Fool for Love
Reviewed in June 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Robert Altman. Cast: Kim Basinger, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, Deborah McNaughton, Martha Crawford, Louise Egolf, April Russell, Sura Cox, Jonathan Skinner. Screenplay: Sam Shepard (based on his play).
Twitter Capsule: Shepard's impacted portents thrive unexpectedly under Altman's ironic, distracted eye.

Photo © 1985 The Cannon Group, Inc.
Sam Shepard and Robert Altman are comparably fascinating but notably dissimilar American griots. Shepard posits tough, cryptic, often malingering archetypes as the characters in his claustrophobic chamber dramas, and his scripts tend to burrow toward some impacted kernel of badly buried truth. Altman, in his big-canvas projects but also in more modest works like Fool for Love, tends instead toward porous, erratic characters who gustily improvise their own lives. His camera, like his people, pays democratic, even distracted attention to whomever or whatever flits by, even amid ominous build-ups or dramatic climaxes, and it's never the wrong time for an unforeseeable pan or zoom, or a reaction shot of someone who seems tangential to the heart of the dramatic beat.

You can see how linking such disparate sensibilities could yield an exciting blaze or a damp log, and I'm sure Fool for Love will aggravate as many people as it will entrance. For at least the first 15 minutes, neither Altman's editing nor Shepard's adaptation of his own play help us to decode the relationship between Eddie (Shepard), an itinerant cowboy type steering his pickup down an isolated stretch of highway, and May (Kim Basinger), a downcast beauty living in a semi-shanty of a neon-sign motel, just off that same road. She is obviously his destination, but is she in hiding? Is she hiding from Eddie, specifically? She cowers in the bathroom and pretends nobody's home when Eddie comes knocking, but he spots one of her sandals through a window and busts right through the wood-paneled door. Not, seemingly, with any intent of violence toward May herself, and in fact it's she who can't fight an impulse to pummel away at him. He's rather genial about it, but whatever trouble he's brought with him, it's going to hit back hard.

This opening boasts some quickly intriguing enigmas, some nifty tricks of the sound design, and the swift, subtle introduction of two competing color palettes, dusty and fluorescent. Still, it's fair to worry through the introductory movements of Fool for Love that Shepard is selling the same old bag of American Gothic mood, and that Altman's going to allow his two stars to treat the screen as a barely controlled rehearsal space. Shepard, without stinting on energy, looks on first sight like he already knows all the chess-moves before the board has even been set. Basinger, a performer who is hard to trust even in the best of circumstances, seems a bit too eager to play up to what she rightly perceives as rare, auspicious material, especially at that stage in her career. Altman's simultaneous interest in mannered acting styles and in catching his performers off-guard seem like especially bad fits for this nervous, under-tested, wholly un-technical actress. Thank goodness for cinematographer Pierre Mignot's idiosyncratic colors and long shots, and for Sandy Rogers's plucky, whiskey-and-rye serenades on the radio, or we might start to get skeptical as Fool for Love takes its sweet time, circling around the idea of getting started. But while some viewers will get frustrated, Altman's crystalline, elliptical cross-cutting worked its creeping magic on me, as his movies usually do. By the time Shepard and Basinger started teasing, threatening, flirting with, and repelling each other, though he does most of the teasing and she most of the repelling, I was primed to learn where they, and we, were headed. Bring on the macabre revelations! Open the door for one or two more riddling loners! They're bound to be strange, but they won't be quite the strangers they appear.

All of that turns out to be true, yet Fool for Love wasn't the movie I was expecting. I'm sure the vague patina of disappointment that still clings to Altman's work in the 1980s, forever described as his "lost" period or his "wilderness" years, had prompted me not to expect too much. On its own mysterious terms, though—and admittedly, some revelations are more predictable than others, and some sequences pay lesser dividends—Fool for Love is sneakily captivating. Despite a premise, a scale, and a texture that look "minor" enough to feel made for TV, Fool for Love harbors some ambitious structural and storytelling goals. We're sort of in 3 Women territory here, as the film confines itself to a very small cast of people who may or may not be phantoms or dream projections. We don't realize that right away, but soon enough Fool for Love starts to peel away at its own layers, implying that this geezer, that child, this man, and this woman may be bonded in very different ways than we sussed at first.

The basic friction between Altman's lightness and Shepard's portentousness serves the movie in rich and ever-expanding ways, and not just because you can't ever predict how the narrative will swerve, or whom you'll be looking at from one cut to the next. Harry Dean Stanton skulks around as (surprise) a mysterious loiterer, often barely acknowledged by anyone except by the camera. Given that this is an Altman movie, you start wondering whether he's a material body or more of a spectral presence, like Virginia Madsen in A Prairie Home Companion. Then again, given that this is a Shepard play, he could easily be hiding a petri dish of corrosive backstory somewhere in the pockets of his ragman clothes. Basinger's May, a prototypically Shepardesque shape-shifter, keeps oscillating between tender and vicious registers, faded and sluttish get-ups, though you can tell they all derive from the same persona, the same veiled past. May's remarkably of a piece, even as she starts breaking to pieces, with the men around her lunging for their portions. Meanwhile, Shepard's Eddie, a voyeur and a cynical romantic right out of Altman's wheelhouse, keeps spying around corners and keeps beavering away at internal agendas that he's not spelling out. You can't quite tell if the film is more strongly tipping its hand when we barrel in visually on one of the actors, formally endowing casual or wispy dialogue with an implied weight, or when we follow one of those Altmanesque gazes over a shoulder or out of a window, implying that the meat of the story lies precisely in what we're not seeing, not hearing. Probably both hypotheses are true.

By a half-hour in, I was totally absorbed in Fool for Love, taken in by its accumulating insinuations and its swift stabs of caustic, throwaway humor. A quick cut to Stanton's prize photo of Barbara Mandrell draws the kind of solid laugh that these days only the Coen Brothers would attempt to extract from a single, incongruous shot. Fans of Nicolas Roeg's spindly dream-plays or of David Lynch's febrile imagos will find plenty to savor in a movie that's a little like the Winkie's Diner scene in Mulholland Drive, dragged through the dust of Route 66 and played through an old, beaten-up radio. Shepard's style of storytelling, where all of life is one smoky campfire, keeps wrapping a chain around the action and lashing the characters ever more tightly to each other. Altman, in his canny offhandedness, honors those tones while staying happy to experiment with flashbacks, match-cuts, repetitions, and hieroglyphic actions, such as Shepard tossing a lasso over and over around the same jukebox, getting a startled jump out of a nerve-jangled Basinger every single time. Which is to say, even when Shepard the writer is ready to brood, Shepard the actor seems fully game for Altman's mix of the sinister and the drolly offbeat.

When Randy Quaid shows up as a bumbling suitor, it's plain that he's there as the audience surrogate, recruited to listen to some competing but unnervingly compatible accounts of Whatever Happened In The Past. Quaid's fine, but we don't really need him. We're already transfixed without a human decoy reminding us to pay attention, and I found myself trying to see around him whenever he was on screen, as though he were a tall man seated in front of you at the cinema. Besides, Altman's beveled approach to the material depends so heavily on imagery, sound, and associative editing that it's clear we're getting a much more tantalizing impression of these characters and their memories than Quaid's character would be witnessing, stuck in a room with two and a half chatterboxes. In fact, that math might be wrong, because Stanton, who is only a half-time talker, nonetheless stands in for at least two people, and Basinger's playing at least four: May as she is, May as she tries to be to resist Eddie's charms, May as she styles herself to attract Quaid's character as a new lover, and May as she was at some overdetermined moment of her disavowed past.

If you're thinking that's a lot to ask of Basinger, you're right, but if you're thinking she can't handle it, you're wrong. That's okay; I was wrong, too. Some telltale signs of the neophyte actress cling to her work, and yet this little-discussed performance is the bellwether that proves she had L.A. Confidential in her all along. If anything, she's even better here, bruised in a way that's both subdued and disconcertingly direct. She doesn't act for a minute as though her character enjoys holding on to her secrets, even if they guarantee Kim, the actress, of some big third-act chances to really show us her stuff. Many performers with half as much to prove wouldn't be able to stop licking their lips at the chance, and many actresses as fundamentally diffident would hand the whole movie to the charismatic writer-costar. But Basinger shows us a complete person, a thinking person, and she survives the occasional scene where great acting is equated to lying down in the dirt and going fetal as a sign of emotional pain. For an actress long associated with sexual exhibitionism, Basinger's still an impressively fragile and inward-turning creature, and Altman precedes Curtis Hanson (and probably influences him) in knowing just how to handle that quality. The humanizing ease and the increasingly sensitive line-readings she brings to what easily could have been a fussy, imprecise, or spotlight-hogging characterization make her May into a real triumph.

Altman still has his problems with tasteless asides, impulsively slagging off secondary characters via impenetrable caricature. Shepard's still pretty attached to his Dustbowl-Inferno vision of the world, and in some ways Fool for Love ends just as you'd expect. I'd argue, though, that a lot of the narrative and thematic ends stay beguilingly loose even after the blazing climax, particularly since the power of these particular secrets, so long crouched in darkness, is not to draw everyone together or to extract the poison from everyone's system but rather to atomize everyone (or almost everyone) into new, shadow-streaked paths. Not every ghost story feels this modest and shambolic, this dazed and also this confident of starting chain reactions it cannot control. The way a zonked-out Julie Christie turns that multifaceted crystal bauble over and over in the light at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, staring right at it but also glancing off its gleaming edges, that's the same way Fool for Love's characters regard their inevitably alarming histories. Even so, you leave with the sense that what you've just beheld is a morbid comedy, not a histrionic exorcism, though there are traces of that, too. It's a frisky, adult, divisive, but wholly fully committed way to make this kind of heightened, sensational puzzle-box "play" on screen.

Altman, Shepard, Basinger, and their collaborators have obviously made a movie to satisfy their own tastes and to push their own limits, considered for themselves as well as in relation to each other's divergent temperaments and training. Not everything flies, but it's a mystery why Altman can't get more credit for a span of his career where he married theater and cinema with these kinds of acidic, beguiling payoffs. Fool for Love has pretty instantly become my favorite of his movies that nobody anywhere has ever made a point of urging you to see. Grade: B+

VOR: (4)   (What is this?)
This isn't a self consciously grand geste like Nashville or as bafflingly oneiric as 3 Women, but in a way it's just as impressive to see Altman deploying his elliptical rhythms and signatures in the service of such a different kind of story, at such a deceptively modest scale. A person could learn a lot from this movie about counter-intuitive uses of sound and editing, or about how to stage multiple planes of "reality" within the same shot, without any Christopher Nolan-style sweat and hullabaloo. If this movie had come out in the 40s—say, as one of Robert Montgomery's seriocomic, experimental noirs—we'd all be hearing about its formal sophistication and its deft handling of performance. Without being a groundbreaker, exactly, it's worth paying earnest attention to how Shepard and Altman concoct their effects here, escaping almost every single way in which theatrical texts even richer than Fool for Love typically result in wan, stultified cinema.

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