And into the ‘80s, as Altman begins losing his audience (including me…)
Quintet (1979): Quintet is preceded by its terrible reputation; there’s a fairly general consensus that it is not only his worst film (not true—see below) but Paul Newman’s. It is, at first glance, very far outside Altman’s usual style—it’s a kind of oddball post-Ice Age science fiction parable, set in a frozen future where the last remnants of mankind wander around, try not to get eaten by dogs, and play the titular game (which Altman, true to form, never bothers to explain). In its opening scenes, the picture has a stark, striking quality; it’s strange to be this knocked out by an Altman film’s production design, and the clouding at the edge of the frame (every image looks as though the frost has just been wiped from the lens) is a brave and risky choice that I think works. But the dialogue is strangely stilted and formal, and the film’s odd, meandering quality can’t even engage us on the dream-tableaux level of Images and 3 Women (the previous films it most closely mirrors). It’s a real slog, deathly dull, with only occasional flashes of ingenuity. I was with it at the beginning, intrigued, but the dry script and Altman’s surprisingly lifeless direction can’t sustain that initial interest.
REGULARS: Just Newman, whom he had worked with in Buffalo Bill, and Nina Van Pallandt, who appeared in The Long Goodbye, A Wedding, and O.C. and Stiggs.
ALTMAN’S AMERICA: I dunno, there may have been some broad metaphors at work here, but if there were, I missed ‘em.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982): The first of Altman’s many experiments with fusing the theater and the cinema (see Streamers, Secret Honor, Fool for Love), his direction here is deliberately theatrical; he embraces the film’s origins rather than dodging him, using old-fashioned sets and stage lighting effects. The Ingian script is all mirrors and memories, somewhat obviously constructed—everyone gets a secret, everyone gets a monologue, and the big revelation is visible a mile away. But it’s still an awfully good film. Altman’s direction is high-spirited and fast-paced, and he coaxes wonderful performances out of his mostly-female cast. Sandy Dennis (looking like she hasn’t aged a day since That Cold Day in the Park) is magnificent—watch the way she turns to her little laugh to barely conceal pain. Cher is startlingly believable, and Kathy Bates is as wonderful as ever. Hell, even cross-eyed Karen Black is good.
REGULARS: Dennis, Marta Heflin, and Black (who also appeared in Nashville).
ALTMAN’S AMERICA: Not much, aside from the peeling-back of idealized small-town life.
O.C. and Stiggs (1985) Who made the worse choice—the person who thought Altman should helm an ‘80s teen comedy, or Altman, for agreeing? He’s always maintained he took the job so he could make a subversive satire of the genre, but that’s not what he came up with; he came up with a mess. MGM sat on this one for a good two years before barely releasing it to scathing notices in 1987. There have been some revisionist critics who have revisited it and claim it’s actually pretty good. They’re wrong. The cast is filled with interesting character actors in supporting roles (Paul Dooley, Ray Walston, Dennis Hopper, Martin Mull, Jon Cryer, and a ridiculously young Cynthia Nixon), and for the most part, they’re fine—particularly Mull, who is always good at playing wonderfully sleazy. The trouble is the title characters, played by Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry (who?) (exactly). They’re simply unlikable, smarmy little shits who we’re not rooting for and don’t care about. In their close relationship and distaste for authority, they’re clearly meant to be a teenage Hawkeye and Trapper, but they have none of those characters’ charisma (or good lines). They’re also surprisingly homophobic, which doesn’t sit well at all. There are a few good moment here—most of them shout-outs to Altman’s other movies (Nashville and Brewster McCloud, specifically) and parodies of others (Dennis Hopper sends up his Apocalypse Now performance). But as a director, his comic timing is always precarious. When he lands it (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye) he’s untouchable, but when he misses (HealtH, here), he misses by a mile.
REGULARS: Dooley, his Popeye co-star Walston, Van Pallandt, and Thomas Hal Phillips, recreating (on camera this time) his Nashville character of Hal Phillip Walker.
ALTMAN’S AMERICA: Broadly speaking, the film is clearly meant to be an attack on Regan-era conspicuous consumption. One of the picture’s few good lines, spoken by Stiggs’s dad: “Arkansas is one of the United States. All of America is the same.” Hal Phillip Walker again represents the empty husk of a slogan-spouting candidate. (His inclusion is an almost perverse connection from Altman’s best film to his absolute worst.)