The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents March 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Shutter Island
John C. Flinn III, ASC
Sol Negrin, ASC
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Paris, Texas
The Prisoner
ASC Close-Up
Streamers (1983)
1.85: 1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Shout Factory, $19.99

After epic battles with Paramount studio executives on the big-budget Popeye (1980) and smaller scale, though no less damaging, skirmishes with Fox over its burial of H.E.A.L.T.H. (released the same year), director Robert Altman retreated from the mainstream and began one of his most creatively fertile periods as a filmmaker. Starting with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982, he embarked on a series of filmed stage adaptations that were surprisingly faithful to their sources — a marked change for a director known for his free-wheeling style. Yet, for all of their fidelity to the texts, films such as Secret Honor (1984) and Fool for Love (1985) retain Altman’s characteristic spontaneity in their performances and camerawork; the writing may be specific and rehearsed, but the images always give the viewer the impression the drama is being caught on the fly by an unseen observer.

This style is largely attributable to Pierre Mignot, the cinematographer on all seven of Altman’s stage-to-film adaptations, from Come Back to the Five and Dime to Basements (1987); he also shot the 1985 teen comedy O.C. and Stiggs and Altman’s segment of the anthology film Aria (1987), and reunited with Altman in 1994 for Ready to Wear. Making extensive use of the zoom lens and subtle camera movement, Mignot’s images are dynamic yet not “pretty” in the conventional sense; the images draw attention not to themselves, but to the offhand gestures and exchanges that define the characters.

Altman claimed he chose Mignot because he wanted a cinematographer who could follow the performances and be ready for unexpected moments. This documentary-like approach yields huge dramatic rewards in Streamers, an adaptation of David Rabe’s searing play. The film tells the story of a U.S. Army barracks in the early days of the Vietnam War. As a group of soldiers waits for assignments, racial tensions simmer, as do sexual anxieties when one of the troops openly flaunts his homosexuality. As conflicts escalate, the filmmakers create a palpable sense of claustrophobia. The action never leaves the barracks, and Mignot’s constantly pushing-in camera traps the characters as the world figuratively closes in on them. Though the film is claustrophobic, it is never static; Altman and Mignot make full use of mirrors, windows and other framing devices to keep the compositions fresh, making Streamers a textbook example of how to create big effects with limited resources.

Certain aspects of Rabe’s writing feel somewhat less relevant today than they did at the time of the film’s release, though the storyline involving the gay character resonates in the age of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What keeps even the most didactic moments from seeming preachy or dated are Mignot’s gritty, evocative lighting and camerawork, which counterbalance the theatrical artifice of much of the dialogue. Indeed, some of the most powerful moments in Streamers — such as a sad, chilling pan to a pool of blood in the wake of an unexpected burst of violence — are silent ones, given maximum impact by the camera’s voyeuristic point of view.

This DVD transfer is faithful to Mignot’s photography, which often intentionally leans toward the dark and grainy. The generally solid mono soundtrack is occasionally muddled and distorted, but this might be a consequence of Altman’s original recording methods; his oft-discussed  multi-track recording system loses in clarity what it gains in complexity.

The DVD contains two supplements, the first of which is a 30-minute making-of featurette consisting of interviews with actors George Dzundza, Mitchell Lichtenstein and Matthew Modine. The second is a 12-minute piece on the play, with actors Herbert Jefferson Jr. and Bruce Davison sharing their recollections of performing Streamers onstage. Both featurettes are entertaining and insightful, with plenty of interesting anecdotes about Altman’s working methods. Given the scarcity of DVD releases from this period in Altman’s career, this resurrection of Streamers is cause for celebration.            

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