Robert Altman Collection: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Robert Duvall, Carol Burnett – PopMatters

If director Robert Altman’s 2006 theatrical release, A Prairie Home Companion, represents a highlight in his vast body of work, than the April DVD release of the Robert Altman Collection offers fans of the living legend a glimpse of his decidedly less crowd-pleasing, wildly experimental films of the ’70s.

As collections go, this is a curiously culled set of films: three of the four discs, A Wedding, A Perfect Couple, and Quintet (all released between 1978 and 1979) were previously unavailable to the format. The fourth offering included here is a re-packaged, weak single disc version of the director’s ’70 comedic classic, M*A*S*H, which was given a more extensive two-disc treatment only two months earlier in February (which itself was only a repackaged version of a stellar 2002 edition).

In fact, the extras that we are “treated” to here are sorely limited: there are interviews with stars Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, as well as one with a blink-and-you-will-miss-him Altman. The tepid ramblings of the few (rather uninteresting) cast members that are assembled (along with various Altman associates) are in no way insightful or intrinsic to the films. Also sadly missing is any actual commentary, save for the regurgitated M*A*S*H track, originally recorded four years ago. Any explanation for the existence of the three other films in this package would have been greatly appreciated.

Quintet and A Perfect Couple are two good example of the director’s weaknesses as a filmmaker and auteur. They have lofty ambitions and ideas, but their execution is amateurish. Both could, on one hand, be commended for their eagerness to play but then again, “experimental” doesn’t have to equal shoddy quality of product (it seems as though during this period, Altman’s goal was to be solely prolific). A Perfect Couple seems a distant cousin of some horrible early ’70s-era Neil Simon concoction (complete with cornball humor and a whole lot of awkward, geeky romance), while Quintet might be right at home on late at night on an obscure science fiction channel.

Starring a rather grim, post-apocalyptic Paul Newman (swathed in fur and a ridiculous sci-fi costume), Quintet is a bizarre, highly experimental film that should at least be given some credit for its bleak, fatalistic ideas and icy landscapes. Unfortunately the actual implementation comes off as cheap and phony. Not even the charms of one of Ingmar Bergman’s muses, Bibi Andersson, can stop the unintentional laughter that follows as the rest of the eager cast (filmed through a bizarre, crude fuzzed-out lens) acts out the titular game, in which the loser is killed and thrown to wild dogs for dinner. Fun times.

Out of the unreleased films that have all aged poorly, only A Wedding can even come close to achieving the patina associated with Altman’s reputation of being a master director who effortlessly juggles various multi-layered plots that send his actors into realms of mad, improvisational glory. (Carol Burnett, here a prime example of the Altman school of playful, improvisational acting, is an utter delight as a put-upon mother of the bride). On those terms alone, the film succeeds, but when compared with the stalwart examples of Altman’s more sterling Nashville or Short Cuts), it is actually quite a dismal failure, functioning as a sort of filmed acting exercise more than a conventional film. Not to say that his satiric take on a traditional wedding isn’t entertaining: it is quite humorous to see the mother of the groom shadily shooting up drugs in her bathroom, or watching a near-mute Mia Farrow, as one of the all-time sluttiest maids of honor, count her sexual conquests not only on her own fingers, but on those of random wedding guests.

Selections that could have been chosen for this set (that will certainly only appeal to hardcore fans of the auteur) might have been glorious: why not include 1982’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which showcases Altman’s fondness for theater and female acting (with stellar performances by Cher, Sandy Dennis and Karen Black)? For that matter, why not release any of his unreleased-to-disc works instead of another M*A*S*H? The hallucinatory Brewster McCloud, Thieves Like Us, That Cold Day in the Park (also starring Oscar winner Dennis, in her best filmed performance), or even the god-awful box-office bomb H.E.A.L.T.H would have been more interesting choices, if not completely marketable.

This uneven collection is a definite example of the adage “when he’s good, he’s very good, but when he’s bad, he’s very bad”. The cadre of films here exposes Altman as a maverick, ballsy filmmaker and artist, but also as a man who can be too reliant on his instincts, which at times seem a bit skewed. His willingness to play with the forms of genre, character, and story are also commendable, even when the results are not always pretty to look at. Altman seems game for just about anything: from middle-aged, ordinary romance to pregnant corpses being eaten by dogs. This sort of daring is what the collection shows best, and fans of the director will be delighted that their collections are one step closer to completion. However, if you are looking for the quintessential Altman canon, you should avoid this one.

RATING 3 / 10