Altman Shepherds Play-To-Film, Zooms Into Shepard’s Doomed Lovers



The opening images are classic Altman perfectly wed to classic Shepard: the roving eye of the director, forever leaning closer toward the tactile rust of an isolated motel that might as well be on the moon; the dusty prosaics of Shepard’s utterly utilitarian objects cluttered inside and around a group of stand-alone motel rooms that look like wagons circled against anything that might threaten to clean it all up. Living among these unexplained ruins are an Old Man (Harry Dean Stanton), alternately clinging to his dilapidated mobile home and scurrying around it like a besotted rat, and May (Kim Basinger), a spent blonde across the desert courtyard doing dishes with the vacant eyes and everywhere hair of a discarded mannequin. These two are seemingly the only living souls for a thousand miles, yet as unconcerned about the other as two fleas on the same stray. Into this insular dump of living boredom rolls a pickup, leadened by a rickety horse trailer, presented in Altman’s coy manner as a kind of redneck Flying Dutchman, possibly driven by a ghost – but it’s just Sam Shepard himself, as Eddie, and he’s just there to hook up with May, who happens to be his half-sister. 

We don’t know that fact yet, though they do. At first, Eddie seems the abusive husband come to roll a spur over his shrieking train wreck of a wife for melodramatic kicks. But soon we note – these two can’t be estranged spouses husked out from loneliness on the bitter side of a threadbare marriage. There’s not enough life lived inside their arguments to get past giggly threats and whiny complaints. Whatever love they ever shared never grew beyond a high school fling – the fighting could be happening at their lockers between classes. They, in fact, met and mingled first in high school, fully unaware of their connection until later, when the match-up sealed a more Shepard-esque familial bond than either could have imagined, with all the rent-hearted, adolescence-frozen-in-amber left simmering across a dozen volatile rematches over the years. The problem with the film is the disconnect between that obvious immaturity and the serious-minded treatment by Altman’s God’s-eye-view lens. There’s a feeling, as we subsist with these emotional losers, surrounded as they are by the iconography of desolate abandonment and arid desperation, that we’re doomed to a couple of hours of metaphorical, and mutual, comeuppance. But as the turgidly unpredictable dialogue drags us deeper into the swamp, we start to hope we don’t have to go with them. 

What partially saves it from being completely overwrought is Altman’s shambling aura of comedy that comes and goes as casually as the hot wind off the desert. There’s Stanton’s presence at all, so clumsily interwoven during the first half of the movie that he feels like a contractual cameo the editor was forced to spread over an hour. His appearance, unexplained as it is for so long – he might not even be there at all – has the unintended force of a post-modern chorus, doddering across the frame with a kind of liquor-subdued nod of rebuke. Who is he, we keep wondering, as we’re likely meant to, but the most he can muster for a long stretch of the story is to become the perfectly weird, tonal emblem for every Altman movie ever made. Meanwhile, Eddie’s slightly overdone histrionics, flowing as they do from the wispiest bad-boy rustler you’ve ever seen, at one point throwing himself full-bodied through May’s flimsy pasteboard door, at another, lassoing a diner jukebox, wrangling it further into the room like he’s subduing the entire twentieth century, all keeps us wondering at the potential for sudden all-out comedy. Add to all of that the entrance of dopey Randy Quaid as May’s date, his cartoon face a never-ending call and response of confused frustration, and we’ve got a sort of reprieve from the otherwise overriding assumption that what we’re seeing is meant to be high drama. 

It’s the two-thirds mark when the penny drops on the twisty, incestuous back story and we’re suddenly pushed into the deep end of the thematic pool – only to find it’s still a bit shallow. Stanton’s Old Man is, of course, both Eddie and May’s father by way of different wives, neither of whom knew about the other on the opposite end of town. The revelation may not be a surprise when it comes – it’s telegraphed too early – but it at least sets up a promising third-act emotional throw down which, when it comes, presents as a kind of southwestern Rashomon, with each of the three giving their own story of how it all went down that doesn’t, or can’t, jibe with the others. It plays like an existential fog machine, with the editing throwing us shots that don’t match the narrator’s story, and facts folding over onto themselves with each telling. It’s clever, but coming from the murky set up that is the first half of the movie, we’re left less with a conceptual a-ha than we are the feeling of being had by a movie that we now realize was ultimately only lurid for lurid’s sake. The soul’s downshift that must occur after living such a transgressive mistake is never dealt with beyond surface screaming, metaphor mongering,  and hee-haw bluster. All actors involved, all very often good in other films, are groping toward something nearly supernatural – even eternally recurring – in the fringes of the story that none can ever reach. 

It could be that Shepard’s Pulitzer-prize nominated play, necessarily stage bound, was more claustrophobic, seizing around the live audience’s neck as the seamy information rolls out. But here, with Shepard’s screen adaptation transplanted into Altman’s typical world of floating cameras, loose point of view, and unmoored editing, the point gets lost in a stultifying free for all of trailer trash finger-pointing. It could have been good – but it became Altman’s own Jerry Springer episode. 

The Scorpion disc (by way of Kino Lorber) well highlights cinematographer Pierre Mignot’s pictures. He was the D.P. for all of Altman’s ‘80s play-to-film ventures. The only extra is a twenty-minute featurette on the making of the film, with older Altman recalling his observations on the struggle – or sometimes lack of struggle – of adapting stage to screen. Much of one’s reservations regarding the success of this particular vehicle may look to Altman’s admission that “the actors know more about the piece than I do” and that “I purposefully go into a project I don’t know how to do.” He is alternately precious about his work and blasé about his own import to the final outcome. Anyone following Altman will recognize this quirk in his personality and in nearly all his films. It’s not always a winning alchemy, and in this case, Fool for Love is another outing in a modest package perhaps meant for Altman and Shepard completists only. 

All images courtesy of