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.