Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979)

Robert Altman's 1979 post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature Quintet stands as somewhat of an oddity within the late, great director's sizable body of work. Often dismissed by many as an ill-advised blight on the tail end of arguably Altman's most distinguished and prolific decade (the 70's saw from the director such masterpieces as Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and M*A*S*H), there nevertheless remains a staunch contingent of Altman devotees who hail the film as an under appreciated masterpiece. I've been a great admirer of Altman since I first watched Nashville when I was younger, and have since slowly worked my way through the majority of his more notable films, finding a lot to love in his quirky, genre-crossing career. After watching - and being blown away by - his 1973 mindbender 3 Women for the first time late last year, I became quite interested in delving into some of the great auteur's lesser known work. The polarizing nature of Quintet, combined with its out-there premise and fantastic cast (Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, and the great Fernando Rey) has always sparked a fair amount of curiosity in me, and so getting into an Altman-mood (as I'm prone to do once a year or so), I finally decided to pop the film in and see what's what.

In short, Quintet didn't work for me. At all. But before I go into the problems I had with it, let me first provide a quick outline of the plot: The movie opens up sometime in the distant future, with two figures traversing a barren, snowy landscape. The couple are Essex (Newman) and his wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey). They are traveling to a settlement where Essex grew up. They arrive in the small, ice covered village, where Essex quickly reunites with his brother. The people in this mysterious place do nothing but play 'Quintet', a complex game involving a pentagon board, rocks, dice, and animal figurines. One day while Essex is out shopping in the market, his brother and wife are blown up in what appears to be a random terrorist act. Essex spies a man fleeing the scene, chases him down, and subsequently gets drawn into an overly-complex plot involving a group of hardcore Quintet players, including Ambrosia (Andersson) and Grigor (Rey), who don absolutely silly costumes that give them the appearance of thrift-store genies, and who hold secret underground Quintet tournaments that may very possibly be incorporating real life murders into the gameplay.

So there's that. The first thing I should probably bring up is a very audacious choice Altman made in regard to the visuals. You know that effect where vaseline is smeared around the camera's lens, giving the edges of the frame a hazy, out-of-focus texture? You've probably seen it in countless dream sequences from other movies. Here, Altman opts to film the entire movie in this way, in an effort to (I'm guessing) further cast a dreamy, hallucinogenic effect over a premise already filled with ambiguities and surreal touches. A little of that goes a long way, and though it does work well in adding to the moods and ambiance of the shots that take place outside in the snowy landscapes, these moments are few and far between. For the most part, all this gimmick manages to do is completely undermine the strongest aspect of the film, that being the wonderfully interesting set design. The unnamed settlement where the film takes place is split up into 5 sectors, each one inhabited with dilapidated old buildings such as casinos and hotels, once opulent in their prime, now in filthy shambles. There is an earthy splendor to the look of the film, and you can almost smell the decay and grime that has settled into the various structures that make up this village. The most impressive set is simply called the 'Information Center', a claustrophobic location comprised of heavy, swinging glass walls, all intricately carved with symbols and maps and various colors. But as good as the film looks, it's almost impossible to enjoy this, as that damn vaseline effect continuously obfuscates the image and keeps most of these interesting details from creeping into the frame. For as much time as their is in this movie where absolutely nothing is happening on screen, it would've been lovely to at least have been able to admire the details of the wonderful set, but even that's difficult to do, and I can't tell you the number of times I was taken out of the movie by this frustration. The whole vaseline trick ends up not only being a failed gimmick; it becomes an unpleasantly obstructive one.

As hinted at in the above paragraph, another fundamental problem is that the movie is just simply an interminable bore. The narrative plods along at a sluggish pace, and as the Newman character slowly becomes involved deeper and deeper with the Quintet tournament and it's players (which doesn't occur until halfway through the film's two hours), the plot loses all coherency as the murders and questions pile up, and the conspiracy becomes increasingly muddled to the point where it's impossible to follow (and not in a charming, The Big Sleep-kind of way). While there is a fair amount of interesting ambiguity present (the nature of the planet's current condition; the mysterious past of the Newman character; and the history of the game itself), the film crosses the line from ambiguity to willful confusion as it fills much of the dialogue in the second half with mumbo-jumbo involving the complex rules of the Quintet game; rules which the film never bothers to flesh out at all, leaving the viewer (or at least me) a disinterested and passive spectator as the whole mess unfolds. All the while, Newman delivers a spectacularly bland performance, so void of energy and emotion is his Essex character that it reaches nearly comical heights, such as in the scene where Newman dashes back to his brother's home after hearing the deadly bomb go off, only to find the dead bodies of his pregnant wife and dear brother. After gazing intently at the carnage for a few seconds, the character bends down, picks up a flimsy stick, snaps it over his knee, and let's out a frustrated huff of cold breath. That's it. I don't know whether Altman's direction had a large impact on the acting, or if Newman simply felt uncomfortable with the material, but whatever the case may be, it is a listless performance, severely disengaged from the rest of the film.

I don't want to be entirely negative though, so I will point out a few nice touches that I admired along the way (aside from the aforementioned awesome set design). Altman makes great use of a pack of ominous black dogs who are inexorably tied to death throughout the movie. Newman first spies the dogs as he approaches the village in the beginning, while they are crowded around and feasting on a corpse, a small moment that immediately infuses the film with a sense of dread. The dogs are often seen prancing around somewhere on the periphery of the screen, and seem to always pop out of little nooks and crannies as soon as fresh blood is spilled. There is a great, evil little moment where Newman is carrying his wife's dead body, and when he briefly lays it down in the snow, not a second later does one of the dogs pop out of seemingly nowhere to take survey. They are effectively used in little moments like this all during the movie, and serve as a potent, constant reminder of the death that permeates this territory. I also thought it was really interesting when the film began to explore the nihilistic philosophies and principles of the Quintet players, how they view the game as the last form of intelligent expression, and how it serves for some merely as a means of validating the thrill of life. It's an aspect I wish the film would have paid more attention to, and perhaps if it had focused more on this and not as much on the incomprehensible logistics of the game itself, we could have been in some really interesting territory. Altman was really thinking outside of the box with this one, and I am of the mind that no director can ever be criticized for that. It just unfortunately doesn't work in this case. As it stands, I have to call Quintet as I saw it: an uncharacteristically murky, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying offering from one of the greatest of all American directors.


Unknown said...

Good review! I'm ashamed to say, as a huge Altman fan, I've never seen this film and now I know why. From what you say, QUINTET demonstrates the downside of experimentation that went on in the 1970s with guys like Altman sometimes getting too much freedom and just going off the deep end for whatever reason.

Ed Howard said...

Well, there's no question that this is an oddball outlier in Altman's oeuvre, and something of a failed experiment as well.

But as such, it's pretty interesting anyway, in my opinion, and not nearly as bad as its dismal reputation suggests. I thought the vaseline gimmick did work very well to give the film an unsettling, dreamy, chilly atmosphere to match the icy surroundings and the archetypal blankness of the characters. It's a strange, surreal atmosphere, especially once the plot really kicks into gear and all these people start getting killed; there's a sense of nonsensical violence, committed for no real reason, in this absurd setting.

I'd never say it's a great movie or anything, but as a weird and uncharacteristic experiment from a great director, it's certainly worth seeing, and its overall mood goes some way towards compensating for the flaws in the moment-to-moment storytelling and aesthetics.

Jeff Pike said...

Nice analysis. I happened to watch this for the first time just last week and found it fairly tedious. It didn't feel nearly as exhausted of ideas and energy as another Altman I also saw recently from the same time period, HealtH, but it's close. Aside from the points you mentioned, what struck me most was how little was seemed to be at stake, particularly considering all the dire post-apocalyptic trappings. Food, shelter, and clothing just didn't seem to be much of a concern for anyone, and here's a small point but one I couldn't stop noticing -- nobody was very obviously that cold. You couldn't even see their breath half the time when they were supposed to be outside. An interesting experiment, for sure, but deeply flawed I think.

Drew McIntosh said...

J.D. - Thanks. I do think this level of directorial freedom is a wonderful thing when talking about guys like Altman (it did bring masterpieces such as 3 Women), but yeah in this case it just goes overboard and becomes way to indulgent and muddled. I wouldn't completely write it off as a huge Altman fan either; it is certainly a failed experiment, but probably worth watching once just because of how utterly bizarre it is.

Ed - I definitely agree with you that the vaseline effect serves its function as far as contributing to the unsettling atmosphere. It just got old for me pretty quickly, and eventually got in the way of my enjoyment of some other intriguing elements in the film. I would agree that it's worth seeing for big Altman fans for its sheer peculiarity. It sounds like you liked this one a little more than I did, but it feels like we are basically in agreement with a lot of stuff here.

JPK - Interesting to hear from someone who recently saw this also, and shares a similar view. Although it pains me to hear your opinion of HealtH, that was one I was going to watch soon! It'll be interesting to see whether we agree on that one too or not.

"Aside from the points you mentioned, what struck me most was how little was seemed to be at stake, particularly considering all the dire post-apocalyptic trappings. Food, shelter, and clothing just didn't seem to be much of a concern for anyone"

See, I actually thought this was an interesting aspect of the film that was explained kind of halfway, but never delved into. It's quite clear that nothing really mattered to these people other than playing Quintet, and when you find out that they play for no other reason than to go on living, it brings up all kinds of interesting questions that the film basically ignores (other than a few patches of dialogue between Rey and Newman).

It goes back to what I said in the write-up, how I would have liked for the film to have spent a little more time mining the philosophies of these players, instead of focusing so much time on the damn confusing game itself. It would have been interesting to learn more about why these people were so concerned with survival within the context of the game, and seemingly could care less about life or death outside of it.

Jeff Pike said...

Looking forward to reading what you make of HealtH. I do think Altman's stuff is definitely always worth a look, and so much of it repays multiple viewings too.

Drew McIntosh said...

JPK - Even if I end up not doing a full blown write-up of HealtH, I'll be sure to drop you a line with y thoughts, and at least add my rating over on the "Recent Viewings" section on the main page. I of course agree with you that any Altman is work a watch, and his multi-layered stories often do benefit from multiple viewings.

Adam Zanzie said...

I always maintained that Quintet is some kind of masterpiece. It's been increasingly hard for me to convince people of that, although one of the frustrating things is that there can never be a truly WIDE discussion on Quintet because a lot of Altman fans still haven't seen the film.

Responding to what J.D. said, I don't think Quintet is rarely seen just because it's gotten a bad reputation--to me it's more like the ghastly box office results (there were rumors that theaters gave customers their money back) and the poor attempt to release the film to DVD have something to do with it. I had to rent it through an Altman box set, and I think a film as unique as Quintet deserves its own independent DVD release... maybe a Criterion release, like 3 Women had. If nobody's willing to write a Criterion essay on it, then I'll happily step up to the plate!

Honestly, I don't see why the same criticisms thrown at Quintet can't be thrown at another deconstructing science fiction film like, say, Blade Runner. I would argue that you can watch both films in the same way. Audiences went into both worrying about certain plot elements that weren't important. Both Newman's Essex and Ford's Rick Deckard ARE stoic, wandering lost souls. The actual Quintet game itself is a MacGuffin designed to set off the Darwinian thriller elements--the rules of the game don't make any sense, and that of course is the point. Same with the way the Replicants in Blade Runner are designed and what their motives are, or whether Deckard is human or not.

I wrote a piece on Quintet last year that elaborates significantly more on a few of the points I've raised here:

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks for the comment, Adam, and thanks for linking your piece. It was quite an interesting and insightful read, wonderfully written of course. We certainly differ in opinion on this one, though we at least both agree that the art direction is masterful and something special. As I said here though, even that was tough for me to enjoy entirely, as the visuals were consistently hampered by the vaseline gimmick that wore out its welcome with me pretty quickly.

Your comparison between Quintet and Blade Runner certainly holds water, with their implementation of the MacGuffin and subversion of narrative expectations. And while I suppose some of the same criticisms could be leveled at both, I would simply argue that Blade Runner is a better movie; thematically richer and more striking, and while the parallels you draw between the two leads existential stoicism is true, with the Harrison performance there was - for me at least - a dark, haunting, emotional charge to the Deckard character that intrigued and drew me in as a viewer. Whereas I found the Newman performance to be just horrendously bland and boring, almost in a goofy, over-the-top manner, completely lacking in anything resonant.

I will say though, your impassioned defense has me curious to give this one another shot down the road. I'm not sure my opinion will change at all, but I'm more than willing to go in open-minded and see if something clicks for me in a second viewing.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to let you know, there's a rare GOSFORD PARK board game for sale on eBay at the moment. Just type in "Gosford Park game" under "search" and it should turn up.

JLH said...

I recently recorded this as it was on FMC and seeing that it had Paul Newman in it I figured why not. Not even 15 minutes in and I just couldn't watch anymore... The whole hazy edges of the screen was just too much. I just couldn't get past it. Maybe it's just me in a future of HD imagry, but wow. I just don't like the feeling that I have cataracts while watching a flick.

Anonymous said...

This is a perfect film, still fresh and unique nearly forty years after it was made. Those who don't like it either don't understand it, or, more likely, are put off by its bleak hopelessness. The end result is exactly what Mr. Altman strove to achieve.