Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Quintet (1979) 2 of 4

what the white pages will look like in the (very cold) future
** mild spoilers below for a nearly plotless film **

Most of us dislike winter, but I think most people like a snow-and-ice film.  The snow film gives us the beauty and starkness of winter without the discomfort.  People and things pop out of the white background, there’s a pleasing sterility to it.  Also, winter in a movie charges every scene with life or death stakes: in real life, we’d just go inside, but in a snow movie there’s a good chance the character(s) will face death.
Quintet is very much a snow movie, thanks to the Montreal locations (the ruins of the Expo '67 World's Fair, the same event that gave a name to baseball's Montreal Expos, since moved south to be the Washington Nationals).  We're in a future ice age, in a vaguely medieval town populated by the enervated, accented denizens of the European art film: Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson.  Paul Newman stars, vainly attempting to recoup the film’s budget.

Newman is Essex, a simple, good man; his wife is collateral damage in an apparent terrorist attack.  The bombing is actually part of the game, quintet (Videohound describes it as a variant of backgammon, but gleaning rules from the scant references is a job for someone who cares more than I do).  The bomber is himself killed, and Essex appropriates items from the corpse, including a hit list.  He pretends to be the dead man (hmm, like Jack Nicholson in The Passenger, 1975) in an attempt to find out what the hell’s going on.  He’s not the only one.

One of the things you learn watching science fiction is that cheesiness is not deadly to the genre, in fact, a layer of cheese can be great for the recipe (for an example, see the disturbing snow film The Colony).  What’s fatal to sci-fi is pretentiousness.  Maybe this is because science fiction grows out of ideas, about human beings and where we’re headed, in other words, science fiction tends toward pretense.  The sci-fi filmmaker needs to get busy grounding things, or else.
Robert Altman, director and co-writer of Quintet, did not understand this, in fact his film is even more portentous than his snow-Western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (the films are vaguely similar).  Quintet is one of a number of 1970s films inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, which set an infelicitous vogue for alienated men struggling to care amidst futuristic entropy.  Most of these films merely demonstrate there was only one Stanley Kubrick: The Andromeda Strain, THX 1138, Silent Running, Soylent Green, Zardoz, Rollerball.  (Using a game as metaphor for our meaningless power plays recalls Last Year at Marienbad, another inimitable work.)

Like that cycle, and like the chilly Star Trek--The Motion Picture, The Thing, and The Big Chill, Quintet echos the sorrow of baby boomers as the hopefulness of the 1960s froze and shattered.  At one point, Andersson cries as she cuddles with Newman, helpfully pointing out that the intimacy “makes me think of the past, of what we’ve lost.”  Later, she notes that Essex still has hope, “like a little child.” 

All of this might have been fine if the film had distracted us with an actual plot and characters, like John Carpenter’s The Thing.  Unfortunately, we get little of either, in favor of much walking about in the snow, guarded questions and halfhearted threats between the game’s opponents, and people warming hands by fires (some even stick gloved hands into the fire: See how callous they've become!).

And by the way, even given the whole ice age thing, why is it just as cold inside as outside (judging from visible breath)?  That’s not just symbolic, it’s a good way to freeze to death.

Over the decades I’ve watched this film two or three times now, and seeing the name Fernando Rey in the end credits, I realized why.  I was weaned on Harlan Ellison’s non-fiction screeds about benighted Hollywood; Ellison was always ranting about how science fiction and fantasy should be treated as any other art form.  In fact, Ellison once dropped a fictional sci-fi movie into one of his stories, an adaptation starring, if I recall, Franchot Tone.  Or was it Fernando Rey?

That’s what Quintet is, an attempt at a sci-fi art film.  I keep returning to it because I want to believe any post-apocalypse drama, filmed by Robert Altman in the 1970s with a world-class cast, is some kind of lost gem.  It's not.  However, the snow and ice are pretty.

this blog post is part of the Nature's Fury blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis!