Sunday, May 29, 2011

Papa Mike's Video #3 - Robert Altman's THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK

I perhaps watched That Cold Day in the Park in a manner which the director Robert Altman would not have approved of... or maybe he would.  I started to watch the film pretty late at night, and about an hour into the film I started to get tired - not of the film but just general late-night exhausted-eyes, that sort of thing.  So I stopped about halfway through, and then picked up on the rest of the film a few days later.  I hadn't forgotten none of the film by this point, but it wasn't quite so fresh as to be totally connected to the rest of the picture, which then separated it almost precisely by way of set up and pay-off of the premise, so as I was not all there for the start of it I was wide awake for what happens with these charters together.  Maybe my reaction would've been different had I seen it all at full attention, or if I had stuck with it and saw the second half like some strange dream or nightmare even, which is what it sort of becomes.

The film That Cold Day in the Park starts out like some chilly but oddly hopeful dream and then turns into the nightmare, but not at all suddenly.  Frances Austen (Sandy Dennis of 'Virginia Woolf' fame) is a woman living by herself (gasp!) in a spacious apartment; whether she comes all from money or had an ex I'm not sure, but whatever it is she's with dinner guests at her home one day and sees a boy of twenty outside in the rain.  Why he's there she's not sure, but she keeps looking anyway, and sees possibly a kinship of loneliness (as she is with people she is still alone by herself, by choice really).  When they leave she still sees him, and finally goes out and brings him inside.  She gets him out of those wet clothes, gets him a big blanket, and takes care of him sorta Motherly with a bed and some food and then a nice hot bath.  Then he becomes an obsession to her, in part because (mayhap) he can't speak, which is also a choice on his part.

Like a voyeur, seeing for not quite the first time
How much of an obsession he is to her isn't entirely clear; at first one could suspect it's a story of love that could blossom between the two, which, indeed, sounds pretty corny.  Hell it could even sound like a soft-core porn, which in other hands isn't beyond reason being made in 1969 after the MPAA was created.  But Altman takes it in a different direction of just being about the characters and exploring this situation with some, well, honesty I guess.  Roger Ebert in his review said that he found the situation totally implausible, but I think once you can give the film this benefit of the doubt, then you can go a step further into how disturbed this woman really is or would be.  It would be hard to make this movie today, but at a time when women were getting a little more curious sexually and 'boys' a little more 'free' in their own way (or just without as many sexual or moral consequences) it's not too far off.

I got into the story on that kind of slightly (or mostly) chilly dramatic level where Altman is channeling Ingmar Bergman's style: people who do want to connect together, and what actual emotion really makes into people, which is to disarm them.  Looking back on the whole what's interesting in the first half about the boy - which makes Michael Burns, who comes of flatter than Sandy Dennis by a lot (albeit she subtly steals the show in her icy demeanor and 'quiet' voice) - is that he doesn't know what to make of this woman.  She doesn't want sex straight off, and when she does decide to do it (which comes with an awkward visit to the gyno) he's not really into it any way, it becomes a different sort of relationship between two people who don't know each other and it's fine that way (maybe like a pre-not-really-sexual Last Tango).

"It's not what you think, he just has a bad back from all that sex, I mean, uh, moving the cabinet, yeah!"
By this point the film takes another turn as the characters reveal their disconnect: she real need, he real 'whatever', though totally respectful of the situation she has for him, which is shown when his ditsy sister stops by unannounced and takes a bath.  And also by this point there's a darker undercurrent here that is still sticking to what is up with these characters, and how Dennis especially plays it as someone who could be kind and yet is really desperate and alone... which is something that could be relatable for people, up to a point.  Altman and his writer do cross another point near the end and it gets truly disturbing (the kind of last five minutes where I was just holding my face going 'oh God' based on a plot turn that I won't dare say here), but I was still with it by then.

What That Cold Day in the Park offers for the receptive viewer is a damned good story told with enough conviction and occasionally turning to dark humor (i.e. when Frances pours her soul out for the Boy and it turns out he's not even there) to justify its existence.  It's also nice to see Altman find the start (if not completely) his style of tracking from afar, like a voyeur who wants to keep watching even as it's a little too odd or painful.  It's a psychological thriller where most of the thrills are interior instead of exterior, and the air of unpredictability makes for fascinating viewing, despite missing greatness through a less-than-great Michael Burns.  It's like a Lifetime movie for, well, people looking for a movie with artistry (i.e. Laszlo Kovacs photography)!

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