And then there is his somewhat lost period of the 1980s, a peculiar stretch in which the filmmaker, sucker-punched by the relative failure of his big-budget screen adaptation of Popeye (and Fox’s burying of his other 1980 release, HealtH), basically went off the grid commercially. He became fascinated by the stage, and spent much of the decade directing plays and several film adaptations of plays for both television and theatrical presentation, including Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, The Laundromat, and Basements. These experiments in merging stage and screen are tough to locate these days (though Criterion released an excellent DVD of Secret Honor a few years back), but Shout’s new release of the 1983 effort Streamers gives us a rare opportunity to look at this experimental phase of the great director’s career.
Based on the play by David Rabe (directed on stage by Mike Nichols), Streamers takes place in an army barracks early in the Vietnam War. Its focus is on three soldiers about to deploy to Southeast Asia: all-American Billy (Matthew Modine), his likable black friend Roger (David Alan Grier, in his film debut), and Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein), widely rumored to be a “swish.” The trio’s relationships are comfortable but tentative—they interact, but much is left unsaid. Into that subtly bubbling atmosphere charges Carlyle (Michael Wright, familiar from his later appearances in The Five Heartbeats and Sugar Hill), a blunt, forceful, bitter black soldier with an axe to grind against, seemingly, everyone. His untethered rage and disregard for the niceties of polite conversation threaten to explode the soldiers, already precarious as they face their fates.
The picture is a tensely talkative deconstruction of the men’s racial and sexual dynamics and hang-ups, equal parts inspiration and boilerplate, power and predictability. It is, without question, a stage-bound film, but (as with many of the adaptations of this period) Altman seems uninterested in shying away from the material’s theatrical roots. There are no pained attempts to “open up” the material by arbitrarily moving scenes to the mess hall or the grounds; he embraces the claustrophobia of the single setting, and tightens it. But the barracks always feels like a set, as though Altman brought his cameras up onstage, and that superficiality heightens the artifice of some of Rabe’s writing. He’s a skilled structurist and a fine composer of dialogue (as anyone who’s seen or read Hurlyburly or The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel can tell you), but some of the writing—particularly the lengthy, confessional monologues, and the strained run-ups to them—feels awfully pat. There is some compelling material in those monologues, understand, but you can hear the gears turning in them.
We here find Altman’s directorial style somewhat in flux. In its opening scenes, it conveys Altman’s particular gift for capturing moments seemingly unstaged, with recurrent use of his signature devices (zooms and pans, loose framings, intercut scenes, overlapping dialogue). But the film settles down and tightens as it goes on, with Altman leaving most (if not all) of Rabe’s text intact. He sticks closer to the script than was his wont, though whether that benefits or hinders the film is up for negotiation. There are some lovely visual moments though, particularly a heartbreaking pan to a pool of blood and the way Pierre Mignot’s camera captures Ritchie absent-mindedly playing with a lamp cord while Billy babbles.
Altman was renowned as an actor’s director, though his somewhat hands-off approach offers uneven results here. Modine, never an actor who makes much of an impression, is all aw-shucks naiveté; he barely manages to summon the required darkness at the story’s end. Wright is a bit of an over-actor—one wishes Altman would have tamped him down a bit, since he’s quite effective in his quiet moments. Lichtenstein comes off a little broad at first, but his is ultimately a successful and heartfelt performance, while Grier is remarkable; he comes on like a spark plug, and deftly conveys the shifting personalities of a young black man trying to be all things to everybody. As drunken superior Rooney, Guy Boyd has a grizzled authenticity, while his drinking buddy Cokes is played with real force by George Dzunda.
Ultimately, Altman can’t quite carry the viewer’s interest; the story is compelling but contrived, and while there is an inevitability to the closing confrontations, they seem more organic to the needs of the drama than to the situation at hand. Streamers is a long, talky film with some quotable dialogue and flashes of real power, but it is fundamentally a lesser Altman. A lesser Altman, though, is still worth seeing.
In Streamers, Robert Altman tries to create something devastating and powerful, and doesn’t make it happen; the picture feels too self-consciously arty and contrived to be genuinely successful. But it is an interesting snapshot of Altman as an artist at a crossroads, more disciplined and subservient to the material than expected, and most anything he does is worth at least a look.
"Streamers" makes its DVD debut on Tuesday, January 19th. For full A/V and bonus feature information, read this review at DVD Talk.