by Stuart Kurtz
Art, whether it be the plastic arts, performing arts, or narrative has sought to pose riddles and produce answers to them for the satisfaction of the seekers. This has been the case, with the exception of mystical and Symbolist works of art, right through Modernism. The Post-Modern era is too fractured and complex to assume that the artist can find solutions to dilemmas and questions, including those of selfhood, identity, and reality. Robert Altmanâ€™s Images poses more questions than it answers. There are some possible answers in Images; however, they satisfy questions only within the context of the film. The larger ontological struggle of selfhood, identity, and reality are open. Life is a work in progress.
Classical narrative, including that employed in cinema in the Modernist era (until about 1960 or so) assumes a fixed and stable morality and a control over that in the narratorâ€™s or directorâ€™s hand. A stable world is assumed to have existed before the film, which is disrupted by some dark force, and that will be put right by the end of the film. Altman saw the lack of individual struggle with morality and selfhood in such a deterministic universe. If classical narrative sets all right in the end, why have our stories perpetuated destructive patterns over the centuries? Altman rejected classical narrative and also let us look at its techniques by dint of conscious introspection.
The unusual techniques the director, photographer, actors and others allow the audience to ponder the film as a work of art, rather than to get lost in the story as in Modernist films. In fact, the viewer should reflect on every element, image, and component of the film to realize it is a deliberate effort. The inclusion of cameras, lenses, mirrors, unorthodox sound mixing, and acting that is fractured (for example, peering into the camera) are signals that we are watching a film. As scholar Robert T. Self notes, â€œIt illuminates the reflexivity whereby these films frequently signal their own existence and distance the viewer from the transparent evocation of fictional reality practiced by classical cinema.â€
Cathrynâ€™s longing for a traditional family narrative like the one Susannah has is like the yearning of the audience for the structure its accustomed to having. When the â€œrealâ€ Cathryn looks down on the â€œimpostorâ€ Cathryn, Altman refuses us the return to the former. Why should one selfhood or narrative supersede the others? Cathryn later dashes the deer head and then looks into the camera and puts on a devious look. She ends the narrative of the dismayed wife and begins another of a woman complicit in this haunting, even seductively so. Heroine and murderer can co-exist; we are unable to keep to one track. Reality is not one thing.
The tale-within-a-tale structure reveals the dualism of rationality and irrationality in both. Una employs Hero in her quest for the unicorn. The tale is grounded in morality. The expectation we have is of an ordered world with a problem that Hero will overcome. The submissive female, like Cathryn, depends on the male. Hero takes out his thinking stone to ask it what a soul is. This is not a subjective exercise; there is a clear path to apprehending reality. While the Umâ€™s live in an irrational land of trolls, there is an internal logic and order to it that is the presumptive morality of the fable.
The story of this marriage resembles the rationality of the fairy tale. Cathryn and Hugh try to lead a predictable, ordinary existence. They have a comfortable cottage. Their marriage should be ideal. They try to follow the script for a rational life that will bring them rewards just as the unicorn in the tale. Notwithstanding, the irrational keeps intruding, perhaps suggested by the orderly cottage in irrational Gothic, rather than Classical style. Cathrynâ€™s rational script of marriage to baby canâ€™t happen so neatly due to the irrationality of miscarriage and mutual (?) marital infidelity. Unlike Una, she has the task of integrating her rational and irrational selves. Her inability to do so and schizoid divisions of self are like the structure of the picture. The world of the fairy tale successfully integrates ordered narrative and irrational world. In life that is often difficult, and Altman keeps denying us the possibility of a classically ordered narrative.
Identity is posed as a question. Is it an inherent quality to a being, or does it depend on context? Divisions of time and space create new typologies for identity. Cathryn meets her alternative self at various moments of change and decision, but there is no indication that the evil twin is the wrong self. Both are valid. The disjointed time and space encounters she has with her various love interests allow multiple pieces of personalities to appear in various dimensions. Rene may be gone from this world and still exist at another time and space. Susannah may be Cathryn as a girl or even the child that was never born due to the miscarriage. The older neighbor may be Hugh in later years. Throughout, there is a self-reflexive play on names whereby characters take on the names of other actors in the cast. That egos slip in and out of other egos questions whether our identities are even confined to ourselves.
Spatial relations are as insecure as Cathryn’s mental health and indicate the fracturing of her and the other playersâ€™ identities. The reality of this little world as well as the true world is deconstructed via editing, props, and photography. The frames are completely filled with points of light, but items communicate the incomplete sense of space. Susannah’s puzzle is only complete at the end and even then only makes a limited representation of the cottage and this little world. When we first see Cathryn, she is framed by window muntins that are framed by smaller mullions. Wind chimes and prisms break up complete sound and light images into bits that are a correlate to the puzzle that breaks up the reality of the image of the cottage into pieces.
The pervasive use of cameras reminds us that reality depends on the subject who views and interprets it. Every time the actors perform a fresh action, the cameras assert themselves as subject viewers. Shifting action in the form of the men changing places with one another and abrupt changes in personality come at moments of transition, such as Cathrynâ€™s peering into the camera or her turning around to look through a doorway. These transitions could serve to emphasize the filmic process of editing, itself a form of changing and questioning reality, as Eisenstein showed us. Mirrors and glass reflections complement cameras in the sense of unsteady identity and reality. Susannah says she wants to be like Cathryn when sheâ€™s grown, and there is a later overlaying of their reflections in the car window. Are they the same person? Advertising mirrors featuring writing allude to selfhood as a mediated concept. Perhaps the most expressionistic handling of reality is the fuzzy, out of focus camera work when Cathryn drives home after the climax. We cannot see what the background is; it is reduced to a scene of pure light as if the reality of the world is up for debate.
As Altman is not a philosopher or scientist, the problems of phenomenology, and time and space can only go so far. His bailiwick is the art form, so he takes art as a better grounding for matters of truth and identity. The title refers to observable phenomena in the world, and in this forum, those that can be photographed. Art, therefore, is but one factor in determining what is. The performing arts is Cathrynâ€™s medium for expressing her selves, peering into the camera or doing abrupt turns to transition into another role. And another role is actually Susannah York. As with the play on names, the actors become part of the work; life and art meet. Art forms meet too as in the text saying Tales of the Unicorn is by York, that overlays on top of the puzzle of the unicorn and cottage. The fine arts (puzzle), film, and literature depend on each other as the search for reality demands we look at other sides of ourselves, other selves, time, and space.
In art goals are usually satisfied, as certainly not always in life. Una sees the unicorn by the end of the tale. That is the classical narrative having some moral imperative to satisfy the reader. Images has no such satisfying ending. The neat one of the tale is a sleight of hand and reminds us of Altmanâ€™s deviation from classical narrative and its illusions. What art should do is to present creations that allow us to ponder deeper questions of existence than the art can provide. Observe Cathrynâ€™s fingers reaching out to Reneâ€™s as Godâ€™s did to Adam in The Creation panel of the Sistine Chapel. Rene is her mindâ€™s creation as Altman is the creator of the film creating identities, modes of living, structures, and motivations. We should take his cue and go on further in the search for reality.