Altman: Quintet (1979)

Quintet is possibly the most critically reviled film of Robert Altman’s entire career, but it’s as much an apotheosis of his 70s style as Nashville, 3 Women or Popeye. It also contains some of the most beautiful set design and art direction of his 70s output, using the snowy final scenes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller as the springboard for a science fiction vision of the future. In the present, futuristic dystopias tend to be organized around global warming, whether consciously or unconsciously, so it’s quite a shift to return to this moment in 70s science fiction when global cooling was the dominant way of figuring global catastrophe. In Altman’s vision, the earth has been reduced to a barren, wintry landscape, devoid of life, navigated by Paul Newman in one of the most beautiful and poised performances of his career. By this stage, the picaresque zaniness of Altman’s earlier films, which was already muted by Nashville and 3 Women, has been entirely expunged, leaving us with the most austere film of Altman’s career, and the real conclusion to his golden period during the 70s.

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We first meet Essex, Newman’s character, travelling across a vast tundra, on his way to a small settlement. This initially seems to suggest some kind of quest, or narrative drive, but it quickly dissipates once we arrive at this provisional settlement, and learn that virtually all cities and social institutions have been destroyed by the extreme cold: “There is no camaraderie anymore – no talk, no exchange of ideas.” All humanist narratives have been exhausted, leaving only Quintet – a game that the few remaining survivors play in order to maintain enough motion and shared body heat to remain alive. Much of Quintet revolves around characters playing Quintet, meaning that the film often plays like California Split in slow motion, and with even more opacity around the way in which the gambling operates.

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Throughout the 70s, Altman often seemed to be yearning for a new kind of cinema – a cinema that was not driven by character, or story, or even setting, but by a collective propulsion and internal momentum. While his films often started with semblances of character, or story, they often expanded into sequences designed to catch and continue this momentum, from car chases to musical renditions to dance performances. For Altman, this was a cinema made for the counterculture, and its collective aspirations, meaning that the decline of the counterculture is often figured, in his work, through the deceleration of this collective propulsion. In a sense, Quintet is the logical endpoint of this process, presenting us with a society in which character and story have been exhausted, leaving only the collective propulsion of Quintet to ward off the extreme cold, and post-apocalyptic anomie.

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It’s appropriate, then, that the game of Quintet is named after a collective musical enterprise, since it is the final destination of the collective spectacles – many of which were musical – that tended to supplant character and story in the latter part of Altman’s films. In Quintet, this collective propulsion is robbed of any world-building qualities, and instead reduced to a purely formal process, a self-sustaining cycle that has engulfed everything else the world might have to offer: “we play – there’s nothing left but the game.” On the surface, Quintet is associated with an arcane mythology, in which survivors are taught that “the universe is bounded by five sides, and that life has five stages.” Yet this mythology serves the game, rather than vice versa, acting as a formal property more than an ideological incentive. Sure enough, we quickly find out that this mythology simply reiterates the emptiness of the world, and the necessity of the game to fill the void, since the “five sides demand a sixth phase – that is what you have to look forward to – its empty, vacant void.”

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As a result, the collective propulsion is both more sluggish and more urgent here than in any other point in Altman’s career. In his earlier films, this collective propulsion generally served a purpose, if only an artistic purpose – whether a musical performance, or a car chase, or a dance sequence – but here is is simply “an interruption of the void preceding and following it.” In part, that’s because Quintet is an act of destruction as much as an act of creation – a necessity for staying alive, but also dependent upon the death of key players at critical moments. In the process, the game forces the collective propulsion of Altman’s earlier films into precisely the creative-destructive tendencies that the counterculture originally perceived in capitalist society, and vowed to define itself against. Watching Quintet is therefore like seeing the demise of the counterculture, and its collective aspirations, played out as science fiction, as the counterculture and the capitalist culture it opposed are converged into an overwhelming awareness of finitude, and a debilitating dearth of futurity.

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While Popeye might mark the conclusion go Altman’s classic period,  Quintet thus feels like the real end. Like so much late 70s science fiction, it’s less a vision of the future than of the foreclosed future within the present. “In a few months,” Essex is told, “all dying will be done,” as posters of the countercultural achievements of the kate twentieth century – civil rights, sexual liberation, pacifism – are used to protect the Quintet “casino” against the cold creeping in from outside. With the countercultural voice exhausted, there’s very little else to say, and most of Altman’s “dialogue,” if it can be called that, is cryptic, chiasmatic and disinterested in communication: “All things of value feed the game – the game is the only thing of value.” Beyond a certain point, only Quintet speaks, displacing Newman from his role in the same way as the brooding presence of Sitting Bull in Buffalo Bill and the Indians.

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The viewer, in turn, is displaced from the visual field of Quintet, which is both more exotic and more circumscribed than any of Altman’s previous films, paving the way for his chamber dramas of the 1980s. Watching it, I realised the extent to which the collective propulsion of his 70s films expands their visual field, ballooning them out into the lengthy running times, crowded spaces and ensemble visions that have become so integral to Altman’s signature. In Quintet, however, it’s very hard to get a hold, visually, on the buildings and spaces Essex traverses, let alone the landscape outside this small provisional settlement. Since the spaces of the film are already displaced from human agency, Altman can’t really displace them with his usual pan-and-zoom approach, forcing him to adopt an even more radical strategy – irising around the corners of the frame, which reduces the visual field by about a third, and gives the impression that the camera is perpetually freezing over, and itself requires the rhythm and huddle of Quintet to avoid succumbing to the cold.

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These limited perspectives also capture the way that the cold hampers Essex’s vision, and the vision of most other people living during this period of extreme global cooling. Most people’s eyes are hemmed in by fur, protecting their face from the icy winds, but also protecting them against the glare of an almost entirely white world. This world is almost too cold to see, so it makes sense that Altman appears to have filmed in on location in subzero circumstances. Everything in his mise-en-scenes is iced over, and the air has the crispness and brittleness that comes with extreme cold, while Newman often seems to be acting in defiance of the cold, continually hunching his body against it and emitting fog with every line he delivers. Along with Quintet, this cold is the real spectacle of the film, seeping its way into everything now that there are no longer enough resources or energy or people to really vivify the few spaces where people still precariously live. As a result, these spaces already feel abandoned, even or especially in the midst of Quintet, evoking a winter that can never really be colonized or assuaged. While there may be no specific scientific discussion, this often plays as an attempt to visualise nuclear winter, especially with the industrial fixtures and Soviet-like industrial décor that continually flickers at the fringes of the film’s tableaux.

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This intensified winter means that Quintet is very quiet compared to the musical extravaganzas of Altman’s previous five films. Nevertheless, it’s one of his most evocative soundscapes, driven by brittle, abrasive noises that capture a degree of cold that exceeds the visual plane – snow crunching, crystal tinkling, glass cracking, and ice perpetually shifting and heaving outside. In combination with the irising, this sound palette creates a prismatic effect, as if the film were being relayed through a kaleidoscope, or snowflake, too fractallated in its complexity to be properly or fully glimpsed by a single viewer. At times, this recalls Bergman’s Silence Trilogy – it makes sense that Bibi Andersson is Newman’s foil – especially the way Bergman introduces sound to texture silence, rather than to alleviate it, much as Quintet itself simply ends up contouring the void, rather than protecting us from it.

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Within that austere audiovisual space, Newman’s star image is even more compromised than in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. For large parts of the film, Essex feels like a part of Quintet, rather than a player of it, gradually suspecting that he may be a pawn in a wider game he can never fully understanding. Since the audience is aligned with Essex, this makes the film itself quite difficult to follow at times, especially during the second half, and yet this never prevents Quintet being fully immersive – it just makes the world that Altman’s describing feel more remote, inscrutable and arcane. Both Quintet and the world it services are opaque, but also full of moments of salience, significance and deliberation that are all the more striking in that their import is rarely clear. At the very moment at which Altman achieves his 70s ideal of a film driven entirely by internal momentum, that momentum becomes purely formal, devoid of the collective aspirations of the counterculture, evoking a world in which everyone is poised and prepped for outcomes that have become irrelevant.  

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Quintet is therefore as much about the past as the future – or about a foreclosed future that complicates Altman’s relationship to the countercultural past. Like Bergman, Quintet feels science fictional and medieval at the same time, as if exposing a deeply atavistic core to the most professedly progressive of Altman’s generational peers. The result is not merely one of Altman’s most atmospheric films, but a high point in 70s science fiction, often recalling the moments just before the discovery of the ship in Alien, along with the bleakest and most melancholy parts of the first Star Wars trilogy. In the final scene, Essex, like McCabe, runs away, although his crisis is even more existential, since in this world running away doesn’t even mean survival: “There is nowhere else to go – searching is pointless, like spending the game in limbo.” As a fire melts and consumes Altman’s camera, the film dissolves in turn, elliptical to the last – and elliptical, like Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Women and 3 Women, in the way that great novels and poems are more often given permission to be elliptical. Taken together, and with Popeye as their epilogue, this quintet of films is possibly Altman’s greatest achievement – testament to the reflexive impotence of the counterculture, which was always, at some level, the main focus and subject of his films.

About Billy Stevenson (666 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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