Aug 8, 2013

That Cold Day in the Park

“New Hollywood” auteur Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville) is a filmmaker who has directed a number of films that I like to some degree for varying reasons, but his pre-fame work That Cold Day in the Park (1969)—a box-office disaster upon its release—is my personal favorite work of his and, along with his British-American psychological thriller Images (1972), arguably the darkest and most unsettling idiosyncratic work in the filmmaker’s entire oeuvre. An American-Canadian production shot on a rather small budget of $500,000 based on the novel of the same name written by American actor/screenwriter Peter Miles (who wrote it along with the bad b-movie They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968), under the less than inconspicuous pseudonym Richard Miles), That Cold Day in the Park is part moody maniac melodrama, part psychological horror-thriller, part callous leftist criticism of the British Columbian bourgeois, part creepy and even borderline campy comedy, and part dichotomous class/character study and is most like a post-The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) Fassbinder melodrama minus sympathy for its lunatic spinster lady lead and a certain dark and shadowiness that echoes gothic horror. Shot by Hungarian cinematographer László Kovács, who got his start working on no-budget works like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964) and would go on to shoot Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) and was a pioneering member of the American New Wave, but would go on to directing less artistically merited big blockbusters like Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Ghostbusters (1984), That Cold Day in the Park is an intentionally claustrophobically shot ‘chamber piece’ about a sexually repressed and fiercely frigid old maid who lives as a self-imprisoned slave in her lonely and dreary apartment, but discovers a sort of bright white light in the form of a young and seemingly melancholy teenage boy sitting on a bench all by his lonesome on a rather rainy day. Advertised with the superlatively sensationalized tagline, “HOW FAR WILL A WOMAN possess a 19 year-old boy?,” That Cold Day in the Park is ultimately a foreboding and shuddersome celluloid tale of a uniquely unhinged babe somewhat past her physical prime who would probably have been vaginally penetrated by her high school sweetheart, but instead locked herself away in a neo-Victorian nightmare of ‘proper play dates’ with elderly men and women who happen to belong to the same pseudo-ritzy social clique as her morbid widow mother did. A chamber piece-sized work with an unsettlingly anti-erotic clash of social classes between a figurative princess who has locked herself in a tower and the figurative pretty boy knight she takes it upon it herself to assign to save her but ultimately winds up locked away with her, That Cold Day in the Park is one of the most delightful yet equally depressing diacritic depictions of repressed horniness-gone-homicidal ever captured on celluloid. 

Middle-aged spinster Frances Austen (Oscar-award winning theater/film actress Sandy Dennis of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) fame) lives in an elegant, if not uniquely ugly and mundanely minimalistic Vancouver apartment that might be occupied by a living and breathing woman, but has the unmistakable metaphysical feeling of death and lack of all vitality. Against the better judgment of some brazen bourgeois bitch who invokes the beyond-the-grave scorn of the old maid’s dead mother, frigid Frances decides to invite a seemingly lonely and visibly wet and cold teenage boy she spots from her window to come and stay inside her apartment. The boy (played by actor turned college history professor Michael Burns) in question, whose real name is never mentioned, agrees to follow Frances back to her apartment, but he does not do this verbally as he pretends to be mute and somewhat dumb, but ultimately proves to be a delightful and entertaining guest to a woman who wants some wantonness in her life, but lacks the experience and social ease to attain it. The first thing Frances does to make the boy feel at home is give him a seemingly sexually-charged but ultimately anticlimactic bubble bath that ultimately proves to be the most sensual and unclothed moment ‘sexual’ moment they share with one another during their radically ridiculous pseudo-relationship. Sort of like a bourgeois woman-child who has never grown up nor did a day’s work in her entire patently privileged yet less than joyous life, Frances will do anything to keep the lost-but-not-found twink boy she snatched up from outside, so she has the creepily childish idea to lock him in the guest bedroom that she allows him to sleep in. Of course, Frances is not a total monster, just a socially retarded one, as she supplies the boy with decent food, clothes, shoes, luxurious shelter, and neverending and hopelessly hysterical chatter that is quite indicative of her intensely introverted and largely insipid, brain damaged mind. Of course, the boy has a life outside his new hermetic home with Frances, so he sneaks out the window in his locked prison window to be with his bitchy big sister and her wild war veteran boyfriend. 

 When the Boy leaves Frances’ apartment to go meet his big sis Nina (Susanne Benton), he walks in on her screwing her boyfriend Nick (David Garfield), but does not seem the least bit shocked as the two seem to share a quasi-incestuous relationship. The Boy tells sister Nina and her boy toy about how Frances has a “strange attitude toward sex” and makes a “big deal about it,” but prefers living with her because he has his own room and board. As the viewer learns, the Boy originally intended to meet his sister and her boyfriend on ‘that cold day in the park’ that sparked the by-chance meeting with seemingly fickle Frances. When Frances unlocks the Boy’s door and surprises him with a hearty breakfast in bed, she notices he is gone and is crushed. Naturally, when the Boy shows up later that day at her door, she is quite jubilant and welcomes him in. Not long after when Frances goes to a gynecologist to get contraceptives, lying to the vag doc that she is single but getting married (sexual protection was not so easy to get back in those days), in a rather dramatic attempt to prepare herself for sharing her novice carnal knowledge with the Boy, the Boy’s sister shows up to the apartment and demands a free bath, complaining, “I have told you, I do not take a bath everyday…what kind brat would deprive his sister of a bath?!” The Boy’s sister pulls him into the bath and even attempts to seduce him, seductively stating, “Imagine if I was not your sister,” in a whorish fashion. Of course, the Boy is not the only one who gets unwanted sexual attention as Frances has an elderly doctor friend named Dr. Stevenson, who has been trying to get in her panties for years, but she is decidedly disgusted by him and his lecherous longings, especially after visiting the gynecologist and having her naughty bits fiddled with in a sterile fashion. When Frances enters the Boy’s bedroom, unwittingly believing he is sleeping under the covers with only his blond hair showing (he is really hanging out with his big sis), she reveals her affection for him and declares “I want you to make love to me,” so when she finally realizes it is a toy doll under the covers, she has a momentarily paused but ultimately hysterical freakout and shrieks as if she found a mutilated dead body. After discovering Frances has nailed his bedroom window shut, thus making him unable to enter the outside world, the Boy reveals to his conspiring non-lover that he is not deaf and dumb, stating, “Don’t think I can’t get out of here…I can get out anytime I want…And if you think by keeping me here I am going to get in bed with you or anything like that, you’re wrong…If I want a girl or anything I’ll just go out and get one myself…And I might not come back.” Clearly a cracked chick with nothing to lose, especially in regard to her dignity, Frances takes the Boy’s statement deathly serious as a sort of ultimatum and responds to him not long after by confessing, “I’m sorry, so so sorry. I don’t want you to be angry with me. I want you to stay here…I want things to stay the way they are…You can understand that, can’t you?! I can’t let you go…Not now.” To solve the strange sexual situation or lack thereof, Frances has the bright idea to buy the boy a prostitute and bring her back to the apartment. After a failed attempt to coerce an aggressive Amy Winehouse-look-alike of streetwalker to come home with her, Francis is approached by a pimp and finally procures a haggard hooker (Linda Sorenson, who played villain Stegman’s mother in Mark L. Lester’s Class of 1984 (1982)) that she brings back to her apartment for the Boy. Rather unfortunately, Frances becomes insufferably jealous and homicidally infuriated by said haggard hooker when she hears her would-be-wonder-boy making love to her and drives a butcher knife into her heart in a manner that would have probably be like Norman Bates’ mother. That Cold Day in the Park ends in slight ambiguity, though Frances' insanity has surely reached a totally new level of nastiness. 

 Sort of like The Collector (1965) starring Terence Stamp meets Misery (1990) starring Kathy Bates, except with a pleasantly foul ‘Gothic Canadian’ flavor, That Cold Day in the Park is undoubtedly a underrated celluloid work that has yet to get its due, though thankfully some have taken notice of Robert Altman’s lost minor masterpiece. For example, Canadian homocore auteur Bruce LaBruce’s debut feature-length film No Skin Off My Ass (1993) is a satirical remake of That Cold Day in the Park that replaces the bourgeois spinster with a homo-punk hairdresser and the Boy with a neo-nazi skinhead, which is all the more interesting considering that the Peter Miles novel that Altman used as the source novel originally centered around a repressed homosexual longing after a lonely hustler. Robert Altman would later utilize theater actress Sandy Dennis’ distinctive acting talents for his film Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), but, in my humble opinion, the actress never again gave a screen performance as hauntingly hypnotic as in That Cold Day in the Park.  Incidentally, actress Sandy Dennis become a ‘cradle robber’ in real life when she started a relationship with actor Eric Roberts—a man nearly two decades her junior—that lasted from 1980 to 1985, on top of being a ‘spiritual spinster’ of sorts, vocally admitting she never wanted children, stating in a 1989 interview with People magazine regarding a miscarriage she had in 1965, “if I'd been a mother, I would have loved the child, but I just didn't have any connection with it when I was pregnant ... I never, ever wanted children. It would have been like having an elephant.” Ironically, Dennis died childless at the premature age of 54 from ovarian cancer, a disease that is more likely to affect women who have never had children, though the deranged would-be-superman Christopher Dennis featured in Confessions of a Superhero (2007)—a documentary about people who dress up in superhero outfits at the Hollywood Walk of Fame and beg for tips—claims to be the bastard son of the actress, though her family denies it.  Either way, Sandy Dennis was undoubtedly born to play Frances Austen of That Cold Day in the Park, a film that, in its depiction of bourgeois bitch frigidness and prole sexual virility, makes for the closest thing to a Marxist-Freudian Gothic melodrama, albeit being nowhere near as annoying, superlatively soulless, or aesthetically retarded as it sounds.  Indeed, Robert Altman was sort of a leftist prick who played an imperative role in popularizing M*A*S*H with his absurdly overrated 1970 film of the same name and made a bunch of others films about improvised nothingness, but That Cold Day in the Park, as well as Thieves Like Us (1974), Short Cuts (1993), and a couple other films, stops me from despising the filmmaker outright as a glorified TV director posing as a serious auteur and cinematic artist.

-Ty E

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