Altman Among the “New Monuments”
by HARRIS FEINSOD
Consider the goose. Does he know where he is going? Or does he just fly
into the unknown?
— Paul Newman, Quintet (1979).
The flight of birds. The flight of man. Man’s similarity to birds. Bird’s
similarity to man. These are the subjects at hand, and we will deal
with them for the next hour or so and hope that we draw no conclusions,
elsewise the subject will cease to fascinate us and alas another
dream would be lost there are far too few.
— Rene Auberjonois, Brewster McCloud (1970).
Ever since Paul Newman passed away I have been slowly paddling my way upriver into his filmographic interior. This is rough country but it has some exploitable resources, such as John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1971). Quintet, on the other hand—Robert Altman’s monumental 1979 sci-fi failure—is not among the Newman vehicles particularly primed for rediscovery. It is the dank Kurtzian cave where the Imperial Enterprise of Paul Newman loses it. In the offing, it even redeems the unendurable Towering Inferno (1974), Newman’s blockbuster turn as a starchitect who teems up with fireman Steve McQueen to save his latest skyscraper (and the rich people inside) from an opening night blaze.
But surely Quintet, or any Altman/Newman collaboration, would be an interesting failure at worst, wouldn’t it? No matter that its reviewers were right to lampoon Quintet for its naked pretension (this is the period when Altman’s career came off the rails due, in part, to a belief that his creative genius would make anything cohere). Unlike many plotless-yet-frenetic Altman features, the pace here is as leaden as Tarkovsky. Characters are driven by alien motives. Their world is meaningless, and nothing incites a film critic to judgment like the auteur embracing his nihilism too dotingly. Still, there must be something to it. It must know something about its own time and place that it wants me to know too. My popcorn-inhaling roommates finish their Redenbacher and bail on Quintet after twenty minutes. But the die is cast. I will try to squeeze some honey from the rock.
Quintet opens with the seal hunter Essex (Newman) and his wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) loping over a vast desert of packed snow in an ice age of the future. The exilic couple is suddenly arrested by the rare sight of a lone Canada goose flying a northerly route, and we learn that the film will be full of augurs and omens, although it lacks a cosmology that facilitates signifying relationships between signs and meanings. Essex and Vivia pass trains frozen to the tracks, the first machines in a Great Tartary of abandoned, futuristic infrastructure, where packs of rottweilers scavenge on human corpses, as they will do throughout the remainder of the film. The couple comes to a sparsely peopled city (filmed in the ruins of the Montreal Expo of ’67) on their way to find Essex’s estranged brother, where they woodenly dialogue over a dead body:
Vivia: “Shouldn’t we help him? He’s gonna freeze to death.”
Essex: “He already has.”
Vivia: “I’m so tired of walking.”
Essex: “It’s not far.”
Vivia: “And what if he’s not there?”
Essex: “We’ll face that when we get there.”
Vivia: “I’m hungry.”
This ice age is irreversible and total. Formally, Altman insists on this fact by shooting through a lens smeared at the edges with Vaseline, as though the viewer’s eye were hoary with frost, a cinematic gag best used to create the oneiric fantasy world of the Penthouse centerfold. The film’s commentators have pointed out this trivium above all others.
What malady has befallen earth? As Grigor—one of the film’s many conspiratorial Priest-Musketeers—puts it, “There is nothing but water, and soon that’s all that will be left. The planet will be frozen in an envelope of ice. And that will mercifully be the end of this history.” This kind of certain doom means that we are in for a tragic drama where human action is over-determined by survival, chance, and gamesmanship. Throats are unceremoniously slit with straight razors and letter openers. In fact, the only thing anyone does in this world is to play the titular board game—Quintet—something like “Old Maid with death penalties,” as a perspicacious New York Times reviewer put it.
Wife Vivia, five months pregnant (the Children of Men scenario, as female barrenness is rife in this world) is an early victim of Quintet-death, exploded by a bomb during a game. Essex carries her body from the wreckage and pushes the lifeless form into a rushing river to float downstream. Nonexistent pathos. Now Essex, without pause to mourn, will be sucked into the vortex of the board game for the rest of the film, forging delicate alliances and betrayals, while cultivating a kind of ice-age ennui that exceeds all French paradigms for disaffection and detachment. Quintet preludes Schwarzenegger’s Running Man, another future world dominated by chance games of life and death, but unlike Running Man it is drained of action and spectacle.
In fact, the picture follows a predictable enough logic despite all its existential draftiness. Or two logics, working in counterpoint. The first—the logic of apocalypse—was legitimately new territory for Altman and Newman both, not that they handle it with any sensitivity. But the second—the logic of gambling—was hardly novel to either of these career sharps. By 1979, Altman had directed McCabe and Mrs. Miller and California Split. Newman had acted in The Hustler and The Sting. As soon as Essex first sits down at a cold Quintet table, we could easily be in the frigid Northwest barroom of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Some of the sartorial choices--turbans jar with Russian orthodox pendants and conquistador chic—transform the bizarre, languorous casino scenes where Quintet is played into a kind of Star Wars souk peopled by Barfly extras, but the jangle of coins and chips, and cacophonous dialogue bounding around the table like a roulette ball locates us clearly in an Altman film.
Instead, the setting is the real story of Quintet. The dilapidated Montreal Expo set (preeminently the “Man and His World” pavilion) is the only compelling thing here. It’s ability to provoke a total feeling of stasis obtains to what the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti called “il languore / di un circo / prima o dopo lo spettacolo” (“the languor of a circus before or after the show”). At one point, Essex (now disguised as “Redstone”) visits a dangerous enemy named “St. Christopher,” who preaches from a pedestal below the sign “The earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.” The quote is from the Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, and was a remnant left among the ruins of the Montreal Expo. The suggestion here, that outer space is humankind’s natural destiny, does not betoken a brave future but an aborted one. Huge black and white posters of African children have the same effect. Like Dawn of the Dead, this is a world of busted escalators that lead toward ransacked display windows, not distant terra-formed planets.
Because the Expo pavilions were such utopian emblems of futurity, their dilapidation evokes the abortion of the future rather than the ruins of a once-vital present. It is a world whose utopia has been designed too fast for human inhabitation but slower than the pace of obsolescence. Artist Robert Smithson, a year before the Expo, had presciently described this phenomenon as being the common feature of science fiction and contemporary architecture in the late 1960s. In an essay entitled “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Smithson wrote that the conceptual art of the mid-1960s indulged in
“what Flavin calls ‘inactive history’ or what the physicist calls
‘entropy’ or ‘energy-drain.’ They bring to mind the Ice Age
rather than the Golden Age, and would most likely confirm
Vladimir Nabokov's observation that, ‘The future is but the obsolete
in reverse.’ In a rather round-about way, many of the artists have
provided a visible analog for the Second Law of Thermodynamics,
which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is
more easily lost than obtained, and that in the ultimate future the
whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-
Going on, Smithson remarked, “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future.” Quintet, sadly, never achieves a critique of that monstrous, forgotten future. Rather, it is satisfied with a sadistic romanticism of it. We are not turned into Shelley’s traveler at Ozymandias, made small by a great sphinx-like speaking monument of history:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Rather, watching Quintet is to be put in the position of a hapless Justine, dulled by the eons, still chancing on that strange castle or abbey that holds in store a world of unmotivated pain. And that is finally where the vaseline-smeared lens becomes legible. The movie has the artistic trappings of pornography, and all of pornography’s indulgent boredom, but none of its baser pleasures.
As for Quintet’s great theme of the “New Monuments” to the aborted future, this was simultaneously enacted by a Montreal baseball franchise, the Expos, who were born in 1969 in the wake of the Expo, and who ended up playing in the Olympic Stadium built for the ’76 Olympics, which was not actually completed until 1990. By 2004, the Expos franchise had moved to Washington D.C.
But Altman had already handled the stadium-politic ironies far more deftly in his feature Brewster McCloud (1970), about a teenager living in a fallout shelter beneath the Houston Astrodome where he is building a pair of wings in order to fly.
Sadly, Brewster McCloud is one of the few Altman pictures that isn’t on DVD, and while it has its charm on VHS, it is inexplicable that Beyond Therapy is readily available and this is not.
The film’s opening lecture by an erudite educator claims—less than a year after the first moon landing—that man’s dream of flight has not yet been achieved because the dream has been misinterpreted. The true dream has to do with a gloss on Goethe: “How I yearn to throw myself into endless space and float above the awful abyss.” Bud Cort (who was about to become Harold of Harold & Maude) will be the interpreter of this desire for true avian freedom, though he is fated for Icarian disappointment.
As the camera pans out over the Astrodome, the “lecturer” offers a reflection that directly prophesizes the Biosphere and—along with it—Pauly Shore’s Biodome: “It may someday be necessary to build enormous environmental enclosures to protect both man and birds. But, if so, it is questionable whether man will allow birds in—or out—as the case may be.”
The film is awash in a baroque excess of ornithological details, and the camera constantly zooms or wanders onto public statuary of winged figures, bird cages, bird baths, and so on. The film is bird kitsch. Avian schtick. It also features the first of many beautifully chatty, doe-eyed performances by Shelley Duvall, who leads “9 mile” tours inside the Astrodome. Then there is “Shaft,” a cop flown in from San Francisco to investigate a series of strangulations associated with people who try to stand in the way of Brewster’s goals, and the cop is a pitch-perfect parody of Steve McQueen in Bullitt. These murders have all been perpetrated by Louise (Sally Kellerman), who plays Brewster’s vexatious fairy godmother, flame-keeper of his dream and something like Pinocchio’s Fairy with Turquoise Hair.
What links this film to Quintet? Well, we have to distend Smithson’s definition a bit here, but this also seems to be the land of The New Monuments. The Astrodome becomes a Mecca-like monument to the population boom in the Sun Belt through the engines of oil revenue, the military industrial complex, aerospace technology, and retirees. Nixon strategist Kevin Philips, in fact, coined the term “Sun-Belt” in The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) as a way of describing this important sea change in political demography.
Brewster McCloud is one of the many films that tried to imagine what it means to be a youth in this totally new world. It takes the institutions of the sun belt – aerospace, oil, suburbia, and so on – and tries to describe a quirky personal freedom committed to those institutions, just as one is committed to an asylum.
In this, it is a breezy stepbrother to Zabriskie Point or Five Easy Pieces, and it offers whimsy enough for Wes Anderson’s Rushmore to mine and for Altman to revisit in the vastly underrated O.C. and Stiggs, while simultaneously doling out some of the malaise that threads from The Last Picture Show through Bad News Bears and Over the Edge.
This last film was Matt Dillon’s pre-Rumblefish turn as the most ferocious delinquent in a suburban Texas town full of them. They act out their righteous anger with drugs, guns, summer love, Ric Ocasek songs, and finally by locking their parents and teachers in the high school during an emergency PTA meeting and set the school aflame. It is a genre later wrangled into a period cliché by Dazed and Confused. However, despite Brewster McCloud’s distant gaze, there is something that makes him more eerily lucid than dazed or confused. He is a tragic rather than cautionary Icarus who, just like any young dreamer, wants to get out of Houston.
It will be no surprise that the film ends with what W.H. Auden, in his famous poem on Breughel’s Icarus, called “Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky.” But Brewster’s death is not, as in Auden, the scene of worldy indifference (“everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”). Altman makes Brewster’s crash the opening of a carnivalesque set of credits with the entire cast appearing in a Ringling Brothers event surrounding Brewster’s avian exoskeleton. It is another aborted future that courts “the languor of the circus, before or after the show.”
Harris Feinsod lives in San Francisco.
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