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?

 

 

 

 

 

Revealing the Internal Voice: Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man

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If our internal dialogues were revealed, what would the world learn? None of us could bear that kind of scrutiny. We are each far more wonderful and far more horrible than anyone could imagine. Thankfully, in A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood supplies us with the internal dialogues of a fictional character. George may not be an actual person, but Isherwood writes him with such brutal honesty that his struggles, fantasies and vicissitudes read as painful and as poignant as our own, perhaps even more so because they have been crystallized on paper.

 “Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face-the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man-all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us-we have died-what is there to be afraid of?
It answers them: But that happened so gradually, so easily. I’m afraid of being rushed.”

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I have to admit that I didn’t take to George, or to this novel, right away. He haunted me for a solid week after I finished the book, winning me over gradually. A fifty-eight year old gay British expatriate and college professor in the 1960s, George is fussy, irritable, repressed and sometimes downright unpleasant. His dislike for many of those around him, especially the neighborhood children, startled me until I acknowledged that I have similar judgemental thoughts, especially at my more vulnerable moments. Cynicism, a valid reaction to disappointment, feels a lot more attractive than it looks. He fantasizes that he is Uncle George, head of a terrorist network that takes down people who ought to be killed. He has inappropriate sexual thoughts about people around him. These things are embarrassing, uncomfortable and part of being a human being. They lie intertwined with better moments: George’s assertion that Jim was not a substitute for anything and that there is no substitute for Jim, his loyalty to his friends, his desire to see the common man educated and liberated, his forward looking racial sensitivity and hope for a better world, his concern for his students, his desire to live. It is scary to do what Isherwood has done, to remove the filters and barriers we rely on in daily life: propriety, compassion, shame, silence, to name just a few, and gaze inside the human being. Sometimes our filters get in the way of living an authentic life; sometimes they make authentic life possible.

“Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them!”
The world around him may not know it, but George is deeply depressed. His beloved Jim, with whom he shared a home and a menagerie of pets, has been killed in a car crash across the country. He is a complete wreck, but as a gay man in the 1960s, George doesn’t have many people in which to confide. He imagines that his neighbors see him as a monster, the men branding him queer while the woman find him a creature to be pitied. He is sure that his students either hold him in distant professorial esteem or write him off as an old fogey. His fellow teachers are stars of their own stories, wrapped up in their own realities. Who else? There’s Doris, now terminally ill, who once made love to Jim and remains a tentative, though somewhat repulsive, link to him. Perhaps his best bet is Charlotte, middle aged and divorced, a fellow Brit, drinking buddy and survivor, but her preoccupation with her own problems makes her hard to take. He is desperately in need of human connection. On this day we will see him try to reach out; we will see him fail and succeed. And we will be struck that none of it is enough.

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As you read his thoughts, you come to understand that George has lived a life that doesn’t come close to portraying an accurate picture of who he is, a life that has kept him from recognizing the commonalities he shares with the people around him. He’s much sillier and much more tragic. He’s not alone, either. As you think about George, you may come to realize that much about your life doesn’t reflect who you are, even if you do strive for authenticity. Every person that you think you know, even yourself, is, to a large degree, fictional. It reminds me of a line from the film Miller’s Crossing, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.” We are all mysteries. And yet are we not more similar, and more connected than we think?

“Up the coast a few miles north, in a lava reef under the cliffs, there are a lot of rock pools. You can visit them when the tide is out. Each pool is separate and different, and you can, if you are fanciful, give them names, such as George, Charlotte, Kenny, Mrs. Strunk. Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness – so to speak – are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures co-exist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And, throughout the day of the ebb tide, they know no other.
But that long day ends at last; yields to the night-time of the flood. And, just as the waters of the ocean come flooding, darkening over the pools, so over George and the others in sleep come the waters of that other ocean; that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present, and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars. We may surely suppose that, in the darkness of the full flood, some of these creatures are lifted from their pools to drift far out over the deep waters. But do they ever bring back, when the daytime of the ebb returns, any kind of catch with them? Can they tell us, in any manner, about their journey? Is there, indeed, anything for them to tell – except that the waters of the ocean are not really other than the waters of the pool?”
 

Quote for Today: Leah Raeder

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Who fixes broken people? Is it only other broken people, ones who’ve already been ruined? And do we need to be fixed? It was the messiness and hurt in our pasts that drove us, and that same hurt connected us at a subdermal level, the kind of scars written so deeply in your cells that you can’t even see them anymore, only recognize them in someone else.
Leah RaederUnteachable
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Quote for Today: Virginia Woolf

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For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.
Virginia WoolfTo the Lighthouse
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Quote for Today: Hannah Brencher

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Looking Within © Katherine McDaniel

I learned vulnerability is a bit like those Russian nesting dolls, the ones that get smaller and smaller in size when you twist the top off and pull another one out. In the end, you’re left with the tiniest doll, that one nugget. No more layers to take off. Nothing left but a surprise, the surprise of finding out the littlest doll is the most solid of them all. It doesn’t hide inside of itself.

Hannah BrencherIf You Find This Letter: My Journey to Find Purpose Through Hundreds of Letters to Strangers

Quote for Today: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Light in the Dark by TwilitesMuse with CCLicense

Light in the Dark by TwilitesMuse with CCLicense

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956