Film Review

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: FOOL FOR LOVE (1986)

I find myself experiencing deja vu as I sit to write this because I feel like I’ve visited this viewpoint before with an old review of John Cassavetes’s Love Streams. No, I’m not talking about the similarities between that film and Robert Altman’s Fool For Love (especially their big reveals halfway through their respective stories). Instead, I’m talking specifically about having talked about the Cannon Group, Inc., a fledgling studio that was purchased on the cheap by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in 1979, thriving during the mid-eighties by cranking out utter garbage like Over the Top and any one of the ball-busting Missing In Action pictures.

But Cannon was also a studio that was hungry for prestige pictures and marquee directors and would give those vaunted filmmakers quite a bit of latitude to bring their projects to fruition. The aforementioned Cassavetes picture couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for him, Andrei Konchalovsky managed to get both Runaway Train and Shy People produced under the Cannon flag, and Robert Altman found a safe haven with the studio after MGM stuck O.C. and Stiggs on a shelf upon that film’s completion and where it would sit for two straight years before finding its way into a release pipeline.

Instead of going hog wild with Cannon’s purse strings, Altman settled on adapting Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, yet another filmed play for Altman which, O.C. and Stiggs aside, had been his cinematic bread and butter in the 80’s. After a decade of mostly wide-canvas ensemble pieces with busy soundtracks and a thousand other details with which to keep up, Altman found an almost peaceful place of reflection and freedom with those films that relied on one location and only a small handful of players.

With its limited cast and setting, Fool for Love was perfect material for Altman in 1986. Not so much because this kind of material had become his metier over the past few years but also specifically because it’s a piece that takes place in the outer reaches of the soul where past hurts and unrequited feelings can vacation and have too many drinks, creating a kind of combustible inner turmoil. For all of the ups and downs and the demons that Altman seemed to wrestle with throughout his career, Fool for Love comes off downright therapeutic to him.

Fool for Love takes its time before revealing itself. Instead of hitting the ground running with expository dialogue between the players, it favors a dreamy mood where the dusk settles on the El Royale Motel, a horseshoe bungalow monument of desolation set on the edge of nowhere that looks like it’s mere weeks from becoming overrun with a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang to be used as a hideout. The film doesn’t want to show its hand too early so it luxuriates in a great deal of visual flourishes and sparse small-talk while its seemingly rote and simple story of a broken love-affair plays out in front of us, Sandy Rogers’s songs mixing into the soundtrack to counterbalance the visuals as if Altman is crafting a gorgeous, long-form C&W music video.

The film’s deliberate pace is a hallmark of Sam Shepard’s work. As Shepard’s cowboys are men folded into the wrong time, they always seem like they’ve been snatched out of their time and dropped into the present day, kind of like a bewildered Peckinpah anti-hero who has to take his time to get his bearings. Drifting into the El Royale in his pickup and loaded horse trailer comes Eddie (Shepard), sometime cowboy and sometime stuntman, is in search of May (Kim Basinger), a sad, broken desert flower of lost love for whom the motel serves as both a place of employment and a refugee camp. At first, she deliberately avoids him even when Altman telegraphs that these two people are connected and avoidance is all but impossible. But he soon sees her from a distance and charges back to the motel to either rescue her, reconcile his feelings, or be resolved to reality lest the world explode around him. In the end, he achieves a degree of all three.

As this is not really a two-hander, there are a couple of other characters that inhabit the world of Fool for Love. In a bit of casting that can’t help but feel like an inspiration from the Wim Wenders-directed/Shepard-penned Paris, Texas, Harry Dean Stanton portrays a rambling man at the end of his life; a drifting, rudderless soul lording over both a literal and metaphoric trash heap in his twilight years whose life work was pissing away stability in favor of instant gratification. Randy Quaid pops up in the film’s final third as the civilized “man” who, in Shepard’s world, is worth examination in contrast to the self-governing “guy” and their verbal tug-of-war explores the subject of masculinity and its contextual, shifting definition.

Of all of Altman’s 80’s efforts, Fool for Love is among one of his bravest. It uses Shepard’s familiar and warm cowboy iconography to tell a tale that feels downright European. This clash of styles is what was at the soul of Sam Shepard’s work and persona. For he was a cowboy who nonetheless mingled with rock stars, was awarded more Obies than anyone else, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his florid and haunting words that articulated the split within the soul that can put folks into emotional spaces that are neither here nor there. Here, he shows why he was so good at interpreting his own material as he almost personifies the characters he creates. Then still wrestling with all of the cover-girl baggage that kept her from being taken seriously, Kim Basinger’s May is dishtowel dirty and quarter beer gorgeous and looks like someone you’d pick up in the back of Gilley’s. Though she rounds off her g’s while leaning into her twang a little too hard, Basinger is utterly terrific and gives one of the best performances of her career as the heartsick victim of cruel circumstances.

And, not for nothing, but Fool for Love is one of Altman’s most visually gorgeous films. While the majority of it takes place at night, the opening moment’s desert sundown is both ethereally beautiful and hauntingly portentous. The inner horseshoe of the motel is bathed in soft neon amid a cold blue outer rim creating a true geography; the motel of the mind and the junkyard of the soul courtesy of cinematographer Pierre Mingot’s careful framing and clever lighting. This is a piece populated by damaged people amid a dazzling and poetic detritus heap on the edge of the galaxy, almost like a science fiction film populated with truck stop queens and urban cowboys.

As humans, we all reside in a similar, congenial off-road memory motel. And, like the location in the film, it’s one that looks perfectly functional from the front and, honestly, perhaps it is. But behind it generally sits a heap of baggage and junk we all haul around from the past, some of it half-remembered and some of it fanciful myth-making. Understanding this, Altman’s work is full of characters who will add new wounds to established scar tissue if they think the self-deception will be less painful than the truth they would have to admit, creating more and more material for the junk pile. But, word to the wise, absolutely NEVER think that heap is too cleverly hidden from view nor something that won’t explode if exposed to the the right confluence of elements. If Fool for Love understands anything outside how to doom a film’s commercial prospects by being saddled with a one-sheet that makes the film look like Tender Mercies II: Tender Mercies Gets Laid, it’s most definitely that.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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