Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: STREAMERS (1983)

After the critical success of his cinematic adaptation of Ed Graczyk‘s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Robert Altman set his sights Streamers, the last in playwright David Rabe’s trilogy of pieces surrounding the Vietnam war. Self-financed and shot on the quick in Dallas, Streamers almost means to be the y-chromosome mirror of the distaff 5 & Dime, jumping right into the center of a drab Army barrack in 1965 that doubles as a Petri dish of different corners of masculinity, either real, imagined, or put on. Like 5 & Dime, the tensions between the characters in Streamers are mostly sexual, though a strong dose of racial politics is thrown into the pot, causing it to be more explosive, even if it results in a less engaging and satisfying film.

To be sure, mirroring is crucial throughout Altman’s filmography but it becomes incredibly important during his 80’s period where he was able to get layers and dimensions in limited settings by raising the dramatic stakes and casting his characters off one another. This often leads the characters to either look at themselves in the past or, more importantly, see themselves as they really are in the present. This was driven home quite literally with a mirror prop in 5 & Dime but it’s just as prevalent here as Streamers is about a group of trapped men as they await their deployment to Vietnam. Billy (Matthew Modine) and Roger (David Alan Grier) are pals who bounce off of each other quite well but their friendship is stressed just by the fact that one is black and one is white. Across the room bunks Richie (Michael Lichtenstein), an openly gay soldier who senses a certain uncertainty in Billy, who reacts to Richie’s provocations in ways that causes the audience to sense the uncertainty, as well. Added to this mix is the combustible Carlyle (Michael Wright), three months into his service and already on the brink of a psychotic collapse, and the perpetually soused Cokes (George Dzundza) and Rooney (Guy Boyd), commanding officers damaged by so much carnage seen in World War II, Korea, and now Vietnam, that all they can do is stay drunk and wait for death to take away the pain.

Despite Rabe being a downmarket Harold Pinter when it came to making opaque observations, and a certain archness to some of the performances in the film, there is a great deal that works in Streamers. In choosing the material, Altman certainly was able to save a few bucks due to its appropriately stripped-down and uncluttered set (this was probably the easiest paycheck production designer Wolf Kroeger ever earned) which adds to the heavy pall of ennui and almost maddening claustrophobia. Additionally, cinematographer Pierre Mingot’s fluid camera refuses to be nailed down in the third row and, instead, floats alongside the bunks and up their metal railings mostly acting as an observer of listeners rather than an optical mechanism, revealing more about the characters than if they were center-framed delivering a monologue.

And as barren and solitary a set that it is, the barrack functions as both pinball machine and narrow hallway of time. Much of the dynamism occurs when Carlyle saunters into the room and bounces off each and every character as if they were bumpers, all the while Cokes and Rooney are always perched at the end of the barrack, segregated further, representing the destiny of each and every one of these men that will survive the dehumanizing machine of war.

The majority of the performances, too, are aces and spot on. Modine and Grier display an uncomfortable rapport that is much different than the unease felt whenever either are dealing with the absolutely excellent Lichtenstein. Each character’s baggage gets tossed on top of the other until the whole thing collapses when the weight of Carlyle is added. A swaggering mix of rage, sadness, menace, and down-low vulnerability, his character is the wild card who drags the ugly truth out of all of the other characters. But as played by Michael Wright, the character becomes the most boorish and stage-bound; a dynamic performance full of rage and emotion but played to the back row and lacking in the subtleties befitting a screen performance. As it sits, he’s definitely the focus of attention whenever he’s on the screen but the audience ends up spending too much time watching him chew his way through whatever scenery there is. This, by the way, is not on Wright, who would go on to do amazing work on Oz, but, instead, it’s on Altman who had a responsibility to calibrate his actors to match the size and scope of the material. Though tackling the material for the big screen can’t be seen as anything but brave in 1983, it appears that, with Wright, Altman caught a fish too big for the boat in which he was sailing.

Earlier, the word “trapped” was used to describe the situation of the men and it is used both figuratively and literally as Streamers is best approached as a a work about men who are trapped. They are trapped in the service, trapped in a war, trapped in their own minds, trapped in bodies that are failing, trapped in bodies that are responding in ways that upset them, or trapped in a socioeconomic nightmare not of their making. For all the talk and introspection, when the credits roll, the men will have made choices and will be trapped even further. Same as it ever was.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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