Sunday, September 11, 2005

IMAGES (1972) and QUINTET (1979) -
Robert Altman

This weekend’s final two Altman viewings have taught me two definitive lessons: Altman can’t do Polanski, and Altman REALLY can’t do post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

Not that I ever in a million years thought he’d be interested in doing either. Both of these movies stand out as singularly strange in the Altman canon. It’s as if he’s trying to shed his cinematic skin in both, in terms of directorial style and subject matter. When some directors take this curveball approach, it makes for an interesting change of pace (i.e., Scorsese’s Age of Innocence or even Linklater with the kiddie-friendly School of Rock). Not so for Altman in this case. If Images is a strikeout, then the atrocious Quintet is Altman arriving to the wrong ball park all together.
 
Images, in a nut shell, is about the schizophrenic breakdown of a woman writer of children’s books. It’s Altman channeling Polanski in his Repulsion / The Tenant days but without the psychological menace. After receiving a phone call one night from an unidentified woman telling her that her husband is having an affair, the lead (Susannah York) begins having trouble with reality, seeing her own self from afar (outer body experience style) then later seeing her husband as one of several lovers she’s had in the past. The problem is she can no longer distinguish between who is the real her, her real husband, and which are just mental projections.
 
So what’s a girl to do? Basically, she starts murdering them all. But wouldn’t you know it? You go around killing mental projections and eventually one of them is going to turn out to be the real thing. Figuring out what is real and what’s not makes for a bit of fun for awhile, and the British countryside shooting does add some nice texture. But it’s not enough to keep you enthralled or even really that appalled, though the uselessly recurring image of crystal wind chimes and the screechy overbearing John Williams score did stretch my patience pretty thin.
 
Quintet is another matter all together. Its reaches, dare I say, Prêt-à-Porter levels of badness and possibly even exceeds them.
 
The setting is a post apocalyptic ice world (i.e., Canada and the 20th Century Fox lot) where the only thing left to do is play an inscrutable board game called Quintet. As far as I can tell, it's some kind of high-stakes version of Yahtzee and Dungeons and Dragons but with a real body count. Poor Paul Newman, decked out in Eskimo parkas and a very silly fur cap, trudges around the snow for two hours trying to figure out the rules of the game (and how he got suckered into this movie most likely) and, I think, looking for his murdered brother. Oh yes, Fernando Rey also makes an appearance as The Judge who presides over the game in a very god-like way, along with a few Bergman stalwarts.
 
Altman doesn’t bother to set up the world other than a few shots of frozen tundra. Nor does he bother to set up the titular game other than some vague philosophizing (game as metaphor for life, yadda yadda) and some shots of very hi-falutin’ looking dice. But what bothered me the most is…if everything here is frozen over, what do these people eat? I know for sure what the packs of wild dogs (there are lots of them) running through the background shots eat -- namely the humans who are murdered in “the game.” But other than vague mention of Newman’s unsuccessful seal-hunting and a few stashed bottles of whiskey, I have no idea what these people subsist on. I guess they just LIVE FOR THE GAME.
 
Yawn…I’ll take Thunderdome over this place any day.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

I must have been in a forgiving mood when I saw Images. Somehow the "this makes no sense!" aspect worked for me. I was giving Altman the benefit of the doubt -- that he was subverting the usual movie trope of the audience seeing what the crazy person sees -- and no one believing her (or us). What I wrote (at the time) was this:

Images (1972), Robert Altman, B
A pretentious jumble, but as pretentious jumbles go this is a good one. Not very "Altman-esque" -- imagine if a disciple of Antonioni decided to film one of Polanski's classic descent-into-madness films. The meta-lesson of this film, I suppose, is that if you want to see the world through the eyes of a true schizo, the movie wouldn't make any sense -- and probably be aggravating. And it is. Worth checking out. [end quote]

As far as Quintet is concerned I COMPLETELY agree. My comments went thusly:

Quintet (1979), Robert Altman, F
Insufferable. One of the worst films I've ever seen. I like slow movies. I even like the occasional movie where you have no idea what is going on. But I don't like slow movies where you don't know what's going on that look like shit! Last Year At Marienbad at least has gorgeous photography. Quintet is blurry. I'm not kidding. The whole film has an irised out-of-focus effect happening. I kept wiping my glasses! Another annoying thing is that when you read the blurb it sounds interesting -- at least interesting enough for an episode of "Star Trek." (The idea is, basically, a post-apocalyptic world where the surviving citzenry are so bored they play a board game with lethal stakes for entertainment.) It's basically Mad Max or Rollerball but with no intelligence or energy. Seriously, 24 minutes passed before anything resembling an introduction happened. I'm sure that there just wasn't enough footage to make this feature length so they had to use every shot they had. There're long takes of people walking walking walking, then speaking some pseudo-intellectual dialogue, then more walking. Altman must've been in the depths of drug addiction when he made this. I almost wish you do see this picture, just so you can see how bad it is. Paul Newman better've been paid well to besmirch his good name on this one. [end quote]

What's funny is that if you head over to the imdb you'll actually find a few defenders of Quintet