Despite what for most will be a redundant inclusion of MASH (1970), Fox Home Video's four-film Robert Altman Collection offers fans of this great American director the chance to see several works long unavailable, practically lost films of the 1970s. The weakest of the bunch, Quintet (1979), is not without interest, while both A Wedding (1978) and A Perfect Couple (1979) are greatly under-valued gems. Altman, along with a gaggle of writers and actors, appear in valuable featurettes included with each new title.
MASH, conversely, is nothing more than a repackaging of the Disc 1 contents and transfer from Fox's Five-Star Collection DVD from 2002, with identical Extra Features.
A Wedding, filmed in the voyeuristic, ensemble style of Nashville (1975) and other Altman films, exemplifies his mastery of the form. The premise is simple enough: in more or less real time a wedding commences, soon followed by the reception. The sun slowly sets and gradually people start going home.
From this inauspicious premise, Altman and co-writers John Considine, Allan F. Nichols, and Patricia Resnick (who all appear in small but not insignificant parts) use the familiar iconography of an American Christian wedding and reception with all its ceremony and tradition as ironic counterpart to the constant disaster everywhere, at every level (including the threat of a tornado) amid all the smiles and happy tears. (Spoilers) Like many of Altman's films, in A Wedding nothing is what it appears to be, from the glamorous and wealthy parents (Vittorio Gassman and Nina Van Pallandt) of the groom who are really a lowly waiter begrudgingly accepted into his wealthy family of in-laws and a drug addict wife who gets her fix from alcoholic Dr. Meecham (alcoholic Howard Duff); or the bride's parents (Carol Burnett and Paul Dooley), he a vulgar Louisville truck driver and she anxious to carry on an affair with sweet if towering Mac Goddard (Pat McCormick).
The film is of the sort rarely done today, the kind with a long back story, no introductory scenes, and a life one easily imagines continuing long after it's over. It takes a good 30-40 minutes to follow exactly what's going on with various characters and how they relate to one another, but it's worth it. (It also makes going back to the film a second time and reexamining those scenes a pleasure.) The film is so authentic to the flavor of all large weddings as to feel quite familiar in all kinds of little bits of business, from the post-ceremony mad dash to the toilet to one scene that finds a bunch of bridesmaids smoking pot out back with the musicians.
The nearly 50 characters - reportedly Altman wanted to double Nashville's large cast - are almost all interesting in one way or another. (Considering how so many Hollywood films today have trouble coming up with even one fully-dimensional character, this is a real achievement.) Some are played mainly for laughs, others are darker, but even here Altman and his collaborators, including the actors themselves (who improvised some of their dialogue) keep things fresh and off-balance, so that comedy can turn to tragedy on a dime and vice versa.
Although the film is remembered as something of a mini-comeback for silent actress Lillian Gish, who'd do several more films and TV shows after this, many of the picture's most memorable moments come from director and sometimes actor John Cromwell (the father of James, whom he closely resembles), then 90 himself, as a doddering old bishop unwisely pulled out of mothballs to conduct the ceremony.
Quintet has good performances and a unique if not really successful look, but this post-apocalyptic tale - about mankind's last days on a frozen-over planet where packs of roaming Rottweilers eagerly gobble up the dwindling population slowly freezing and starving to death - moves at an (appropriately enough) glacier pace and is irredeemably bleak and unpleasant without having much to say about the human condition or its characters.
Paul Newman stars as Essex, who with pregnant lover Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) returns to a now ice-ridden megalopolis where his brother, Francha (Thomas Hill) lives with his family. Shortly after being reunited, Vivia, Francha and his entire family are killed in an explosion while Essex is away buying firewood.
Essex learns that the bomb was rolled into Francha's apartment by Redstone (Craig Richard Nelson), who in turn is gruesomely murdered by St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman). All, it seems, are engaged in an extreme version of Quintet, a chess-like board game that's become an obsession for mankind's last and aging survivors. Assuming Redstone's identity, Essex acquaints himself with others tied to the game, including referee Grigor (Fernando Rey) and player Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), who becomes romantically involved with Essex.
The film ultimately is an pointless exercise in style with nothing much to say about anything, though its cast of internationally acclaimed actors for the most part succeed in breathing life into their characters. But the film is pretty pretentious and burdened with a design that tries to be different but only succeeds in looking cheap and silly. The actors wear vaguely Turkish/Afghani wardrobes with Rembrandt-like floppy hats, and walk around slippery, icy sets that resemble leftovers from Logan's Run sprayed with a firehose and tucked away in a freezer. (The film was actually shot in Montreal, at the dilapidated ruins of Expo '67.) Jean Boffety's eye-straining cinematography smears the camera lens with Vaseline to create a frozen-over, dreamlike look to the frame, but the result is only distracting, sometimes with upwards of 50% of the already grainy and soft image fuzzy and unfocused.
A Perfect Couple brings Altman back into familiar territory, with a film whose leading characters are believably ordinary, even if their living arrangements are highly unusual. The honest nature of their relationship and interaction recalls Kurosawa's One Wonderful Sunday (1947), about an equally ordinary Japanese couple.
At first they seem utterly mismatched; Altman's cleverness is to slowly peel back the layers so that the audience gradually realizes in fact just how alike their situations really are. Fifty-ish Alex (Paul Dooley) lives in a castle-like estate with his Big Fat Greek family, who operate a cavernous antiques store. Patriarch Panos (Titos Vandis) rules the clan with an iron fist; they're always together as a single unit, following an oppressively regimented existence.
Shelia (Marta Heflin), meanwhile, lives in a Little Tokyo loft with five band-mates and an infant child, the nucleus of a '70s rock group called "Keepin' 'Em Off the Streets." Despite the communal living arrangements and, one would have assumed, free-spirit nature of alternative living, Shelia is similarly dominated by the band's tyrannical leader, Teddy (Jesus Christ Superstar's Ted Neeley). Shelia, as actor Dooley describes her, has "a wounded bird quality." The film likens their situations in other interesting ways, like the fact that both use cell-like freight elevators they essentially lock themselves into as part of their daily routine.
A computer dating service, complete with uncomfortable video introductions, brings Alex and Shelia together, but their first dates are awkward even though they're attracted to one another. He tries to be confident and sensitive but only comes off as pushy and needy; her band-mates, with their drugs and (in some cases) gay sex turn him off. They can't be intimate at her loft, while Alex risks being ostracized from his family if he were to bring Shelia home.
A Perfect Couple accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do in creating characters that anyone who's ever been on a tension-filled blind date will recognize. They run into universally-experienced problems: stupid misunderstandings, trouble with the other's family, etc.
Altman's efforts to integrate the dozen original songs (a la Nashville) are less successful. The musical numbers are actually quite pleasant and are used to comment/reflect upon on the action and characters, and the seamlessness of singing actors / actors singing is good, but overall these interludes tend to put what's best about A Perfect Couple - the interaction between Alex and Shelia - on hold. (That said, reparatory film theaters should consider booking this on a double-bill with Alan Rudolph's Altmanesque, thematically similar Songwriter, from 1984.)
Dooley and Heflin are excellent, as is the film's great supporting cast which includes Belita Moreno (as Alex's terminally ill cellist-sister) and Ann Ryerson (as a kinky veterinarian Alex briefly dates). As with all four films in this set, the "actors don't act so much," as Dooley puts it, "just behave." Very true.
Video & Audio
All four movies are given 16:9 widescreen transfers that look okay but perhaps could be better. MASH and A Wedding are presented in their original Panavision theatrical aspect ratios, while A Wedding and The Perfect Couple are 1.77:1, close to their 1.85:1 releases. The later three titles are all grainy with weak color. Partly this is representative of late-'70s film stock and the gritty visual style common to Altman's films from the period, but they still look weaker than they should. A Perfect Couple, the worst-looking of the batch, is watchable but visually unimpressive, with title elements so grainy it looks like they could have been blown-up from 8mm.
All four films have English and Spanish subtitles. All but A Perfect Couple have French mono tracks, while all but MASH have Spanish ones. A big proponent of stereo sound technologies, A Wedding, one of the earliest releases in Dolby Stereo, and A Perfect Couple have strong stereo scores for their era, at a time when only the biggest blockbusters tended to offer such advanced audio.
MASH duplicates the supplements from the 2002 release, which includes a Robert Altman Commentary, a 25-minute AMC Backstory, and Still Gallery.
The other three titles offer new featurettes, all quite good, though the participation of more key cast and crew would have made them even better. A Wedding: Altman Style (21 minutes) includes interviews with the screenwriters, Desi Arnaz, Jr., Paul Dooley, and Marta Heflin, among others. Developing the World of Quintet (15 minutes) is mostly concerned with that film's look, while Perspective on A Perfect Couple (17 minutes) brings back Altman, Dooley, and Heflin, and is as interesting as the other shows, though no mention is made of Sandy Dennis, reportedly Altman's first choice for Shelia, who allegedly lost the part because of Dooley's crippling allergic reaction to Dennis' cats.
Also included are four Theatrical Trailers. MASH and Quintet are 16:9 but the latter is ugly and unattractive. A Wedding and A Perfect Couple are all 4:3 letterboxed, with the latter looking particularly weak, apparently drawn from some decades-old video master.
Though it will mainly appeal to fans and students of the director, the Robert Altman Collection is a welcome addition to the library of film buffs, particularly the long-unavailable Perfect Couple, and comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.