Always Sunsets

3 Women (1977) by Robert Altman

Millie loves irises, and candlelight, and recipes from McCall’s. She wants to make barbequed chicken melts. Her apartment is yellow, like her clothing and her purse and her car (English mustard, not French). Yellow—gentle and friendly, yet uneasy. Millie’s sense of self seems strong at first. She’s tall and thin, she gets dates, and she’s confident at work, where she guides the elderly in and out of soaking pools. But is she truly self-assured? Is anyone?

There is water and there is dust. 3 Women (1977) centers them both—the film revolves around two swimming pools in a sparse town somewhere in the California desert. Men here are stupid and brutal. Women are cold or silent. Millie navigates the town’s barren eccentricities with a breezy, talkative nature that entrances her childlike new roommate/coworker, Pinky. They’re never quite friends, sisters, twins, or enemies. Like many such relationships, one of them wants what the other has, while the other has much less than it appears. When there are two of anything, one must always be victorious.

This dynamic, this question of who-will-come-out-on-top, is omnipresent. 3 Women loves dominance. Guns are shot off; the desert laughs, unforgiving. Millie and Pinky have power-hungry bosses and casually callous neighbors. Pinky wears pink but owns almost no clothing. She’s near-otherworldly in her naïveté, yet she appears in this grim landscape, craving to flourish within it. Pinky’s appetite for acceptance betrays her desire to become Millie. “I wonder what it would be like to be twins,” Pinky says at one point. “Do you think they know which one they are?”

Palm Springs, where 3 Women was shot, is on the unceded land of the Cahuilla. For millennia the Cahuilla have shared the myth of the shaman Tahquitz, who gradually became supernaturally evil and was expelled from the tribe. One day, Tahquitz captured a Cahuilla girl named Cawisicela after seeing her swimming in an emerald pool. Together, they consumed souls high in the mountains. Cawisicela was finally released to return to the Cahuilla, but betrayed Tahquitz by telling the tribe where she had gone. She died in her sleep.

On film, the desert is dissociative, inaccessible. It’s a space where difficulty ensues, but no difficulty we’ve known before—something more washed out and confused, like a frustrating dream. The desert makes me think of water, like a plane ride makes me think of land. When the world is tanned, its colors stand out. The Cahuilla created basket dyes with chaparral yucca, juncus, sumac, and palm leaf. In the Coachella Valley, a burrowing owl lives its life several feet underground. And there are sunsets, dappled and purple against blackening palms, rippling with all of the color a place could contain. The land is harsh, and still, it offers itself.

Willie, ostensibly 3 Women’s ‘third woman’, is a stoic pregnant artist whose murals in an emptied apartment swimming pool feel shamanic and ancient. Her violent, strange, reptilian figures are manifested in subtle blues, yellow-creams, and pinks, prophetically connected to the color-archetypes each woman embodies. When the pool is again filled with water, soft waves dance over Willie’s imagery, advancing a flowing, surreal effect that encompasses the whole film. Pinky jumps into the pool, submerging herself in the symbolism of the paintings and thus the film’s narrative. From that point, the film becomes increasingly more chaotic. Pinks and yellows bend and blend.

Patterns of violence, frailty, and aggression in 3 Women halt in the final expression of a ordered relationship: child, mother, crone. As Pinky, Millie, and Willie settle into their roles, they are cruel and unusual in rupturing spurts, yet sometimes forgiving and selfless. In the transformation of their bonds to each other, there is always softness, always cloudiness, always confusion, always fantasy.

It’s March 17, 2021. In the neighborhood, a hazy thrill of daphne floats all around. The flower is smooth and white and petite, with pink blushing on the edges of each petal. Crocuses dart skyward in spirited clusters. The air is cool, but a tear of sweat slides perfectly down my spine. A crow shrieks at my presence from a high wire. My world is organic and predictable.

These early-year flowers are, in mythology, often humans transformed. Daphne, fleeing Apollo’s love, is turned to laurel; Crocus, an unhappy Greek youth, is transformed by the gods into a flower. We know that Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, and upon his death, a bloom grew bearing his name. By becoming part of the landscape, have these characters lost power, or gained it? Earth, for as far back as we can recall, is marked by shifts in living form, over and over again; we rely upon growth and death.

Yesterday, I was far from home. Sagebrush trees twisted over a deep river canyon. A magpie cried, kicking at tawny dirt. Voices carried from across the ravine, and light settled backlit against the rocks, silhouetting the landscape. Colors changed, and we adjusted.