When Robert Altman accepted his lifetime achievement Academy Award, he described his filmography as "one long film some of you have liked some of the sections, and others anyway, it's all right." Longtime Altman fans knew what he meant. Before staging a comeback in the '90s with movies like The Player and Short Cuts, Altman spent a decade in the margins, making filmed plays and TV specials, mainly because of his spectacular flameout at the end of the '70s, when he followed up the masterful 3 Women with a string of barely released, critically snubbed disasters: 1978's A Wedding, 1979's Quintet and A Perfect Couple, and 1980's H.E.A.L.T.H.
The new four-DVD box set Robert Altman Collection omits H.E.A.L.T.H.—still unavailable on home video—in favor of a stripped-down single-disc edition of M*A*S*H, which most Altman fans already own. One switchout, and this set could've been a real cinephile treasure, filling in the biggest gap in the career of one of America's trickiest and most prolific pop artists. Instead, it's just three-fourths of the way to charting how a man who made some of the best films of the early '70s went so wrong.
The short answer is that he didn't go that wrong. Even a boondoggle like Quintet—a hazy Paul Newman science-fiction vehicle about a deadly dice game played by the inhabitants of an icy post-apocalyptic wasteland—is merely an extension of obscure Altman dream-dramas like Images and 3 Women. And both A Wedding and the AWOL H.E.A.L.T.H. are honest efforts at throwing what Pauline Kael termed "an Altman party," with a troupe of great actors filling up cartoon balloons and throwing them at each other. As for A Perfect Couple, it may be the most unjustly ignored entry in the Altman catalog: a breezy L.A. romantic comedy with Paul Dooley as a flustered antique heir and Marta Heflin as a dissatisfied backup singer in a communal rock band. The style is surprisingly plain for Altman—little in the way of roaming cameras or overlapping dialogue—but the honest, hopeful sketch of how people juggle life and art is really singular, matched only by The Company.
Still, A Wedding and Quintet do suffer from the arrogance vividly described in Patrick McGilligan's critical biography Robert Altman: Jumping Off The Cliff. According to McGilligan, in the late '70s, Altman started believing in the sheer force of his creative genius to bring shape to the shapeless, and he began embarking on half-realized projects while still distracted by his troubles with the previous ones. In A Wedding, the result is a sprawling slice of life that's generally pleasant, but without Nashville's depth and insight. And in spite of Quintet's triumphant production design, the movie itself is sleepy and attenuated. They're both failures of a kind, though not uninteresting ones. If all art is just an expression of who the artist is at any given time, then these sublimely screwed-up lesser Altmans are as much works of art as any of his masterpieces.
Key features: Fifteen-minute making-of featurettes on all three.