Deciphering the Dream: Robert Altman’s 3 Women

Dreams allow symbols, objects and personalities to form fluid associations. Can their suspension of reality help us understand our lives?

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

Owning Aggression: Sonya Tayeh’s Baggage

Many believe art should always emphasize the beautiful and balanced. Can art help us understand and heal our dark side?

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Photo © Sara Krulwich at The New York Times

 

Sonya Tayeh is best known as a choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, but this brilliant dancer, dance teacher and choreographer is enjoying a tremendously varied career, premiering works with the Los Angeles Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company, choreographing musicals such as Spring Awakening, The Wild Party, Kung Fu and The Last Goodbye, as well as creating moves for Madonna, Florence and the Machine and Kylie Minogue, among others. You might not realize that this is a career that very nearly didn’t happen.

 

As a teenager, Sonya was a house dancer. House dancing grew out of the party scene in large cities of the American Northeast, and involves intricate footwork and fluid torso movement that follows the rhythm of the music very closely, punctuating much smaller, subtler details than many forms of dance. It is often improvised and can require a great deal of skill, but it isn’t recognized as a formal dance style. When Sonya realized she wanted to continue dancing in college and beyond, she applied to dance schools, only to be rejected six times on the grounds that she was too old to begin training.

Sonya did not give up, despite the voices that told her she was wasting her time. She graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Dance, blending her previous skills with a knowledge of art history and anatomy as well as new skills gleaned in formal dance performance. Over time, this blend solidified into a new style, one she calls “combat jazz”. Combat jazz retains the intricacy and intensity of house dancing, combining quirky, often aggressive, non-classical movement with elements of more formal dance. It is a striking union, as you can see in her short piece, Baggage.

 

 

What is so shocking about this work is its honesty. We see these partners are sometimes baggage for one another, heavy and difficult to move. In turn, we see them treat one another like baggage, slinging each other around and asserting control. How many people, particularly women (but not exclusively), can see this piece and walk away gratified that someone has noticed their struggle?

The jerky, house dance derived movements that are Sonya’s bread and butter highlight the conflict. As opposed to the more refined lines of ballet, they connect with our emotions at a visceral, non-intellectual level. When we look at these dancers, we don’t see performers using their technical skills. We see ourselves.

There are those who say that the aggressive, abusive relationships portrayed in Baggage have no place onstage, that we should spend our time looking at things that are more positive and harmonious. There is value in order and beauty. There is also value in truth. If we are unwilling to see that there is much in human relationships that is controlling and aggressive then how will we confront and deal with that behavior? Performance, with its suspension of reality, gives us a place to work through difficult situations and to recognize and identify human darkness, within and without. It can also give those who have lived through abuse a voice to tell their story, creating opportunities for catharsis, empathy, and healing.

The danger in turning away artists who don’t fit the mold and in censoring art that doesn’t conform to predetermined standards is that we will lose voices that we need to hear, or even worse, that we will become unable to hear at all.

Video via Sonya Tayeh Choreography on YouTube.
Tayeh Dance performing at the El Portal Theatre
Dancers: Cheryl Smith, Adrian Lee, Jill Chu, Will Johnston

 

 

Apocalyptic Fears: Executing Peace by Katherine McDaniel

How do we deal with things that scare and anger us? Art can help us work through fear toward hope.

My newest painting came about while I was meditating on fear. I wanted to know what my mind would put on the canvas if I thought about things that scare me and visualized the colors of terror. The result is The Execution of Peace, hued not only in the expected oppressive greys and blacks, but in bright oranges, pinks, purples, blues, reds and whites. This piece explores the sharper side of fear, especially those horrors which become active and aggressive. At the end of the process I found that I had obliterated any traces of green, which for me connotes growth. So, what is going on in this busy picture?

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The Execution of Peace, © Katherine McDaniel, 2014

 

There are three zones present: earth, a blasted heath that looks ill and charred; sky, which is blue but teeming with yellow and purple “clouds” and pollution; and a celestial region above the sky which features a storm cloud and an enormous, bloated sun. The two levels of sky are separated by a red stripe spotted with many colors, an umbilical cord which symbolizes life and its continuation.

The action of the piece is taking place in the regions above earth. The sun has grown to enormous size and deepened into orange, suggesting something apocalyptic. The upper atmosphere has taken on the hue of the dying sun, but the left hand corner contains a dense storm, from which emanate three bolts of lightning. There is a dove, with a distinct halo, standing protectively on the umbilical cord. His halo is echoed by a similar nimbus around the sun. Both seem to be barely holding off the onslaught of the stormy darkness.

photoFor me, the dove, associated with peace by many traditions, is here a Christ figure, with arms outstretched in the manner of the crucifixion. Depending on your beliefs and heritage, you might prefer to associate it with the dying savior archetype, or just the concept of sacrifice in general. Regardless, the dove is being blown apart–if you look closely you can see what looks like fire or blood streaming from his body–yet he holds his position while the lightning force is directed into him.  Shock waves ripple through the upper atmosphere.

One lightning bolt is stopped by the bird’s flesh, while the other two cross each other on their way into the lower sky, where they connect with two red robed figures on pedestals. My husband took them for monks of some sort, and perhaps they are, but they are of a twisted and bitter variety. Red is a symbol for blood, and these figures are covered in it. They both contain a stripe of yellow down the center of their bodies which mirrors the lightning itself. The same energy is also disseminated throughout the surrounding air. Yellow is the color of aggression in this particular painting. In contrast, the purplish clouds seem related to the umbilical cord, as if life was floating free from its source. That’s a source for hope, I think.photo 2

photo 3At this point I find it impossible to judge whether the lightning strikes are feeding the red figures with the energy of the raincloud or whether the rage of the red figures is feeding the ominous storm. It’s probably both.

 

 

photo 4The two red figures face each other at a distance, proudly erect, while a third figure lies between them, bowed and sliding down the face of a cliff. This shape didn’t have a face and hands until paint was removed by mistake during an accident in varnishing. I left it that way because to me, it now looks rather like Mother Mary or some facet of the grieving mother archetype. Can you see her hands raised to her face in weeping? I see this mother as wounded and dying, her body pierced by  aggression that lies like yellow arrows embedded in her bloodied body (thus the red and yellow on her front side). Does she protect the body of a child there as well?

Below this battle, there lies a group of peach colored folk who appear to be observing the scene, almost like tourists. The first two on the left appear to be running, followed by a man wearing a cloak that billows in the wind, and a well dressed lady, standing with two children behind her. I wonder how they understand the situation above them… are they being compromised? I think they are. Take a look at the blood on the man’s heel. I don’t know if it is his own or that of another. All of these folks have the yellow fog of aggression about their eyes. To me, they represent the civilized and comfortable of the world, who, whether they acknowledge it or not, will be impacted by the slaughter of others and the shattering death of peace itself. The resulting cataclysm is as deadly as a sun gone supernova. I belong to this tribe and you probably do, too. How do we stand against the injustice around us?

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Humankind’s aggression threatens reality and the continuation of life itself. The sacrifice of life represented by the dying savior and lived out by children, men and women everyday is required not to appease some wrath of God, but because human beings will it to be so.

As always, I invite you to tell me what you see. We don’t always understand the visions we are given and we certainly can’t control what they mean to others.

 

 

Undercurrents of Sensuality and Aggression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

The most famous of vampires is Dracula. Why are we mesmerized by this character created more than a century ago?

We owe our acquaintance with Dracula, a figure who has laced himself through western culture and has been portrayed on film more than Sherlock Holmes, to the mind of Bram Stoker, who wove him from legend and his own imagination with daring skill. Stoker was known during his lifetime chiefly as the personal assistant to actor Henry Irving and the manager of Irving’s theatre, the Lyceum, in London. It is ironic that his name would eclipse that of Irving, only to be overshadowed by his greatest creation, the aristocratic vampire known as Count Dracula.

Origins of a Monster

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Stoker spent seven years researching vampires before writing Dracula, with particular attention to the strigoi, or undead, of the Balkan peninsula. The strigoi were peasant men and women who came back from the dead to feast upon the blood of their own kin. Although he was excited by the animal ferocity of these creatures, who often transformed themselves into wolves or bats, these folktales were not completely satisfying to Stoker, who wanted to create a character to be played by his own employer, Henry Irving, a regal and noble presence who often played impressive villains onstage. Much to his delight, he ran across the history of a Wallachian prince of Transylvania, now a region of central Romania, renowned for his unspeakable cruelty and bloodlust. This prince was called Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler, after his habit of impaling his enemies on long wooden stakes, but not while he was within earshot. His title was Vlad Dracula, son of the Dragon, after his father who had been knighted into the Order of the Dragon and was thus sworn to keep Christianity safe from the invading Ottoman Turks. In fusing the strigoi with this infamous historical warrior, Stoker produced a menacing and enduring personality who contained both aristocratic and uncivilized elements.

A Shadow of Victorian Values

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Christopher Lee as Dracula

Contrary to what we often see in movies, Stoker’s Dracula is not charming and seductive, nor does he seem susceptible to romance. He is a violent and methodical predator who is capable of taking what he requires by overwhelming and out-thinking his victims against their will. Although he cannot enter a home without being invited in, he has, over centuries, amassed techniques for tricking the inhabitants into doing just that. Thus he uses Lucy’s sleepwalking to trap her and his power over the insane Renfield to gain access to Seward’s asylum and his guests.  With the exception of a quick glimpse on the street, neither Lucy nor Mina ever meet him in a normal social situation.

© Il Fatto Quotidiano with CCLicense

© Il Fatto Quotidiano with CCLicense

If he is not conventionally seductive, why are Dracula’s victims women and why do they end up under his power? Here lies a deep shadow. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula the push for women’s rights and universal suffrage was beginning, hence there are many references to the “new women”, usually spoken by Mina or Lucy in a pejorative fashion that belies considerable fascination. In addition, Sigmund Freud was promoting his ideas about sexuality and the subconscious. Victorian blood was beginning to boil. We see the men in Stoker’s novel trying to protect their women from the vampire while seeking to retain the proper distance and decorum between genders that was required by society. This strategy very nearly gets them all murdered and the ladies turned into immortal killing machines. It is ultimately Mina’s coordination and communication across the gender divide that provides hope for overcoming Dracula, not the overprotective schemes of Van Helsing and his crew, who consistently make quite a mess of things. These men are crippled by their own refusal to see women as complete beings and their idealization of the feminine. Unfortunately, it is usually the women who pay the price for their ignorance.

374px-1800-jumprope-pinup-Sophia-WesternShe is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist – and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish. 

–Professor Van Helsing, speaking of Madam Mina, Chapter 14

The Victorian lady was presented with few options: she could retain an innocent, angelic personality and show childlike devotion to a husband whom she would regard worshipfully without lust, she could become a spinster on the edge of society who would always be dependent on male relatives and regarded with some suspicion, or she could become a lady of ill repute. Female sensuality was taboo and any woman who admitted to enjoying sex, even within the bonds of wedlock, was not considered wholesome or healthy, although mothers were revered. There is a sense in Dracula that, rather than see their women as sexual creatures, these men would see them dead and their bodies desecrated. Are they engaged in battle with a vampire, or are they victim to their own fears and imaginations?

The unfortunate Miss Lucy has three suitors. In her letters to Mina, she expresses dismay at having to choose between them, admitting to having the scandalous thought of marrying all of them. Later, in an attempt to keep her alive, she will receive blood transfusions from each of these suitors, as well as one from old man Van Helsing himself. Is it this underlying sensuality which condemns her, and if so, are the men guiltless in this regard? Perhaps Dracula is terrifying because he lies at the intersection of female sensuality with male aggression.

Dracula in the 21st Century

Dracula takes place in a culture where women are not permitted to make choices vital to their own survival and where they are stigmatized for their natural sexuality. Old habits die hard, because these issues are front page news these days, although women have many more options and a stronger voice than they did in the Victorian era. Maybe we can put a stake through the heart of misogyny some day in the future.

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

Dracula may seem like your grandfather’s vampire, but there is life in him yet. A foreign invader possessing skill, intelligence, and animal sensuality, he remains a persuasive argument against eternal youth at a time when our culture seems ready to embrace it as a path of little risk. Come to think of it, maybe the vampires of the 21st century are more frightening. Would anyone want to spend eternity as a sparkly teenager?

Quote for Today: Steven Pinker

Today’s ubiquitous, networked computers have an unprecedented ability to do mischief should they ever go to the bad. But the only mayhem comes from unpredictable chaos or from human malice in the form of viruses. We no longer worry about electronic serial killers or subversive silicon cabals because we are beginning to appreciate that malevolence—like vision, motor coordination, and common sense—does not come free with computation but has to be programmed in. …Aggression, like every other part of human behavior we take for granted, is a challenging engineering problem!
― Steven PinkerHow the Mind Works