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Unearthing That Cold Day in the Park

Cold 1

By Chris Neilan. 

Here’s something to brighten the day of any self-respecting cinephile: the unearthing of a forgotten film by a bona fide American master. And not just any master, but Robert Altman. Few American directors are better loved than Altman, the own-tune-following iconoclast who defied structuring paradigms, paid attention to his female characters and threw in a giddy floating zoom at every available opportunity. You might have been forgiven for assuming that M*A*S*H, that barnstorming wise-cracking breakthrough, was his debut. But not so. His first foray into cinema came with 1967’s Countdown, a perfunctory sci-fi thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall that displayed little of Altman’s sensibilities but got him out of TV world, where he’d been a jobbing director for more than a decade. That Cold Day in the Park was his sophomore effort, released a year before all that anti-war tomfoolery with Hawkeye and co, and will be new to all but the Altman completist. Adapted from a Peter Miles novel by Gillian Freeman, the narrative deals with the psychological impact of female sexual repression through a mixture of psychological thriller tropes, stylistic endeavour and the kind of loose structuring that’s typical of the post nouvelle vague period.

Cold 2Sandy Dennis plays Frances Austen, a rich, lonely unmarried woman, trapped in a hermetically sealed world of sexagenarian tea parties. A repressed and highly mannered thirty-something surrounded by ‘friends’ of her mother’s age, she seems locked in a prison of her own behaviour. When she sees a handsome young man sitting on a park bench outside her apartment getting drenched by the rain she decides, impulsively, to invite him in to dry off, and upon doing so discovers that the young man, played by former child star Michael Burns, appears to be mute. His silence only seems to exacerbate the impact of his youthful virility and vulnerability, and she sets about caring for him with the motherly zeal of the sexually repressed, stripping and bathing him and putting him to bed whilst allowing her eyes to linger on his lithe body.

But the boy isn’t mute – as we discover when he pays a visit to his sexually liberated, nay obsessed, sister. Rather he’s a semi-bohemian weed-smoking chancer (perhaps with a sensitive side) going along with Frances’ strange routine, enjoying free access to her rather plush apartment (his crash pad is a dive that he appears to share with his semi-nude sister and her equally nude boyfriend), free food and board, and perhaps enjoying he motherly care that she lavishes upon him. But things take a turn toward the tense when Frances starts locking the young man in his room at night, locking the front door of the apartment when she goes out, and eventually nailing shut the windows after she realises he’s been toing and froing. As the tension builds, and Frances’ wall of sexual repression refuses to crumble, knives begin to appear, in a Polanski-esque foreshadowing of violence, and the stakes become mortal.

Cold 3In truth though, tension is only present part of the time. The story ambles, the characters meander, and Altman’s visual style is at best half-formed. The floating zooms and roaming pans that typify his later work are imprecise, and at times impart the underdeveloped rawness of the film student. His use of sound and perspective is effective, on occasions – as when Frances pays a visit to a gynaecological surgery, and the camera remains outside, looking through windows as if eavesdropping, accompanied by overlaid dialogue and overheard conversations – very interesting, offering glimpses of the personal creative vision that would develop through the great director’s career. Sandy Dennis gives a strong performance in a not entirely riveting role, which is emblematic of the piece as a whole: interesting, if not riveting. Not a patch on his best work then, but a valuable document showing the first emerging traces of one of the most distinctive and influential voices in American cinema.

Chris Neilan is a filmmaker, screenwriter, author and critic. His work is available at www.chrisneilan.com.

That Cold Day in the Park was released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Eureka! as part of the Master of Cinema series.  Features include new high-definition master, uncompressed audio on the Blu-Ray, new interview with critic and filmmaker David Thompson, and a booklet featuring new writing and archival images.

8 Comments for “Unearthing That Cold Day in the Park

  1. I really object to this review since it falls far below the standards of FI. Not only does it depend too much on plot synopsis – something I’m always trying to avoid with non-film majors in introductory film classes – but it makes the stupid remark about Altman being a “jobbing director for more than a decade” in “TV land” This is the type of smartass ignorant comment that makes me glad that I’m now teaching film to serious non-film majors rather than know-it-all whizz kids who are not as knowledgeable as they believe. THE BLACKWELL COMPANION TO ROBERT ALTMAN has been out for two years now and contains a detailed article on the TV work of Robert Altman, not all of which shows him to be a “jobbing director” that this reviewer appears oblivious of. I would suggest FI chose its reviewers more carefully next time and ensure they at least select people who know what they are talking about. There is little critical analysis of cinematic technique apart from the half-baked assertions one would find in any disposable journalistic review. Please select your reviewers more prudently next time otherwise this journal will differ little from those other internet examples where everybody thinks they are a film critic far removed from the rigorous standards set up by Andrew Britton and Robin Wood several decades ago..

  2. Hi Tony, thanks for your remarks. I’ve been writing for Film International since 2009, and in addition to my own work in film and prose I teach creative writing for Manchester Metropolitan University where I’m also completing my PhD, but your criticism is welcome. I’m curious as to why you think plot synopsis has no place in a review piece? Perhaps you think FI readers will all be familiar with the plot of That Cold Day In The Park?

  3. Chris, Maybe FI viewers will not be familiar with the plot. But a very brief description would suffice before examining in detail the aesthetic and technological choices made by Altman in that particular film which are far more important. There was just too much plot synopsis rather than artistically generated discernment of how this film operated. Also, before writing anything, you need to research in detail for evidence to support any assertions you may make. The remarks on Altman’s TV work were simply inexcusable especially if you knew of his contributions to COMBAT (especially the episode with Vic Morrow being speechless due to trauma), BUS STOP, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, the Stella Stevens episode of BONANZA as well as the one featuring Claude Akins, etc and many other examples cited by Patrick McGilligan in his early biography and one in- depth exploration in THE BLACKWELL COMPANION TO ROBERT ALTMAN ed. Adrian Danks. I’d grant you that some of the WHIRLYBIRDS episodes are little more than the work of a “jobbing director” but even these are well crafted professionally and do not resemble the dreadful assembly line TV episodes or mini-series examples of the 70s of which the mini-series THE DAIN CURSE (1978) I finished watching last night is a hideous example. Film involves more than plot and it is the artistically conscious employment of sound and visual technique that makes the work of any major talent distinctive. As Timothy Corrigan emphasizes in A SHORT GUIDE TO WRITING ABOUT FILM, we all know the story but it is in the cinematic sense HOW the story is told that is important. Finally, thanks for taking my criticism in good spirit. Perhaps we can now all move on and become better writers in championing the discipline of real film criticism that is under siege in journalism both here and in the UK?

  4. I can’t quite work out what you mean by “artistically generated discernment”, and I think if you’re going to go on such an angry barnstorming tirade about accuracy of language you should be a little more precise with it yourself. You seem to have come to the conclusion that the phrase “jobbing director” is a) inaccurate (it isn’t), and b) pejorative to the director rather than the medium. It’s certainly possible to come to this conclusion if you try very very hard and are keen to write as angry and self-righteous a comment as possible. As you rightly mention there is more to film than plot, which is why after talking about plot I talked about visual style, sound design, the use of perspective and cast performance. Those points aside, you seem to be of the school who prefers absolutely no informal language in critical pieces whatsoever, in which case other writers are available.

  5. As Chris Sharrett has often written, perhaps if you consult the writings of F.R. Leavis and others in a more professional area of criticism rather disseminate the bad practices that exists in journalism and the internet, then the phrase “artistically generated discernment” should not be foreign to you. That (and others) involves a deeper sense of the value of critical tools of evaluation (see the anthology edited by Laura Hubner here that has helped to revive that method of criticism long disparaged in the post-Screen and post-modernist climate) then you would really understand the complexity and subtlelty of the critical process that your article clearly lacked. It is O,K for film journalism and the usual run-of-the mill stuff spouted by Mark Kermode and Ebert & Co in the USA but not for a print and internet journal that is trying to raise critical standards. Neither do you answer my criticism as to how familiar you are with the television work of Altman before you write the demeaning comment “jobbing director.” All directors work within one form of the industry or another (whether film or TV) but the blanket term “jobbing director” excludes what elements of artistry they may bring to the production? Have you never seen Altman’s contributions to the first season of COMBAT? Obviously not, or you would never have written that demeaning phrase but engaged in a better sense of qualification of critical meaning. I was angry, but not self-righteous in the sense, that your terms were generalizations on the level of those that say “RIO BRAVO and EL DORADO are identical films or “Orson Welles declined after CITIZEN KANE”. To those familiar with Altman’s TV work your comments were insulting and you brushed away an important line of development. Finally, it is not the case of brushing away “informal language.” I use it myself but the sense of irritation reading an item by somebody who clearly did not know what he was talking about. If you are unfamiliar with reviewing a particular book or DVD then suggest someone else do it. This is my procedure with editorial requests. Rather than write something on the level of sloppy journalism revealing that I don’t know what I’m talking about I have the integrity to recommend a better informed person tackle the subject rather than embarass myself and readers in the process. If you think my comments were bad then I suggest you look up f.R. Leavis’s response to C.P. Snow’s TWO CULTURES and you’ll see how lightly you got off.

  6. P.S.For other examples of a particular type of critical response (and how mild mine are in comparison) please read Andrew Britton’s riposte to “Pedgagogy and the Perverse Text” that appeared in a past issue of cineACTION and his reaction to “Le Gay Se Voir” by Rosalind Delmar in a back issue of SCREEN EDUCATION.

  7. Chris, It is of course your every right to defend your review, but your defence demonstrates a lack of understanding as to what film criticism is. Of the 653 words that comprise the review, 295 words of those are synopsis, with some rewriting to create an illusion of originality. To any discernible critic this is far too much of a plot summary for any review, and as such any insight you claim to include beyond plot is in fact stifled by your attention to plot. I found the angle of the early stages of Altman’s filmmaking style in your closing paragraph to be an effective one, but it remained underdeveloped. Although perhaps Tony is wrong to criticise you, as the type of criticism you are writing is clearly the future – evident from the mainstream and blogs which seem to be offering the briefest of thought versus the courage to discuss the film. Critics such as Tony are a dying breed that forces me to consider that I have no real future as a critic, as I endorse the brand of film criticism individuals like Tony have pursued. Also I believe you were failed here by the editor, who should have noticed and addressed this with you. While this is a piece written by you, for which you are accountable, as any writer is responsible for their work, editorial must now start asking serious questions of themselves. I believe there is flexibility in the style or approach of a review, but we are seeing reviews with no critical inquiry slipping through. Shorter and less heavy reviews are fine (not the layman approach), but even in these something of merit should be raised in the discussion. It confounds me how we are dumbing down the discussion of film, often motivated by a perceived need to appeal to what the public see as film criticism. Epstein’s article for Commentary ‘Where Have All The Critics Gone?’ is terrifyingly accurate. We as critics shape the expectations of film criticism and not the public. Therefore, to offset the hollow criticism that is the majority, it is essential that FilmInt works to pursue an higher ideal of what film criticism is.

  8. As stated, I’m not a blogger, and have been contributing to Film Int for 8 years. This is a brief review piece in which synopsis is essential for context. The section you described as synopsis also contains comment on structure, tone and genre, is preceded by an contextualising introduction and followed by a conclusion which assesses quality and lasting impact. The piece is as it was designed to be, including the informal language, which is a conscious stylistic choice. As experienced men such as yourselves will know, there’s a difference between reviewing and criticism – this is a short review. For examples of longer form pieces that I’ve contributed please see my analysis of the 2014 Busan International Film Festival, or any of my Cinematic Inception or Study in Story columns that have appeared in the magazine. Thanks for your comments.

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