Hazy Nightmare Visions: Dream Logic in the Cinema of Robert Altman

There are lots of stories about Robert Altman that solidify his reputation as the most ‘maverick’ filmmaker of his generation, but perhaps none is more telling than the time he rushed into 20th Century Fox unannounced, and pitched the dream he had the night before.

Not a script, not a treatment—a dream. A dream that didn’t even coalesce around a story or events, just a hazy, menacing notion (likely triggered by his wife suffering from severe illness at the time) about two women switching identities. Somehow, Altman managed not only to sell the damn thing, but the eventual film, titled 3 Women and starring Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek (both of whom appeared in the dream) would result in one of the purest expressions of dream logic ever put to film.

But 3 Women was neither the first nor last time Altman would reproduce such a slippery sensibility. Although he remains best known for his pointed political satires, large ensemble dramas, and iconoclastic genre deconstructions, Robert Altman is also one of the greatest purveyors of cinematic dream logic and surrealism that America ever produced.

Just prior to solidifying himself as a New Hollywood auteur par excellence, Altman dipped his toe into these strange waters with his 1969 psychosexual thriller That Cold Day in the Park, about a lonely spinster’s descent into madness after she welcomes a mysterious young man into her home. The film has a tangible hypnagogic feel, but it’s ultimately too steeped in pat psychology to leave the hard ground of reality and take flight into dreamland.

That’s not the case with Brewster McCloud (1971), a wholly bizarre, Houston-set dark comedy about an owlish young man’s attempts to build a pair of functioning, human-ready wings with the help of a sexy serial killer who appears to be his (fallen) guardian angel. Cashing in on the commercial success of his previous film, the military satire M*A*S*H*, Altman channeled his inner Fellini and Buñuel (as well as Victor Flemming, steeped as Brewster is in Wizard of Oz homages) to create one of the most bizarre studio films of its—or any—era. As was probably to be expected, Brewster failed to replicate the success of M*A*S*H*, although it wasn’t long before Altman once again decided to get weird.

Set mostly in a secluded cottage in the Irish countryside, Images (1971) stars the great British actress Susannah York as a wealthy children’s author who is beset by menacing phantoms of her past and present lovers, as well as her own sinister doppelganger. Here, Altman doubles down on That Cold Day in the Park’s themes of domestic paranoia, sexual frustration, and violent mental deterioration, resulting in the closest thing to a full-blown horror movie that he ever made.

If Brewster McCloud saw Altman paying tribute to Fellini and Buñuel, Images finds him in utter thrall to Roman Polanski and Ingmar Bergman—particularly their groundbreaking films from 1965-1966, Repulsion and Persona. Like those classics, Images deals with the violent schism of identity caused by sexual repression and strictures of social gender dynamics.

He returned once more to these themes in 1977 with 3 Women, which similarly explores the fluid nature of identity and the self (in his book Robert Altman: In the American Grain, writer Frank Caso convincingly argues That Cold Day in the Park, Images and 3 Women comprise a thematic trilogy). This time, said exploration comes through the symbiotic relationship of two young roommates (Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek), as well as their pregnant neighbor, living in a ghostly California resort town. While Images may be his scariest film, 3 Women is his most unsettling, his most beguiling, and his most surreal.

Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said of his second-to-last movie of the decade—and the biggest financial and critical disaster of his career—Quintet (1979). A glacial film both literally and figuratively, it stars Paul Newman as a seal hunter struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic ice age, who wanders into a dangerous barter town and immediately gets caught up in a deadly conspiracy revolving around a mysterious board game (called Quintet, natch).

Though the film boasts some magnificent set design and cinematography—in order to fully convey the sense of cold, Altman often borders the frame with frost—Quintet never coalesces as a story. Not that it was necessarily meant to; in spite of its genre trappings, it’s as heady and hallucinatory as the dream films that preceded it. Still, the film deserves no small critical reappraisal, if only for the cheer chutzpah of Altman convincing a major studio to give him 10 million dollars to make Bergman movie disguised as a sci-fi actioner (though it’s not that disguised, since he cast Bergman’s second favorite leading lady, Bibi Andersson, in a key role).

Although Quintet is very different from Images and 3 Women, they all conjure the hazy sensation of dreaming through the juxtaposition of impressionistic cinematography (Altman loves him some soft focus and slow zooms) and ambient score with canted angles, discordant sounds and sudden burst of violence and apoplexy. This makes for a jarring experience, one that replicates the experience of suddenly finding oneself lost in a nightmare.

Adding to their mystery are their abundance of symbolism, which Altman plucks from a diverse array of sources: Jewish mythology (That Cold Day in the Park can be read as a dybbuk tale), Greek legend (Brewster McCloud = Icarus), English folklore and fairy tales (the faerie motif strewn throughout Images), parietal art (the disturbingly evocative humanoid paintings splashed across so much of 3 Women invoke early cave paintings) and Catholic symbolism (Quintet is rife with Biblical allusions).

Likewise, they are steeped in the archetypes of fantasy, science fiction, horror and, most importantly, the weird tale, containing as they do doppelgangers and doubles, alternate realities, automatons, genus loci, sudden disappearance, psychic phenomena, astral projection and apocalypse. (I’d say it’s a wonder that genre fans have slept on these films for so long, but then I think about how every modern film that fails to fit neatly into a particular box becomes the subject of endless arguments over categorization, and I grow thankful for that they’ve mostly been regulated to the arthouse canon.)

Screenwriter Patricia Resnick, who Altman hired to turn his dream of 3 Women into a script treatment (even though no script was ever written), notes that the man was never big on reading and was the furthest thing from an intellectual, which suggests that most of these connections were unintentional (yet another staple of aesthetical weirdness: synchronicity). To my thinking, that just makes them all the more eerie.

This is not to suggest Altman was unaware of what his films meant—although in the case of 3 Women he has explicitly said as much. He may not have been well read, but that doesn’t mean he was uneducated, especially since so much of their symbolism is clearly intentional. But given his stated willingness to follow the muse wherever it took him, and his penchant for free association and collaboration (to say nothing of his famous love of marijuana) during every stage of production, it’s hardly surprising that a number of his films wound up wading through the deep end of what Carl Jung referred to as the collective unconscious.

In this regard, perhaps the filmmaker he’s most simpatico with is David Lynch, the high priest of cinematic dream logic. Lynch has compared his own creative process to catching fish, writing, “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.” He might just as well be describing Altman’s work as his own.

Unlike Lynch, who is always pushing further and further into abstraction, Altman stuck to more grounded—if still entirely idiosyncratic and formally daring—stories post-Quintet, although that’s not to say he completely abandoned dream logic. You catch fleeting moments of it throughout his later work, most notably in his long dark night of the Presidential soul psychodrama Secret Honor (1984), his orgiastic period piece segment in the anthology film Aria (1987), and his epic Raymond Carver pastiche Short Cuts (1993). Meanwhile, the most baffling (in a good way) movie in his entire filmography might just be the 1980 musical adaptation of the beloved children’s comic Popeye (1980).

But for pure, unadulterated strangeness, few films before or since can match those weird outliers from Altman’s magnificent ‘70s run.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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