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
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."