Awesome Badness: Quintet
Has there ever been a great director who has made as many bad movies as Robert Altman? With a filmography that includes MASH, Short Cuts, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and (my personal favorite) California Split, Altman has guaranteed himself in the pantheon of the greatest American directors of the second half of the twentieth century. With a filmography that also includes Popeye, Pret-a-Porter, The Gingerbread Man, and the mesmerizingly bad Quintet, he's ensured his spot in the pantheon will always come with an asterisk.
The film is set in a post-apocalyptic ice age. Paul Newman plays Essex, a guy trudging through this icy wasteland and encountering a community of people dressed like Eskimos on holiday at a Renaissance Fare. Apparently, nothing has survived whatever caused the ice age except humans and rottweiler dogs. For reasons left to the imagination, the rottweilers are everywhere, and wherever Newman goes, he finds them snacking on the corpses of the dead. When someone dies in the film, they suddenly appear, as if they can sense death or possibly just have gotten very good at learning what a dead body hitting ice sounds like.
The remnants of human civilzation spend their time playing a board game called Quintet. It makes no sense. In the DVD extras, Altman claims to have invented the game (I would have attributed its creation to Alan Smithee if I were him) and that he and the crew would play it on the set during down time. But in the film, the rules are not explained, and the game is impossible to understand. It involves five players seated around a pentagon, each with their own personalized brick a brack, which are the game pieces. There is a limbo, a killing circle, a sixth man, and Lord knows what else. The person who survives the game wins and, of course, in the movie, the characters who play the game are being killed. Ooooh... meta. Unfortunately nobody ever says "We're hunting the most dangerous game...MAN!" The movie would have been a lot cooler if they did.
I had only watched about six minutes of Quintet before I started repeating over and over, "What the hell is going on?" And for the next two hours I kept repeating it (the neighbors had to come over and see if I was ok) while I remained lost in a fog of pretentious post-apocalyptic pomp and circumstance. The whole thing is scored like a bad episode of The Defenders. The edges of the frame are left completely out of focus for the entire film, leaving only the iris in the center clear, meaning watching the movie for any significant length of time can give the viewer a hellacious headache. Plus, Altman devotes long sequences to elaborate chase scenes, except the participants, bundled up and puffier than the Michelin Man, have zero mobility. Plus they're running on ice! It's like a Benny Hill episode without the busty women. The movie makes as much sense as the U.S. tax code.
Movies this bad from directors this good can typically be attributed to one of three factors: a)rampant ego fueled by massive success, b)an ungodly amount of drugs, or c)rampant drug-fueled ego fueled by massive success and equally massive quantities of cocaine. No one could make a movie this bad, this pretentiously, and not be out of their minds on coke or their own popularity. A sign over a character's head at one point reads: "Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." What does that shit even mean!?!
I used to do this column on Movie Poop Shoot called "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly." Quintet would have been a perfect ugly movie. This movie has a face that not even a mother could love she'd turn to the doctor and go "Are you sure it's mine? Can I trade it in for a newer model?"