Quintet

Starring:
  • A Very Pissed Off Paul Newman
  • Mangled Up Religious Symbolism
  • Frozen Dogs

 

Directed by You Know Who. "Do you know how much I hate you for putting me in this film? I could take a shovel to that coked-up, freaked-out head of yours and bash out what little brains haven't been ruined by drugs. And no, I will NOT be in Popeye!!!!"
THE WORST FILM EVER MADE

The title of "Worst Film Ever Made" carries a great deal of weight and I respect and appreciate that. For a long time, I would get asked about what film I felt deserved to reside at the bottom of the cinematic compost heap. Normally, I would say something like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Manos The Hands of Fate, or some other piece of dreck that had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But it always felt wrong because I could never figure out the criteria to rank a film into such a position. But then, a few months ago, shimes a I discovered Quintet. We had been researching Robert Altman's career and had read a few things about this 1979 sci-fi flick starring Paul Newman and Fernando Rey. It sounded kind of crazy so we rented it and decided to watch it over a twelve-pack. What unfolded in the next two hours was unlike anything either one of us had ever witnessed. It wasn't just insane, it was incomprehensible. And it wasn't just bad, it went to the point of defining pretension. And that's when I knew how to classify a truly "bad" film: It was a film that was a disaster on all levels but had the notion of being a masterpiece. And once it has been deconstructed, it clear that Robert Altman thought that he had produced and directed the best film ever made. But after reading this synopsis, it will be clear that he has not directed the best film of all time. He just snorted some really bad coke that went straight to his soul.

Quintet is set during the Final Ice Age of Earth. They never announce a year, so I'm assuming there's been several other ice ages between now and when the story takes place. Newman plays Essex, who has traveled from the South with his wife, Vivia. He used to club seals for a living, but has since lost his love for the work. They travel to this indoor city which seemingly has no name. What it does have are lots of rotting, human carcasses lying around. It is assumed that these people froze to death but their bodies have become mangled by the packs of rottweiler hounds that apparently is the animal's only food source. (But I use the plural version of "pack" although it seems like the same five dogs are used for every corpse.) Anyway, Essex has come looking for his brother. There are five million people who live in this city so Essex has to look through this futuristic phone book made of mirrors and microchips (Please don't ask. And while I'm using the parentheses, I have to wonder where all of these people were. At any given time, there are only about ten people on screen. I guess it's like that whole city that allegedly lived on the Star Trek Enterprise.) which is placed right next to these large photographs that make up a collage of images ranging from starving Africans to Vietnamese villagers to Roger Barrister breaking the land speed record in the one mile. I have no what these images have to do with one another but Altman puts a chandelier in the middle of all of them and I think we all know what that means. All the same, it turns out that Essex's brother is dead but they hang out with this group of people playing Quintet. Quintet is like backgammon, I think, except that the loser has to "die" at the end. It's a big deal because no one works in this town because they're too busy playing Quintet. Essex doesn't like Quintet because "it's just something that people do for no good reason." Vivia really likes it and the group really likes her: She's pregnant and no one has been pregnant in centuries. (Biblical symbolism alert.) So, Essex leaves to get wood but while he's gone, some guy throws a grenade into the quintet game and everyone dies. This guy then runs to find Essex but ends up having his throat slit by St. Christopher, a champion Quintet player and manager of the soup kitchen. Essex is upset by the loss of Vivia so he takes her body and puts it into a river like its the baby Moses. He finds this list near the crime scene and it contains some really good Quintet players. So Essex poses as "Redstone", a champion player, and looks to infiltrate the group. Once inside, he finds out that the elders of the community are conducting Quintet rituals and anyone who loses in the championship is killed. The people on Essex's list start turning up dead and he accuses the commissioner of the Quintet board Grecio (Fernando Rey) of brainwashing and of destroying the community. He says he's giving the people what they want. Essex thinks that he has an ally in Ambrosia (Bibi Anderson) but she turns out to be a Quintet loyalist as well and Essex ends up killing her right after they sleep with one another. Essex then takes her body and throws it onto the symbolic fire by the main Quintet table and then fights Grecio to the death. Then, Altman cuts to the picture of the Vietnamese woman and then Essex leaves for the North.

I'm sorry folks, I write these words and I'm still convinced that this movie only exists in my head. Just thinking about it makes me think that I'm insane. And it's worse than it sounds. There are endless periods where nothing happens at all. (Only one counts Paul Newman stumbling around the set looking very aggravated.) I mean, Altman apologists won't even bring this film up. Why? I don't think they can explain it. But I think that I can. Altman seems to be going after a lot of religious symbolism in this. When Essex and Vivia enter the village, they see a solo Canadian goose flying South. "Why I haven't seen one of those in years." It is a sign of hope! And Vivia is mysteriously pregnant. These two wandering souls are just like Mary and Joseph! But then Altman blows up the Virgin Mary and the guy who does it yells out, "Why do you persecute me!" I don't know the Bible verse, but this is what Saul yells at God before being transformed into Paul. But then Saul has his throat slit by St. Christopher, who is the champion player who also feeds and houses the poor. St. Christopher is also protected by Grecio, the "judge." Essex is always accusing Grecio of inflicting pain over the people he watches. So, Grecio is God and St. Christopher is his hypocritical servant. And then, this list contains those people that are to be "ritualistically murdered". Ah, kind of like Passover. So you see, Altman has set up all of the religious symbols just to knock them off of their lofty perches. And I haven't even got to the setup of the game: Quintet is played on this five sided board where every side represents a different portion of life. (Birth, childhood, conformity, deterioration, and death.) The center represents nothingness. Grecio says, "This nothingness represents the sixth level of life. The ignorant have searched for purpose in this level but it doesn't not exist. Living life, like playing Quintet, is it's own reward." So, existence reaches Apocalypse and it turns out that religion is a big lie perpetrated by those in charge. Hoo-ray! I guess Paul Newman is my Savior now!

And one can debate the role of religion in society all they want. That does not keep this movie from going totally overboard.Altman does this thing with the camera that, as a technique, can only be described as "Vaso-Cam". There are moments where the images are framed in this intentionally blurry substance. There's nothing wrong with the quality of the tape because sometimes it's not there. Sometimes it's thicker than other times. It literally looks like the DP smeared the camera with Vasoline. And for what? Are these scenes supposed to pose an intentional uncertainty? There's no real pattern to this so I'm not really sure if that's the answer. Plus, Altman has this tendancy to film scenes where characters are talking to one another while a freshly murdered Quintet players lingers directly in the background. I'm assuming that this is supposed to add a form of macabre urgency, but it just comes off as kind of funny. And the music plays like a combination of the Jaws theme and "Chopsticks." I'm still scratching my head over all those photos of the Vietnamese and the starving Africans, too.

I don't know what else to else. I don't know what I can't say. I can only imagine the studio screening at Fox when Altman returned from Montreal and showed it to executives for the first time. This movie looks like it cost a lot of money and I imagine there were some raised voices about halfway through. None of those would have been louder than Altman's who probably did a Brian Robbins and threw his fists on the table and stormed out of the room. Except here he probably went into the bathroom and did some coke. But Quintet comes at a time when Altman had come off some good flicks but is followed by the 1980's when he made nothing but crap. This film was the turning point for Altman's career, I believe. And poor Paul Newman. He probably really wanted to work with Altman after MASH and Nashville. He then read the script and thought, "Oh Altman will make this work." Well, Paul seems to have trouble even hiding his contempt most of the time he's on screen. I wouldn't be surprised that he and Altman didn't have a fist fight the way the director and Robert Evan had on the set of Popeye. I can't find any documentation on this because no one has written anything on this film. That's another good reason to deem Quintet The Worst Film Ever Made: It's so bad that people won't even talk about it. People joke about Ishtar and Leonard Part 6. They want to forget that this movie ever existed. I can guarantee you that Robert Altman would come in fifth place as Best Director if the voters had remembered that he had directed stuff like this. Quintet is expensive, pretentious, horribly written, and is a shame to the Hollywood establishment. What else can one say except that we don't owe Altman anything: "Atman Owes Us."

 

The Pitch:
3 Plan 9 From Outer Space
Plus
2 Orson Welles
Equals
5 Quintet
See It For:
Essex encountering Bluto, another great screen pairing from Robert Altman.