Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Blind Spot 2015: Robert Altman's 3 Women



Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) goes across the street to the hospital to eat, rambles on and on to the doctors there about recipes she wants to try out, flirts uncontrollably. Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) blow bubbles in her Coke, wanders around, gazes, mimics, obsesses over Millie. Willie Hart (Janice Rule) paints murals; she is the strong, silent type, married to the cowboy landlord Edgar (Robert Fortier) and pregnant with his baby.


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The finest character studies, for me, are the ones that blend idealism and obsession. At one point while watching Robert Altman's 1977 film 3 Women, I couldn't help but think about another film, released 30 years later, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Then, at another point, another film came to mind, Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966). These are three films about characters with the need to both idealize and obsess, to create something real out of something that is not there. As Pinky becomes more and more enamored of Millie in the early parts of the film, she even openly states that Millie is "the most perfect person I've ever met." Much like Bob Ford to Jesse James or Elisabet to Alma.

Make no mistake, all of these films are unique in their own right. This one is Robert Altman's most confident work (that I've seen) and easily his most original. That in a career of nothing but unique and original films. I LOVE this one. I really do.


3 Women has been on my watch list for years now. I kept putting it off for no particular reason really. I just got in an Altman kick years ago and didn't make it to this one. I always knew I would. It starts out bizarre enough and then goes to places we never expect, each sequence building on that original bizarreness in ways only imaginable by the one who created it. 

One of the first things that struck me, as usual, was the score. This one by Gerald Busby kickstarts a tone that will play throughout the entirety of the film. It is brooding and out-of-place until its not. It shifts to highlight the tone and characters, ultimately blending into the picture just as the characters blend together. I couldn't help but note the surrealism it and Altman's camera create and also the humor. When the Edgar character is introduced, so is a six-shooter, the score, jazzy this time, and, again, out-of-place. Then, it goes back to where it started.

Like all of Altman's films, 3 Women prides itself on its voyeur quality. Background dialogue is as present as the main. Sometimes we look at a character, hear them talking, but their mouth isn't moving. Often, unimportant conversations play in the background, while the camera holds on a face or a reaction or an action totally unrelated to the voices. This is all intentional and endlessly interesting to me. And there are no better faces in movies during this time period than that of Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek.


The world the Duvall character, Millie, is one of microwave ovens and mindless chatter of such. In her mindless chatter is a desperation to be noticed, desired. She wants to find a man and spouts off cliches about the newest fashions and dinner party hors d'oeuvres and says things to childish Pinky like, "You know that old saying 'The way to a man's heart is through his stomach'? That's true sometimes."

The world of the Spacek character, Pinky, is one of childish innocence, mimicry and longing. She is desperate as well but her desperation is more of the kind of a youth looking for an identity. She latches on to the chatty Millie, becomes her roommate, and begins to literally take over parts of her identity. Then, after an "accident" in which Pinky is hospitalized, her parents come to visit from Texas. They may or may not actually be her parents. She seems to have shed her original identity, looking for a Millie, someone who can grow her from a girl into a woman.

The world of the Rule character, Willie, is of dirt bike races and beer drinking and shooting ranges. In fact, her home is "Dodge City," a run-down Western-themed "attraction" that is really just a bar, a dirt bike track, and a shooting range. Willie's world is a man's world. She is decidedly woman though, carrying the thing that makes women so special, the ability to carry life. 


On only one viewing, it would not be possible for me to even begin to understand the thematic depths Altman created here. I find myself wondering what it might be like to have seen this film in a theater in 1977. I can't imagine how this film's original audiences might have reacted to it.

It is visually astounding, often relying on close-ups, sometimes those close-ups split by a water effect on the screen, or a blur as if looking through water. The murals that Willie paints are of strange human figures doing battle with each other. The mural we see most often is at the bottom of a swimming pool, divided by a barrier of water, very literally.

The final scenes of 3 Women are both unbelievable and believable...and totally enlightening. We sense how these three women found what each was looking for all along. Whether they are happy about it is up for interpretation. The men are gone though. We don't know where. But they are gone. Though I wondered when it would become so at times, the title of this film is quite apt. Women are mothers and daughters and both at once and so much more. Strange how simple and complex this film is. That is its crowning achievement. 

9 comments:

  1. OMG! I was so afraid that you'd hate this. I'm so happy I was wrong. This movie is one of those films that lives on. Like, it's so much, so many layers packed in there. THIS is what art house films should strive to be...films that don't rest on gimmick but pack such lasting punches.

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    1. Sometimes oddball art house stuff like this doesn't work for me. True. But this is a totally solid, moody character study. I really dug it. I want to watch it again. I think what really made it sing was the work from Duvall. Spacek, too. But Duvall is so perfect. Plus, I have seen a lot of Altman, so I was easily able to connect to the style, despite this being the strangest of his films that I've seen.

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    2. YES, Duvall is brilliant here. I listed her a year or so ago as one of the top ten Leading Female performances of all time. Just stunning, committed work here.

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  2. YAY! Watched this last year for Hit Me With Your Best Shot, and you're right about so many things: it is visually and thematically astounding, both simple and complex, and the score is "out of place until it's not" (LOVE that observation). I love that it sprang from one of Altman's dreams and he originally wanted to shoot it without a script - the film has a very dream-like quality to it, almost as if he didn't write a script and just shot what he felt. I think that's why it is both simple and complex.

    Also interesting that you liken it to The Assassination of Jesse James.... I feel like 3 Women is always described as being similar to some other film (mostly Persona), which is weird because it is really its own thing. But what I realized while reading this was that this film is SO VERY MUCH its own thing, that the only way to even begin to describe it is to liken it to something else. I saw traces of Single White Female and Under the Skin (but then, I had just seen the latter not long before seeing this), but you can connect it to a lot of other movies.

    Great write-up. So glad you liked this one!

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    1. Thanks, man. I truly did like this one. I, too, read that this idea came from a dream Altman had, and it plays just like a strange dream. He captured that quality to a perfection that is so rare. It's something Lynch does often, but I have yet to be able to connect to a Lynch film anywhere near the way I was with this one.

      I think when dealing with a movie that is so much about evoking a certain mood that you almost have to put it beside other movies that did the same thing.

      Thanks again, Dan!

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  3. I vaguely recall hearing about 3 women in passing but not really thought to much about it, but I'm so intrigued! What a fantastic cast as well.

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    1. It really does have a superb cast. Definitely check it out. It's weird but so satisfying in an odd way.

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  4. What a beautiful review! I also love what you said about character studies based on idealism and obsession. That gives me something to ponder. :-)

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    1. Thanks! I hope that idea is clear. I'm really talking about the way we obsess over what we idealize or covet in a sense. Movies like this are few and far between and when you catch a good one, it's so satisfying.

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