One of the best films of the 1970s, Altman’s 3 Women has happily been rediscovered and appreciated over the past few years, thanks to a Film Forum revival, followed by a swift Criterion DVD release, complete with one of Altman’s trademark bumbling-insightful commentary tracks. This was a welcome vindication for all of us who had known for a long time that Altman’s ethereal, inexplicable, wondrous film was not just “like Persona” or “a Mulholland Drive precursor” but every bit as good in its own way.
My first experience with the film came via the Encore network, one unassuming night way back in the late Nineties. I had heard of the film thanks to reviews in the big ol Ebert and Kael volumes of my childhood, and I knew that it had never been made available on video in the U.S. So when I happened upon the film at about two a.m., in one of those rare letterboxed cable viewings, I wasn’t sure exactly what I watching. I had obviously missed the first half hour or so, so I thought perhaps I wasn’t clued into some unifying context…what I saw were just odd behavioral ticks and mannerisms, opaque camera tricks, and one fascinatingly deluded protagonist, played by Shelley Duvall at her most endearingly gawky. All of it backed by that gloomily tender, flute and oboe theme. It wasn’t until the film aired again the next morning (don’t you love when that happens?), and I scrambled to get a tape in the VCR, that I realized that those mannerisms and behavioral ticks were the film, and whatever contortions the plot took, whatever spiritual transference the two main characters (Duvall and Sissy Spacek) seemed to make, were all subordinate to those little gradations in movement and speech that separated them.
Now that I’ve seen the film numerous times, on screens large and small, I still don’t think of the big overarching picture (though it is impressive in its symbolic heft) but rather those terrifyingly hilarious moments: the barely audible whispers of the conspiratorial coworkers mocking Duvall’s oblivious (or is she?) Millie, the post-Carrie soaking of Spacek’s dress in bloody cocktail sauce which she then proceeds to sorrowfully scrape back into the bottle, the spitting, gurgling, laughing face of Dirty Gertie, the local saloon’s hideous wall decoration. If you haven’t seen the film, then none of this will make sense to read, and perhaps that’s all for the better. Just as I first watched it through bleary-eyed incredulity one late night, it’s best to go into the film cold. Altman’s mix of the metaphorical and the naturalistic has never been put to better use than in 3 Women, which this weekend will be playing at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens….don’t miss it. Saturday, May 20, 1:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 21, 4:00 p.m.