by Raqi SyedFebruary 05, 2015
There has been much discussion about how 3 Women is a film that came entirely to Robert Altman as a dream. The result is meant to be what he transcribed of it. The film certainly has a subversive, incoherent quality that many films of the ‘70s possess. But what I’m really interested in is how a movie nearly four decades old still speaks powerfully against the boredom and malaise of generic movie cycles endemic in filmmaking today.
On its surface—and the film is about surfaces, what lies above and beneath—the film is very much a stranger-walks-into-a-town fable. Pinky Rose, a young woman played by Sissy Spacek, arrives in a California desert town and applies for a job at a geriatric spa. The opening scene lingers on elderly people being escorted into and out of a series of pools. The scene is both sensuous and unpleasant, a juxtaposition of impending death and rebirth. Millie and Pinky agree to become roommates. We find as they drive home one evening past the dirt roads of the desert, that both women are originally from Texas. So we have in the landscape the first transformation of the film in which we’ve gone from the Old West, Texas, to the New West, the west of movies and myth, California. Thus, the film begins to take shape as an existential allegory that is really, at its heart, a western. A western in which there are no male heroes. The heroes are instead played by women transforming from one archetypal character to another.
In order to understand what the film is about, we have to look at these three leading women and the way they morph, like a dream or even a mirage, before our eyes. Pinky goes from being the new kid in town to the gunslinger, then back to a literal kid. Millie is a kind of dancehall woman with a heart of gold, a consumerette (the new hero of western capitalism to take it further) oblivious to ridicule. When Pinky becomes the gunslinger, Millie transforms into a motherly madame, no longer oblivious, but hardened. The men in this movie are just the wild dogs that run around in the background of any stock western town. They drift in and out of the frame, they are of no importance.
Willie is the third woman who is referred to in the title. She is the wife of a local man who at one time played a body double for a TV gunslinger. Willie drifts at the edges of the film’s action. She is pregnant and sullen. She spends her time painting murals of fantastic god-like creatures. But really, she is the lonesome homesteader; keeping house, waiting.
What does it mean to take classic western iconography and build it around a mercurial cast of women? From a contemporary point of view, it may mean that by 1977 the myths and tropes of Hollywood were not only wearing thin, but no longer relevant. If movies are the repository of our collective dreams, 3 Women represents a society that demanded its entertainment speak to the moment. When Willie goes into labor in the third act, she signals a tear in the fabric of the film’s gauzy dream, breaking the narrative, the dream, the very concept of the tidy three-act structure of mainstream cinema. What she gives birth to is the possibility of a new kind of cinema. An incoherent cinema that leaves the audience feeling a little uneasy, because uncharted territory is always anxiety inducing.
A dream that cannot be resolved stays with the dreamer. When Pinky spills shrimp cocktail on her dress, she is left to wander through the next several scenes with a large stain across her front, blood-like. Reminiscent of Spacek’s Carrie who is at once conscious of and seeking to repress her sexuality. In 3 Women she breaks through; she is the ingénue and the outlaw and the child. The end of the film is a little ambiguous (though not really). The three women have killed the fake Hollywood gunslinger and become homesteaders on the ranch. They’ve appropriated each other’s personas and we no longer know where one begins and the other ends. Even the last image of a pile of tires, where the husband is most likely buried, implies he won't be driving off into any sunset because this is subverted western where even in California, there are no sunsets.