Streamers is a Robert Altman movie from 1983. Most of the movies I write about here are from the last few years, but if I happen to watch an older one I’ll include it like any other.
This is one of those movies that obviously started as a play. And not one where they then made a conventional movie from the same idea, but one of those where they barely changed the style at all and basically produced a filmed play.
The entire film takes place in an army barracks over the course of a day or so. The characters are soldiers about to be sent to the Vietnam War.
Because it’s a filmed play, the characters take turns uttering monologues that have only minimal similarity to the way real soldiers in a real barracks talk. The speech is peppered with plenty of “fucks” and “niggers” and the like for realism, but otherwise it’s the language and style of intellectual playwrights. There are lots of metaphors, and emotional soul-baring, and poetic turns of phrases, and nuance, and subtlety, and things that are talked around or left unsaid that yet are understood flawlessly by the maximally psychologically insightful other characters (even when I as a viewer was lost).
You can make the case that the awareness of facing death, and the fact that multiple of the characters are very, very drunk makes it somewhat more realistic that they’d speechify, that their emotions would come to the surface and indeed explode out of them. But even with that in mind, there’s a high artificiality component to the way these characters speak and interact with each other.
Part of how you’ll react to a movie like this depends on how jarring or phony you find such “filmed play” dialogue to be. I can sort of get past it, but not a hundred percent. My annoyance with it diminishes gradually the longer the movie goes and the more I get used to it, even if it never falls completely to zero.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this movie. To say it’s intense is an understatement. There are rare flare-ups of extreme violence, but otherwise it’s just a lot of talking, yet it held my interest quite well from start to finish. This in spite of the fact that it’s a bit longer than the average movie I’ve written about so far.
Initially, the three main characters in the barracks, despite all kinds of uncertainty and tension among them, seem to have worked out a healthy relationship where they can bond and rely on each other’s friendship. But the pressures of their situation, and the intrusion of certain external events and characters, gradually blows everything up, including their relationship.
There are a huge number of things going on in this movie. Just as a partial list, there’s: Being gay in a macho, homophobic environment; being confused and uncertain about whether your fondness for another man crosses the line into homosexual feelings; African American men struggling with the question of to what extent their first loyalty should be to each other, how willing they should be to connect with whites, and to what degree such connections would be genuine anyway; the compatibility of ghetto street violence and the socially-approved violence of the military; suicide; boozing and whoring and excessive behavior in general, especially as a means of dealing with possible impending death; taking a human life in face-to-face combat, both on and off the battlefield; cancer; and of course the awareness that you’re about to be sent off to war.
So racism, death, homo-eroticism, war, alcoholism—a little something for everybody.
As I say, there’s certainly an intensity to it. And a lot to reflect on. But I don’t know that anything in particular is resolved, and I don’t know precisely what Altman is trying to say about these many issues. The film raises them, but to what purpose? Yes, watching people in psychologically extreme circumstances is attention-grabbing, but now what?
Well, maybe there’s no purpose beyond getting you to think about these issues. And maybe that’s enough.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t rank Streamers at the top of the movies I’ve written about so far, but it’s worth seeing.