Friday, September 14, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Streamers (1983) **

R, 118 min.
Director: Robert Altman
Writer: David Rabe (also play)
Starring: Matthew Modine, Michael Wright, Mitchell Lichtenstein, David Allen Grier, Guy Boyd, George Dzundza

Here’s my big confession. I hate watching theater. That statement might draw ire from a great many friends of mine. That’s because I was a theater major in college. I love acting on the stage. I just hate watching it. Perhaps I was spoiled at an early age by the cinema. While I can appreciate great acting and great writing, I always like seeing things on a grander canvas. The stage is too restrictive for my viewing taste. I’m sure many would argue that I haven’t opened my eyes fully to what the theater can offer, and they’d probably have some damn good points. That doesn’t change the fact that I love cinema.

Now, a lot of stage plays get adapted into movies, and there’s nothing quite so troubling as seeing a movie that is obviously adapted from a stage play. What makes a stage adaptation obvious is when it is still confined to the same restrictions of the stage. One set, a finite amount of characters that don’t seem to exist in any world outside the story being told, and an overly-theatrical progression of events; these are all sings that you watching a stage play that has been poorly adapted to film.

What’s even more discouraging is when such a production comes from a master of both mediums, like say, Robert Altman. Altman’s 1983 movie “Streamers” is adapted from a stage play of the same name. Altman was in a period where he would experiment a great deal with mixing cinema with other dramatic mediums. In 1980 he grafted the musical and classic cartoons with cinema in his big budget flop “Popeye”. He dove into the long form television mini-series and politics with “Tanner ‘88”. He combined opera with cinema in his segment of the anthology film “Aria”. And, “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”, “Secret Honor”, “Fool For Love”, “Beyond Therapy”, and “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” were among the stage plays he adapted to film over the decade.

“Streamers” was certainly a topical choice in 1983, when the AIDS epidemic was finally reaching mainstream America as a genuine health threat. Although, “Streamers” isn’t at all about AIDS, it does tackle the stigmas of being gay in the United States by telling the story of three bunkmates waiting to be shipped off to the Vietnam War. One of the men is gay and another man enters their fairly eventless world as they wait. As gays were being blamed for a health epidemic that was associated with gay culture in a widely misunderstood context, David Rabe’s play takes the social stigmas back to the civil rights movement days to draw parallels between racism and anti-homosexual rhetoric. This is important stuff.

Unfortunately, Altman never really does much of anything with it but stage it and shoot it. No effort is made to place the story into a broader context, which I would think would be the point of adapting a play to the screen. The actions of the characters look staged. The characters a broadly drawn, as they would need to be on stage, but should never be on screen. I understand that the characters are in a sort of prison of waiting for their orders to go off and probably die, but placing the audience within those same confines is to reject the cinematic possibilities of the story. The characters do get out of their barracks to do a few things. Why not bring the audience with them since the medium allows for it? There are other ways to show how they’re trapped than by trapping the audience as well. This film is such a disappointment coming from such a cinematic master.


Lea said...

The social stigma involved makes the movie really interesting and meaningful. But if the actions of the characters look staged, then they will look "trying hard" to be on screen. Reading your reviews I know you have the "authority" to give such criticisms because you know stage plays and movies well :)

Andrew Wells said...

This is one of those movies where if the subject matter interest you, you should definitely check it out. Altman was taking a risk making it so early in the eighties. It was not a popular subject. The Vietnam films were pretty popular at that point, but the homosexual subject matter was still pretty taboo. I just have a problem with basically watching a play on film. I think more could've been done with the setting and mood of the piece. Not that I haven't see some plays adaptated to film that I really love. "Glengary Glen Ross" comes to mind.