Even though it’s really just a clearing house for mostly less-than-popular titles from one of our greatest American directors, the four-DVD box set Robert Altman Collection makes an interesting case for this radical auteur’s late-‘70s experiments. His 1970 hit M*A*S*H* seems to have been thrown in for good measure, perhaps to add viewer incentive to buy what might seem like an otherwise seemingly lackluster set. In a strange way, M*A*S*H* is the one that holds up the least, perhaps because of the larger expectations. Despite the memorable performances, cunning ad-libs spit out by Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye and Elliott Gould as Trapper John, and the moments that have become part of our movie culture iconography (Hot Lips revealed naked in the shower; the appropriately gory surgery scenes in contrast to the madcap wise-ass humor and sexist tomfoolery running rampant in camp), M*A*S*H* is also indulgent and dawdles during its climactic football game and an impromptu trip to a Japanese hospital. Typical of Altman’s work, it’s the tiny moments that work best, like Trapper John dropping an olive into his martini, or the chaplain’s response to Hot Lips’s furious outburst wondering how someone as insubordinate and defiant as Hawkeye made it into the army: “He was drafted.”
The much-loathed Quintet is dreary, long-winded, and ultimately exhausting, but it’s not nearly as bad as you might think. Taking place during a post-apocalyptic ice age, the dregs of humanity pass their meager time playing a diabolical board game. The rules are unclear, but the pieces involved in the game play are wonderfully baroque pieces of art direction, and the performances, though slightly stilted, are aided immeasurably by their thick Russian babushka-style costumes. Paul Newman struggles manfully in the lead role, and his clean-cut All-American look makes a nice contrast to Altman’s rebel streak, and works effectively in a movie where the bloodletting is harsh, impolite, and swift. To those who have never forgotten the sheer brutality and ruthlessness of the kid getting shot off the bridge in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or the villain getting a hole blown through the center of his forehead, or McCabe dying alone in the snow, Quintet is filled with such moments, and if the climax is a testament to Newman’s Yankee willpower, it’s also a testament to the awe-inspiring idiocy of manifest destiny. We all die in the end.
There are no secret masterpieces among this series—no 3 Women or Images hidden amid Altman’s equally great heavy hitters such as McCabe, Nashville, or The Long Goodbye. And his shining gem from the 1980s, Popeye, is still awaiting rediscovery from critical pundits. But A Wedding is everything we’ve come to expect from an Altman movie: a wide and varied ensemble cast, a central event ripe for parody and skewering, and surprising revelations of character brimming under the surface (the perfect wife is a drug addict, and her seemingly fashionable husband is in fact a vain pauper). This one is a snapshot of all we’ve come to expect from Altman. He mocks authority and structure, and sympathizes with the people. If you love Altman, this one is going to be predictable stuff, but predictable in the way comfort food works: you know what you’re getting into, and it delivers.
The biggest surprise is how well A Perfect Couple holds up—a movie almost nobody has heard of outside of die-hard Altman fans, and even those who have seen it remember it best for its painfully awful rock music that’s in mid-awkward-transition from disco to synth-pop. Against the backdrop of a musical group preparing for a show is the main story, a surprisingly tender romance between two ordinary, slightly rumpled goofballs. In an inspired bit of casting that predates Wallace Shawn’s mercurial turn as Uncle Vanya in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, the unlikely romantic lead here is character actor Paul Dooley. Round bellied, with a pronounced double chin, and a cheerfully goofy demeanor, Dooley is also surprisingly tender when he fastidiously refuses to say goodnight after a disastrous first date with mousy, distracted singer Sheila (Marta Heflin, who, if she’d gone on to do more movies, would be remembered as memorably as the delightfully odd Shelley Duvall).
Sheila’s been rained on, she’s catching a cold, and she just wants to be left alone, but he walks her to her door, then refuses her goodbye in order to protectively escort her to the elevator, and up, and when she tries to close the gate on him he sticks his neck out for a farewell kiss. In any other movie, these characters would be the supporting kooks we make fun of while we await Harry and Sally’s reconciliation, but here we’re eagerly expecting them to take their rightful place center stage, lovely for their imperfections. When Dooley kisses Heflin, it’s an electric moment, all the more because we’re looking at people that are a little closer to us than they are to Brad, Angelina, or Jen. That’s the true testament to Altman’s work: he playfully cajoles his characters, shows them warts and all, and then allows us the space to empathize. That’s true of the must-sees in his highly estimable canon, as well as in these seemingly minor works that are as indelible as tiny brush strokes. Like the Perfect Couple, we adore them for their imperfections.
The picture and sound quality on all of the films is clean and clear with the exception of A Perfect Couple. The presentation is clean but exceedingly, almost distractingly grainy.
The DVDs for A Perfect Couple, A Wedding, and Quintet include trailers and brief featurettes where Altman and some of his collaborators share winning anecdotes about the production. It's refreshing to see Altman so staunchly defend his neglected films, as if he adores all of his children, even the ones that didn't go to college or have a successful marriage. M*A*S*H* features an effusive full-length Altman commentary and a super-slick AMC "Backstory" behind-the-scenes documentary, where the talking heads include most of the principal actors. Sutherland and Gould are quite open about wanting to fire Altman from the production, thinking he was at best incompetent and at worst a madman, but they changed their tune once they realized he was, in fact, a maverick genius.
M*A*S*H* fans will already own the comprehensive DVD already in release, but as for the rest of them, you might be surprised at how they play. These seemingly minor entries all deserve a second look.