way or another. The opening shot of pregnant Willie painting a mural and water being immersed as a backdrop is said by Altman to represent “the amniotic fluid surrounding a fetus,” (Ebert).
The seceding scene shows Millie and her coworkers helping old people slowly descend into a pool- going to the water as their lives initially started. The wavy line shown on the screen is thought to represent an umbilical cord connecting the person to its life line. Also located in the pool is the crucial turning point in which Pinky jumps into the pool from the balcony, to be later saved by Willie. The movie does feature men; however they are of far less significance to the main protagonists. Edgar, played by Robert Fortier, is the husband of Willie.
What someone might call a “manly man,” Edgar showcases himself with motorcycles, beer, and guns. He is very much a drunk who tries to portray himself as a benevolent western gunslinger and fails to acknowledge his wife properly. The other men, often seen lounging around the apartment’s pool, are objects of Millie’s captivation. She always comes off in preparation for dates or dinner plans with these gentleman, even though they never actually happen and they fail to notice her. It is understood fairly quickly that Millie is a lonely soul.
The men are used only to further emphasize the personality of the female characters they come in contact with. It is obvious that this film was primarily focused on the significance of the character rather than creating an high-suspense adventure like Stephen Spielberg did with his film Jaws created a mere two years previously. Each actress perfectly resembles their characters through their looks and acting capabilities. Rule depicts Willie with no apparent expression on the face and a sad look in her eyes. Spacek’s light hair and eyes that stare in adoration fit a character named Pinky.
Duvall especially contributed a lot to the creation of the film. She was accountable for creating the recipes, the diary entries, and a great deal of the dialogue her character Millie had. Her big brown round eyes resemble a deer in headlights as she is oblivious to the feelings others have towards her. It’s no wonder why she took home the Cannes Film Festival and Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards best actress award. Though the actors fit the characters well and portrayed each scene wonderfully, some things are left unanswered for the audience. Although Pinky is a main character, not a lot is understood about her past.
Upon completion of the film, it is still left a mystery why she left Texas and whether or not she was actually from there. When Millie asked for specifics on what part of Texas she was from, Pinky accused her of giving her the third degree and avoided the question. Also, when Pinky saw her “parents” in the hospital she claimed that she had never seen them before, screaming for them to get out. This was a very peculiar scene since the old couple claim to be Pinky’s parents, but look far too old to actually be them. Whether they are frauds, grandparents, or her adoptive parents, is never actually presented.
Another mystery Altman added to make the movie come off as a dream, where not everything makes sense and only certain details are vivid. For its use of water coming in and out of scenes with the primary characters, even though water is not actually present, and the mysteries that leave the audience questioning scenes, 3 Women possesses a dream-like quality. The idea of the film, the story, the cast, and everything included, was said by Altman to come to him in a dream, so he wanted to express it as such. The message and the overall point of the film are left open to interpretation for the audience.
Altman himself says he is not exactly sure what the ending means but has a “theory” on what it signifies and what actually occurred. He wanted to create a film filled with emotion and allusion rather than “surface realities caught with the camera’s allegedly objective eye,” (Sterritt). Essentially this movie is not a narrative in any way but reflects the three stages of a woman’s life. The three women merge into a single person, who is mother, daughter, and granddaughter, “isolated but serenely self-sufficient (Canby). The film is about age and youth and the overall quality of American life.
Trying to decipher the exact meaning of the movie is pointless in that no one could be definite for sure. 3 Women is a film concentrated more on mystery, mood, and behavior than the use of plot devices. In both Images and 3 Women, it is evident that Altman avoided an attempt to make a flashy movie in order to compete at the same level as his younger comrades in the business. Images depicted a fairytale and 3 Women, a dream; both very unconventional types of films. He was far too interested in the preservation of Hollywood art to care about garnering publicity.
These were films that had emphasis on ambiguous between objective reality, and character subjectivity, decorated with abstract, enigmatic compositions. Both were films in which Altman was involved both with the writing and directing process, enabling him to project on screen what he himself envisioned as the direction of the movie. Also, these films examined madness in its female characters. It is no coincidence that these specific films both won a best actress award at Cannes. Although Altman’s movies don’t always do extremely well at the box office, they are perpetually the subject of a lot of analytical attention.