Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, November 9, 2009


Directed by Robert Altman

Billy: "Jesus H Christ. You know what I'm doing? You know what I'm standing here doing? I'm a 24 year old college graduate. God damn intellectual type. And I got a knife in my hand, thinking about coming up behind one black human being, and I'm thinking, I wanna cut his throat! That is ridiculous, man! You think I need a reputation as a killer? You want to be a bad ass animal, go! Get it on! But I wash my hands, man! I'm not human as you are!"

Editor's Note: This review is the second part of a mini-Altman retrospective. For the first part, refer to Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

After the failure of 1980's Popeye, Altman waited two years before he returned to the world of cinema with screen adaptations of two Broadway plays. The first film he directed was Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), a mesmerizing examination of the inner psychological workings of a group of women. He would follow it the next year with Streamers, a terrifying examination of a group of men based off the David Rabe play of the same name. Whereas Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean examined women who tried to live normal lives, Streamers took a look at a group of army soldiers getting ready to be shipped off to Vietnam. Instead of a five and dime diner, Streamers would take place entirely inside an army barracks. We see glimpses of a courtyard and basketball court outside the barracks, just as how we saw glimpses of Jimmy Dean outside the window of the diner in Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Both films featured characters who had abnormal sexual orientations: the former had a post-op transsexual and the latter a closeted homosexual. And in both films, they are the source for much of the ensuing drama. But just like Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers is an examination of a group of people. Each character has an important bearing on the group.

Two of the first characters that we meet are Billy (Matthew Modine) and Roger (David Alan Grier) who in their short time together in the army have become close friends. They spend time wondering about Vietnam and whether or not they will be deployed. They take turns assuring each other that it is just a rumor. Surely it must be. Whatever reason could the US have for invading Vietnam? Well, it doesn't matter. These conflicts just strengthen their friendship. They share a particularly warm moment when Roger walks in and starts acting like a drill sergeant. He orders Billy to do drills and push-ups in a mock voice that would make R. Lee Ermey proud. They stare at each other intimidatingly and then burst out laughing. Even though the army is full of racism, Roger feels comfortable living in a white barracks. Did he request this strange transfer? If he did, was it because he wanted to be with Billy? Altman wisely decides not to reveal the answers.

Another one of their bunk mates is a young man named Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) who is the aforementioned homosexual. He tries to hide it from his fellow soldiers, but that doesn't stop them from thinking that he is a strange one. Suspicions really start to fly when he tends to another soldier who tried to kill himself in the bathroom by cutting his wrists. Instead of tending to him the way a trained medical professional would, he croons over him. 'Don't worry, it'll be okay,' he assures with an almost singsong voice.

Everything else he does comes off as effeminate. Billy and Roger don't care enough about it to make a fuss, but Richie's mannerisms drive another recruit, Carlyle (Michael Wright), to a boiling point.

Already, Carlyle is a bundle of hot nerves. He is terrified of being deployed to Vietnam. He protects himself by flaunting a black power attitude that is obviously compensating for something. He asks Roger why he is living in a white barracks. Roger tries to calm him down by telling him that the guys in their barracks are down with it. But that doesn't stop Carlyle. Throughout the film, we watch him slowly implode upon himself before acting out in two quick, horrific outbursts of violence.

But then, there are two other players in this story. The first is Sgt. Rooney (Guy Boyd), a man who is anxious to go overseas and see combat. To counter him is Sgt. Cokes (George Dzundza), an alcoholic veteran who has already served overseas. Constantly drunk, the two stammer all around the barracks barking at the men. Sgt. Roony keeps hitting Sgt. Cokes in the shoulder and saying how he is a true hero. 'Look at his boots,' he yells, 'the rubber is worn away. That's from being in the swamp! Those are a soldier's boots!' All the while, Sgt. Cokes nods and leans back and forth. He is obviously dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. But for whatever reason, Sgt. Rooney doesn't see it. To him, he is just a hero to be praised. But Sgt. Cokes doesn't want any of it. He keeps having flashbacks to a time when he threw a grenade into a spider-hole and sat on the roof, trapping an enemy soldier inside. The guilt is killing him, and by the time that the movie ends, he slowly loses his grip on reality. How ironic is it that by the end of the movie, he is the only one sane enough to offer meaningful advice to the men.
I could continue going on about the characters, but there is only so much I can say to establish them. This is a movie of personal revelations and broken relationships.

The genius of the movie comes from how the cast interacts with each other. They were so successful at focusing their talents that at the Venice Film Festival, the entire cast was given the Best Actor award. Consider that for a moment. A group of actors came together and performed with such precision that they can be viewed as a whole, not just as a sum of various parts. This was probably the effect that Altman struggled his entire career for: a cast that lives and breathes as one. They perfectly embody Vietnam era soldiers to such a degree that I stumbled across this interesting comment on the Internet Movie Database:

I went to Viet Nam in 1971 as a replacement. I spent time in just such a scenario and except for the gay issue which would not have been discussed so openly, it was very realistic in it's description of the emotional interaction of the soldiers.

Author: redrrtbmw from United States

Streamers is an incredibly powerful film. After the success of M*A*S*H* people wanted him to do a real Vietnam War movie. Well, this film is the fulfillment of that wish. While it may not have the anarchy of the latter, it makes up for it with some of the most powerful performances that Altman has ever commanded. I see that I have yet to explain the movie's title. Well, a streamer is a parachute that doesn't open when the ripcord is pulled. Supposedly, when a paratrooper gets a streamer, he sings a song on his way down to the ground. During a scene of brutal intensity, Sgt. Roony and Sgt. Cokes sing the streamer song to the men of the barracks. The song is sung to the tune of beautiful dreamer:

Beautiful streamer open for me
Blue Skies above and no canopy
Counted nine thousand - waited too long
Reached for my ripcord - the darn thing was gone.

Beautiful streamer, why must it be
White silk above me is what I should see
Just like my mother looks over me
To hell with the ripcord, twas not made for me.

Beautiful streamer, follow me down
The time is elapsing and here is the ground
600 feet and then I can tell
If I'll go to heaven or end down in hell.

Beautiful streamer, this is the end
Gabriel is blowing "My Body Won't Mend"
All you jump happy son's of a gun
Take this last warning - Jumping's no fun

So why is the film named after a safety device that fails to open and protect its user at the very beginning of combat? Oh wait, I think I just answered my own question. Think about it. You'll get it, too.



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