Robert Altman’s third film was an adaptation of That Cold Day in the Park, a novel by Richard Miles that follows a repressed gay man who picks up a hustler in the park across the road from his apartment, and half-heartedly holds him captive while trying to come to terms with his own sexuality. In Altman’s version, the story is changed so that the main character is now a single woman, Frances Austen, played by Sandy Dennis, who picks up a young man, played by Michael Burns, while he is trying to shelter from the rain. At first, this plays like a lurid psychosexual thriller, tapping into the fascination with predatory older women that formed the counterculture’s answer to the biddy horror that was so integral to late classical Hollywood. But it quickly turns into something considerably stranger – a canvas for Altman to start experimenting with the film signature he would elaborate over the 70s.
Early in his career, Altman was open about his disinterest in story, and his desire to make films that weren’t narrative-driven. While this wasn’t especially unusual in Hollywood, Altman’s films were striking in that they weren’t particularly character-driven either. Nor were they driven by a stable or orienting sense of space, since his trademark zoom-and-pan tended to break down any classical continuity of action. Instead, his films were ensemble-driven, immersing the audience in a lived texture that was impossible to parse in terms of any one character, space or narrative situation, and which frequently demanded multiple rewatching to start glimpsing their full reach and significance. With That Cold Day in the Park, Altman makes his first decisive step in that direction, taking a scenario that seems ripe for a suspenseful narrative, a haunted character study, and a suffocatingly claustrophobic sense of space, only to distend and disperse all these factors into a new ensemble mentality.
In other words, Altman sets out to make a film that lacks a conventional story, characterisation or spatiality, but that is still dynamic. All of that hinges on a quite mesmerizing performance from Dennis, whose trademark blankness works brilliantly here, as does the blandness of Burns as “The Man,” who doesn’t speak a single word to Frances until the very end of the film. While both of these actors have a real presence, their roles fall short of characters per se, partly because they don’t make any really sustained contact until the closing scenes. Never quite shot from either one of their perspectives, the film hangs, suspended, between them, opening up a surprising amount of space, and a surprising ensemble experience. Despite the initial focus, the action quickly expands as The Man regularly takes time out from the apartment to connect with his family and sister, while Altman also follows Frances as she goes about her daily routine, dissipating any semblance of claustrophobia or containment whenever the film seems on the verge of chamber drama.
Ironically, Frances and The Man’s isolation from each other increases as they spend more time around each other, while also drawing them into an unusual solidarity as well. Both of them are single, both of them have an oblique relation to marriage, and both of them have been somewhat left behind by their respective generation. For her pre-war family, Frances has been branded a “spinster,” while The Man is a little too conservative to fit into the counterculture, which is embodied by his carefree sister, whose free love approach goes far enough to encourage him to gaze upon her body and admit his attraction to her. As with The Graduate, the two characters here seem to be caught between generations, or to encapsulate a transition between generations, and their situation marks the start of Altman’s signature editing style, which would become as prominent as his directorial style over the next decade. Scenes that seem to be sequential turn out to be simultaneous, and vice versa, as Frances and The Man occupy a mutual displacement that draws them closer.
In the process, Altman replaces the transgression of a gay male character with a transgression that was almost as great at this point in Hollywood – that of an older female character who is sexually interested in a younger man. The point is made succinctly by Frances’ relation with “The Doctor,” an older man played by Edward Greenhaigh who has been pursuing her for years. While the age difference between Frances and The Doctor is as great as the age difference between Frances and The Man, her rapport with The Doctor seems normal, or natural, while her rapport with The Man seems unusual, or original – at least until Frances confides to The Man that she has always found The Doctor inherently repulsive. This is the moment at which she seems set to liberate herself from her former life, only for her to discover that she has been talking to an empty bed, and that The Man has piled a collection of dolls and pillows under the covers to trick her into thinking he was there. At the very moment at which she articulates the double standards driving her existence, Frances is thus forced back into monologue, and forced to concede that she can’t even retain the fantasy of a confidant, as her confession now gives way to a schizoid scream.
While Altman’s film may examine the constrictions posed to each character, then, it’s also aware that Frances has fared worse in the transition from pre-war to countercultural generations. In fact, the point of the film often seems to be that the counterculture is not really all that liberating to women, and in fact doubles down, in some ways, on patriarchy – a point that Altman will both make and exemplify in MASH, his next feature. It’s the rigour of this critique that betrays the film’s origin in a queer text, a queerness that comes to the fore as the film proceeds, and Frances finds herself collapsed into one homoerotic exchange after another, culminating in her decision to procure a prostitute for The Man that is initially read as a lesbian solicitation. That’s not to say that Frances is queer, but that lesbian love is the only existence left to her by Hollywood convention once she resists both spinsterdom and the prospect of romance provided by The Doctor. Presumably past the stage of motherhood, Frances’ only viable parts are the younger wife of an older bachelor, or the surrogate mother of a wayward youth – caught between The Man and The Doctor – meaning that she can’t be processed, heteronormatively, once she rejects both avenues.
For all The Man’s presence, or non-presence, this is thus very much a one-woman performance from Dennis. Even her most extravagant outpourings brim with a deeper muteness, a sense that Hollywood has somehow limited her conditions of existence, while even her most plangent exchanges with The Man have a one-sided quality. As a result, the objects between them taken on a vivid intensity and plasticity, while Frances herself exudes a material and visceral presence that often reminded me of Jeanne Dielman. Yet Altman’s version of domestic isolation differs quite dramatically from Chantal Akerman’s in its vision of physical space. Whereas Akerman’s precise framing and frank spatiality emphasises the constricting geometries of Jeanne Dielman’s daily life, Altman opts for a spatially diffuse and incohesive aesthetic approach that gestures towards a more ensemble mentality, or at least the dissolution and dispersal of self that makes an ensemble impulse slightly more tenable.
This is particularly evident in Frances’ apartment, which is where we see the first sustained appearance of Altman’s fractured and slippery approach to physical space. Taking the constriction of the apartment as a challenge, Altman continually pans and zooms to displace any stable sense of space, and any stable relation between Frances and her home. For a brief moment, the window where she first glimpses The Man functions as an anchor, and a source of classical framing, but it is quickly dissolved into a more diffuse ambience. Rather than starting or ending the apartment scenes with clear shots, Altman instead tends to transition by zooming in and out of crystalline and reflective surfaces, kaleidocoping the apartment into an extension of the camera lens itself. On the one hand, this continually prevents us from fully glimpsing, or fully processing, the intriguing pre-war fixtures that make the apartment so eccentric, and which seem so conducive to classical framing. On the other hand, Altman’s approach imbues these pre-war fixtures with a psychedelic potentiality, dwelling on glass bricks, wavy patterns, purple hues and refracted light until the apartment itself feels suspended between the generations the two characters embody.
Conversely, the scenes outside the apartment tend to hyperbolise and exhaust conventional auteurist framing. Virtually all of these scenes are shot from the outside, and use windows as an accentuated framing device, starting with a shot that represents The Man returning home to his family house – an extraordinary turret structure that allows Altman to pan up as The Man moves from room to room, greeting each member of his family in turn. Similarly, when The Man visits his sister on her houseboat, he is forced to wait for her to stop being intimate with her boyfriend, and eventually cover the window to stop himself looking in. Finally, Frances’ appointment at a birth control centre is depicted in its entirety through a series of pans that take us across the windows of the centre, following her as she moves from the reception desk, to the bathroom, to the gynecologist’s chair. Yet while all of these scenes are “auteurist” in their style, they also exhaust the spaces they depict, making the apartment, and Altman’s zoomy collapse of space feel even fresher. Ironically, the more time the two characters spend outside the apartment, the bigger the apartment feels when they return, in what feels like the spatial blueprint for the next sequence in Altman’s career.
At its most pronounced, this spatial zoominess coalesces around one of the other big signatures of Altman’s golden era – his fixation and fascination with overlapping ambient sound. Despite the fact that they are the only two real figures in the film, Frances and The Man gradually start to feel like part of a broader sonic murk, partly because their own words rarely find each other directly, and so accumulate in the air between them. Just as Altman tested his spatial diffusion in a narrative that seemed to demand spatial cohesion, so he tests his incipient taste for aural diffusion in a narrative that seems to demand aural cohesion. In both cases, he moves obliquely away from narrative itself, while still managing to maintain enough dynamism for the film to ebb and flow as if there were a narrative in place – a process that would be crystallised in MASH, and perfected in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, but which is just as poetic here; an inherently incipient style that resonates in a peculiarly evocative way at this point when it was incipient in Altman’s own account of it.