Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Uniformally Good Acting Fragged By an AWOL Script: "Streamers" (1983)



David Rabe's much heralded Vietnam era play about racism and homosexuality makes a shaky translation to film under the wandering directorial eye of Robert Altman.

The entire film takes place in a barracks as young men and their sergeants wait for their orders to go fight in Vietnam. Billy (Matthew Modine) and Roger (David Alan Grier) are good friends who do not see the differing race in each other. Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) is an out homosexual who has a crush on Billy. Carlyle (Michael Wright) is an acquaintance of Roger's from the neighborhood, an angry black man who has just arrived on base and already hates everything about the army. Cokes (George Dzundza) and Rooney (Guy Boyd) are the platoon's two very drunk sergeants, who regale the recruits with tales of Korea.

Running almost two hours, the film really has no plot per se. Billy and Roger are fascinated and repulsed by the thought that Richie might be gay. Carlyle is a hateful person who feels the entire white world is against him, and he is more correct than he knows. Cokes and Rooney are biding time until retirement, certainly not expecting combat duty after the hell they saw in Korea. The film's title comes from a story the sergeants tell about seeing parachutists fall to their deaths when their chutes do not deploy- unopened, they look like streamers in the sky.

This is a filmed stage play, and Rabe and Altman make no effort to open it up. All the action takes place in the small barracks. Everyone has little scenes together as other actors make exits, just like a play. While Billy says he is turned off by Richie, we sense an underlying sexual tension. Carlyle and Richie begin getting close, and the interracial coupling affects Billy and Roger on both a gay and black and white front. In the background, Rooney and Cokes play hide and seek, and the entire movie boils down to one character finally snapping and killing two others. Altman and Rabe then drag this out further, and the viewer is ultimately bored silly.

Rabe's script is problematic. Keeping all the action in one room never achieves a claustrophobic feel. Is Richie gay? Well, the immediate lisp and Greek naval cap are a giveaway. You have to wonder why Roger and Billy keep asking him as Richie sneaks off to be alone with one young soldier who slashes his wrists so he won't go to war. Carlyle is the angry black man immediately, so we just spend the rest of the film watching him take out his anger on Roger and the other white boys. Roger does not want to rock the boat, he likes having friendships where race does not matter. Billy is college educated, and dumbs himself down to be one of the guys, we sense there is more to him right away, too. All of this information is thrown at the viewer, and there is no suspense left. We are given all the characterization we can handle in the opening minutes, and it is dull to watch the rest of the cast try and catch up with us.

Altman's camera meanders around his set, trying to find a "moment," but his editing should have been tighter. All the actors get their scenery chewing monologue, and Altman's camera explores other's reactions, but his closeups still do not lend themselves to the nonexistent claustrophobia. Without the tension, this quickly becomes tedious.

Acting-wise, the small cast comes off the best. I have never liked Modine, but he does well with what he is given. Lichtenstein takes a stereotype and makes him very sympathetic. Grier shows off some of the expressions that make him funny in his career as a comedian, but his part is very dramatic, and he handles it surprisingly well. Boyd and Dzundza are alright, although their parts are so annoying I cannot imagine anyone playing them well. The best performance here is by Wright, who is unapologetically furious and violent one minute, then nice the next. His Carlyle is creepy. His best scene is after the murders, when he is hauled back to the barracks by the MPs and tries to talk his way out of their hold. Great stuff.

Despite the fine acting all around, Altman and Rabe tried to create a tense and claustrophobic film that comes off loose and dull. "Streamers" is a failed exercise. (* *) out of five stars Get this movie now!: Streamers