Friday, January 16, 2015

QUINTET (1979)



     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And for this reason we saved our old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves. Some films unfortunately suffer the "slings and arrows" of criticism simply because of their timing.

     In the early to mid 1970s a slew of bleak, socio-politically aware (and even self-conscious) science fiction films were greeted with a great deal of critical and financial acclaim as they made pointed comment on contemporary anxieties such as political corruption (Watergate), the rapid decimation of the environment, the Civil Rights and Gender Rights movements, and nuclear and conventional war.

     Films like LOGAN'S RUN, ROLLERBALL, THE OMEGA MAN, SOYLENT GREEN, DAMNATION ALLEY, ZARDOZ, the original PLANET OF THE APES series and more had a cinematic "get out of jail free card" so to speak to be (hey, call it what it was) deliberately heavy-handed in their addressing of various and sundry themes. This was a carry over from the then already in play "New Wave" of (so-called) independent American cinema of the 1970s. "So-called" because, while the film makers (among them newbies Martin Scorcese, Brian DePalma, Peter Bogdanovich, and of course Robert Altman) often had free reign to explore daring material to their heart's and imagination's content, the films WERE often produced and distributed by the major studios - these corporate entities seeking to connect with the current youth zeitgeist of the day after a slew of big budgeted studio extravaganzas the decade before (among them STAR!, HELLO DOLLY and DOCTOR DOOLITTE) crashed and burned, nearly taking those studios down the bankruptcy drain with them.

     Three films within a three year period arguably caused a cinema-wide thematic paradigm shift still in flux today. ROCKY (1976), SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) and, perhaps most significantly, STAR WARS in 1977, turned the global tide from the downbeat social pessimism of the "anti-hero" era (THE FRENCH CONNECTION, BULLITT, REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER, THE GETAWAY) to a more upbeat, old school, (call it) cut and dry "good vs. evil", "underdog everyman overcoming mountainous obstacles of society and nature to win the day" filmic aesthetic. In retrospect there are those who now refer to these films as those which "killed" more independently minded and rebellious cinema, and forever caused a simplistic "dumbing down" of movie culture in general. But this is wholly unfair (not to mention inaccurate) as in their day ROCKY, SUPERMAN and STAR WARS were just as bold and commercially daring (and risky) in bucking popular trend as were the films of say Scorcese and Wertmuller.

     In this context Robert Altman's fascinating (if bleak) foray into the science fiction realm, QUINTET, was a film "out of time". Released in 1979, if it perhaps had debuted a year or two before STAR WARS instead of two years afterwards, it very well may have been greeted with the same contextual "counter culture" respect as that era's ROLLERBALL and ZARDOZ - like QUINTET two other fascinating if imperfectly self-aware films, rather than today having the distinction of being one of the legendary Altman's "more obscure" experiments.

     Released by 20th Century Fox in February 1979, QUINTET takes place in a future "2nd Ice Age" which has encompassed earth and destroyed nearly all life on the planet. Out of this post apocalyptic frozen hellscape emerges seal hunter Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant companion Viva (French actress and Francois Truffaut film veteran Brigitte Fossey). Arriving at a snow-encased mall-like apartment community of survivors, Essex seeks to reconnect with his brother who, while Essex is out collecting firewood, is assassinated by a bomb hurled into his apartment. Viva and Essex's unborn child are also killed; and seeking the perpetrator, Essex's trail of detection eventually involves him in a macabre survival-of-the-fittest tournament called "Quintet" - lorded over by "Judicator" Grigor (THE FRENCH CONNECTION's Fernando Rey), and featuring reigning champion St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman of LA TOSCA and PROFUMO DI DONNA) and the game's ever present "sixth man" - the mysterious Ambrosia (portrayed by Ingmar Bergman actress Bibi Andersson).

     Upon conception of the initial story Altman offered QUINTET's writing and directing positions to the legendary Walter Hill. Hill would go on to direct classics such as THE LONG RIDERS, 48HRS, SOUTHERN COMFORT, JOHNNY HANDSOME and GERONIMO, and produce the ALIEN films. But at the time of Altman's offer he was best known as second unit director for Sam Peckinpah, screenwriter of THE GETAWAY, THE THIEF WHO CAME TO DINNER and Paul Newman's THE DROWNING POOL, and director of the hard hitting pulp-inspired HARD TIMES, THE DRIVER and THE WARRIORS. Turned down by Hill, Altman co-wrote QUINTET with Patricia Resnick (who'd earlier co-scripted his 3 WOMEN and A WEDDING) and Frank Barhydt (who'd later co-write with the director his later THE PLAYER, SHORT CUTS and KANSAS CITY). Doubling for the futuristic snow-encased apartment community was the sleek multi-leveled site of Montreal's Expo '67 - it photographed by French "New Wave" cinematographer Jean Bofferty, best known for Robert Enrico's gorgeous black & white 1962 short film AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, and the French science fiction classic JE T'AIME, JE T'AIME.

     Based on the director's selection of QUINTET's cast and primary crew, with the exception of Paul Newman (he himself in the midst of a career expanding experimental phase which included roles in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, SLAP SHOT, Altman's BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS: OR SITTING BULL'S HISTORY LESSON, and his own directorial effort SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION), it's clear that Altman was going for a very UN-tradtional sci fi outing more akin to the dark and heady philosophical nature of European genre films the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS (1972) and 1961's LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (directed by JE T'AIME, JE T'AIME's Alain Resnais - and which would later inspire Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION) than the more at-the-time pulp-inspired adventure of STAR WARS or similarly pulp inspired terror / dread of ALIEN (1979).

     With it's nihilistic narrative of "Natural selection run amuck in the hands of man" (if you look close enough at the film it's a biting indictment of all manner of socially "acceptable" fascism), QUINTET was released to an audience perhaps expecting ANYthing but the dark philosophical treatise offered. Altman's one and only foray into hard core science fiction, which would have been a perfect fit in the mid 1970s, crashed and burned at the box office, with most critics agreeing with Roger Ebert (one of Altman's greatest life long supporters)'s assessment that QUINTET was "... A confusion in (an) unsuccessful quest of a resolution, and the nearest Altman has ever come to a completely inexplicable film". Respected literary and media critic / author John Kenneth Muir (THE UNSEEN FORCE: THE FILMS OF SAM RAIMI, MERCY IN HER EYES: THE FILMS OF MIRA NAIR) would be one of the few to see behind the foreground darkness of QUINTET to find something more fascinating percolating within it's cinematic sub-strata realm; and he'd later call it a film of "... many merits worthy of patience; one crafted with real dedication, and with seemingly no consideration for commercial interests", though also admitting, "The film is not merely bleak, it is intentionally, irrevocably hopeless. It goes out of its way, actually, to kill off 'hope' in the first act".

     For us personally, while we agree it's ending is deliberately "non upbeat", we've never seen it as hopeLESS. That is in the same ironic sense that (at least we feel) one can find a light within the darkest narratives of Franz Kafka or Joseph Conrad ... if one WISHES to. In the same way say in which the first step of an alcoholic's redemption is in ADMITTING that he / she has a problem which must be addressed, QUINTET shines a light on the dark nature of humanity's need for competition, one-upsmanship and "success" often by any means necessary (in business, in relationships, in sports, in school, in society in general) as a fruitless self-delusional endeavor; and as a waste of time in an existence when time (the very next day in fact) isn't promised to you. We ourselves come away from it's closing credits with the parable that one must spend what limited amount of time one has on this earth LIVING rather than simply "competing" and "surviving". As such we've always viewed it as a dark cautionary tale. But we guess, as with other films such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and THE EXORCIST, films which even today people still debate as being which? - "devoid of hope" or "a rallying cry to never give up hope even in the darkest of circumstances", one tends to take away from QUINTET what one brings to it.

     Long out of print on both VHS and DVD (for years only available as part of Fox Video's 2006 "Robert Altman Collection" DVD boxed set - with individual disc prices for QUINTET running anywhere from $40 - $80 dollars), the film in recent years has received an individual Italian "Region 2" (not playable on standard U.S. / Canadian DVD players) DVD release. More importantly, it has also very recently been made available to stream via Amazon Instant Video and other outlets. If you're looking for a fast moving sci fi adventure "shoot-em-up", we implore you to steer far and away from QUINTET.
If however you've got cinematic tastes on the personally adventurous side, and you don't mind one of those films which actually makes you wrestle with it a bit (think along the lines of the 2006 film version of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD with Viggo Mortenson - it too not a huge financial success upon release) we think this dark, fascinatingly clever examination of humanity on it's last legs, ... but refusing to roll over and play dead, may be to your liking. In other words, if you can identify with the film poster's byline "One man against the world", we're pretty sure you'll totally understand, dig and get into the labyrinthine mental / emotional / intellectual magic that is Robert Altman's QUINTET.


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Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved.

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