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Robert Altman’s Streamers (1983) – Deployment into Oblivion

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“Beautiful streamer, open for me
The sky is above me, but no canopy.”

If you haven’t guessed already, a “streamer” is the poor sucker who has thrown himself out of a plane, intending to engage in the action below, only to find that his parachute won’t open. The only sure thing is that he will go into the ground, as Rabe says in his play, “like a knife.”

Following the Popeye “debacle”, which underperformed by studio standards but was, to that point, his second most successful film at the box office, Robert Altman, the iconic maverick of 70s cinema, withdrew from big films for a decade and directed a series of stage plays, an unusual turn for someone fond of improvisational dialog. It was likely Altman’s own version of being a “streamer, ” of sorts. The smaller films were destined for limited release – some straight to video – and made for a pittance of what Hollywood would have invested, had 80s Hollywood registered any interest whatsoever in intelligent, adult stage drama. None of them had a wide release, squeezing in where they could on art houses and repertory venues.

David Rabe’s Tony Award winning play – his third with a Vietnam theme, although Rabe disavows assigning the term “trilogy” – is as much about the plunge into life as it is about being sent to war. The play is set in 1965, the year Rabe was drafted into the Army and few had even heard of Vietnam, but was written ten years later. Altman’s film was made in 1982 so, as with any play, time and perception adds layers to the depth.  Vietnam and the impending deployment facing the plays leads simply act as a magnifying glass, concentrating all energy upon a microcosm made up of class, race and sexuality where the only thing in common is the inevitable deployment to a war they don’t understand but into which they were conscripted to serve. That they will all be compressed into a single, homogenous entity adds the spark that ignites an already fragile, bone-dry situation.

The maneuvers of precision drill team – shot in a fog to make participants devoid of individuality – opens the film, the only time we are allowed outside of the barracks, and within the first five minutes, we encounter two drunken sergeants playing with explosives, an attempted suicide and introduced to the three protagonists and the lurking interloper who will turn everything on its ear.

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Billy (Matthew Modine) is a conservative-minded Midwesterner who prefers to keep his education a secret, a result of his resentment at being drafted. He’s pals with Roger (David Alan Grier), an African-American, also from a middle class background. They share their temporary barracks with Ritchie (Michael Lichtenstein), an upper class Manhattanite who flaunts his sexual orientation openly – or is it just another attempt to get an exemption from service? Into the chicken coop enters the fox – Carlyle, (Michael Wright) the street-hardened player from the projects determined to create havoc by challenging everyone’s patience. The only authority present is in the form of two drunken and self-loathing NCOs, Rooney and Cokes (Guy Boyd and George Dzundza).

Both playwright Rabe and director Altman were veterans who had been through the gristmill used by the military to channel male aggression and competitiveness into a singular-minded fighting machine, but forced conformity is not something either of them ever accepted. By adding the inevitability of engagement in a war nobody understands by draftees of disparate backgrounds who are forced to be there, then making the figures of authority damaged to a level of immaturity rendering them ineffectual, makes for a combustible situation in which they deconstruct not only the military mindset, but also examine the tensions stemming from race, class and sexual orientation.

Altman’s camera never leaves the barracks, trapping us in an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Outside action is viewed through windows and doors, forcing us to overhear rather than be directly told. He moves in and out of close-up so that we can experience the lines of dialog at point blank range, watching the pressure build as these four characters try to reconcile the fact that they are not in control of their fate, that their backgrounds, intolerance, and the feckless powers-that-be have already decided whether or not their mental chutes just might not open, sending them into oblivion. There is no diluent for this acidic situation, and it quickly turns toxic.

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In an unusual move, the Venice Film Festival awarded their Best Actor prize to the entire cast.  All four of the leads perform outside of their comfort zones of adolescent drama and TV comedy, luckily under a director known for providing his actors with the freedom to find the core of their characters on their own. Known for tossing scripts in the bin prior to filming, Altman proves that he can also illuminate a writer’s words as easily as not, which was perhaps an attempt at softening his maverick reputation among the producers who were blackballing him at the

Streamers is a filmed play, no question, complete with a certain amount of staginess that always accompanies efforts to translate from the boards to the screen. The words are the main feature, and Rabe provides the roughest, most candid and piercing dialog of the period. Naturally, the film was relegated to a few limited releases and sent to home video quickly. There was no DVD version until 2010, 27 years following the film’s festival release.

War may be hell, but Streamers never even gets us there. It roils in the origins of war, that is, the differences between us that we all fear and push back against instead of accepting, embracing and celebrating. War is intolerance made tangible, and in that environment we are all streamers – plummeting thru life without a parachute – or any hope in hell of a guaranteed safe landing.

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Streamers is a far cry from ’83 box office hits like Jennifer Beals, lady welder/dancer, seeking respect by getting buckets of water dumped on her in Flashdance or the Star Wars version of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, Return of the Jedi, but I’m certain that was precisely the way Robert Altman wanted it.

“Beautiful streamer, this looks like the end,

The earth is below me, my body won’t end.

Just like a mother watching o’er me,

Beautiful streamer, Ohhhhh, open for me.”

 

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