Sunday, March 05, 2006

That Cold Day In The Park

The Robert Altman style we know and love was born not as much in his first studio feature film, Countdown (1968), as in his second, That Cold Day In The Park (1969). It strikes me as the first film of a loose “female subjectivity” trilogy, later to include Images and 3 Women.

What we have here, at least nominally, is a psychodrama with some suspense-thriller elements. Sandy Dennis is Frances, a thirty-ish spinster who sees a young man getting soaked by rain on a park bench. She invites him in to dry off and clean up; he does so silently; she assumes he’s mute; he goes along with her assumption. He spends the night in the guest room; she locks him in and makes him her prisoner. He quietly makes away through the fire escape, but returns to continue “playing her game”. One thing leads to another, and soon we’re in gothic-land.

The true star of the movie is the signature audiovisual strategy that Altman puts into place here, fully-formed, for the first time. He uses a potent combination of: (1) fluid, prowling pans, (2) zooms, both in and out, and (3) constant play with in-focus and out-of-focus. In the opening shot we watch Frances take a winding path home. The camera keeps up with her—steadily panning and zooming, but not moving—catching the sun and exploding briefly with a lens flare, but doggedly following her without cutting. Fifteen seconds into the film, you already know it’s going to be a visual treat.

Minutes later, she sets the table for her elderly guests and serves them dinner but her attention keeps wandering over to the young man she sees through the venetian blinds. (I believed that film noir had exhausted the possibilities of venetian blinds until I saw this movie—they’re ubiquitous and ominous here, and not just as instruments that provide effects of light and shadow.) At first the blinds are in perfect focus through her POV, like black shiny blades. Then the zooms begin and the blinds turn soft, becoming fat horizontal bars (confining her in her subjectivity?) until finally they turn into large foggy smears on the screen. The boy comes into focus at last; the rest of the image swims in milky out-of-focus. This blending of distinctness and indistinctness in the image somehow makes you feel a bit queasy.

Much of the movie takes place in the oppressively brown and beige apartment, and this is where Altman has a field day, lavishing care on shooting both people and objects, or often shooting people through objects. Unexpectedly, we discover the optical properties of glass-block, mirrored tables, gently swaying candle-flames, translucent plastic panels, and shiny cutlery. It's also interesting to witness how each of these objects is transformed—even expressionistically charged, one could say—with abstraction when examined in luxuriant out-of-focus for extended periods of time.

In one scene, Frances and the boy feast on pot brownies and play an erotically loaded game of hide-and-seek with blindfolds. In a wonderfully perverse touch, Altman shoots the scene, despite their altered state, with no visual effects. The zooms and other visual devices are used, rigorously, only to connote Frances’ instability. They (wisely) don’t belong in this scene, which finds her at her most blissful. The scene ends oddly with the boy escaping into his room, and Frances peeking through the keyhole and then swooning limp by the door, exactly as Jacqueline Sassard did in Chabrol’s Les Biches the previous year (coincidence?). Also reminiscent of Chabrol’s films of that period—which were scored by Pierre Jansen—is the modernist music by Johnny Mandel, all spooky tone clusters played on solo piano, and a world away from Mandel’s gorgeous orchestrations of “Suicide Is Painless” in MASH, Altman's next film.

Which brings me to the use of sound, which in this movie is not quite as radical as the visual aspects but is nevertheless unmistakably Altman. There are numerous ingenious instances but the one I’ll never forget takes place at a gynecologist’s office where Frances waits for her appointment and we hear numerous overlapped women’s voices all around her (as in Dr. T & The Women). And did I mention that the entire scene is shot from outside the building, through venetian blinds? When we watch her meeting with the nurse, it's a dead ringer for the shot of Alan Rudolph’s pitch to Tim Robbins, also seen through venetian blinds, in The Player (Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate, remember?).

One final example: An elderly man invites himself into Frances’ apartment, and declares his love—or more precisely, his lust—for her. She finds him repellent, but she doesn’t stop him as he drones on about making love to her. As she watches him catatonically, Altman abruptly cuts to the gynecologist’s table, Frances’ legs spread, as the doctor unsheaths a terrifying metal instrument. Meanwhile, the man drones on in the soundtrack. It's every bit as creepy as anything in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, twenty years later.

Around the time he made A Wedding, Altman was asked about his old movies and if he ever looked at them. He replied, "I look at them. And there's nothing I'd change in any one of them. They're finished works, reflecting a specific film experience. To change them would be like doing plastic surgery. And, honestly, I like 'em better than I did at the time. I looked at That Cold Day In The Park recently and I wanna tell you, that's one hell of a movie!" Not perhaps an objective viewpoint but I think he's right. And yo, distributor-man: put the darned thing on DVD already.

This post is part of the Robert Altman Blog-A-Thon masterminded by Matt Zoller Seitz.


Blogger girish said...

MZS's post, "McCabe & Mr. Milch", is excellent.

March 05, 2006 1:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Altman Blog-A-Thon continues:
Campaspe the Siren.
Brian at Five Branch Tree.

March 05, 2006 2:06 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, while I haven't seen That Cold Day in the Park, I enjoyed this, especially because of the way you focus on the film's visual style (which, alone, makes me also wish someone would put the thing on DVD). Also, a nice reference to Les Biches (one of my favorite Chabrol films); most of all, I really like your illustration for this post.

March 05, 2006 2:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh thank you, Michael.
I'm a big fan of that Chabrol 1967-1973 period. There are also many visual-strategic parallels between this film and those Chabrol movies, but unfortunately I couldn't get into them here.
Perhaps for another post...(the blogger's eternal cry).

March 05, 2006 2:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay. More Altman.
Eric Henderson, and
Matt Prigge.

March 05, 2006 6:48 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Girish: I guess you were ready to answer my question place in the previous comment section. I think Park is due serious re-evaluation, especially since it was slammed when it was first released. I remember reading a comment by Richard Zanuck saying he would not have hired Altman to direct M*A*S*H had he remembered that Altman also did Park. It has been well over thirty years since I've seen it.

March 05, 2006 7:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Yes, Peter. I was going to answer it through this post. :-)
The few reviews I looked up were vicious, and frankly, totally uncomprehending.
Even Jonathan Rosenbaum slammed the film, and made reference to its....homophobia (WTF?).
I just saw the film last night and his complaints make no sense to me.

March 05, 2006 7:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Quiet Bubble's second Altman post.

March 05, 2006 7:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian at Five Branch Tree.

March 05, 2006 7:37 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay. In celebration, here's an mp3 of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans doing a gorgeous trio version of the theme from M*A*S*H:

"Suicide Is Painless"

March 05, 2006 8:12 PM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

Shows how much I know - I thought M*A*S*H was his first studio feature! This sounds really terrific. Do you have it on VHS?

Hmmmm...perhaps I should reciprocate the mp3 and put up a link to Marilyn Manson's version of Suicide Is Painless (which I've never actually heard).

March 06, 2006 12:55 AM  
Blogger Eric Henderson said...

This was one of the rarer Altman titles I sadly missed at that Oak Street retro four years back.

March 06, 2006 2:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Crash for Best Picture?
F**k the Oscars.

A dozen years ago, my young and less cynical self used to follow the Oscars faithfully. (I even won prizes in the Buffalo News Oscar predictions contest a couple of years--including, um, tix to "Camelot" with Robert Goulet).
But I haven't watched the ceremonies in several years...

A request. If anyone comes across a link to the video of the Altman acceptance speech, could you please post the link here? I'd love to be able to see it. Thank you!

David, I noticed you've posted parts Two and Three of your Altman appreciation. I'm gonna go read 'em now.

Eric, I loved your Shelley Duvall tribute.

March 06, 2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

btw, David, I rented the movie on VHS from my local Hollywood Video.

March 06, 2006 8:05 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Thanks for the primer on Altman's earliest films Girish. I'll have to check those out, but looks like it'll involve some searches at the library or calling around to the video stores, but well worth the extra effort. Also thanks for the Evans piece, great song and great musician.

March 06, 2006 8:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You're welcome, Brian. And I enjoyed reading your take on Short Cuts.

March 06, 2006 9:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead wishes Sharon Stone a happy birthday.
His post opens: "Sharon and I slept together."
(Yeah, I knew that'd get your attention.)

March 06, 2006 9:50 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

In addition to Altman's speech, you might have enjoyed Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep's intro which attempted to duplicate the meanderings and overlapping dialogue from classic Altman films. As for the Awards show itself, it had a moment of total self-parody when the solo singer badly bleats out and extends the final word from the Best Song winner "Pimp!!!". My significant other is mad at me for not taking her to see Memoirs of a Geisha based on the clips shown.

March 06, 2006 12:07 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Also, the Film Noir montage had nothing to do with anything else on the show, but it was a reminder that there are so many films I'd rather see or re-see than most of the 2005 Oscar nominees.

March 06, 2006 12:11 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Peter, I agree; I spent that montage wondering which Gloria Grahame films I still haven't seen. And why all the trailers? the trailers are the most dated thing about film noir.

I will mention one thing I loved, though: They showed actual scenes from the nominated Best Pictures. I was ready to rip my hair out over all the stupid trailer-style things they had been showing in prior years.

March 06, 2006 2:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And Peter, I heard about the musical rendering of a car crash, which sounds fantastically ridiculous. Either that or brilliant, though I suspect it's the former.

Since I'm in a complaining mood, here's something that bugs me: Middlebrow movies with the same names as earlier, radically original, vastly superior and yet less popular movies. Like Crash and Chocolat.

March 06, 2006 2:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Campaspe, I agree. Those chopped-up trailers are maddening.

March 06, 2006 2:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rich Juzwiak on the Oscar ceremony.
(Nice Suspiria banner.)

March 06, 2006 3:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain's Crash protest.
Great post title.

March 06, 2006 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Well of course I would have loved see Cronenberg's Crash getting the love shown to Paul Haggis. However, if you want a chuckle, imagine Steven Spielberg, Munich a wipe out and now this.

March 06, 2006 3:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

That's funny, Peter.
I've never seen Spielberg's Always though I know of cinephiles (Zach?) who like it a lot.

March 06, 2006 3:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Given her acute sociopolitical smarts, I'd love to see Campaspe write about Crash.

March 06, 2006 4:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach at the Whitney Biennial.

March 06, 2006 9:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Recent discovery to add to the blogroll:
Nick Schager's blog. (He writes for Slant.)

March 06, 2006 9:56 PM  
Blogger girish said...

In The New York Times:
How To Be A Curmudgeon On The Internet.

March 06, 2006 10:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I just ordered Simon Reynolds' new book on postpunk: it looks great. Here he is in conversation at Slate.

March 06, 2006 10:03 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Always is a good film, criminally underrated! (Dave Kehr liked it too, I think.) I should really see it again given how in flux my feelings about Spielberg are, but I think it plays to his strengths (the straight depiction of the transformative power of a wondrous experience), and away from his weaknesses (bombast, muddy sociopolitical thinking) and is a rare infusion of Borzage into post-classical Hollywood.

Um, I'll be over there, by the wall, drinking punch, if anyone wants me ...

March 06, 2006 10:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...


Your description (and the Borzage connection) makes me want to check it out.

I've been reading Robert Kolker this week: The Altering Eye and A Cinema Of Loneliness. In the latter, there's a nice long section on Spielberg that has me thinking about him.

Coincidentally, I picked up a used copy of Noel Burch's Life To Those Shadows a month ago--I noticed you've been reading it.
But his Theory Of Film Practice, which I'd like to get my hands on, is one I've heard about but never seen. Is it also worth tracking down?

March 06, 2006 10:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

New York Times:

Dave Kehr on new DVD's.
Manohla Dargis on Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which I want to see.

March 07, 2006 8:08 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Girish, Burch is pretty awesome. He's a committed, lucid-thinking leftist, willing to think creatively, and who pays attention to form & aesthetics. What's not to love? I have only given cursory attention to Theory of Film Practice but, coincidentally, I picked it up used just two days ago!

March 07, 2006 9:22 AM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

I got a used copy of Theory of Film Practice off Amazon for only a few bucks. Well worth it, but I'd say a reprint is very much in order.

March 07, 2006 10:34 AM  
Anonymous girish said...

Thanks, guys. There's a used copy at Amazon I'm going to pick up.

March 07, 2006 3:54 PM  

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