The Best Movie Critic + review

3 Women

Hi gang, Ben here. With barely over a quarter century under my belt, and having spent a good deal of that time pursuing other endeavors than movies, there are still plenty of great and/or infamous movies I haven’t gotten around to checking out yet. Over the next few months, barring any new or pertinent movies I just have to write about, I’m going to follow a single director, actor, cinematographer, special effects guy, or whoever I feel like for three movies at a time and try to fill in some of my gaps. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive dissection of a body of work; if that’s what you’re looking for, I would highly recommend taking an inter-trip over to Hollywood Projects. This is more of an exploration of the lesser known works of moviemakers I already love. If you, like me, have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark 5 million times but somehow never caught 1941 or Empire of the Sun, that’s the kind of stuff I’ll be discussing here.

First up, I’d like to dig a little deeper into the body of work of 70s golden boy and infamous curmudgeon Robert Altman. Altman taught us many important lessons about the language of cinema. For example, in Nashville, he showed us that you can have multiple characters talking at the same time. In M*A*S*H, he showed us that you can have multiple characters talking at the same time while wearing surgical masks so you can’t tell who’s talking. What I’m saying is they don’t call the man a genius for nothin’.

In 1977, Robert Altman used the clout he'd cultivated in Hollywood through movies like M*A*S*H and Nashville to push a movie through production that must have had studio execs scratching their heads. 3 Women is about…er, well, I don’t actually know what 3 Women is about. The movie opens as Pinky (Sissy Spacek) starts a new job at a spa for the elderly somewhere in California. She becomes fast friends with her coworker Millie (Shelley Duvall), and the two end up moving in together before long. Things seem normal enough for about 5 seconds before the cracks in reality start to show. Though Pinky’s naivety and child-like, wide-eyed wonder at the most mundane things could be explained by her recent move from rural Texas to her new California locale, Sissy Spacek plays it more like Pinky has never interacted with another human being before. It’s as if she were literally born yesterday. And then there’s Millie, who at first seems fashionable, sociable, and well-adjusted. It’s only after spending more time with her that we notice she spends all day regurgitating quotes and factoids from housekeeping and style magazines. She has a fixation on tuna melts and is fond of reciting time-saving recipes. The people she attempts to interact with ignore her. It’s unnerving, as if they’re staring and talking through her. Oh, and I should probably mention that it’s revealed fairly early on that both Millie and Pinky’s birth names are Mildred. At one point Pinky steals Millie’s social security number, but 3 Women doesn’t become Single White Female…exactly. There is a persona swap, but the details and outcome are less specific, much more vaguely sinister.

Much of the action in 3 Women takes place at the pair of Mildreds’ apartment complex and at Millie’s favorite bar/shooting range/dirtbike track (What, you don’t have a favorite bar/shooting range/dirtbike track?). Both are managed by aging good ol’ boy Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier) – think Stuntman Mike from Death Proof but even more impotent and, you know, not a serial killer (I think? I don’t actually know what’s happening in this movie.). Edgar, 3 Women’s only central male character, romantically entangles himself with each of the movie’s titular women, but holds power over none of them. That’s important…or not, hard to tell. The last of the 3 women is Edgar’s wife, Willie (Janice Rule), who is very pregnant and speaks maybe 5 lines in the entire movie. She spends her time painting ominous, haunting murals of, that’s right you guessed it, primitive humanoid beings – 3 women, one of them pregnant, and one male – in a primal, violent struggle for social and sexual dominance. Oh wait, you didn’t guess it?

So I’ve just spent two paragraphs groping around trying to find the words to say, simply, 3 Women is hard to discuss in terms of plot. That’s probably because 3 Women is not a narrative, per se, but rather is a direct adaptation of a dream Robert Altman had. This might have been helpful information to have known before watching the movie. As the story goes, Altman dreamt the movie precisely as it appears onscreen, right down to the casting. What’s interesting, I think, is that not knowing the scoop on 3 Women’s origin actually successfully replicates the experience of confusion and frustration in weird dreams. Watching 3 Women, I was dreadfully concerned that I did not understand “the rules,” just as I would be in a bizarre, shifting dream.

I should probably come clean at this point. I am notoriously hateful toward what you might generally call “surreal, dreamlike” movies. I think far too many “artful” moviemakers use dream logic and surrealist reality-blurring as a shortcut to prestige. It’s easy to cover up a lack of narrative control with surrealism; it’s much more difficult to tell a taut narrative; it’s more difficult still to produce a convincing, purposeful surreal movie. Further more, surrealism is too often the refuge of viewers who are not so much movie fans as they are fans of bragging to their friends about this “totally fucked up thing” they just saw. How many conversations have I had with people who’s knowledge of non-mainstream movies begins and ends with David Lynch?* So I have a big chip on my shoulder, I admit it. I can’t honestly say whether I would have appreciated 3 Women as much if it hadn’t been preceded by the forgive-all-sins “Directed by Robert Altman” credit at the beginning. But when my interest in Altman convinced me to take a closer look, I was surprised at what I found. You know that sickening, betrayed feeling you get in a dream when someone turns out to be not who or what they seemed to be? 3 Women captures that emotional effect with frightening accuracy. As in a dream, the point when normal becomes abnormal, when sane becomes insane is easy to overlook. Altman’s earthy, matter-of-fact shooting style makes the uneasiness below the surface that much more threatening. 3 Women is a compelling and successful if not entirely enjoyable experience. Then again, haunting, persistent dreams aren't exactly enjoyable either.

Through blind luck, I happened to double feature 3 Women with Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Though Altman pointed to Bergman's Persona as his primary influence (besides his dream) for the picture, I found some interesting concordance with Hitch's movie as well. Both movies are not concerned with what a woman is, but how a woman is made. Kim Novak's Judy can be physically and mentally remade into another woman. Pinky, Millie, and Willie are 3 corporeal bodies, but they represent at least twice or three times as many personae. Pain and discord stem from the fabricated characters we wear, specifically in Vertigo, more intuitively in 3 Women. The primary difference between the two movies is that in Vertigo Jimmy Stewart's Scottie is a man molding a woman into an idealized fictional character, whereas 3 Women's Edgar has no efficacy over Altman's women. Of course, there is Altman himself conducting his great symphony of role formation and destruction from behind the camera...


*Don't get me wrong, I’m down with some Lynch. Though for a time I would have lumped him in with the “woah man, totally surreallllll” set, lately I’ve been coming around to the guy. But Eraserhead can still go fuck itself, if it can get its head out of its own ass for two seconds. Whoa…

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3 Women + review