It has been recently (and very properly) pointed out to me that even Great Directors have had or will have their off days. As Marcel Marceau remarked in “Barbarella”: “Genius is mysterious”.
(Yes, I’m actually quoting from a well-known mime who had a speaking role in a Roger Vadim film. Bear with me, pumpkins, we could be in for Trouble.)
Earlier I had announced that I was trying to work my way through Robert Altman’s 1979 film “Quintet”, with intention to comment on same. Talk about understatement. Did I actually say “trying to work my way through”?
Try, instead, “struggling”. Or “slogging”, or “crawling painfully”. After all the effort that went into watching “Quintet” I figured that, at the end, I should’ve been calling someone Dr. Livingston. Or asking Tenzing Norgay if we were on the top of that furshlugginer mountain yet.
Mother Mary and Joseph!
I mean I thought Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady” was turgid. Or Guy Greene’s “The Magus”. Compared to “Quintet”, however, those films were sprightly cinematic romps. Yes. I do admit it. I am clearly willing to point to “Quintet” as being the nadir of Altman’s otherwise distinguished career. His designated low point. I would be watching “Quintet” and, after several minutes, I would find myself getting up and going to do something else. Or take a nap. Or hammer nails into my fingers. Anything. Even “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” did a better job of holding my attention.
My head still hurts. Or maybe it’s these nails in my fingers.
Let’s tackle the basics here first. “Quintet” starred Paul Newman as Essex: a seal hunter living in a future Earth where a massive ice age is slowly destroying all life. Accompanied by a pregnant and childlike woman named Vivia (and no, the source of her pregnancy is never determined), Essex is heading for an unnamed city where he hopes to meet up with his brother. The city is hardly an improvement over the wasteland which surrounds it. Ice permeates everything, technology is down to the bare bones, dogs roam about and chew on the dead, and everyone seems to be obsessed with a game called Quintet.
Essex finds his brother but, while out buying firewood, a man named Redstone throws a bomb into the apartment, killing not only the brother and his family, but Vivia as well. Pursuing Redstone, Essex witnesses him being killed by a man named St. Christopher. The killer escapes, but Essex finds a list of names on Redstone’s body. The list not only includes the names of Redstone and St. Christopher, but the name of Essex’s brother as well.
Assuming Redstone’s identity (and don’t worry. I’m just as lost as you are), Essex investigates on his own, eventually learning that all the names on the list are players of a Quintet tournament. Probing further, Essex soon learns that the game is far more intense, and deadly, than the board game it appears to be.
And . . . that’s about it. Not fishing for compliments here, pumpkins, but you’re actually getting a clearer picture of the story from me than you’d get from watching the film.
I should’ve known something was wrong when the screenplay listed three names: Altman’s, Frank Barhydt and Patricia Resnick. Once again we see an example of Uncle Mikey’s Law: when you get three or more names in the story writing slot then It’s Bad News! Look at Altman’s better films. Only one person listed as the screenplay writer. Count it: One!
What makes it a genuine tragedy is that there was actually the germ of a decent idea in “Quintet”. Heck: “Robot Monster” had a decent idea, albeit one which was burdened by crummy execution. “Quintet” had the bare potential for being interesting, but no one (and here I include Altman) seemed to care about it, or want to go anywhere with the concept. Actors of the caliber of Newman, Bibi Andersson, Vittorio Gassman and others wander about, deliver vague dialogue (and occasionally get stabbed), but there’s no verve or impact to it. No attempt at strength, or passion. Rather, everyone seems to be simply going through the motions. With “Quintet” we may have the most expensive high school student film ever made. It’s been said that Altman wanted Walter Hill to write and direct the film, and I mentally drool when contemplating that, somewhere out there, there’s a parallel universe where such a thing happened. I hope the people in that universe appreciate what they have.
Even the promoters at 20th Century Fox were apparently clueless as to what to do with the film. Both the poster and the trailer do little in the way to make the movie worth watching to all but the most diehard Paul Newman fan, and if anyone can recall seeing a “Quintet” advertisement on television back in 1979 then they’re one up on me.
(Were I teaching a film promotion course at UCLA or somewhere, I’d assign the class to work up a campaign for a “Quintet” re-release. Make the little bottom feeders sweat for their grade.)
Jean Boffety’s cinematography certainly offered some small hope. Having worked with the likes of Enrico, Resnais and Sautet, Boffety presents the viewer with an utterly hopeless world. The city scenes were filmed among the structures of Expo ’67 in Montreal. Think of a “Mad Max” Bartertown type of environment which had been left in the freezer too long. The sound of ice relentlessly grinding in the distance (or perhaps those were more bomb explosions) adds to the destitute atmosphere. And Tom Pierson’s soundtrack (performed by the New York Philharmonic), while not memorable, could occasionally catch the ear.
But, for the most part, there is little aim in “Quintet”. Take, for instance, the title game. We’re given to believe that it is an essential point of the otherwise valueless life of the survivors (I hesitate to refer to the characters in the film as a society), but little real attention is given over to it (or anything else, for that matter). Norman Jewison struck much closer to the mark in 1975 with “Rollerball” (which, I point out in passing, had only one writer on the screenplay).
It might’ve helped if the game could’ve been simpler. Dedicated students of cinematic ephemera can track down the official rules, but I’ll try and save you the trouble and only mention that, compared to the game of Quintet, the game of Whackbat from “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was an exercise in simplicity. In this instance the screenplay labored mightily and brought forth a mouse (and a frozen one at that).
If I want to struggle and scrape and try to prove that Altman couldn’t entirely fail, then I would mention a scene where Essex, not wanting Vivia’s body to be eaten by dogs, carries it out of the city and sets it adrift on an ice floe. A brief whisper of poignancy in a movie which definitely needed Something. It hurts me to rag on a director whose work I’ve usually looked upon with favor, but I believe the dead Vivia fared much better than all of us who sat through “Quintet”. Only the most seriously dedicated of science-fiction film completists should contemplate devoting 118 minutes of their lives to this.
Unless, of course, one needs a legitimate excuse to pound nails into their fingers.