Give the man his lifetime achievement Oscar next Sunday. And before Robert Altman goes up to the podium and says whatever wonderful thing he will say (the part of the Oscar telecast I'm most looking forward to - actually, that and the performance of the pimp song) they will preface his remarks with the big highlight reel of his somewhat brilliant career, which will hopefully include a mysterious shot or two of Paul Newman wearing a big puffy furry hat, surrounded by gigantic icicles like the ones over at Superman's place. Most people will be wondering what the hell movie that's from. Except for you, dear reader. You will now know these are clips from Altman's totally forgotten 1979 sci-fi film, shot in Montreal on the hallowed grounds of Expo '67 - Quintet.
It was a huge bomb when it came out, and was quietly put out on VHS in the eighties by Key Video, a subsidiary of CBS-FOX Home Video that seemed to specialize in video distribution of other 'lost dog' pictures looking for a good home like Michael Ritchie's phenomenal Prime Cut and Richard Brooks' hysterical anti-gambling screed Fever Pitch, with Ryan O'Neal. Quintet is also a sort of gambling picture; the film is named after a strange version of backgammon the dwindling survivors of a new Ice Age play amongst themselves in a forsaken, unnamed and depopulated city - a game where the losers die and the winners live to die another day. They play in a big room with a chandelier hanging above the table and gigantic pictures in the background of starving African children and triumphant athletes that seem to be leftovers from Expo '67 dioramas (it was filmed in the 'Man and His World' pavillion).
I remember there being something vaguely Canadian about the whole movie in fact, though my memories of enduring a screening of this film are dim. I saw it on a crappy VHS tape where the image looked like either vaseline or bong resin had been liberally smeared on the lens, an effect I've since discovered was intentional. But I do remember little bits and pieces about the film, as one would recall a barely-remembered dream - 70's sci-fi production design, pretentious dialogue, heavy-handed symbolism and a stoner's flagrant over-use of the zoom lens. For better or worse, it did approximate what the end of the world would feel like in a sci-fi Canadian nuclear winter, which I think is something of an achievement in itself.
Quintet heralded the oncoming decline of Altman's career - his next film was the notorious misfire Popeye, which of course everyone (especially Robin Williams) makes fun of but I actually think is totally underrated - this mini-run of high-profile flops consigned him to about ten years of low budget stage-to-screen adaptations on the way back to his nineties resurgence.
Quintet is actually being released on DVD by Fox this spring in an Altman box set alongside A Wedding and A Perfect Couple (two similarly obscure late 70s works), with M.A.S.H. thrown in to beef up the sales. Don't know if it will be getting an individual release, though, so a thinking-person's video store might be your best bet to score a viewing copy. It's an endurance test, but also an oddity that really has to be seen to be believed.