' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Quintet (1979)

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Quintet (1979)

"Quintet", Robert Altman's strange slog into a chilly hell scape, takes its name from the board game that in this movie's world apparently is just the cat's pajamas. The specifics of the game, aside from its five players (and sometimes six), pentagonal shaped board and game pieces that look like Monopoly game pieces designed by Carlo Rambaldi, are never really addressed and hardly the point. The point, after all, is that the game engenders a will to live in the face of a futuristic age where a nuclear catastrophe of one kind or another has unleashed another ice age forcing everyone to bundle up everywhere all the time.


This is not my thesis, mind you, but the movie's, which is explained in great detail in a monologue because "Quintet" is the sort of movie completely incapable of communicating what it's about without someone simply standing there and telling you. And its ultimate significance, really, is hardly any different from that episode of the American "Office" in which Steve Carrell's office manager Michael Scott forces his employees to play a murder mystery role playing game to distract from the rumors that their company, suffering from financial trouble, is about to be bought out. That episode was less unconventional than "Quintet", sure, but also more coherent and entertaining, choosing enjoyable sense over two hours of absurdly tedious ersatz expressionism.

Paul Newman plays Essex, returning to the northern city of his youth with his pregnant gal Viva in tow. In the city he finds his brother, Francha (Thomas Hill), who is also a game player. Essex, however, a hardened seal hunter (!!!!!), can hardly stand this life of leisure and goes out looking for work. But the minute he does, Francha's  place is bombed, killing him and Viva and Viva's baby. Essex immediately takes up their cause and instantly finds a list with ornately scrawled names that is a clue so loud and obvious that Frank and Joe Hardy would have demanded a re-write. Nevertheless, Essex becomes a wintry gumshoe, discovering the bomber is a guy conspicuously named St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), which, of course, means the "Christ-bearer", and in this case the "Christ-bearer" leads Essex not to Christ but to an understanding of existence's inherent existentialism, or thereabouts, leading our faux-detective to the Hotel Electra where "the game" will become the explanation.

The cinematography blurs the edges of each frame, eliciting the sensation that you are watching through a frosted mug, the goings-on shot on a leftover Krypton set from "Superman: The Movie", apparently. "Quintet" is a peculiar hybrid, like "Blade Runner" set on Hoth but with everyone dressed and speaking as if it's "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery." And Paul Newman, forced to follow an inexplicable trail to avenge his brother and lover, is shockingly devoid of emotion toward the loss of his loved ones, though maybe that's just the cold; it's hard to harbor a genuine grudge, man, when you're freezing your ass off. "Do you still have hope?" Essex is asked, and I suppose he does, but more often than not Newman seems entirely devoid of any, just trying to solve this crime so the credits can blessedly roll.

To help maintain my attention throughout this snowbound grind I kept imagining the look on Joanne Woodward's face during the "Quintet" premiere. "What the f***?" she probably thought with a face mired in confusion. It probably looked no different than her husband's positively priceless expression of awe-inspiring bewilderment when his character wanders into the middle of some sort of keynote address where a grandiose dude is laying out civilization's ethos. "You have been taught that the universe has but five sides and that life has but five stages," he explains. "But this is not accurate, for five sides demand a sixth space, a center, and that is what you have to look forward to." What is the sixth space, you wonder? He answers. "It's empty. It's blackness." It's "Quintet."

"How did I end up in this movie again?"

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