Altman’s Quintet (1979) / Reel Paradise

Trying desperately to throw a couple of new things up here so that anyone can pipe in with things they’ve seen of late. I had low hopes for Quintet and high hopes for Reel Paradise, but neither one really met with my expectations.

I had never heard of Quintet. But geez – a late ’70s Altman sci-fi film starring Paul Newman? And featuring a macarbe version of backgammon in Earth’s “Last ice age”? Well, sign me up! This ddoes after all involve many of my favorite things: Paul Newman, backgammon (macabre backgammon no less), wild dogs, ruined relics of World’s Fairs past, Altman, and late 70s sci-fi. What could go wrong?

Well, there’s not really anything remarkable about the film except for it’s rather incredible failures, and the sheer enormous quantity of them. There’s a valiant attempt to make a film about nuclear winter and the decadence that comes along with hopelessness. The things was shot in Montreal, mostly among the abandoned 1967 World Expo, which was then sprayed with water each night and allowed to freeze. So you get a lot of weird design elements that have nothing to do with the movie or plot – and that’s good. Except it still didn’t look that good. I didn’t know while watching it that it was filmed there, and I thought the set had a nice retro-future style – that is the future as imagined by The Jetsons, Monsanto and people who weren’t quite good enough to get hired by Disney. OK, I’ll say it – the future as imagined by Canadians. But if this was made in the late 70s, why on earth would it have been done like that? Well it was there and it was cold, so it suited Altman’s needs. I found out what it was when the film was over and immediately had more respect for it, but that doesn’t really help it in the film.

There’s also a tremendous slowness in the character’s movements. This is supposed to be a thriller with several murders and a couple of chases, but “chase” is not the right word to use when shuffling along at a snail’s pace. (Remember the zombies in Kids in the Hall? It’s like that, but slower) Again, after the movie was over and watching some bonus features I learned that the constant icing of the set and the huge coats everyone had to wear made speed dangerous if not flat out impossible. More fun: Newman is about the only native English speaker inthe film. The others are perectly understandable, but they seem to put stress on completely random words. It happened so much I couldn’t help thinking it must have been intentional; Altman’s choice. No, I just don’t think they knew which words to stress in any given line of dialogue.

More fun: The lens is gelled and completely out of focus all the way around the frame. Not just in some scenes, but all of them. Close-ups, long shots, tracking shots…

A pack of dogs is constantly eating the dead bodies no one can be bothered to clean up. Apparently in the future all dogs will be rottweilers.

Paul Newman seems completely lost, as if hoping someone would take his hand and lead him away from all of this.

The script is a mess. Reallly unworthy of Altman.

Worst of all, the backgammon game is trite, never explained. Its hold on the characters seems so unlikely , especially when considering Altman, himself a compulsive gambler who made one of the greatest movies about gambling ever only a few years earlier. Are there any good backgammon scenes in movies? Of course Octopussy, playing against the suave Louis Jourdan, but whlie both actors are in top form, the whole loaded dice trick is lame, and they never show the board. Most documentaries about Hugh Hefner at least acknowledge his love of the game, and a couple of characters play it briefly in Metropolitan. Are there others?

But you know – I watched this whole thing in one sitting. Something about it kept me trudging through, like a tightly wrapped Paul Newman slowly scaling a snow drift.

Meanwhile, Reel Paradise follows the last month of indie film producer Chalky White spending a year on a remote island in Fiji where he runs a movie theater, shows free films, has an obnoxious daughter and son, a wife, gets robbed, and is generally a portrait of an ugly American. Pity poor Steve James who got roped into directing this. Well, you can’t get lucky enough to come across a story like Stevie every time out. This wasn’t awful, and Dayna liked it a little more than I, but there really wasn’t a lot of point to what they were doing. And while the movie guy had some valid points in his fight with the local church, they actually had some points too… What I learned is that the Fijians would have been better off without both the church AND the free movies.

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Mark Mauer likes movies cuz the pictures move, and the screen talks like it's people. He once watched Tales from the Gilmli Hostpial three times in a single night, and is amazed DeNiro made good movies throughout the 80s, only to screw it all up in the 90s and beyond. He has met both Udo Kier and Werner Herzog, and he knows an Irishman who can quote at length from the autobiography of Klaus Kinksi.

2 thoughts on “Altman’s Quintet (1979) / Reel Paradise”

  1. Way way back (now listen up, Sherman), when I was an undergrad trying to concoct a reasonable excuse for a year-long senior project where I watched a lot of movies, I was pushed toward studying one director’s entire oeuvre, and I got the idea that, rather than rehashing stuff about their “masterpieces,” I’d zero in on their forgotten, excluded, neglected, hated works. A few names were on my list, and I started jumping around in their stuff, and Altman was very, very close to being my choice… until I watched Quintet. Its failings, as I recall (and Mark’s post vividly recreated it all), made me question how the hell I could do my project.

    That said, it–and a few other really damn interesting messes Altman made, like the Buffalo Bill movie and his lousy Fool for Love, suggest something perhaps more dangerous and daring about him as a filmmaker. Unlike other “big” names, he pretty much thrived on finding projects that challenged preconceptions. And just trying to wade through Altman’s set of works was… well, an astonishing and arduous task.

    I like the backgammon motif in Fortress Distress, where in some far-future political prisoners play backgammon for their lives, with pieces that fly through the air and slice them to slivers. Steve Railsback was in it, I think, and Slim Pickens.

  2. I saw Quintet once (in the cinema!) and didn’t know what the hell was going on. I confuse it with the musical version of Lost Horizon (only without the utopic greenspace where no one grows old).

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