USA, 1972, 104 mins
Director: Robert Altman

Altman on ‘Images’

Robert Altman was in London in February, cutting his new film, Images. To help audiences to stop thinking of him as the man who made MASH (and to forestall their indignation when it turns out not to be exactly funny), it will probably be publicised as ‘the story of a woman who loved her husband more than she loved herself and therefore murdered him.’ But probably is the operative word.

Images is not yet finished, and Altman, who is unusually insistent on the organic nature of film (‘It’s like a child, it’s like anything that’s growing. If you start trying to restrict it, you have a twisted thing’), is particularly reluctant to outline the shape of the film to come.

He admits that when McCabe & Mrs. Miller was at the same stage, he was willing, and indeed eager, to describe it to anyone who was interested, whereas he feels that any summary of Images is bound to be misleading. ‘Which is probably the best indication I have that it may be a good film. Who was it, when he was asked for a synopsis of his book, said “If I could have written it shorter, I would have done it”?’

In view of his method of working, Altman’s cautious reticence seems particularly sensible. He explains that he usually starts out with an idea of the kind of picture he wants to make rather than with a precise story and that this idea is apt to be considerably modified by the collaborative process of filmmaking (‘The hidden artists – there are a lot of them whose faces you never see – who work on a picture’). A case in point is one of the few sequences in Images about which he was prepared to be both specific and enthusiastic.

‘In the script and in the shooting and in the performance, it was the most singularly clever sequence in the picture. I shot forever on it. The people who worked with me had never known me use so much film. I was like George Stevens. I shot a close-up from this angle, a close-up from that angle. It was about a six or seven minute scene. I even shot a master shot. I shot a short master, a tight master … I shot it so many different ways that René Auberjonois got sick eating spaghetti and everyone else just got sick of the scene. Then there was a problem and I thought we’d have to throw it out of the picture, but because of all that coverage we were able to put together an entirely different scene that I must say really works now.’ Less than a week after I interviewed him, he telephoned to say that he’d cut a further 23 minutes out of the film, including the sequence he’d mentioned and which he now felt didn’t work at all.

Altman says that the only thematic continuity he can find in his films is a preoccupation with the flexible boundary between sanity and insanity. When asked to define his initial idea for Images, he cautiously admits that it’s ‘about a woman who’s insane, or at least has all the manifestations of insanity and schizophrenia.’ In view of his reputation for realistic detail and his origins in industrial documentaries, he’s very anxious to prevent his audience viewing the film as a clinical documentary about insanity, insisting that – like all his films, including MASH – it’s very much a fairytale.

To underline its fairytale aspect, and to break away from the specifically American connotations of his last three films, he spent months searching for a suitable location, ‘looking for an environment which didn’t exist.’ Stockholm, Spain, Northern France and Canada were all considered before he settled on a remote old house in Ireland; though from what you see on the screen, he insists, you’d have no idea where the film took place. His characters’ clothes were chosen to avoid suggesting too precise a period. To ensure the kind of spatial dislocation he was after (‘we were trying not to pin it down to the mathematician returning to Cornwall with his wife to live’), he deliberately made his cast of six as international as possible: Susannah York (English) is married to René Auberjonois (American), while the two lovers who haunt her imaginings are played by Michel Bozzuffi (French) and Hugh Millais (Canadian).

‘In MASH, we tried to give the audience the feeling that what they were seeing was just the window they were stuck at. That if they’d looked out another window, they’d have seen a different movie, though with the same atmosphere. In Images, you don’t see anybody. When she drives to the railway station, there are some people, but you won’t see them. You don’t see any other cars, you don’t see telegraph poles … The idea is that we are dealing totally with the framework of someone’s imagination. And when you have a dream, and you walk into a room, the only thing that’s happening in that room is what’s important to your dream. There are no rubber bands on the floor, no cigarette butts; there’s just the gun in the comer, or the milk bottle on the table.’

The imagination that Images is describing is a violent one, and Altman admits that there’s a great deal of blood in the three classic murder situations he depicts: a man shot with a shotgun at point blank range; another man stabbed in the neck while taking off his sweater; a third person driven off a cliff down a waterfall. But although the murders will be shown in graphic detail (unless, of course, he decides to cut them too), he insists that they’ll convey no sense of realism, since in defiance of screen tradition he has chosen to show the violence as it affects its victims without indicating any intention on the part of the person perpetrating it.

Like his last three films, Images will be in Panavision (‘a more natural look than most of the other lenses’) and in colour (‘I just don’t see the world in black and white. It isn’t real’). Yet Altman, who claims that he uses a zoom lens almost all the time but seldom uses the zoom part, and who is unperturbed at the prospect of filling a wide screen with a six-character fairytale, owns to a terror of wide angle lenses: ‘There’s a distortion to it, and I really don’t like distortion. Vilmos [Zsigmond] made some fill-in shots of the house for Images. I’d told him to go out and surprise me. And they pan up from the lake to the house, and the house is all out of proportion and I just hate it. Yet it fits in the picture now so well that I’m embarrassed.’

While talking about Images, and reminiscing about Brewster McCloud (‘the best picture I’ve made’), Altman is already thinking out his next two films : one, about a young person floundering about in an alien environment, which he doesn’t want to discuss in case he changes his mind in 20 minutes time; and Thieves like Us, set in America in 1936 or 37 and ‘kind of the son of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.’ He says that since he’s decided he really enjoys working, he’s given up believing that every picture has to be important. ‘I think that you just keep working, and you can do little paintings, and big ones, and then you can do a mural if you want to, and then go back to little ones.’ Where will Images fit into this scheme of things? ‘It’s a small canvas, but I think it’s going to look very nice hanging up some place.’
Jan Dawson, Sight and Sound, Spring 1972

Directed by: Robert Altman
©: Equator Films Limited
Presented by: Hemdale
Produced by: Tommy Thompson
Production Manager: Sheila Collins
Production Accountant: Joan Collingwood
Assistant to Producer: Jean D’Oncieu
Assistant Director: Seamus Byrne
Continuity: Joan Bennett
Written by: Robert Altman
‘In Search of Unicorns’ a book for children by: Susannah York
Director of Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Camera Assistants: Earl Clark, Nico Vermuelen
Gaffer: Jack Conroy
Grip: Paddy Keogh
Special Effects: Terry Johnson
Edited by: Graeme Clifford
Assistant Editors: Michael Kelliher, David Spiers, Robin Buick
Production Design: Leon Ericksen
Miss [Susannah] York’s Clothes: Raymond Ray
Wardrobe: Jack Gallagher
Make-up: Toni Delaney
Hair: Barry Richardson
Music: John Williams
Sounds: Stomu Yamash’ta
Sound Recordist: Liam Saurin
Boom Operator: Noel Quinn
Re-recorded at: De Lane Lea
Dubbing Mixer: Doug Turner
Sound Editor: Rodney Holland
Made at: Ardmore International Film Studios

Susannah York (Cathryn)
René Auberjonois (Hugh)
Marcel Bozzuffi (René)
Hugh Millais (Marcel)
Cathryn Harrison (Susannah)
John Morley (old man)

UK 1972©
104 mins

Mon 17 May 20:30; Wed 19 May 14:30; Sat 29 May 20:45; Thu 10 Jun 18:00; Tue 22 Jun 14:30; Mon 28 Jun 20:40
A Wedding
Tue 18 May 20:40; Fri 11 Jun 20:30; Wed 23 Jun 14:30; Sun 27 Jun 18:10
McCabe & Mrs Miller
Fri 21 May 14:30; Mon 31 May 18:30; Wed 2 Jun 20:45; Sun 20 Jun 18:30
California Split
Fri 21 May 17:50; Mon 24 May 20:50; Mon 31 May 15:45; Sun 20 Jun 15:40; Thu 24 Jun 14:30
The Long Goodbye
Sun 23 May 18:30; Thu 27 May 20:50; Wed 2 Jun 14:30; Sat 19 Jun 17:30
Robert Altman, Outsider and Innovator: An Illustrated Online Talk
Mon 24 May 19:00
3 Women
Wed 26 May 20:40; Sat 5 Jun 20:30; Thu 10 Jun 20:30; Sat 19 Jun 15:00
The James Dean Story
Sat 29 May 15:30; Mon 7 Jun 20:50
That Cold Day in the Park
Sat 29 May 17:50; Tue 8 Jun 18:00
Brewster McCloud
Sun 30 May 19:00; Sun 13 Jun 16:00; Fri 18 Jun 17:50
A Perfect Couple
Tue 1 Jun 17:50; Mon 14 Jun 17:50; Wed 16 Jun 20:45
Tue 1 Jun 20:50; Sat 12 Jun 15:30; Fri 25 Jun 18:00
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Thu 3 Jun 17:50; Sat 19 Jun 12:30
Thieves like Us
Thu 3 Jun 20:40; Tue 8 Jun 20:30; Mon 21 Jun 17:50
Fool for Love
Sat 5 Jun 16:10; Sat 12 Jun 20:40
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson
Sat 5 Jun 17:30; Sat 26 Jun 15:10
Sun 6 Jun 13:00; Mon 21 Jun 20:40
OC & Stiggs
Wed 9 Jun 20:40; Tue 22 Jun 18:00
Sat 12 Jun 18:10; Wed 30 Jun 20:45
Sun 13 Jun 12:50; Tue 29 Jun 17:50
Tue 15 Jun 20:45; Sun 27 Jun 12:15
Secret Honor
Wed 16 Jun 18:00; Sun 27 Jun 15:50
Women in the Films of Robert Altman: An Online Panel Discussion
Thu 17 Jun 19:00
Beyond Therapy
Thu 24 Jun 17:50; Tue 29 Jun 20:45

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