#36: 3 Women
(USA, 1977; dir. Robert Altman; cin. Chuck Rosher; with Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Sierra Pecheur, Ruth Nelson, John Cromwell, Craig Richard Nelson)
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A story of someone else's remarkable generosity, or maybe just of me being massively spoiled: when I was an undergraduate and getting excited about the work of Robert Altman, I voiced some regret to my wonderful, very bashful professor of film studies that I couldn't see 3 Women, which, in addition to bearing the Altman imprimatur also sounded like some sort of Mojave Desert riff on Persona. Shivers! Regrettably, until the Criterion Collection debuted their typically splendid DVD package of 3 Women in 2004, several years after I finished college, the movie did not exist on any home format unless you happened to catch the occasional screening on one of the pay cable channels. Imagine my surprise when, the next week in class, my professor presented me with a copy of 3 Women that he had made by running the film on 35mm in the campus cinema, videorecording the image, and then processing that recording onto a VHS tape. Cine-altruism of the highest order. The only hitch was that his system for converting onto tape necessitated a 4:3 aspect ratio for the final product, and 3 Women is a super-widescreen 2:35:1 movie. Thus, the whole image got squished into a virtual square, and both Sissy Spacek and (egads!) Shelley Duvall were each rendered 175% taller and skinnier than these two walking willow-branches already are.

I first experienced 3 Women, then, as a sort of Djuna Barnes experimental drama where two barely personified vertical lines kept talking to each other in tenderness and rebuke, although the temperaments of these lines transformed from the first half of the movie to the second, amid unsubtle Jungian dichotomies of water and sand. What I perceive now as the uncanny and exaggerated horizontality of the scaly, scowling, and sharp-toothed archetypes in the third woman's murals—dotingly rendered in the crater-pits of empty pools—looked at first like sinister icons of emaciation, a presumably reluctant mother expressing her dark thoughts about malnutrition and rigidity and violence.

How apropos that 3 Women, of all movies, should prove so shape-shifty in my basic experience of what it is, how it looks, and what it shows, given that the whole film is so obsessively preoccupied with unnerving mutabilities and porous boundaries, and given that my own feelings about 3 Women are so susceptible to change. Less seduced now than I was at age 20 to the presumed homologies between womanhood and liquidity, silence and unknowability, pregnancy and mysterious imminence, I am occasionally flabbergasted that this movie doesn't drive me straight up the wall. Maya Deren ventured into much of this terrain more than thirty years earlier, and with a sharper, more dangerous edge to her fascinations. Rarely would you confuse 3 Women with any of the feminist avant-garde filmmaking of its own era, by artists like Laura Mulvey and Yvonne Rainer, who pressed even harder against default formal vocabularies and against the hieroglyphic figures of Woman that Altman privileges here: the frivolous ditherer, the stunted child, the glowering fertility goddess, the detached mother, the harridan boss. And though Altman always traced the project's origins to his "own" dreams during a period when his wife was quite ill, it's clear he's cribbing quite a bit from Persona without approximating any of Bergman's scariest and bravest material. Bibi Andersson getting the whole theater bothered while recalling a long-ago orgy pretty much TKOs Shelley Duvall nattering on about microwavable hot dogs and suitors who don't exist.

But what 3 Women has going for it, well beyond its formative status in my proto-cinephilia, even past that aura of the unreachable object that never fully dissipates even when you do reach the object, is that it frankly shouldn't exist. Nothing in the codes of Hollywood production or distribution even in the 1970s, much less now, should account for what Robert Altman's scriptless, amorphous, very likely substance-assisted subconscious is doing up there on the movie screen. Yet to watch 3 Women is to dunk yourself into the anti-narrative, fluid potentialities that exist just below the tidal surface of so much American image-making. This isn't to say that Altman lets go of story, conflict, or characterization any more than he does his conservative, focalizing premises about phallic aggression and amniotic infinitude. But as exciting as it is to see three female characters stand in such unresolved, gradually emergent relations to each other—subjectively, psychologically, erotically, socially—it's at least as exciting to see human bodies and their incongruous voices floated around on the screen like watercolor strokes, not tacked down into "characters" imprisoned by dramatic motivations or well-defined agendas. Duvall, scripting a lot of her own stuff, is such a brilliant font of kitschy wisdom and soul-destroying household tips through the first hour ("You can start by takin' some of that cheese spread and squirtin' it all in a circle on top of those sociables, and then put an olive on top of each one, k?") that I'm always suckered by how fragile and haunted she becomes after the Spacek character's midfilm turnabout from childish acolyte to contemptuous, sex-savvy scold. Is Millie Lamoreaux jealous or worried, or virginally curious, or protectively heartbroken, or just baffled or disbelieving as the resuscitated Pinkie offhandedly wonders whether she was raped by a doctor while she lay comatose in the hospital? What inner resource would Millie possibly fall on to prompt her with an appropriate emotional response, and what structures can possibly guide us, the viewers, in squaring these sinister imputations with the ghostly, aqueous farce we've been noodling around with thus far? The fact that 3 Women specifically doesn't become as intense or as fully reworked in its second half as Persona or Mulholland Drive do in their comparably remixed conclusions is not just proof of tentative artistry but a different, quieter way of catching us by surprise. Millie's paralysis is nearly as serene, even in lighting, palette, and mise-en-scène, as her cheerful oblivion previously was. It's disarmingly easy to watch Spacek evolve from elfin waif to the kind of hair-tossing California girl who would have made life miserable for Carrie White.

A funereal childbirth scene, marked by awful audio dispatches ("He's too big...") and the final recombination of personalities and logics cast a grim pall on everything, but these compete for attention with Altman's characteristic jazz-notes and humorous asides, like how Shelley Duvall's skirts are perpetually caught in her car doors though she never once notices, and how the nurses pout in the background of one dramatic scene about how the doctors are always stealing their pens. All kinds of stuff gets stolen in 3 Women, and Altman himself does some of the stealing, but the film generates an atmosphere of menace and camp, of aridity and voluptuousness, that's impressively its own. I might want to strangle that piccolo or stifle a zoom on occasion, and sometimes the movie seems best appreciated as an unwittingly cornucopial offering to drag queens everywhere: "It's Penthouse Chicken night at the club, ladies, so bring your cans of tomato soup and your favorite yellow and purple dress!" But as self-consciously "arty" as 3 Women often feels, I never doubt that it is art in some proud, irreducible way. As superior as I let myself feel toward some of its choices, I always wind up humbled by its allegiance to obliquity, its desert tranquility laced with inner disquiet.

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