Friday, January 14, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#14) Robert Altman's QUINTET

(Note to any of you fellow Netflix-Streaming people who might be curious to watch this and then wonder 'what is with that foggy or soft stuff on the side of the frames of most of the shots?'  As I can confirm with the guys over at the trustworthy DVD Beaver, this is intentional and to the specifications Altman intended... yep).

You can tell already it's bleak as his blue eyes have gone gray.
Robert Altman doesn't want you to have a "good time" like you might in another quasi-science-fiction post apocalytic (or just post-civilization) movie.  It takes place on an icy exterior, but it's not The Empire Strikes Back's Hoth, nor is it even John Carpenter's The Thing.  His film, which he originated as co-writer through his cool late 70's deal at Fox and his Lion's Gate films (no relation to the now standard Hollywood production company), is so cold and brutal a view of humanity, so violent and without hope - which at one point someone refers to bluntly as an "obsolete word" in this context- that it makes Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem positively dandy by comparison.  Hell, this even has the balls to kill off a main character, or one we think might be a central character, half an hour through the movie!  At least Hitchcock waited forty-five, fifty minutes to kill off his star in Psycho.

"No Dogs Allowed" "... Oh really?"
I try to grasp at straws to find a comparison because, warts and all, this is a unique motion picture experience.  It's a vision from someone who wants to break some ground, to push the medium just a little more forward if only in the sense of how a place feels, how the music is laid with such a harsh force, and how characters behave in decent or evil ways.  The sets are also fascinating to look at, loaded with iron and crude neo-industrial walls and floors, a dirty white like the slush that is unfortunately all over the streets and cars in our areas in winter, and the people walking around are in parkas but also hats that seem like over-done pita-bread shaped domes.  And of course there's that game of the title, Quintet, which is like craps meets Risk (lots of talk of domination and death and conquering, but with dice and a few pieces of rock and crab-shell or other).

It is something adventurous and strange, which I can always get behind, but Altman's problems are two-fold: first, his world is obtuse, with only such limited context that the viewer is forced to immediately understand the grim stakes at hand.   I appreciate that a director doesn't want to coddle the audience with something so quickly understood, but Altman goes the opposite, extreme approach.  I wasn't even sure if it was a post-apocalyptic or post-something or close-to-sci-fi movie (maybe more of a sci-parable?) until quite a ways into the movie, with the only initial hint of despair at the very rare sight of a Canadian Swan in the sky flying north.  And the game itself doesn't need to be completely explained, sure, but at least a hint of what it's main thing is all about.

Uh... yeah I don't get it either
I seem to not be saying what the plot is.  Frankly, it's thin.  What I could gather is that Essex (Paul Newman), a former seal hunter, and his wife are going through the tundra of Nowhere's-Land to find Essex's brother.  They do, but then in the midst of a game of Quintet the place is bombed and his wife is killed (and herself with a very rare with-child!), and after a very moving scene where Essex takes his wife away to a frozen river to drift away (for a reason I'll get to in a moment), he goes to a nearby "hotel" of sorts that has a "casino" (must use quotes) to find something about how this happened, or qhat this more intricate Quintet game is all about.  What he doesn't know is that a few devious masterminds have it to make the game into reality: real people in a game of life and death (mostly the latter), and usually by surprise at night.

In a sense the plot of this movie could be captivating, or in a studio hack's possession kind of silly or trying-to-be-edgy.  I can definitely hand Altman this, the movie has edge, enough to make one wince.  It's also confused in how it shows us this world; the director goes back, I guess, to the soft-focus kind of look he used so well (and not quite as much) in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a lens effect or slide of some sort that makes the sides of the frames fuzzy.  I can only speculate why he chose to do this: maybe to attain some kind of reverence in this world, or sadness, or of something that was lost, or ironically it being set in some unknowable future a sense of timelessness.  Whatever way it was it just gets distracting to have there.  Only the close-ups, on the likes of Newman and Ingmar Bergman regular Bibi Andersson, seem to lack this effect.

Where's a sexually charged monologue when you really need it?

The other issue is how bleak it is, how relentlessly so, and how it takes itself so goddamn seriously.  This... I didn't have as much of an issue with as I thought, or that I could have expected from the reviews.  I was more annoyed- or I should say, sometimes, just bored- by how Altman doled out the information of the text of the movie.  That is to say characters speaking in platitudes interspersed with scenes of graphic violence (mostly throat-cutting and stabbings by large knives and swords), and punctuated by a similarly jagged score by Tom Pierson.  It is haunting and effective in some parts, and in others like when a character is simply walking around it gets overbearing.

But there are a couple of other aspects that did keep me interested, at least on the whole.  One of these is, naturally, its star Newman, who is able to be there as one channel (or the only one) for the audience to view in on this world; since he's perhaps the only character without his head far up his ass or possibly conspiring for murder outright, he has some semblance of sanity to him, albeit fogged up by one person in a scene pontificating about the "unknowables" or something like it.  But he can hold his own in the role, and it helps, even as he, like us, is perplexed by what he sees.  The other thing are the dogs; like vultures they're the scavengers, the ones in the cast who don't beat around the bush, especially with so many frozen carcasses piling up in the paths and interiors of this world.  They're a fine, dark motif to have in a film that's metee is desolation.

I'm contemplating a 'brrr'.  

So, Quintet isn't much fun, and you may curse Altman for even attempting the project to start with once its two long hours are over.  I can't be dismissive of such a work that has an artist trying to show us something different and odd, possibly innovative in a run-down lived-in Alien-era sort of way, and with a sincerity and style that can be thought provoking and (on occasion) emotionally gripping, mostly thanks to a few key moments with Newman and Andersson.  Yet I also understand where its derisive reputation comes from: it's a work that veers, or steps right over the bright yellow line, of pretention and doesn't give a shit to come back.  As it's a work more about how characters are about in this world than the story itself, it's a tough nut to crack.  It's like a brooding, intelligent 16-year old who has a real gift of drawing, but it's all too grim and gruesome and hard to reach.

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