3 Women Robert Altman (1977; USA) Shelley Duvalle; Sissy Spacek; Janice Rule
Viewed on dvd 2nd March 2019
Malice in Wonderland
In Robert Altman’s opening shot we see in big close up the wrinkled skin of the thigh of an elderly women pass slowly down through frame. The camera tracks back to reveal that the woman, in a bathing suit, is descending into a remedial exercise pool in which other elderly clients are being helped to move slowly through the knee high water by young female assistants. This bizarre setting immediately locates Altman’s focus on the existence of parallel worlds that operate at least one remove from the humdrum logic of everyday life. The camera pans from the pool to an overlooking observation booth where Pinkie sits staring out in blank incomprehension at the aqueous therapy taking place in front of her. Both she and the pool alien modes of existence.
With her long blond hair and girlish innocent looks Sissy Spacek is a shoe-in for Alice of Wonderland fame. Her performance as Pinkie has much of Alice’s wide eyed engagement with the successive situations after the pool, in which she finds herself: the Dodge City Bar and Millie’s Spanish style courtyard apartment built round a swimming pool. This in not to say that Pinkie represents in any way re-telling of the Wonderland story, but only that there are critical elements in the movie suggesting that within its scripting there are transposed elements of Carroll’s perception about disparate logics abroad in the world.
Like Alice, Pinkie finds herself in a series of worlds whose logical constructs confound her. She struggles to make sense of what is happening around her, most of the time responding reactively rather than actively. Whereas Alice’s momentary discomfiture is assuaged by her being able to reference the comforting dictum’s of a stolid middle class upbringing, Pinkie has none such to fall back on. She is a sort of repository of emptiness, a product of an impoverished social environment, the desolation of America, where life is drowned out in the jingle of a commercialised culture. Unlike Alice, Spacek can’t oppose her situation with the resources of a culture. She has to survive and to survive she has to make full use of attributes she possesses: a certain native cunning and an amoral compass of desires. And Pinkie’s desire latches onto Millie as an object of emulation.
In relation to the second Alice book ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Carroll’s characters were almost all playing cards, that is to say beings comprised wholly of ‘surfaces’. And Duvalle’s Millie is all surface. As if on a roll of wallpaper all the slogans shibboleths and beliefs of vacuous Americana have been pasted over her being. As much in persona, appearance look and dress as in her speech Millie presents herself as a sort of replicant, a product of a society based on mass production. She is an assemblage of the American Beauty Production line compleat with belief system that has stamped upon the female form the attributes of charm poise and decorum. With the which accomplishments Millie broadcasts an incessant daisy chain monologue directed at some one and no one but which signals both her self armour and her vulnerability. Like one of Carroll’s playing cards Duvalle looks out at a world which she sees only in terms of one dimension into which she wants to fit almost sequentially as part of the pack. She fails to see that nobody is playing cards any longer.
Pinkie follows Millie through the worlds Altman portrays: the geriatric remedial centre, the Dodge City complex of bar, shooting range and dirt track and her residential gated community. As Millie navigates through these portals, Pinkie understands that to survive in settings where no one talks and no one listens, she herself has to become like Millie, a replicant. Becoming a replicant is perhaps the only answer to her question, who am I? In the land that invented mass replication in infinite sets, Ford motor cars, coke bottles and baby doll faces, this is the natural course of reaction for Pinkie. But whereas it seems that Millie has absorbed the ethos of replication through magazines, through movies, through adverts etc., Pinkie’s survival plan to replicate Millie, is a conscious decision, and undertaken as a stratagem. In the USA replication is to survival what the dream is to success: the means to conform to life’s expectations. Unashamedly with cunning and within her own limitations she tries to become Millie, a replication attempt that is foredoomed even before Pinkie starts to understand that Millie’s life is based on self delusion.
Underlying Altman’s psychic probing of the surfaces of the feminine anima in 3 Women, is the presence of the third woman (Janice Rule). The 3rd woman is the artist. The woman who responds to the primal urges of pregnancy not by replication of form, but by instinct. The 3rd woman paints surfaces, covering the swimming pool walls with paintings of figurative monsters that leer out threaten and disturb the waters of the conscious mind. She transforms surfaces so that they suggest a sort of depth psychology. Surfaces that unconsciously depict motifs of archaic memories, repressed desire and carnal fears. As Altman’s camera glides over the painted images it calls up a symbolic matrix of experience before the time of replication. It is Altman’s counterbalancing force, set in play to oppose the worlds where the young lead the old through the water of life, where the men dress as cowboys, and time is idled away in display mode sitting round condo pool drinking.
With a script that has all the marks of improvisation (Shelley Duvall fills out her character with consummate knowledge and skill) 3 Women stumbles into obfuscation as it moves towards its finale. Nevertheless the ending of the movie is comparatively insignificant when considered in relation to the what Altman and his actors carry through in the body of the film. As in Nashville, so in 3 Women Altman opens up America in the manner of few other directors. A culture of isolated souls abroad in worlds where there is little depth but plenty of surface. America as a series of disconnections. America as a land of defined by mass production of experience. What Duvalle and Spacek do is to locate these traits in their performances as women. As women their beings are warped and twisted by cultural imperative that turns them into commodities. But their responses are located in the female key. Unlike most of today’s movies they do not switch to the masculine key in order to come to some sort of reckoning.