|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful critic, currently holed up in the wilds of Champaign-Urbana, offers up some lesser-known works from one of America's better-known directors, a couple of double-dips worth your time, a couple of cute girls and the single creepiest movie commercial ever produced.
A few years ago, around the time of the release of Robert Altman’s award-winning “Gosford Park,” I was asked by the usually level-headed people at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the Art Institute in Chicago if I would help program and write the calendar listings for a retrospective of his considerable body of work. I agreed and immediately came up with two brilliant suggestions. The first was to skip showing such well-known and widely-seen titles as “MASH” and “Nashville”–both are great movies, of course, but with so many titles to choose from, I didn’t see the point of running ones that anyone even vaguely interested in such a series would have likely seen numerous times. The second was my insistence that we run both “Quintet,” his decidedly strange 1979 sci-fi allegory and “Popeye,” his wildly misunderstood 1980 musical adaptation of the famous comic strip. My rationales for these two titles were simple. For “Quintet,” I argued that if we were honoring America’s most off-beat and iconoclastic major filmmaker, we should make sure to show his most off-beat and iconoclastic work. With “Popeye,” the basic reason was the fact that my mother really liked the film a lot and would be happy to see it on the big screen again and when she’s happy, I’m happy.<
Strangely enough, the Film Center people did not kick my ass to the curb upon hearing these suggestions. They did wind up showing “MASH” and “Nashville”–after all, they were probably the titles most likely to bring people in–but they did indulge me by agreeing to bring in both “Quintet” and “Popeye” (though the latter was delayed nearly a year because of a ridiculous Catch-22 involving co-producers Disney and Paramount) and allowed them to once again be exposed to audiences who most likely missed them the first time around and who could now see them in the context of his entire career. Interestingly, Fox Home Entertainment seems to have taken the same approach as the Film Center with their new DVD box set “The Robert Altman Collection,” a four-disc set (presumably being released to cash in on both Altman’s recent Lifetime Achievement Oscar and his upcoming “A Prairie Home Companion”) that includes three of Altman’s more obscure titles–yes, including “Qunitet”–anchored by a better-known fourth title that will be more familiar to the average consumer, even if its previous release means that Altman fanatics (who are going to make the majority of the potential audience for this set) are going to be forced to double-dip on a title that they most likely already own in a version superior to the one included here.<
The most familiar title here is his 1970 hit “MASH,” a title that I presume needs no further explanation from me, except to say that it remains as darkly funny and socially relevant today as it did when it was first released (smack dab in the middle of an unpopular war). Next up is “A Wedding,” his genteel 1978 social satire surrounding the clash between two upper-crust families–one which comes from old money while the other is nouveau riche–that are brought together by the title event. Although dismissed at the time as just a minor version of “Nashville” (mostly because the film contains 48 main characters, double the number of characters in the earlier film), it contains some nice moments here and there, a typically eclectic cast (including Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Vittorio Gassman, Lauren Hutton, Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Dooley, Desi Arnaz Jr. and Lillian Gish) and it now plays as an intriguing run-through of ideas that Altman would explore more fully and successfully in “Gosford Park.” Another selection, one of Altman’s most obscure titles–so obscure that I believe this marks its home-video debut in any form–is “A
Perfect Couple,” a low-key and decidedly minor romantic comedy in which a father-dominated Greek classical musician (Paul Dooley) is brought together with a younger rock singer (Marta Heflin) through the then-unique concept of a computer dating service. Although cute enough, this film is slightly hampered by the relative lack of chemistry between the two leads and the fairly dreadful 1970's-era crap-pop soundtrack and should probably only be seen by the most devoted of Altman fans.
As you may have guessed, though, the highlight of this collection–at least from my twisted perspective–is the appearance of “Quintet,” a film that still seems as strange and inexplicable today as it did when it premiered in 1979. A sci-fi allegory set during a time of a new ice age (though Altman has suggested in interviews that it doesn’t necessarily take place on Earth), the film stars Paul Newman as Essex, a seal hunter who, with no more quarry to pursue, returns to the frozen city he left ten years earlier with his pregnant girlfriend Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), only to find the few residents in the grip of a mysterious board game called Quintet. In the game, five players try to kill each other while a sixth is responsible for offering strategic advice to the others (oddly enough, Altman thought that the game would become a big deal and actually put out a version of it with Parker Brothers–when the film fizzled, it was quickly pulled though hard-core fans would go on to make their own boards and pieces and play it using the instructions included in the press kit) and when Essex, though not Vivia, narrowly escapes a bomb blast and finds the corpse of the man responsible, he discovers that some of the people, as a way of staving off the boredom of the waking death that is their lives, have taking to playing the game for real.
While I would be the first to admit that the film is somewhat impenetrable, to put it mildly, the thing that makes “Quintet” such a striking cinematic experience is the way in which Altman so effectively conveys the mood and atmosphere of his frozen wasteland. Shooting mostly in the leftover ruins of Montreal’s Expo ‘67 (at one point, he considered filming it in Chicago), he captures the remains of a once-thriving civilization with just a few shots of abandoned bric-a-brac half-buried in snow and ice. To add to the effect, Altman and cinematographer Jean Boffety came up with the idea putting Vaseline on the outside edges of the camera lenses to create a blurring effect on the edges of the image–an effect that will feel familiar to anyone who has ever stepped from a cold exterior into a warm room while wearing glasses. Also adding a disconcerting edge to the proceedings is Tom Pierson’s odd electronic-based score that adds an extra level of weirdness to the proceedings.
Granted, “Quintet,” perhaps more so than any other Altman film, is not for everyone and it is likely to strike contemporary viewers as being as bizarre and pretentious as it did to many of the few who caught it back in 1979. However, it holds up pretty well today without ever feeling dated and fans of head trips like “PI” and “Primer” might find themselves open to its strange charms. When I had that screening a few years ago, I believe that 23 people were there at the start (considering this was in Chicago in mid-December, I considered the turnout a minor triumph) and 21 remained at the end. Of those who stayed, most thought it was . . .interesting . . .and one or two thought it was pretty damned amazing. Those proportions seem about right.
MASH: Written by Ring Lardner Jr. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall. 1970. Rated R 116 minutes
A WEDDING: Written by John Considine, Patricia Resnick, Allan Nicholls and Robert Altman. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Carol Burnett, Pat McCormick, Mia Farrow, Geraldine Chaplin and Vittorio Gassman. 1978. Rated PG. 125 minutes.
QUINTET: Written by Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman and Patricia Resnick. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Paul Newman, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson, Brigitte Fossey and Nina Van Pallandt. 1979. Rated PG. 118 minutes.
A PERFECT COUPLE: Written by Robert Altman and Allan Nicholls. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Paul Dooley, Marta Heflin, Ted Neeley and Henry Gibson. 1979. Rated PG. 112 Minutes.
A Fox Home Entertainment release. $39.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
AEON FLUX (Paramount Home Video. $29.95): Although the sight of a glammed-up Charlize Theron running around in a tight catsuit is nothing to be sneezed at, even it can’t save this botched live-action version of the beloved MTV cult cartoon series. Although the disc has plenty of extras–including making-of docs and commentaries featuring Theron and the screenwriters–I can only wholeheartedly recommend it to people fascinated with watching promising young directors (in this case, “Girlfight” helmer Karyn Kusama) get ground up in the studio machinery or those with a desire to see Pete Postelthwaite dressed up in a costume that makes him resemble an enormous Hot Pocket.
CASANOVA (Touchstone Home Video. $29.99): I don’t want to suggest that director Lasse Hallstrom may have had the wrong idea in mind when bringing this largely silly version of the life of the world’s greatest lover (enacted her by Heath Ledger, in a performance that was largely ignored amidst all the “Brokeback Mountain” hoopla). However, I can’t be the only person who was disappointed to walk into this movie and discover that, despite the subject and the presence of Sienna Miller and Lena Olin in the cast, the only real amount of flesh on display was supplied by Oliver Platt.
CASUALTIES OF WAR: EXTENDED VERSION (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): After the success of “The Untouchables,” Brian De Palma got the chance to make this long-planned Vietnam project, based on a “New Yorker” piece about a squad that kidnapped, raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl while on patrol and one member’s attempts to bring them to justice. Largely unpopular with audiences and critics when it was released (De Palma’s detractors bitched that he was following the then-popular vogue for Vietnam films while his partisans were put off by the serious tone and relative lack of visual pyrotechnics.) While I wouldn’t rank it among his best, it is one of his most sincere works and Sean Penn is scary as hell as the sergeant behind the crimes. This DVD version is a new cut that adds another five minutes to the running time–while I haven’t seen this version yet, I would hope that someone had the taste to eliminate the insulting framing device that was added before its original 1989 release.
CRUMB (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95): Proving that even art films can muster up some corporate synergy when necessary, Terry Zwigoff’s stunning and heartbreaking 1995 documentary, a penetrating look at the life and work of legendary underground artists R. Crumb, is being released in a deluxe package (featuring commentary from Zwigoff and Roger Ebert) just in time to coincide with the release of Zwigoff’s “Art School Confidential.”
MAGIC (Dark Sky Video. $19.95): I barely remember this weird little 1978 psychological thriller from writer/know-it-all William “Year of the Comet” Goldman and director Richard Attenborough–something about a ventriloquist (Anthony Hopkins) who, on the verge of success, is slowly finding himself becoming mentally dominated by his dummy. What I do remember, however, is the TV commercial (thankfully included here) that consisted of a close-up of the doll reciting a weird poem that ended with the line “Magic is fun–we’re dead!”–with the possible exception of the teaser trailer for “The Shining” (the one with the blood pouring out of the elevator), this remains arguably the single creepiest movie ad that I have ever seen and it is still pretty freaky to watch today.
THE PASSENGER (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Michaelangelo Antonioni’s legendary 1975 head trip–in which a disaffected journalist (Jack Nicholson) abandons his life and assumes the identity of the dead man in the hotel room next to his with unexpected results–finally makes a home-video appearance in the form that it was intended, uncut and in all its wide-screen glory. (An early pan-and-scan videotape version was so awful that it served as a quintessential argument against the practice.) Nicholson, who owns the rights to the film and who mysteriously kept it out of distribution for years, makes a rare appearance on a commentary track to discuss the film and working with Antonioni.
SHOPGIRL (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.95): Although perhaps a little too fussy and well-mannered for its own good–at times, it feels like Anand Tucker is trying to hard to approximate the feel of a Wes Anderson film–this adaptation of Steve Martin’s acclaimed novella about a young glove saleswoman (Claire Danes) torn between a wealthy-but-aloof older man (Martin) and a poor goofball (Jason Schwartzman) does have the considerable virtues of a literate script from Martin (whose work here as a writer and actor is good enough to almost, but not quite, forgive him for those “Cheaper By the Dozen” films) and the best screen work to date from Danes.
TRISTAN & ISOLDE (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.95): If you want to see a film that combines intelligent writing and the ethereal beauty of Sophia Myles, you should wait a couple of weeks for “Art School Confidential” to come out. If, on the other hand, all you want is the beauty of Myles surrounded by a bunch of dopes clanging swords (in some admittedly cool battle scenes staged by director Kevin Reynolds) while looking wildly uncomfortable, this silly romantic epic (in which Myles and co-star James Franco convey all the spark of a box of matches soaked in Fresca) should suit you just fine.
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originally posted: 04/29/06 00:19:17
last updated: 05/05/06 14:10:10