Wednesday, September 07, 2005

FOOL FOR LOVE (1985) - Robert Altman

Fool for Love is another of Altman's mid-80s stabs at giving filmed theater pieces a cinematic landscape. This one boasts a screenplay by cowboy-poet du jour Sam Shepard, who also wrote the play on which the movie's based, and who also acts alongside Kim Basinger in a lead role as one of the two titular "fools for love." The spare cast is rounded out by Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, a few horses, and a few rusty trailers lying about a small motel in the desert. Sounds like all the makings of an interesting down-home chamber piece, but where that chamber is a Motel 6.

Well, kinda sorta and not exactly. Although Altman takes great pains to "open up" the play for the screen by keeping his characters moving in and out of the motel room and into parking lots or the bar across the way, it feels like they are moving through dead space. He incorporates his journeyman's tricks used to greater effect in his large ensemble films like the always-searching ZOOM LENS, the wide shots taking in several planes of action, unnamed characters moving to and fro in the background doing eccentric unnamed things. Altman is a master of these techniques, no doubt, but here they feel forced. I think this is primarily because he LACKS THE PEOPLE his films normally have, say the busy ensemble of a Nashville barroom or a Hollywood power luncheon as in The Player. The little town in Fool for Love is downright desolate in comparison, and Altman's restless lens seems to be looking for something to focus on other than the characters and finding only scrub brush.

Actually, the spare approach works for the first half of the movie as old lovers Shepard and Basinger circle each other like cats in heat around the motel in a sort of attraction-repulsion dynamic that's both painful and comic at the same time. Plus, you have Harry Dean as an unnamed drunk wandering around stealing liquor bottles from the cabs of people's trucks, cupboards, wherever he can scrounge it, for some nice comic relief. I'll have to admit, this movie also boasts one of the best breaking-down-the-door shots I've ever seen (rivaling The Shining's "Heeere's Johnny" moment) because it's so loaded with subtext and because that door breaks-away so damn nicely. Kudos to you, Prop Master/Set Designer!

But then the mechanizations of a plot kick in along with Randy Quaid's arrival as Basinger's new suitor (this, mind you, halfway into the movie). And as much as I would love to see Randy Quaid walk into the middle of any and every movie, unfortunately this time he was saddled with the burden of bringing plot along with him. This is a heavy burden to bear for a movie that up until now had been ambling along quietly on mood alone.

Altman tries a few things to liven up the torrent of exposition that comes out in the movie's last half, but I'm not so sure they work. This involves cutting to a lot a flashbacks wherein the voiceover doesn't really match the visuals you're seeing. This leads us to believe all the characters are fabricating truth, or that Altman is commenting on the malleability of truth told in hindsight (or other film school explanations). However, it doesn't do much to help the story along other than to obfuscate it a bit more, which admittedly was probably the point.

I'll admit I sneaked a peek at the "making of" documentary I taped after the film. Altman claims the primary theme he was working with was the story's incestuous underpinnings (which if you know the play makes sense). He says he tried to apply this theme even to his technical approach with the film (overlapping characters into different time frames, turning the narrative back in on itself, etc.). But was he successful, or even the right director, with this material? I'm not so sure. All I know is, this time, he picked a strange bedfellow.

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