"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!" – Mathew Modine (Streamers)
Like "Secret Honor", "Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean" and "Fool For Love", "Streamers" is another Robert Altman film based on a stage play and filmed almost entirely indoors at a single location.
The film focuses on a group of US soldiers who are waiting to be shipped out to Vietnam. Altman's camera prowls their cramped barracks, watching as they struggle to pass the time. They argue, joke and throw insults, but the script is flat and the cast only comes alive, spectacularly so, during a couple explosive scenes.
What's most interesting about the film is Mathew Modine's character. Modine plays Billy, a smart kid who sees himself as existing "outside" of the other men. While the other soldiers are black, homosexuals or come from low income families, Billy is middle class and well educated.
Toward the end of the film, Billy is killed by one character who despises Billy's aloofness. Billy can't stand the other men, their latent homosexuality, their poverty, their drunkenness, the way they readily give in to desire, and so essentially seems to have been killed because his very existence shames the other men.
So Mathew Modine essentially plays the same character here that he plays in "Full Metal Jacket"; the outsider on the inside, though in Kubrick's film he further protects himself with a "jacket" of ironic detachment. That film was about a very specific type of disassociation; killing but not perceiving oneself as partaking. Murdering, but interpreting such actions as righteous kills.
Though Kubrick scoured thousands of audition tapes when casting "Full Metal Jacket", Modine was the one actor he had mentally cast prior to conducting auditions. Kubrick was a big Altman fan and kept a close eye on the director's work. He cast Shelly Duvall in "The Shining" based on her performance in Altman's "3 Women" and is reported to have admired "McCabe and Mrs Miller". Both directors actually bumped into one another outside a theatre in England, Altman having just watched "Clockwork Orange" and Kubrick having just seen "McCabe and Mrs Miller".
A decade later Kubrick saw Modine in "Streamers" and immediately began enquiries about the actor. He learnt that Modine was currently working on Alan Parker's underrated "Birdy", another film in which Modine played a Vietnam soldier. Kubrick secretly sent Alan Parker a request asking for footage of Modine and received it several weeks later. Upon seeing the footage, Kubrick was convinced that he had found the right "Jokerman" for his "Full Metal Jacket".
What's interesting about Kubrick's casting methods is the way he, in a sense, casts archetypes (or rather, type cast actors). Jack Nicholson was cast in "The Shining" because his previous films had established him as a misogynist and psychopath. Modine was cast in "Full Metal Jacket" because he had established himself as a military outsider and intellectual jar-head. Tom Cruise was cast in "Eyes Wide Shut" because he had established himself as a egotistical, self centred little man, brainwashed by cults.
There's a practicality, a sense of machine logic, to the way Kubrick casts. Real couples play real couples. A real Jack and Danny play a real Jack and Danny. A real drill Sergeant plays a real drill Sergeant. Likewise, a Jewish film director famous for conspiracy thrillers (Sydney Pollack) plays a mysterious puppet master. And on and on it goes.
"Streamers" may not be a dramatically satisfying piece of work, but it is interesting in the way it positions itself within all the Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s. For example, unlike the ultra macho Rambo, Altman treats his entire cast with a weird, sexual ambiguity. We get the sense that this small group of men has been assigned their own private barracks because they're all homosexuals or outcasts in some way.
There are also strange parallels with "Full Metal Jacket". Consider the way one homosexual in Altman's film tries to commit suicide, feeling too effeminate, too much of an outcast for the military. Kubrick's film does the opposite, a character called Pyle committing suicide as a result of sexual over-identification. One's too much of a wimp for the military, the other's too much of a killer.
In Altman's film, Billy also reluctantly visits a whorehouse. He has sex with a woman in order to prove that he "fits in" and is "one of the boys". This mirrors Joker's actions in "Full Metal Jacket", where Joker shoots and "rapes" a woman in order to "fit in". The irony of Altman's film is that Billy is trying to "fit in" with guys who are themselves repressing their homosexuality in the face of the military's grotesque hyper-masculinity; fitting in with those trying to fit in, all identity a performance, a sham. And of course this "masculinity" is often always a mask, the "soldier persona" a thin veneer over fragile personalities, wounded egos and personal neuroses. It's the lesson Billy learns by the film's end, as his veins empty blood.
6/10 - Cut 40 minutes from this film and you have a lean drama, with a couple explosive scenes. As it is, this is a dull stage play which only comes alive when Mathew Modine is on screen. Altman's camera work is ugly, his set is drab, his pacing awful and his caricaturing of homosexuals at times insulting.