JOHN WILLIAMS & STOMU YAMASH’TA- “Images” soundtrack (1972)
As you can tell by my previous “3 Women” soundtrack post, I’ve been a long, long, longtime fan of the films of Robert Altman: “M.A.S.H.”, “Nashville”, “The Player”, “Short Cuts”, “California Split”, “A Wedding”, “H.E.A.L.T.H.”, “Gosford Park”, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, “Brewster McCloud” — it really does go on and on.
One of Altman’s most elusive, hard-to-find films suddenly popped into existance on DVD about five years ago: ““Images” (1972), a murky Bergman-like descent into psychosis starring Susannah York. The Onion A.V. Club sez:
In 1972, Robert Altman showcased “Images” at Cannes, where it won a Best Actress award for star Susannah York. After receiving spotty theatrical distribution, negative American reviews, and poor commercial returns, it’s rarely been seen since. Some rumors even had Columbia Pictures burning the negative. Thankfully, that turned out to be untrue, as the quiet arrival of a new DVD version attests. In the intervening years, those who did catch Images have given the film a dual reputation as, depending on who’s doing the telling, a masterpiece or a pretentious mess. In many respects, it’s only appropriate for it to provoke a split response.
Plunging viewers into a series of skewed perspectives, it recounts several eventful days in the life of a protagonist whose mind divides against itself. Left alone too much, first in the posh apartment she shares with husband Rene Auberjonois and later at the country home they use as a getaway, York’s mind begins to drift, first toward dead lover Marcel Bozzuffi, then to a sexually aggressive family friend (Hugh Millais) and his daughter (Cathryn Harrison), who stop by for a visit. Altman wastes little time on establishing York’s instability, and only slightly more time on establishing [the instability of the film].
Bozzuffi exists entirely in York’s mind, but sometimes, so does Millais. Occasionally, Auberjonois plays Millais’ character, and sometimes York encounters her double while wandering the countryside. Extending the blurriness into the world beyond the film, Susannah York plays a character named Cathryn, Cathryn Harrison plays a character named Susannah, and so on. In real life at the time, York was pregnant and working on a children’s book called In Search Of Unicorns, and both details, chillingly, find their way into the film. It sounds confusing, and by design, it often is, but Altman’s skilled direction gives “Images” its own dreamlike internal logic. Inspired in seemingly equal parts by Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” and Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion”, Altman lets the film slide into unsettling surrealism almost from the start.
John Williams’ eerie, atonal score (made in collaboration with avant-garde percussionist Stomu Yamashta, who gets a credit for “sounds”) sets a tone matched by Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, all marble-gray interiors and crisp images of frosty Irish landscapes. But the best, uncredited contributions come from the various crystal chimes that appear in nearly every scene. Making the sound of fragile material colliding without quite shattering, they could just as easily be a projection of York’s troubled inner life, as the phantasms drag her slowly into violence and madness.
I’ve tried several times to watch the film in its entirety, and have managed to never make it through. It’s no fault of Altman’s, though — this is a thoroughly difficult film to engage with, and that’s by design. I feel like it’s my own patience that needs work in this instance, not the film (similarly, Altman’s lone impenetrable sci-fi effort, 1979′s “Quintet”, works almost exactly in the same way.)
The soundscapes that Williams (who, of course, who later go on to score “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Superman” and “E.T”) and Yamash’ta create are really quite incredible, though, and the work can be taken easily as a stand-alone album without you ever having to see the film. Creepy stuff.