There's a contradiction in Altman trying to take away Newman's star power even while recognizing his celebrity: Cody is a foolish, conceited, talentless star surrounded by a pandering entourage, but he still seems important. The self-delusion and hypocrisy of Altman's Bill Cody - of Altman's America - aren't successful in and of themselves, but they do supply the film the hint of an underrated Altman trait: the theme of "what is real?
The setting of Buffalo Bill provides an absurd scenario: an articifical Wild West Show performing while the Wild West was technically still in existence. Cowboys and Indians race around the stage, but while the program promises authenticity the guns are loaded with blanks and the indians are played by black men. Rumors of real world threats are summarily denounced.
The real Sitting Bull is hardly a menacing warrior - he's tiny like Yoda. When he raises a gun to Grover Cleveland, everyone freaks out until they realize he's just "making the horse dance" by firing a shot off in the air. Even Cody's gun is loaded with buckshot so he can't miss the targets thrown up in front of him, a deceit revealed by Sitting Bull much to Bill's humiliation. But the very environment still portends danger: the ultimate reality v.
The movie ends with the symbolic act of "scalping" Sitting Bull, who has already met his real life fate off-screen. This diverting aspect of the film almost trumps the broad satire Not only does Cody have two scenes where he stares down his reflection, Burt Lancaster's Ned Buntline actually has a line about it to juxtapose with a later shot "Stars spend so much time in front of mirrors, to see if their good looks can overcome their judgment. But like Buntline whose name in this movie should be Bluntline , Altman undermines the film's themes by outright stating them through the dialogue.
If Altman could have made the Indians more sympathetic, rather than making them cryptic and self-righteous when Cody confides to his producer "I think I gave back the same kind of murky logic he offered me" after making a poetic statement to Sitting Bull, it's one of the movie's rare funny moments , Buffalo Bill might have been better.
More than any of his films, Buffalo Bill is like The Player - it's practically a dress rehearsal for the director's critical darling of a comeback. Quick, which movie is this line from: "No ordinary man would realize what huge profits could be made by telling a pack of lies like it was the truth"? That could describe Newman's Cody or Robbins' Griffin Mill, unscrupulous showmen and exploitive entrepreneurs with delusions of importance beyond the superficial.
Both are limp charlatans surrounded by spineless yes men who use their power to crush weakier yet morally stronger men who both end up dead, chiefly out of fear that the true nature of their triviality will be exposed. The way the Buffalo Bill cast is credited in the opening, by title rather than character name - The Producer, The Publicist - you can see "The Player" fitting right in there. Bill and Player are about the phoniness of show business, not exactly deep but Bill at least works better at exploring that angle than it does examing and criticizing history.
Bill condemns the events of the past as if Altman were any more removed from the legacy of white America than the film industry satirized in The Player , but covers his bases in both films with bookends that acknowledge that the movie itself is a manufactured product, winks intended to say "I'm not with these guys" and, simultaneously, "I'm just messing around. Buffalo Bill also incorporates framing devise fakeries, the first an assault by warring, whooping Indians on a farmhouse straight out of any generic western that turns out to be rehearsal for the Wild West show, a reflection on reality and show business and a chance for Altman to quip "Any asshole can make a boring western, but now watch and see MY take on it!
This phony "happy ending" of Buffalo Bill defeating his enemy is exactly like Player 's parody of a happy Hollywood ending, with the added connection of Will Sampson's Halsey selling out similar to the producers of Habeas Corpus although it's implied that he's doing it for more noble reasons - to help the starving tribe without the benefit of celebrity that his fallen leader had to fall back on. Like the Habeas Corpus duo, the Indians are presented as too noble and self-assured, nearly to the point of mockery.
They seem like characters we should side with, so why does Altman clearly detest them? Aren't these the people we used to root for in Altman movies?
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Or maybe Altman just enjoyed such retrospective honor by an American cinema revitalized by smaller, independent movies in the early 90's that anything harking back to a time when he wasn't shilling unimaginative stage adaptations to a disinterested public was instantly canonized. That's the whole trick: it's what audiences want from Altman.
When Buffalo Bill didn't work, he tried something different. The Fox films bombed, which led him to try something safer: theatrical adaptations.
But returning to what didn't work before suddenly did work for him, and led to his comeback. In the intro to her Images review, Kael pointed to the fact that Altman was "almost frighteningly nonrepetitive. Altman cried studio interference on Buffalo Bill , explaining at the time that it was overly explicit rather than implicit because, "Well, I don't know. I really don't. There was a lot of struggling going on between Dino and myself all that time.
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I was trying to accommodate him and still serve the film. The ensuing Fox Five would be much more experimental; anything to get away from the conventional structure that critics deemed too safe for a filmmaker who should be taking risks. Admirers have since found ways to defend the movie, mainly blaming its failure on the fledging western genre of the late 70's that culminated with Heaven's Gate , thus fulfilling the prophecy set in place by Altman himself, who just before the film's release stated, "I think it's probably the best film I've made I think that this film will get picked up.
It isn't going to be successful I don't think. But I think it'll get picked up in a couple of years, and it'll be looked back on. Essex: Do I misunderstand the word 'killing? Despite its best efforts, I think I understand Quintet fairly well - enough to see why it didn't make a "killing" at the box office. Altman and Newman had failed traveling back to the past, so they looked to succeed by heading into the future: a future where people do nothing but play an abstractly-designed board game.
In fact, there are several scenes of characters playing an abstractly-designed board game, whiling away the hours in the dilapidated remains of a city in the middle of a frozen, post-apocalyptic tundra.
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The film that anyone who hasn't recently seen O. Between its oft-described "glacial" pacing and combination blaring white and muted gray cinematography seemingly designed to put to sleep anyone who makes the mistake of looking at the screen, it's as demanding visually as it is narratively obstinate.
It's as if Altman was practically daring critics to find something in the movie to defend, but unlike Buffalo Bill there are no tropes to point to: even retrospection has not endeared it to viewers just check out the A. T and the Women "full of life and imagination, and funny to boot. But it's not exactly a failure: although he deemed it "passionless," Vincent Canby was at least willing to admit that Altman ended up with the movie he set out to make. Buffalo Bill had failed at what it set out to do by utilizing the director's most recognizable tools, and Quintet is almost a "fuck you, here's an effortless exercise in lethargy and lugubriosity Just as 3 Women was a quiet artist's retreat after the epic debacle of Buffalo Bill , the humorless Quintet , free of any hint of irony, seems a conscious from the bawdy excess of A Wedding.
And since Altman is terrible at broad comedy, Quintet 's lack of humor is almost a good thing. The movie's prevailing abstraction is the exact opposite of Buffalo Bill 's force-fed commentary and it's a relief that the film opens, like Images , with an arty yet subtle title card without the boisterous, clever in-joke of Nashville 's introduction with the credits laid out like an ad for a record, or Buffalo Bill 's fanfare brochure tauting "Robert Altman's Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustrel!
There's the theme of losing a family member, with Newman suffering the loss of his companion just like Keenan Wynn this also informed the best subplot of Short Cuts , the death of Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell's son and the harassment of Lyle Lovett's local baker in the wake of the tragedy. While Quintet 's political agenda is surprisingly simple you'd think a dystopian society would be a concept Altman would want to play around with , the invisible hand that manipulates the bottom "players" stands in for the Michael Murphy character collecting singers for the Walker rally.
But for the most part Quintet was as stylistically far away from what was becoming known as a typical Altman movie as the production was physically from its financial backers. The actual setting of the story is never revealed: since the entire world is assumed to be frozen, it could be taking place anywhere on the globe, not necessarily Altman's home country that had been the boundless aim of his most recent satire.
Since it's an original screenplay, the film isn't informed by its source material The Long Goodbye , Thieves Like Us or historical events Buffalo Bill. Altman was artistically adrift and it's reflected in the film itself, with a murky plot that never takes time out to explain exactly what's going on and leaves a lot for the audience to determine for themselves. It doesn't hang low and hit you over the head like Buffalo Bill ; quite the opposite, the movie is an impossibly high, unreachable ceiling.
But should Quintet be let off the hook simply for not being ambitious or milking any kind of obvious satire? Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's - high-minded, slow-moving, visually-explorative - convinced other filmmakers that literary sci fi could be successfully transposed to the big screen. Meanwhile, Roger Vadim and Terry Southern's Barberella - gleefully pulpy, knowingly campy and thoroughly unpretentious - embraced the escapism of fantasy fiction without setting its goals any further than scoring with the horny nerd crowd.
Protagonists were set apart from society, either in defiance of some futuristic oppression Logan's Run or disillusionment with universally-accepted dehumanization Rollerball , and there was usually a heavy dose of religious symbolism thrown into the mix The Omega Man.
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This humorless bid at importance guaranteed that most of these kind of movies were hampered by self-indulence and pomposity, not to mention the inherent hokiness which haunted even these high-minded projects: the pitfalls of cheap sets and cheesy costumes. The most blatant example from the era is John Boorman's Zardoz , its philosophical ambitions subverted by the visual image of Sean Connery wearing nothing but a red diaper and knee high boots.
Zardoz was a Fox release and, like Quintet , was set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic society littered with ambivalent assassins centered around the cheery idea that death is a better alternative to life. But the studio still managed to score big with sci fi when a young director whose high-minded epic, THX , had flopped earlier in the decade brought them Star Wars , the ultimate low-reaching, crowd-pleasing, serial-evoking space saga in the Barberella mode, in Although Altman's last two Fox films had fumbled, his name still meant prestige that the studio was, at the time, happy to be associated with.
The director fell for the high-minded science fiction concept From the goofy character names - Essex, Grigor, St.
Christopher, Ambrosia, Goldstar, Redstone - to the wardrobe that makes the cast look like actors from Shakespeare in the Park; Kael's dig that the movie is like "a Monty Python show played at the wrong speed" seems like a specific dig at the silly costumes. But one difference Altman deserves credit for is Quintet 's disciplined structure, a departure from his recent slapdash epics: he explained to an interviewer at the time that, "Because of the game qualities of the film it has to follow a certain order.
The order is as follows: Returning to the disorganized melange of civilization he'd abandoned years before to hunt seal in the south, Essex and his pregnant companion Vivia Brigitte Fossey, who played the little girl in Forbidden Games so she should be used to all this death and misery find that every citizen who hasn't become a frozen popsicle treat for roving dogs is playing the hip new game Quintet.
Essex is looking for a job, but is told that nobody's motivated enough to work - there's "nothing left but the game!
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People even collect tschotkes that serve as game pieces, so by extension the game fills in for idle hobbies such as stamp collecting or displaying pez dispensers. All the technological furtherments supposedly made before the "icing" have been foresaken, the city is run down and nobody appears to be in charge. Everyone is amusing themselves to death, even allowing themselves to be killed because they're so busy with Quintet.
No sooner has Essex located his estranged brother that his obsessed sibling insists on a game; Essex's reluctance to indulge saves his life when a grenade kills everyone gathered around the board, including Vivia. The assassin is quickly dispatched himself, leaving Essex with nothing to go on but a list of names that turns out to be a group of expert Quintet players engaged in a private tournament overseen by Grigor Fernando Rey. At this point it becomes a revenge movie, complete with a cross-off kill list, as Essex enters a tournament of Quintet played without a board in which the people are the pieces and the goal is to wipe each other out.
The players on the list, including the conflicted but ambitious expert Ambrosia after Images and 3 Women , Altman got to indulge his Bergman obsession further by casting Bibi Andersson , with whom Essex strikes up an unlikely allegiance. In Buffalo Bill , Altman cast Newman as a pathetic charlatan playing a hero in a romantic setting the old west ; in Quintet , Newman is a reluctant hero in an unromantic setting. Cody is a womanizing lout whose sexual impotence is symbolized in a scene where he unsuccessfully shoots at a tiny caged bird.
Essex is established as virile despite his age he has a young, beautiful companion, miraculously pregnant in a society where all women are thought to have become barren and marvels when he sees a majestic bird in flight: a sign of hope that's soon to be extinguished. By all evidence, Essex was a more traditionally heroic role for Newman, although if Buffalo Bill turned the lovable Newman into an impotent, racist, delusional cad, Quintet drains him of all discernable charm, and this time it doesn't come off as playing against type. Even his blue eyes that shone so brilliantly in Buffalo Bill have turned a milky gray to match the desolate lighting design- he looks like he's aged twenty years in the three since Bill.
Once he loses his companion, he betrays nothing beyond the motivation to discover what's going on. It's understandable why Newman would want to be in the movie - it's an off-beat premise and without a huge ensemble he is unequivocally the focus of the film - but his character's job is to do practically nothing until the end of the movie, when he doesn't so much take revenge as defend himself from being killed. There are plenty of characters but no familiar faces from the director's stable: besides Newman and Vittorio Gassman who was in A Wedding , these are all first-time Altman actors.
It's as if Altman warned his usual merry pranksters like Elliott Gould and Shelley Duvall away from the project to protect them from its unmerciful bleakness, although ironically his giant casts in films like Nashville and Buffalo Bill never threaten to mechanize the characters in a way that Quintet purposely sets out to do. The performances of Newman and the other actors are so subdued and defeated, and they're shot in such dark tones as to literally blend in with the neutral backgrounds, that they practically disappear in Quintet 's remote world rather than stick out as Altman's characters so often do.
The zoom shots that find the characters are confining where they are usually liberating, although, through one dubious and glaring stylistic choice, Altman actually focuses on actors here more than ever Like 3 Women , Altman claimed that Quintet was based on a presumably pot-infused dream, and like that previous Fox release its aesthetic is honed into the disconnected unpredictablity of a fever dream.
Notably, Buffalo Bill features an actual fever dream of Cody being visited by the spirit of Sitting Bull that doesn't feel anything like a dream; 3 Women , the proceeding production, maintained a hallucinatiory sense throughout. It works better in 3 Women , where Altman could manipulate the familiarity of modern sets and make something like a swimming pool seem otherwordly - Quintet had to establish a world salvaged from the former "Man and his World" exhibition at the abandoned Expo '67 site in Montreal where Altman and his crew set up shop.
Both films have lots of scenes set in hotel rooms, but the term is loosely applied to what look more like frozen storage closets in Quintet.
Warping the commonplace to seem surreal is an easy way to captivate an audience and guide them into the weird world of the film, but it takes work to create a futuristic setting out of a bizarre "found" location Altman had utilized the best of both worlds by turning the Astrodome into the labyrinth habitat of Brewster McCloud. So to help visualize the dreamlike tone, Altman made the questionable decision to smear the corners of his camera lens with vasoline, creating a weird soft gel around the image so that the characters are constantly encircled in a foggy iris shot.
Soft focus was a staple of the 70's, and to suffuse DP Jean Boffety's already hazy photography - blown out in the white exteriors and muddy in the dark interiors - with this lens effect was sure way to ensure the film would never transcend its place in time. Not to mention of course that it's a chore on most viewer's eyes to try to compensate for the blurry edges of the screen.