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Monday, 26 March 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare finds a 'must buy' from Robert Altman's early career IMAGES (1972)

Susannah York (Cathryn) gazes upon the house and garden of her own nightmarish children's book "In Search of Unicorns", as well as the distant figure of herself. Images (1972), a vital and completely virtuosic film slipped quietly into the backwaters on first release, coming between Altman's bigger critical successes like McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973). Images has since had a chequered reception and distribution history.
The screens (click to enlarge) are from the new Arrow Blu-ray which is itself mastered from what I have to call a problematic 35mm print presumably sourced from Sony (Columbia), itself the likely victim of decades of neglect and care. 
The film belongs right up there with the much later masterpiece Three Women (1977), and the earlier and much more narratively straightforward That Cold Day in the Park (1969). In Images Altman depicts, like the earlier Sandy Dennis movie, a kammerspiel of a closed, even possibly hallucinated chamber cast of three men and a young girl who takes the lead actress' name of Susannah, just as York herself takes the name, Cathryn, of the actress playing the young girl.
I don't want to suggest splitting Altman's cinema into some kind of binary of big ensembles in Scope, vs.Kammerspiel, also in Scope. But this movie and Three Women in particular are among the director's most inventive and limpid exercises in gaze, gaze upon gaze, image and meaning, confounding narrative and development, and the most basic rules of character drawing. I think Images only carries one shaky sequence and that's the "love scene" at the one-hour mark in which Cathryn appears to be having sex with at least two of the three men in her orbit. Apart from that sequence giving us the first major insight into Cathryn's disorder and her imagination, it's the only setup which feels overly thought through and staged for narrative clarity.
For the rest the movie's ebb and flow is limpid, and shocking. The more I go back to Altman the more I love his early work, especially films I haven't watched for decades - the last time I saw this was mid 1970s. At the time it left me cold. Now its seductive form tempts me to put it with a very small group of meditative ruminations on character, narrative and the potential for gaze and the gaze back from the fourth wall. This movie belongs with Antonioni's Blowup (1966) and The Passenger (1975), among others although it has its own distinctive personality and the mischievous dynamic of Altman's own wit and humor. 

I feel deeply for the technical video team at Arrow who had to deal with a very much second generation or later exhibition print, rather than first gen elements or anything close. Thus the vagaries of Vilmos Zsigmond's extremely high grain photography in both standard and telephoto modes really takes a beating from being so far from a first Camera Negative or Inter-positive. Sony presumably provided the master, as best they could, and it's taken every ounce of skill from Arrow's mastering and color timing to get this anywhere near their very high standards. The last reel, strangely looks suddenly perfectly resolved for grain, dynamic range and sharpness, as though that one last reel of the film had been better preserved than the rest, all the more odd as it splits equally into a night-time low light car trip sequence followed by the all-white studio apartment set that opened the movie. So, despite the technical limitation, a must buy.
Editor's Note: For more on Altman you can check out these two recent essays by Bruce Hodsdon posted here and here



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