THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: QUINTET (1979)

O.C. and Stiggs aside (and we’ll get to that later), if there is another movie in the canon of Robert Altman that has been as torched and reviled as Quintet, first in a pair of films Altman released in 1979, I know it not. Laughed out of the theaters and dismissed upon its initial release, Quintet now camps comfortably at the precise halfway mark between maligned masterpiece and deserved disaster though, in the end, it will likely never amount to anything other than being a nobly interesting film that pleases exactly nobody.

Stepping about as far away as he could from the crowded canvasses that had served him well throughout the decade, Quintet tells the story of Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter living in the final, frozen days of civilization who, with his pregnant traveling companion, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), returns to his iced-over and ruined city after a decade-long sojourn/hunt in the south. Upon his return, he rejoins his brother, Francha (Thomas Hill), and learns that there is no longer any employment or hope in the civilized world and that people mostly pass the time playing Quintet, a backgammon-like game played on a pentagonal board. When a pipe bomb is slipped through the doorway to Francha’s apartment while Essex is away and kills all of the inhabitants within, Vivia included, Essex becomes embroiled in an enigmatic search to unravel the reason for their murders and the numerous deaths that occur soon afterward.

This summation makes this all sound terribly exciting and, to be sure, there’s probably a better film to be made from the elements that make up Quintet, but, as released, it’s readily apparent that there was just simply nobody around to tell Altman “no.” What began life as a star-studded meditation on the unknown ended up looking more like a yarn someone heard while huddled around a water pipe with some friends in a dorm room. As a contemporary piece of entertainment in 1979, it’s unclear who this movie would be for and its audacity is as equally admirable as it is peculiar. But it also shows just how far away Altman was from the pulse of America he so keenly tracked during the first half of the 70’s as popular entertainment, and Altman himself, had been rocked by bubblegum films such as Superman: The Movie, Star Wars, and Grease.

Quintet is designed to be an intellectual mystery film (though it’s more a whydunit than a whodunit) crossed with some trace elements of science fiction and it succeeds far more in the latter than it does the former. In creating a location as unique as Presbyterian Church in McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Sweethaven in Popeye, the utilization of the derelict portions of Montreal’s Expo 67 was a stroke of genius as both the art direction of Wolf Kroger and production design Leon Ericksen help create a believable, ice-encased metropolis. Likewise, Altman is 100% committed to the frozen world he builds in Quintet which seeps into the smallest parts of the film. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, there is a mad genius to cinematographer Jean Boffety, returning from Thieves Like Us, smearing Vaseline around the outer edge of his lenses, giving the visuals a patina of translucent frost that contributes to the perpetual and uncomfortably frigid atmosphere that blows off the screen.

Also impressive is the assemblage of Altman’s top tier, globe-spanning cast which also helps sell the illusion that the inhabitable world which remains is a frozen coagulation of run-off from the four corners of the earth. American Paul Newman and Swedish Andersson mingle with Spanish Fernando Rey, French Brigitte Fossey, Danish Nina Von Pallandt, and Italian Vittorio Gassman, the latter two exchanging their marriage license in the previous year’s A Wedding for opposing sides in the deadly tournament of Quintet. All of these performances are very unique and mix in a way that is sometimes tin-eared and jarring but probably comes close to fully realizing a world where language is being boxed up and only the physical actions and gestures in the service of all-encompassing gamesmanship matter.

But allowing Altman to take the audience on a joyride to the edge of extinction couldn’t help but give audiences of the time a case of the grumps. For this is a film Altman wants everyone to Take Very Seriously and, as such, it is completely without joy and utterly faithful to its hopelessness. Staking its claim in this grim territory early by killing off the pregnant Fossey, the film’s one beacon of life, Altman presents a world so bleak that wild dogs are devouring the bodies of the dead within thirty seconds of them hitting the ground; a civilization so dark, the word “friend” has been replaced with “alliance.” Perhaps Altman felt the world was coming to a place that was so pained and depressed that a post-coital embrace would be met with a flood of sadness at the remembrance of what’s been lost. And maybe it was (and is). But to think that anyone in 1979 would pay hard-earned money and burn a Friday or Saturday night to be told these truths was just as mad as the pulpit rankings of Gassman’s St. Christopher, telling his flock of frigid miserables that the unknown blackness that awaits after death is so completely terrifying and all-consuming that they should be happy with the disconsolate lives they lead even as they slowly starve and freeze to death.

As an unearthed relic that is slowly becoming lost to time, Quintet is a kind of fascinating curio. An outlier in his filmography, there still remains through-lines to his work both past and future. The opening mostly resembles California Split as it moves the poker club to the end of the earth, people huddling around frozen gameboards and fighting off boredom instead of feeding their gambling addictions. Likewise, the whole idea of the sixth man, a player position in the game of Quintet that’s festooned with all kinds of allegorical meaning, is something Altman first toyed with in 3 Women, specifically with the character of Willie Hart (Janice Rule). Representing the silent watcher on the margins of the frame, Willie Hart was the unknowable-known; a creature filled with middle-aged emptiness that can only fully understood when it’s too late to change the course of destiny.

In the end, Altman does find a kind of hope as Newman refuses conventional wisdom and marches (for five straight minutes of screen time) into the great white north, following a goose he spied with wonder in the opening minutes of the film. But ending on an opaque note of hopeless bravery just wasn’t what a lot of people who had just watched John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John fly away in a car wanted to put up with. And while a lofty piece of nonsense dialogue such as “You’ll never understand the scheme until you are part of the scheme” seems ponderously risible and ultimately head-scratching when deployed in the film, I can’t help but think it would have been better served as the Orson Welles-voiced tagline to the (non-existent) board game adaptation of Quintet by Parker Brothers.

“One Man Against the World” screamed the tagline on the Quintet one-sheet, plastered under the contemplative mug of Paul Newman and his mid-distance stare. Replace his face with that of Robert Altman and you were probably closer to the truth as the seventies began to sputter to an unfortunate close.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: A WEDDING (1978)

Robert Altman understands that weddings are semi-goofy affairs on which, each year, a whole lot of money is dropped on lavish, nerve-wracking, and anxiety-inducing ceremonies and even more unthinkably gaudy receptions, all in the service of unions that have less than a 50% chance of succeeding. He’s also keen on the notion that all weddings are secret disasters waiting to happen as the joining of two families is generally a nightmare recipe. So it’s curious that A Wedding, Altman’s first contemporary and reality-bound work since Nashville, feels like more like a rough idea than it does an actual movie. To be sure, it’s a mostly wonderful and quotable film, but it’s also frustratingly overstuffed, laboriously too busy (even for an Altman joint), and, perhaps most consequentially, permeated with an ugly and rank contempt for almost all of its characters.

A Wedding is the story of the wedding and subsequent daylong reception of Muffin Brenner (Amy Stryker) and Dino Corelli (Desi Arnez, Jr.). Opening as a grand and reverent enterprise, the film slowly peels layer upon layer from almost every character in its purview to the point where, at the end, the entire party on both sides of the aisle has been exposed as unpleasant, sick, and/or corrupted in almost embarrassing measures.

On the groom’s side is an air of a nouveau riche aristocracy and is one that is likewise laced with ennui-induced drug addiction. On the bride’s side, there is more established wealth that masks a lower-class of people where bored complacency leads to wanton hedonism and where familial relations are far too close for comfort. Between them is an assortment of friends, siblings, in-laws, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, estate staff, and event contractors, all of whom share secrets, desires, loves, laughs, drinks, weed, politics, and indignities throughout the day and into the evening.

I suppose that in his defense, Altman thought it was all ok if he stuck it to everyone on the screen with equal force and measure and therefore couldn’t be branded as an elitist if he did so. But it’s almost as if the cynical summations of America that he presented in both Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians had disgusted Altman to the point where the poison couldn’t help but flow into his creative juices which, sometimes, does minor damage to the film. I mean, it’s one thing to introduce a creepy, almost incestuous relationship between two of the family members in the pursuit of some dark humor but, from a sexual standpoint, the bride’s side of the family is presented as such a gaggle of grossly dysfunctional and regressive hayseeds that the film sometimes veers dangerously close to being mean-spirited. Like the world on display in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the groom’s side of the family is a closed, perverted environment and one that is so decadently incorrect that “Chairman of the Board” William Williamson (Altman regular Bert Remsen filing his last performance for the director) is the only guest to show amid the “few more than a hundred” regrets.

Sometimes, the need to cover everything crowds out Altman’s better sense and further dulls the piece. While the former supplies at least three of the film’s hilarious moments, both Viveca Lidfords’s Ingrid Hellstrom and Maureen Steidler’s Libby Clinton could have been completely excised from the film without affecting its structure in the least. Likewise, less time could have been spent on extraneous characters and situations such as the sometimes farcical security detail (which includes co-screenwriters Patricia Resnick and John Considine) and the film crew (which includes another co-writer, Allan Nicholls). While well-intentioned, neither of these conceits feel very organic and they likewise suck up a lot of oxygen that could have been of better use by focusing on the specific relationships between the myriad characters or on Geraldine Chaplin’s delightfully uptight wedding planner, smartly utilized as the film’s master of ceremonies/center of the hurricane.

As is to be expected, the entire cast is incredible. While her broadly pitched performance sometimes tilts in the direction of the Eunice character she created for her variety show, Carol Burnett is wonderfully hilarious as Tulip Brenner, mother of the bride. Almost better is Nina Van Pallandt as Regina Corelli, mother of the groom. Nursing a secret yet crippling addiction to heroin, Pallandt is by turns nervous and jittery before her performance relaxes into an enunciation minefield where all of her hard r’s are sanded down and she glides along on a soft, narcotic cloud. Vittorio Gassman, playing beleaguered father of the groom Luigi Corelli, turns in a softly hilarious and ultimately touching performance as he slowly reveals himself to be perhaps the most decent person in the whole bunch. But, if anything, the film’s greatest casting coup was to pair Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher as father and son. Portraying, respectively, father and brother of the bride, Snooks and Hughie Brenner, both find the exact temperature in every scene they’re in and create a truly believable dynamic which no doubt led Peter Yates to cast them as father and son in the following year’s Breaking Away in which both gave career-best performances.

And on a technical level, A Wedding is a marvel. As much as any multi-tracked ensemble film from Altman, it demands to be seen twice as half of the film’s best jokes are found in the grout and away from the camera, in snippets of random dialogue that rise above the maelstrom of its staggering cast of characters (there are about twice as many people in this than in Nashville). Additionally, most of the scenes contain an energetic and bustling choreography of actors moving in and out of the staid and static frame that sit nicely alongside Altman’s more familiar, “roaming-eye” camera flourishes.

By now, it probably sounds as if A Wedding is something of an unlikeable failure which is most definitely not the case. While it’s far from a masterpiece, it contains a great many worthwhile insights that live underneath its thorny and acrid surface and, despite the film’s tone, the natural beauty of Altman’s style can’t help but elevate the picture to something more than just a moving portrait of unappealing wax dummies. Even though the air is mostly foul, there’s a vivaciousness in this movie and perhaps the point of the film is that it’s as as equally hilarious and nauseating as real life.

In retrospect, though, Altman’s greatest idea involves the death of Nettie Sloan (Lillian Gish). It’s probably no accident that Gish, the doe-eyed “First Lady of American Cinema,” is cast as the matriarch of a family which is helplessly dishonorable. Dying in the film’s early moments (setting up one of the film’s best gags that predates Ted Kotcheff’s Weekend at Bernie’s by a full decade), she seems utterly relieved to no longer have to lord over a family where the relationship between her daughter Clarice (Virginia Vestoff) and Randolph (Cedric Scott), the African-American house butler, is explicitly dictated to remain in the closet (as is the family’s biggest secret which reveals itself in the film’s closing moments). An antiquated sense of race and class dissolving as the natural winds of change blow about her, Altman symbolically uses Gish’s demise to trumpet the new cinema which had, by 1978, choked out the old system.

“When it’s over, it gets real sad,” says Rosie Bean (Lesley Rogers) to Geraldine Chaplin’s Rita Billingsley about the exhausting comedown that occurs after the ceremonial brouhaha surrounding a wedding. On one hand, it’s an indictment of the kind of dichotomy that naturally exists between a wedding and a marriage. On another hand, it’s something of an existential conundrum put to people like Billingsley who make a living feeding the beast and widening that delta. But another possibility is that it could also be Altman speaking to himself; reckoning that his Hollywood stroke had become less and less significant and perhaps feeling his best days were shrinking into the horizon behind him. But like the detestable and doomed Wilson Briggs (Gavan O’Herlihy) and Tracy Farrell (Pam Dawber), the bride and groom’s respective exes who each show up to the wedding reception as bad-faith discomfort agents, Altman was too busy being a condescending wisenheimer to see the jackknifed tanker sitting in the middle of the highway toward which he was barreling at top speed.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain