Monday, July 24, 2006

Altman's Images

At first it started out as Altman week, then I bumped it up to Altman month, but I'm thinking that this may have to be the Summer of Altman! The man's made a lot of films, so I'll have plenty to see to carry me through the next month and a half. Yesterday's stop on the summer of Altsanity was Images, a film that comes from the same weird dreamy mold as 3 Women.

This film is far removed from what's typically considered Altmanesque, there's no overlapping dialogue and only five people in the entire cast. You'd be hard pressed to find a minute of Nashville with only five people in it. I hadn't heard much about this dreamy Altman stuff and it's fascinating to discover these films because they're so ambiguous and challenging. Images takes place in an entirely subjective world, we're immersed in Cathryn's mind and see all her delusions and hallucinations. The film has a lot of horror elements and some impressive scares, but it works because it remains more interested in depicting the character's struggle than scaring the audience. A lot of unsuccessful films fail because they're trying to appeal to the audience rather than staying true to the characters' story. This is particularly true in comedies and horror movies where there's an easy measure of audience reaction. If people aren't laughing or scared, you could think that your film is a failure, or it could mean that the film works on a more subtle level than typical genre fare.

I read an article in the New York Times magazine Sunday about horror films and in it, the Pang brothers were talking about how American audiences need to everything explained. In most of these new wave Asian horror films there is no logical explanation for what happens. A film like The Ring has a great setup, but there's no satisfying answer for the film's mysteries. So, the joy of the film has to be in just experiencing the horror rather than seeking an answer. However, the fact that there's no way to make the horror element make sense doesn't mean that the character arcs shouldn't make sense. A film like A Tale of Two Sisters doesn't fail because the story makes little sense, it fails because the filmmaker puts scares ahead of logical character development. That's the sort of film that could work if it was made by a supreme stylist like Wong Kar-Wai, where the film's so beautiful you don't even care if it makes character or narrative sense. However, it was not.

Anyway, Altman's Images has a lot in common with recent Asian horror films. I think the first appearance of Rene in their apartment is a great scare moment and the overmodulated uniquely 70s sound of Cathryn's scream is viscerally disturbing. However, the film is more about exploring Cathryn's psychosis. She is filled with guilt for cheating on her husband, this guilt is manifested in the hallucination of Rene. Whenever she's alone, this guilt plagues her, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

Cathryn's vivid imagination is evidenced by the film's narration, a story about a unicorn that she most likely made up during her summers up at the cabin alone when she was younger. Because they're in such an isolated place, her sense of internal tumult is magnified. Everyone she runs into ties into a memory, a piece of her psyche that she doesn't necessarily want to deal with.

Rene lingers in her mind, distracting her from her relationship with Hugh and also magnifying Hugh's inadequecies. When she shoots Rene, she shoots a camera, the instrument used to preserve images. Clearly she's trying to rid herself of unwanted memories, however it's not so easy. Marcel remains, offering her the chance to cheat in the present. By the film's end, she's killing all the hallucinations, trying to lay waste to her demons, and she does that to the hallucination of Marcel.

While at the cabin, Cathryn meets Susannah, a younger incarnation of herself. Meeting Susannah puts her back in the fantasy mindset she held when she was younger, and she turns reality into a stage to play out the imagined narrative. A critical line is when Susannah says that if she doesn't have any friends, she'll make some up to play with. That's essentially what Cathryn has done, create fictional versions of people she knows as a way to deal with her emotional issues.

However, Susannah becomes delusional enough by the end that she sees Hugh as a version of herself and kills him. Her reality and interior world has merged, leading her to believe that she can murder people without consequence. I feel like the version of herself that's also Hugh is meant to be her personal weakness. Hugh is constantly shown as less manly and mature than her other men, a boyish American rather than the European men. Also, she clearly feels that she's remaining weak and allowing Hugh to cheat on her, so all her weakness is mixed up in this version of herself. By killing it, she thinks she can overcome her problems and become stronger, however, she's so gone at this point that she can't tell the difference between reality and delusion.

I don't think the film is as successful as 3 Women, though it was clearly a stopping point on the road to that film. Both films deal with shifting identities in a dreamlike world. The film that this really reminded me of is Lynch's Lost Highway. Both films feature a hero trapped in a lifeless marriage who wanders into a psychological dreamworld built on guilt and shame. Images has a bunch of interesting stylistic touches, the dream montage when Cathryn stands outside the door and the opening with the shifting Cathryns when they first get to the cabin.

I also like the way Altman plays with identity by having all the characters named after other actors in the movie. So, Susannah York plays Cathryn and Cathryn Harrison plays Susannah. I'd imagine it was a confusing set, but it's an interesting meta commentary on the shifting of identities involved in acting.

So, this was another great Altman film. The man was doing all kinds of stuff in the 70s. Next up in my Altman journey will be California Split. And as a bonus, here's my ranking of all the Altman films I've seen.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller
3 Women
A Prarie Home Companion
Short Cuts
The Long Goodbye
The Player

Related Posts
Short Cuts (6/10/2005)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (5/11/2006)
Nashville (7/7/2006)

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