Dreams allow symbols, objects and personalities to form fluid associations. Can their suspension of reality help us understand our lives?
Robert Altman was having a terrible day. He had argued with Warner Brothers executives over decisions about his next film project and things had been said that couldn’t be unsaid. Much worse, his wife had to be taken to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital. Doctors were unsure she would survive. In a few minutes of fitful sleep, Altman had a dream.
He was directing Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in a film about identity theft set in the California desert. Upon waking, he jotted down a few notes and went back to sleep, eager for more details. Altman was convinced that his vision was important and wasted no time in getting approval for this new idea, as vivid as it was disjointed, from 20th Century Fox. He scouted locations in and around Palm Springs, California and signed Spacek and Duvall. Originally, he thought he would film without a screenplay, allowing the film to take an organic, dreamlike shape. That proved too daunting, so a screenplay was written before filming began, but it allowed for a great deal of improvisation, a technique to which Altman was no stranger. This would result in an eerie and disturbing masterpiece, his 1977 film 3 Women.
Initially, the plot seems deceptively simple, but the atonal musical score by Gerald Busby, Bodhi Wind’s murals, and Altman’s camera shots hint at a palpable anxiety trembling just below the surface. Pinky Rose is the new girl in town. She takes a job at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center, where she befriends Millie Lammoreaux, a trendy young woman who longs to be the center of attention. Pinky falls for Millie’s big talk, so mesmerized by this grown-up woman that she never realizes that the men Millie tries so desperately to impress can barely tolerate her. It is only after the two women become roommates that her idolization of Millie is shattered, resulting in Pinky’s attempt to commit suicide by jumping into the pool from the top floor of the apartment complex. After that incident, the reality of the dream begins to break down and the character’s personalities become increasingly fluid and unpredictable.
Duvall proves adept at composing and delivering the long, rambling monologues of dating advice, unappetizing recipes and self aggrandizement that define Millie, a character both shallow and complex, annoying and compelling, while Spacek communicates Pinky’s youth and immaturity through impulsive action and body language, blowing bubbles in her Coca-Cola or downing an entire glass of beer in a matter of seconds, a feat which she follows up with some nasty belching. The camera loves Spacek’s naturalness, even when she isn’t saying anything. Janice Rule plays the third woman, Willie, a pregnant artist who owns much of the town, including the bar where the girls hang out and the Purple Sage Apartments where they live, alongside her ultra-macho husband Edgar, a washed-up Hollywood stunt double. She barely speaks, expressing herself in pointed and sullen glances and in the terrifying and grotesque murals she paints everywhere. In one of the most devastating images of the film, we see Willie lying in the bottom of a dry pool like an animal next to one of her murals. These tremendous paintings depict half-human figures engaged in angry abuse of each other. The more we see of these monstrous figures and of our three women and Edgar, the more we begin to understand that they are synonymous.
We can surmise that the three women are aspects of the same being: the child, the sexually awakened young woman and the mother. Their names are clues to this: Pinky is a childhood nickname, her name is Mildred, which is also Millie’s real name, and it doesn’t take much imagination to relate Willie to Millie. Let us consider also that this is Altman’s dream, rather than trying to envision it solely as the dream of one of the three women. Carl Jung spoke of the anima, or female personality within a male psyche, and the animus, or male personality within a female pysche. Here we have an anima that has split into three distinct personas, which are in conflict and competition with one another, but are later unified against an ultra masculine, misogynistic male figure.
Which brings us to Edgar, the flashy, yet faded, cowboy played by Robert Fortier. He is suitable neither as a love interest nor a father figure, an aging male who can’t find his place. He ignores his pregnant wife, a wife who is clearly feverish and unwell, in order to chase the skirts of younger women. Even when Willie is in labor he seeks out playmates, crying that his wife doesn’t need anyone and is perfectly able to take care of herself. He shoots, drinks, and rides motorcycles, but is ultimately a pathetic character. Whatever creative life he possessed is gone; he survives like a vampire sucking the life out of women desperate enough to fall for his ability to make them laugh. And yet he has power. When Millie threatens to call the cops on him he shrugs it off, saying that the cops are all his friends.
There is a profound distrust of authority figures in 3 Women. The female nurses all come across as masculine control freaks, varying shades of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the doctors are more interested in their reputation or their libido than their patients. After coming home from the hospital, Pinky voices to Millie her fear that she might be pregnant because the doctor was always in her room. This same doctor flirted with Millie as Pinky lay near death in her hospital bed, so we can’t be sure she isn’t correct. It might be tempting to see this as Pinky trying to appear worldly before Millie, but it is no coincidence that neither the medical community nor the police are seen as helpful to our heroines. If these women desire balance and harmony they are going to have to create it themselves.
There is a scene in which Willie shoots bullet holes through two of her smaller paintings, then turns and fires shots through the head and heart of a practice “man”. Instead of marring her own creations, as she has been doing, she takes out her frustration on the male image. It is a satisfying moment for her and for us.
What does all this mean?
Altman’s demands had not gone over well at Warner Brothers, and it is likely he was feeling guilty over his lack of concern, real or imagined, for his wife’s health, which had allowed her to become critically ill before he made the decision to take her to the hospital. His creative side, his artistic anima, may have manifested this dream as a sort of warning to his overly aggressive and self-absorbed ego.
Male or female, we all have internalized oppression, aggression which both drives and hampers us. Creative people are often the worst offenders, beating themselves up over things that most people would overlook. Our dreams can give these forces faces: crooked policemen, cruel nurses, unethical doctors, abusive fathers or husbands. Whatever we do we must fight the emergence of a world that mirrors our nightmares. When we find these monsters manifesting in our lives, we need to resist them, whether they come from within or without. The difficulty is that oppression can morph into new shapes more quickly than we can overcome it.
There are so many symbols and details here that I have barely scratched the surface, including many opposites: the desert and pools of water, youth and age, life and death, hot and cold. What do you see?