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The Criterion Collection presents
"You know what? You're the most perfect person I ever met."
DVD ReviewRobert Altman has become one of the aging lions of American cinema, but he's still something of a renegade—he's a little too old to include in the film generation of Coppola, Spielberg, Bogdanovich, Friedkin, and the like, but he's surely not an old studio hand in the tradition of, say, Ford and Hawks. As was Fellini, Altman seems frequently more interested in behavior than in story; and many of his most successful and popular films (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park) succeed best as portraits of communities and institutions. We come away remembering the place, the feel, the ambiance, more so than the characters and how they change.
So 3 Women differs in some significant respects from some of the better known Altman pictures, but it's a moody and intriguing piece nonetheless. Altman's sense of geography is especially keen here—we're in the California desert, in and around the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatrics Center. Among those employed there is Millie, who happily chirps along to herself, holding up her end of the conversation even if she's blithely talking to people's backs; amazingly enough, Millie gets herself a #1 fan in the new girl, Pinky. The psychological intertwinings of Millie and Pinky, two-thirds of the title characters, is the pole around which this film revolves.
But it's not really a movie about its story; much of it has a dreamy, almost hallucinogenic feel, and Altman is clearly more interested in moments and moods than he is in conventional structure. And frequently here that's wonderful—his sinuously moving camera takes in the landscape, and becomes a meditation of sorts on the end of the myths of the American West. Pinky and Millie are a pair of odd and memorable characters, and your reactions to them will probably be caught up in your iconic consideration of the actresses in the roles. Altman has frequently displayed a fascination with Shelley Duvall, in Nashville especially; but he may have fixed her forever in the popular imagination by hiring her to play Olive Oyl, a decision from casting heaven. She's a strange, ghostly presence, and what starts as eccentric can, with the run of the picture, become downright irritating, if not maddening. (It may be cruel to say so, but Kubrick was on to something when he cast her in The Shining. Even if you're not as unhinged as Jack Torrance, you can almost understand wanting to go after Shelley with a hatchet.) And Spacek is intriguing as well—these were the years of films like Carrie and Badlands, in which her seeming innocence belies something much deeper and more disturbing. Janice Rule is the third woman, a specter, a nearly silent desert artist, whose symbolic significance is far greater than her screen time.
There are times, certainly, when Altman's concern about other things results in the movie not making a whole lot of narrative sense; and there are many moments that would probably have a great deal more clarity and resonance and import if the bong had just come around the circle back to you. It's really more of a chamber piece, and in Altman's canon probably most resembles other character studies, like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. I know a couple of folks who call this their favorite Altman picture, which I admit to finding kind of an odd choice; I can also understand Criterion wanting to get the director in their DVD catalog. (Their laserdisc editions of Altman movies, including Short Cuts and especially The Player, with its ample supplements, were paradigms of that old medium, the Betamax of DVD.) And in a funny way, this movie is almost closer to theater; it shares some obvious affinities with, for instance, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, and not just because of their titles. So this sure isn't a fun-for-the-whole-family kind of movie, but it is challenging and intriguing and frequently beautiful.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: This is really just a lovely transfer, with deep rich colors, doing full justice to Chuck Rosher's delicate cinematography. The liner notes indicate that Criterion went whole hog in restoring this one, and it shows.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is clean, but its limits are evident; frequently Altman tries to layer in several levels of sound, with characters in the background contributing throwaway bits of dialogue, contributing to the story or the mood, and lots of it can be very, very difficult to comprehend. That's no fault of the transfer, though, and probably just an indication of the aural parameters of low-budget 1970s moviemaking.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Altman
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsRobert Altman's restless need for creativity and invention are very much on display here, and it's a movie that will provoke thought and provide some images that will surely haunt you.
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