Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 1: Robert Altman's "Quintet"

Ever since my little experiment of blogging every time I watched a movie ended, this blog has been in serious danger of dying out. I knew that one way to inspire me to keep going would be to think up some sort of gimmick or hook for a regular series of posts. So I had this idea where I would watch the worst movies by some of my favorite directors and write about them. It seems worth trying to figure out why a great director might turn out a pile of shit from time to time... try to analyze what it is about their films that usually works, and why it didn't happen this time.

I have set a few ground rules for myself. The movie can't be a good or mediocre movie that pales in comparison to the rest of the director's work; it has to be legitimately bad. And early movies by a director, especially first movies and low budget movies, shouldn't be considered, it wouldn't be fair. A shitty movie should only count once the director had already established himself as a great filmmaker. We shouldn't penalize them for making crap when they were a rookie.

Some of the movies I have on my list are films I've already seen in the past and can vouch for as sucking, but I figured I'd start by trying a film I hadn't seen before: Robert Altman's universally derided Quintet. Altman made, oh, I'd say about 80 bajillion movies in his nearly 40 year career, so when I tell you that Quintet is one of his only movies with nearly a undisputed reputation for sucking ass, that's saying something both about the quality of his filmography and of the unique terribleness of Quintet. Maybe O.C. and Stiggs comes close in reputation, but it's too silly and inconsequential to generate much ire.

Altman, as I've pointed out on my blog before, is the kind of director where I don't necessarily have a lot of favorite individual films of his. It's his filmography as a whole that means a lot to me. Taken individually, he made some excellent movies. Taken together, he created a large body of work with a consistent style and point-of-view that was powerful and unique and had a lot to say about life and human nature. What I'm saying is, Nashville is a great movie, but it's even better when you've seen Short Cuts and California Split and Images and a bunch of other Altman movies.

Altman was a genius at making movies that, while not realistic per se, uncannily captured the messiness of normal life. He liked large casts and tended to downplay plot in favor of character. He's famous, of course, for the overlapping dialogue in his films... instead of everyone talking in turn, he encouraged his actors to improvise and talk over each other, kinda like the way real people talk in real life. It's a style that can be a little off-putting at first, but is so full of life and seemingly spontaneous that it becomes very rewarding once you learn to "read" it.

As a result of this style, Altman's movies tend to improve upon multiple viewings... you catch a lot more detail, catch a lot of things you missed, come to a better understanding of all the characters and how their sometimes seemingly unrelated stories relate to each other. If I'm making Altman movies sound like a chore, I apologize. They are usually entertaining and very funny. Even some of his more difficult films, like Three Women, contain a lot of laughs.

Another thing Altman had a lot of fun with was working in established genres, and then subverting them to fit his own unique style. He's done western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), detective movie (The Long Goodbye), war movie (MASH), shitty teen comedy (OC and Stiggs) and plenty more. Quintet marks Altman's foray into post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller territory. Which, the more I think about it, has to be about the worst pairing of director and genre possible.
Quintet is set at an unknown point in the future, where apparently a new ice age has set in, and most of mankind has died out. Earth is a pitiless, barren wasteland now, cold and dead, covered in snow, with packs of wild dogs stalking around everywhere munching on the corpses they come across. Paul Newman plays Essex, some dude wandering across the wasteland with his pregnant wife. They reach a large encampment of people in a broken down convention center or something, sort of a make-shift city, where Essex's brother lives, looking for a place to stay.

Turns out that everyone in this "city" is obsessed with a strange board game called Quintet. I'm not clear on the rules (more about that later) but the object of the game is to team up with players to "kill" the other players, and then alliances shift depending on who is dead and who is alive, until one player remains. Anyway, Essex and his wife are barely in town for 5 minutes when he goes for a walk, and someone throws a pipebomb into his brother's hovel, killing everyone inside. So Essex goes looking for revenge, and finds that the inhabitants of this city may be playing some sort of real life version of Quintet, where the object is to actually murder the other players. What ensues is a joyless, slow-paced film that is ugly to look at and hard to follow.

Where to begin... I'm looking over my notes I took while watching Quintet, and I wrote "unrelenting grimness only matched by how unconvincing it all is." This is a miserable fucking movie. The characters are a bunch of vapid, humorless hobos who have nothing to look forward to but their impending death. I understand that's the point, that Altman is trying to paint a bleak portrait of the future, but it was a bad idea for him to tackle this sort of material.

Altman's films are great for being full of life and energy, and for creating a lot of memorable characters that he cuts loose and lets bounce of each other. They have a hang-out kinda vibe. In Quintet, no one ever cracks a joke (and hardly anyone smiles), no one has any jobs our hobbies outside of Quintet, no one has any memorable character traits, and no one says any dialogue of interest. The movie even makes Paul Newman seem completely lacking in charm. Paul fucking Newman, the guy in Hud who played a drunken, violent, abusive, loudmouth asshole and you still kind of liked him.

I have to say, making Newman seem boring and unlikable is by far Quintet's most impressive accomplishment.

I don't object to Altman trying to make a dark and serious film, but this kind of misery isn't his bag. Three Women is another film of his that tries to make you anxious and unnerved, but Altman still allows the characters to be quirky individuals, and works in a lot of strange humor. Just a little bit of that vitality might have helped made Quintet less dreadfully boring.

Matching the film's lack of human warmth is its equally off-putting visual style. Altman's style is usually consistent from film to film, i.e. how he moves his camera, his frequent use of zooms and telephoto lenses. The level of polish/prettiness can vary, usually depending on what cinematographer he's working with. So it's not too surprising when one of his movies looks a little rougher around the edges. Hell, in a lot of his films, it actually works as an effective aesthetic quality. Quintet opens with a long scene of two figures walking across a frozen field, and I noticed that the frame was soft and blurry around all the edges. Sort of like how a dream sequence or fantasy will look in some movies. I wondered why he chose to film the opening like this, and if he was going to shoot all the outdoor scenes this way, perhaps in some sort of attempt to make it look more bleak outside. It only slowly started to sink in, as the movie progressed, that the entire film, every single damn shot, would be filmed with blurry edges. Just try to imagine an entire movie that looks like a dream sequence. It doesn't add any atmosphere, it only serves as a constant distraction.

That's not the only place where Altman fucks up bad. Since the movie is about murder and intrigue, there's a certain amount of action and hypothetical suspense figured in to the plot. Problem is, Altman can't direct an action scene to save his life. If you've seen some of his movies, you know that he has a fondness for filming things zoomed in from far away, with a relatively stable camera. There is a chase scene in Quintet, shot from afar, where nothing happens except Paul Newman follows a dude down some stairs. He doesn't even really run; I guess he walks faster than usual. Wow, be still my heart. Even worse, during a climactic battle near the end of Quintet, I'm pretty sure one dude trips, falls off a hill and dies. It's like Altman wasn't even trying to make it worth watching. (Or as I put it in my notes, "Altman isn't good at action... did one dude just trip and die?!" I could barely believe what I was seeing.)

None of this is helped by the fact that I couldn't make heads or tails of the plot. Most crucially, it's never clearly explained to the audience what the rules of Quintet are. There's all sorts of double-crosses and twists and turns that I couldn't fathom because I had no idea how the game worked. The surprises aren't surprising because you don't comprehend what they mean. I was convinced after seeing the movie that this must have been intentional, that Quintet was, by design of the filmmkaers, a game that made no sense. It helped underscore the film's bleak, nihilist tone in which death is cruel and meaningless. A character even says "death is arbitrary" at one point, maybe more than once. A game with rules the audience can't comprehend could be metaphor for life, or something. Then I watched the DVD making-of documentary, and it turns out that Altman and the cast and crew actually made up rules to the game and used to play it on set a lot for fun. Now I have no idea what the fuck to think.

There's also some sort of returning image/metaphor of a flying goose. And at the end Essex goes into a moral outrage at the guy running Quintet (but doesn't kill him, even though Essex already killed several other people). I have no idea what this movie is supposed to be about. Essex leaves the city and returns to the wasteland at the end... but what is he rejecting? Death? Society? The loss of hope? Just Quintet itself? I couldn't tell you.

Not only is this truly a shitty movie by a great director, it doesn't even seem recognizable as the work of a talented filmmaker. It's not a movie that seems brilliant but misguided. It's not the work of an artist compromised by a studio. It is just a thoroughly awful movie. Great directors make bad movies some times, but usually you can still see the talent behind the camera. For example, Altman's crappy OC and Stiggs has an amusing subversiveness to it, because he was trying to criticize a genre of film he hated. If someone who had never seen an Altman film before watched Quintet, they would have no idea that he was capable of making great movies, and in fact would probably never want to see anything by him again.

A while back, my friend Patrick and I got extremely intoxicated and watched a Jean Claude Van Damme movie called Knock-Off. It contains a scene where Van Damme and Rob Schneider participate in a rickshaw race, filmed as an intense action scene, where Van Dame runs so hard his shoes explode and also at one point Schneider whips Van Damme in the ass with a living eel to make him run faster. I had to watch it again the next morning because I couldn't believe I had actually seen it. And that's what I felt watching Quintet: disbelief. I can't believe I'm watching Paul Newman wear some goofy oversized coat, while carrying his wife's corpse over to a river and dropping it in, while hungry dogs follow him around, in a movie set during a new ice age where people play some sort of board game where they kill each other. How did this movie ever get made?

NEXT UP: John Carpenter's The Fog


Shenan said...

hahaha when i saw you talking about some of his films being "rough around the edges" my immediate thought was "not this one! this one's the opposite around the edges!"

and then you went on to talk about that. i didn't know if that pun was intentional or not though (i thought not, so i thought i'd alert you to it).

Shenan said...

and by that i meant "soft around the edges". literally. blurry and soft. since "soft" is the opposite of "rough". which apparently was soooo confusing.

Dan said...

yeah, well, good job with the clever wordplay, Ms. Poet. You'll go far with gems like that.

Shenan said...

you're the one with the wordplay! albeit unintentionally.

Andy said...

Ugh, this movie sounds unwatchable.

Dan said...

It's strangely watchable in a "I don't understand what I'm seeing/I can't believe someone spent money on this" kind of way.

Patrick said...

I applaud you taking the hit for the rest of us with this feature.
I was thinking about our earlier talk and Scorcese definately deserves some sort of mention as the only filmmaker who has a wide body of work and no real stinkers. "Quintet" sounds bad in the Huey Lewis sense but the rest of Altman's stuff makes up for it several times over. If someone like with as many films as Malick or Kubrick made a huge stinker it would be more well known and at least people like Altman and Allen can have a bad film not be remembered as much because they have so many films in the brilliant to ok range.

Dan said...

It's true. As bad as this film is, it's such a small blemish on a large body of work that it hardly counts.

Fred Topel said...

Funny to see you profile this movie, dated about a year ago. I just watched it in my continuing interest in post-apocalyptic thrillers. I'd never heard of it and when I saw Paul Newman, Robert Altman, post-apocalyptic, I thought, "Holy shit! Altman made a post-apocalyptic movie and Newman starred in it? How did I never hear of this? It must be terrible, but I've got to see it."

You were indeed correct, but I guess I used deductive reasoning beforehand to manage my expectations. This does make me curious about OC and Stiggs.

Dan said...


Thank you for your kind words on various "Shitty Movies" posts last night. I was never really satisfied with how any of these posts came out, which is why I stopped writing them after only 4 installments. I appreciate you taking the time to read them, especially considering that my audience here mainly consists of my girlfriend and my little brother. I hope you found them at least semi-coherent.

I hope you check back here soon, because I have a new post I'm hoping to put up in the new few days that I think has potential to be cool if I don't fuck it up. It's different than anything I've tried on my blog before, and if it turns out good I might try to make it a series.

Also, unless I'm missing something, you should open your website up to comments. I wanted to comment on your review of The Last Exorcism but wasn't able to do so.