It’s a point that many viewers miss, though it’s difficult to blame them: Robert Altman’s 3 Women is really “about” California, and quite distinctly so — it doesn’t belong to its contentual municipality in the sense that, say, Nashville does. And it’s not about the psycho-sprawl urban California of Los Angeles or the spittle, cardboard and tinsel California of Hollywood or the plugged culture retro-future sophistry California of San Francisco. It’s about the other California, by which one means the smattering of middle-of-nowhere cities always on the brink of suburbia these days, and always reminding us of somewhere else. The dusty, mid-western-like cock-and-bull towns that flank the interstate 5 with ranches and groves. The shattered-shell-and-hanging-kayak-wind-chime Mediterranean beach villas that dot the coastal region from Monterey to Santa Barbara. And, of course, the boilingly barren, frenziedly phallic desert settlements that circle the parched Mojave and Joshua Tree territories.
Of these three ecosystems of the damned — and I can express this sincere contempt unabashedly, having been raised in one — the final is closest to the backdrop of 3 Women; two of the major characters in the film are employed in a geriatric therapy facility offering hot mineral baths and the like (a common offering in high desert vicinities that have the advantage of a sulphur spring natural resource). And at one point Shelly Duvall’s “Millie” bitches about having moved her ex-roommate “all the way to Riverside”. Judging from the terrain and the flickering fata morgana of despondency, I would place the affair in one of the glorified truck stops that populate the 15 freeway past Barstow. On family trips to Vegas my parents would typically lurch up the pearblossom path in an effort to take the city (and its eternal traffic) by surprise; while shielding my eyes from a dirt storm en route to a Texaco men’s room I often recognized more of the Land of Enchantment in the Native totems and O’Keefe-like arid eroticism than the Golden State.
There’s a fair enough reason for this: California is defined by its industry rather than by its shamanic geography, which is as confusing as it is convenient. Admittedly the tourist-trapping books and postcards have always made it out to be a mixed bag of metro and mountainous, work and play…but the planate, dehydrated corners have few champions compared to the bushy, fertile valleys (Steinbeck anyone?). The one exception might be Death Valley which, like the sombre and partially lost work of art that climaxes in its vulcan entrails, is in a class all itself.
The females of Altman’s dreamscape, as with most who doom themselves to a hyperthermic existence, inhabit their lifeless abode with the seeming effortlessness of a triad of tortoises. They know when to avoid the sun and when to bask; they know the watering holes and the sandtraps; they know that they, like the ubiquitous mood murals that the silent saloon-and-apartment-complex owner Willie (Janice Rule) perpetually paints, are as obstinately unified with their environment as a lunar eclipse, or an abrupt, crepuscular temperature shift. The phrase Poetic Survivalism comes to mind, though it suggests that they are consciously artful. On the contrary, it takes an outsider to recognize any beauty here; to them it’s simply living, as automatic as photosynthesis.
Even Willie’s graphic, grotesquely ornate pieces seem utilitarian rather than aesthetic — she uses them to add a splash of curiosity to smooth pool bottoms and the sandy patio surfaces. Like the women, the murals are silently clashing with, while enhancing and epitomizing, the milieu: In short, they’re harbingers of life cycles — and depictions of those life cycles’ stages — rather than inanimate objects to be admired or seduced. Pinky (Sissy Spacek) compliments Willie on her work in one scene, and receives a vapid, vaguely cursed stare in return. How dare she appreciate an activity as common as ingesting nutrition or expelling waste?
Notably, the one crack in the film’s kilned glaze is that the men — the yin to the feminine yang, who seem less practical and more pleasure-driven — are conspicuously marginalized, probably due to their underwritten characters. Robert Fortier’s Edgar, the objective correlative for Millie’s (and then, after post-rebirth, Pinky’s) vertiginous self-denial, is a very probably a rib at Warren Beatty (if so, it’s impotently hilarious), but he tethers the action to an era where cowboys were still mocked. You watch him shoot at targets and tell knee-slappers in the abandoned wild west theme park of his waning libido while man-handling Spacek’s stagnantly nubile torso: he’s the only ironic archetype in sight, even if his self-designed hell undulates with hyper-authenticity (I grew up in the town where William S Hart died, and ramshackle film sets from abandoned western productions were everywhere — whether they had been preserved as landmarks or surreal reminders of the superficial fecundity of dry valley claim-staking I could not say). Were the movie made today — and it could very easily still be, as these sepulcher backlots haven’t changed a bit — Edgar might be better limned as a sluggishly heat-stroked Don Van Vliet-type: Duvall would reach between his legs and pull away a handful of sawdust. He’d stare at her stolidly, as if to say that it isn’t any use disliking tomatoes where you can’t get any fresh.
I can’t help but feel that comparing 3 Women to other cinematic identity crises is somewhat
facile. The titular triumvirate do suckle on each other’s confidences, or whatever alternative to confidence they possess, but the women confuse themselves with the terrain more than one another (Pinky’s name, after all, was always Mildred…towards the middle of the film she simply finds a new way to hate her nomenclature). The pronouns float in the ghostly 35mm reeds like a face-down, motel Ophelia — the you’s and I’s and they’s all melt, bubbling and streaking down the sidewalk, browning in the sun and landing in one of Bodhi Wind’s paint canisters. Altman provides the canvas (as he usually does) and the women etch themselves as a trompe l’oeil against the clay, shale, and mud of the California wasteland.
Steinbeck envisioned the Salinas Valley as Eden — a fair comparison, given the fertility. We might then liken the decadence of Los Angeles to a dazzling Necker Cube: one eye perceives paradise, and the other damnation. But the eastern desert — as with much of the other California — is the dim limbo, the mirage-like Abraham’s Bosom where nothing is familiar or alien and a host-hierarchy of invisible principalities guard the semi-permeable gates to Jericho. It’s no wonder Gram Parsons yearned to have voracious flames lick off his skin while the buzzards and hoot owls and cacti spitefully looked on. And Millie, Pinky, Willie — they’re like the rest of us. Everyone here is a twin and a triplet and an only child waiting to be reborn, waiting to be judged, waiting to judge the others from atop a fierce Mount Sinai made out of old, punctured tires.