Tuesday, January 31, 2012

No Apologies

I have been quite uninspired these last many weeks to write anything on this blog. I was worried that it might have even run its course, as I typically enjoy starting projects and less typically enjoy seeing them through, preferring to allow them to decamp to the part of my brain that is for unfinished things. This is a cubby that I slide open every once in a while so that I can stare at its contents. Sometimes I enjoy imagining that they are all finished. Sometimes I frown at them.

I think this blog should probably have an official end some day instead of just fizzling out. It's hard to imagine doing this beyond, say, my thirties. I can't even imagine who reads this stuff I write. The main reason I do it is that otherwise I would bother people all the time by explaining these opinions out loud to them, whether they wanted to hear them or not. I mean, even more than I do already. The second reason is that I like to look back and see what all I've written in the last several months, and remember what movies I've seen and how they churn in the soup of the memories of my real and active experiences- in other words, how I've measured time by, among other things, the movies I've seen. It's just really comforting for me.

BUT- I have many other things to do, some of them slightly more serious than this. I have a comic book that I started ages ago as a little project that was supposed to take a year and is forever getting put aside. I haven't wanted to be passive. I want to make things right now. So I've been either too tired or too antsy to watch anything that isn't just easy yuks, like "Portlandia," or "30 Rock" (shudder. A little too much of that one). Of course, the Netflix queue is the usual parade of subtitled masterpieces. They will all have to wait. I have passed out in front of, among other potentially great things, two separate films by Andrei Tarkovsky; both were stunning, poetic works of genius, based on what I was able to see in the few minutes before I lost consciousness.

Last weekend, after snoring through 3 Women, the Altman classic, I resolved to do something about this. Jamie, as usual, is the one responsible for the programming (she really knows what she's doing) and she suggested that Bergman's Persona would probably hold many parallels to 3 Women, which she had finished after I nodded off.

So, fortified by weekend sleep, we watched both films (she was game for watching 3 Women again), and sure enough, the connections are uncanny (Altman, in turns out, claimed Persona as inspiration). Both films concern chiefly two women each, with a third, older woman keeping to the shadows. Both have themes of the shifting and loss of identity, perhaps caused in part by a close and stormy friendship. Yet while both stories pulse with danger, Persona merely broods among its possibilities; 3 Women is more vicious and imaginative, and eventually, delivers some kind of payoff (without resolving or explaining too much).

It also reminded me of what often comes up when Altman is the subject of a movie conversation: many are of the opinion that he seemed never to care about his characters, and that this is a big problem. I may have reached a position on this at last. First, whether or not he cared, he was undoubtedly fascinated by his characters. Millie, the heroine of 3 Women, is perceived as bland and irritating by her coworkers and neighbors, and yet it is this exact quality that Altman studies, enraptured; the more boring she is, the more he obsesses over the details of exactly how she is boring. Seriously, who on earth would serve Easy Cheese at a dinner party? It's just kind of amazing.

Furthermore, I would argue that his willingness to put his characters through hell and watch them, perhaps even clinically, as they suffer, doesn't really tell us whether he cares about them or not. I suspect that he saw chaos as the denominator of life, and standing on this principal, refused to throw lifelines to his characters in distress. Can we say how this made him feel? For all we know, he may have laughed evilly- or perhaps he suffered right along with them. The fact that he makes us care is the point of the exercise.

And it is indeed a tiny hell that Millie and her sometimes-friend Pinky must negotiate in 3 Women. The hell is built from three or four locations, a lot of unpleasant people, and a score full of slanting dissonances that is somewhere between Bernard Hermann and the Jonny Greenwood score for There Will Be Blood. Everyone in the story seems trapped in this shifting and forbidding microcosm. Sometimes it's even terrifying. There is a nightmare sequence late in the film that is the best I've ever seen at capturing the feeling of actually waking, too slowly, from a nightmare- when, as Stephen King once wrote, your bed is "a lake of rancid dreams." Jamie experienced it in the dark late hours, the only one awake in the house.

Any movie that can be this intense and yet escape classification and most attempts at a summarization is a home run in my book. I will at least say that, like most Altman films, this is a story of survival- some can, and some can't. Find out for yourself who does.