I recently read Sam Shepard’s play Fool for Love so figured it’s as good as time as any to finally check this one off the old Robert Altman watchlist.
Fool for Love is just one of many stage-to-screen adaptations Altman made in the 80s and it’s a mixed bag. The scope is blown up to make it that much more cinematic. Whereas Shepard’s play never leaves the confines of a grotty motel room, Altman’s version takes things outside the door and the action extends to a trailer, a diner and under the moonlight. The dialogue and general structure is pretty faithful but the film is more literal. It’s difficult to talk about the film without merely comparing it to the printed play. So, as someone who generally dislikes reading plays but has no other way of experiencing them, I better stop right now and just weigh the film up on its own merits.
Shepard and Basinger are both impressive as are Harry Dean Stanton and Randy Quaid. Given the limited cast, it means there’s a lot of time spent simply listening to them talk to one another and extended chatter is something I’m a sucker for. Altman’s constantly roaming zoom lens is in full-use and the camera is always roving, always searching for an inspired detail to focus in on. I love Altman’s style and find it interesting how he utilised it on these stage adaptations, to make something talky become restless and fidgety. It doesn’t always work and I wonder if given more restraint Fool for Love could have worked were it restricted to just four walls. Perhaps. As it is the film feels all over the place and the jumbling around of different, close-proximity locations comes across like a lack of confidence in the material to sustain interest on its own.
Shepard has a very distinct vision of the West and under Altman’s interpretation everything feels slightly askew and oddball. For instance, events from Wild at Heart could be happening a few miles away and it wouldn’t seem out of place. It has that heightened, stylised sense of Western drama and faulty-neon iconography.
I wonder what I would have thought of Fool for Love if I saw it without reading the play first. Would I have liked it more or less? I don’t know. I do think the film is lacking something, it doesn’t have the hot-blooded life and forbidden passion that I felt from reading the words and something seems to have been lost in translation. But then again that just might be a side-effect of having come to the film second. A leaner, meaner, more claustrophobic talking-heads picture might have been the right way to go, but having done that tremendously with Secret Honor I can understand Altman’s hesitation to take that route. It’s a fine film but oddly un-cinematic and flat. It feels like something best experienced by stumbling onto it on an orphan TV station in the early hours of the morning, not a film to deliver after seeking it out.
Definitely not one of Altman’s greatest hits or even a neglected B-side, it seems to have become something of a blank spot in the filmographies of all those involved. But during the time you’re watching it, everyone puts in good work and it at least makes for a solid one-time-and-out viewing experience. Recommended for Altman and Shepard completists.