I love Robert Altman’s work. When he’s on, when he’s good, to steal from Mae West, he was very, very good. Films like Gosford Park (2001), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), and Prêt-à-Porter (1994) are high watermarks in cinema (especially Nashville). But Altman can borderline on pretension, as is a possibility with all the film school generation and their self-appointed superiority. I recently watched a documentary called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003), based on Peter Biskind’s book, that does an excellent job of explaining some of what happened in film in the 1960s and 70s. Don’t mistake me – the auteur movement that resulted from the French New Wave and the Cahiers du Cinéma is vastly important to the progression of film as an art form. But along the way, there was drug-induced, ego-inflated, goofy shit. And I’m sorry, but I think 3 Women is one of them.
My opinion is not the same as most critics, so ok. I don’t mind. Roger Ebert has this in his third book of great movies (and he’s got Treasure of the Sierra Madre  in his second book, and I just saw it, and I was pretty unimpressed). When you watch Criterion’s Three Reasons, their first is “The Seventies.” Oh, man. How I so do not care about that entire decade. Yeah, I was born in it, but it had to be one of the most aesthetically grotesque decades ever. So ugly.
The second is “A Desert Nightmare.” Ok, something else I don’t care about. Yes, I know deserts are supposed to be so mystical and great. I don’t see it. Yes, that’s short-sighted of me, since I’ve never been to a desert. I have been told that I really need to get out west sometime, that it’s so beautiful, peaceful and spiritual. Arizona’s amazing. New Mexico is amazing. The Grand Canyon is amaaaazing. Ok. I like beaches, forests, mountains. And there are so many places I want to see before I die that anything desert-related is truly on the back burner. And the burner’s not even lit.
The third reason is “Surreal Spacek and Dreamy Duvall.” Here are two actresses that I’m not thrilled about. I’ve never understood the appeal of either, and they are both so creepy in this movie that I wanted to bail several times. Does that make them effective? Yes, because I think Altman was ratcheting up the creepy factor to 10 on this. So are they good? Yes. Do I care? No. Just because something is accurate or effective doesn’t make it aesthetically pleasing. And it does explain Duvall being cast as Olive in Altman’s Popeye (1980), although she was practically born to play that part.
As noted by Altman, this movie is derived from a dream he had. He attempted to recreate the dream exactly as he remembered, and he noted that casting was included in his dream. David Sterritt, in his article “3 Women: Dream Project,” notes “He received a green light from Twentieth Century Fox not only without a finished screenplay but with an expressed desire to make the entire movie without one.” What balls he had. Can you imagine what his reputation was like that he could get money for a project with that approach? And it does seem to progress like a dream (very haphazardly), with little in the way of plot moving things along. The idea that it was being made up as they went along is not only plausible, it would be hard to imagine otherwise.
It’s about three characters, but two are barely defined. The third woman, Willie, is pregnant and spends most of her time painting these interesting images on the bottoms of pools or other concrete. They are a cross between Egyptian pictographs and Mayan mythology. It is noted that she rarely talks, and other than helping pull Pinky out of a pool Pinky swan-dives into in order to commit suicide, the only other time we see her in action is giving birth at the end of the film. The second woman is Pinky Rose (Spacek), who seems incredibly young in this film, but who is actually 27 (this is the year after she made Carrie , where she plays a high school aged girl). She supposedly has such little identity that the thrust of the film is her trying to become the first woman, Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall), who is a loser. She is mostly ignored by everyone around her, even though she is constantly trying to engage people in conversation. However, it seems like she’s been at this so long that she’s lost the capacity to converse, so she just talks at everyone. Mrs. Cellophane, Mrs. Cellophane …
I’m not at all sure why Altman felt such a burning desire to communicate this dream. It makes me recall Yasmina Reza’s Art, where a character has paid an inordinate amount of money for what appears to be a blank canvas with nothing on it and has two other friends come over to check it out. If someone says something is “art,” is “important,” does that make it so? If enough critics “ooh” and “aah,” is that qualified? Altman is an auteur; the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film was “different” (it came out the same year as Star Wars), so it’s “better” than the same flotsam and jetsam. No. I don’t buy it. Let’s compare and contrast this movie with, say, Barton Fink (1991). That has quirky characters in it. It’s different. But it’s a far better movie. Even the most offbeat character, Charlie Meadows, is captivating. We want to know what happened to him, how he got that way, is the head in the box. It is visually interesting (the match of the woman on the beach at the end to the painting in Fink’s room, the shot of the hallway as it bursts into flames, the curling wallpaper). Fink’s an asshole (he doesn’t listen to Meadows and is self-important), but I care what happens to him next. I don’t care about any of Altman’s characters here. And it’s not like he doesn’t have the capacity to make me care – he did it in other films. But here, everything’s so distant, and in a way that doesn’t compel me to squint to try to make it out. And that’s weird, since Altman said the movie was all about emotion, not narrative or intellect. So, at the risk of sounding like a dullard, no thanks. And the same goes for McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), which I couldn’t even sit through and mercifully is not a Criterion film.