Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Quintet, Robert Altman. [B-] march 25th 2009.

Robert Altman's films are generally rooted in the reality of unique environments, which consequently gives them a sort of strange sense of hyperreality. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one such example - a familiar world, the Western, made alien by way of historical accuracy and then inhabited by real-feeling people going through their lives under these curious circumstances. Altman's got an open, seeking eye, and so he's constantly exploring these worlds after they're put together and operational, even though they're already built to his specifications. This sense of reality and openness is what unites his work to me.

The problems with Quintet lie largely in Altman's realization of this post-apocalyptic world. Word is the titular game was fully fleshed out with rules and everything before the film went into production. That level of verisimilitude is appreciated, and needed, for a piece of good sci-fi, but I think Altman may have taken it for granted that he could just create and begin inhabiting a world without explaining himself at all, and I think that's a mistake. Certain things don't require explanation and certain things do. One of the marks of great sci-fi is in the way that it reveals its world to you, not via exposition but through contextual clues, which need to be realistically cued by the demands of the story. The result, when done well, is a feeling of immersion within a different reality.

I get nervous when making assertions like these, because it makes me feel like I'm coming off a certain way - I don't need my hand held the whole way through, I don't need to know everything that's happening as it's happening. Part of the fun of sci-fi and fantasy is when you feel like you're just starting to catch up to the story's world, just beginning to understand a couple things that were throwing you earlier and now here they are, you finally get them, and the extra bits you've received from this information are allowing you to fill in a couple blanks from earlier and so on. By the end, there's always a little blank space left over. That's how it tends to work, and I think that in Quintet this effect is just kind of lost. If that was part of the intent, then maybe I'm just not putting it together, I don't know.

The stuff the film does have going for it: the environment itself, this iced over world so near death that everyone's already more or less called it a day. The act of dying is removed of all ceremony, bodies are simply dumped outside for the dogs. These bands of dogs wander through town looking for food - conversations are sometimes held just a few feet from where they're feasting on a corpse. Everything's fallen apart, the buildings are ruined, people have gone back to primitive living, there seems to be no hope. In this world, everyone's got it so rough there's nothing to look forward to except for Quintet, a board game people play to the death for no reward other than the thrill of playing. The scenario here is win-win.

As far as visions of the catastrophes ahead of us go, that makes Quintet one of the bleaker entries in the annals of post-apocalypse, because unlike most films of its ilk, the focus of its attention isn't on the destruction of the world, and the ongoing survival of the people who continue to exist in its wake, but rather on the destruction of the human spirit. Everyone in this film has completely given up, not just on the prospect of a future for mankind, but on themselves, individually. Even the villains in Mad Max were striving for something, in Quintet almost no-one is. Our hero's greatest victory is in his hopeless denial of this hopelessness - after surviving the senseless game he unwittingly wandered into, he refuses to stay on and keep playing, to accept unilateral defeat: he heads off into the endless tundra. Maybe there's something else to the North.

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