The Robert Altman Collection

The Robert Altman Collection (1970)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Paul Newman, Geraldine Chaplin, Mia Farrow, Paul Dooley
Extras: Commentary Track, Still Gallery, Featurettes, Trailers

Robert Altman is one of the most unusual of American directors, a constant risk-taker who has challenged Hollywood conventions, yet held in high esteem by the very industry that he defies. As such, he has had more than his share of failures, both critical and commercial, yet his films continue to influence young filmmakers and strike chords with audiences, whether they like what they're seeing or not.

Perhaps to coincide with Altman's recent reception of the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has released "The Robert Altman Collection," a box set showcasing the filmmaker's diverse talents and, perhaps, obsessions. It is certainly a mixed bag of movies, with one of his best-known films and three relatively obscure ones, offering a look into the path of his career throughout the 1970s.

The first film in the collection happens to be his biggest hit, the darkly satirical "MASH" (1970). An irreverent look at the unruly and sexual hijinks of an army medical crew during the Korean War, the film stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as a pair of laid-back surgeons with a penchant for playing golf and mixing martinis, much to the chagrin of Major "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), the head nurse. Famous for its combination of broad humor and bloody realism, "MASH" was a landmark in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Next up is the romantic comedy "A Perfect Couple" (1979). Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin star in this genuinely offbeat film about the two unlikeliest of lovers – he a middle-aged member of a Greek patriarchal family, she an unsatisfied rock singer. Having met through a computerized dating service, they find that they have more in common than they first expected, leading them through a rocky and often hilarious relationship.

The true prize of this collection is "A Wedding" (1978), Altman's take on that great American obsession, the society wedding. This film is a fine example of the director's famous mosaic style with nearly fifty characters intertwined in various subplots and featuring his trademark overlapping dialogue. "A Wedding" boasts memorable performances from its eclectic cast, including Carol Burnett as the flustered mother of the bride, Geraldine Chaplin as a fanatical mistress of ceremonies, Mia Farrow as the maid of honor who may not be so honorable, and Lillian Gish as a family matriarch who decides to drop dead before the reception.

Rounding out the collection is 1979's "Quintet," Altman's perplexing, nihilistic view of the future. Paul Newman stars in this troubling sci-fi outing about the last human survivors of a new ice age who engage in a deadly game to stay alive. With striking art direction and a storyline that inspires more questions than answers, this is probably one of Altman's most fascinating but least accessible films.

Like the movies themselves, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's presentation is wildly uneven. All of the films are presented in anamorphic widescreen, but it is difficult to judge exactly how good the image quality is, as Altman frequently shot on tight budgets and often deliberately strove for a murky look.

"MASH" is without a doubt the best-looking of the bunch, showcasing deep blacks and little grain, which was most likely intentional. "Quintet" also looks reasonably clear. It must be noted that Altman applied a special filter (and in some cases, Vaseline) to the cameras during the making of this film to give the edges a blurred appearance. This is in no way a flaw on the DVD transfer.

"A Wedding" and "A Perfect Couple" both alternate between a very clear presentation and a grainy, VHS-quality appearance. Altman's trademark use of zoom lens may have partially contributed to this inconsistency, though a small portion of "A Wedding" displays very poor saturation with colors seemingly bleeding into one another.

Language options differ from disc to disc as well. "A Wedding" contains an English track in 5.1 channel Dolby Digital, while the rest of the films feature a English Dolby Digital stereo track. "MASH" and "Quintet" both offer alternate English and French monaural tracks. "A Perfect Couple," "A Wedding," and "Quintet" all feature a monaural track in Spanish.

"MASH" is presented in the same single-disc edition that was released in late 2004, complete with an audio commentary by the director, theatrical trailer, still gallery, and an "AMC Backstory" featurette. The commentary gets off to a slow start, with several long stretches of silence, but it eventually picks up, with Altman providing some enlightening information. The "Backstory" episode is a nice attraction, but hardly the in-depth retrospective that a film of this caliber deserves.

The rest of the discs are fairly sparse in the special features department. Each comes with theatrical trailers and a short featurette with interviews by Altman, cast and crew members. Paul Dooley, Marta Heflin, and Desi Arnaz, Jr., among others, turn up to offer their recollections of working with Altman and experiencing his often unorthodox ways of filming.

"The Robert Altman Collection" will most likely appeal solely to diehard fans of the director who can appreciate his unique style of filmmaking and undying commitment to experimentation. This assortment offers a small taste of the director's wide range of interests and talents and his incredible knack for conjuring fine performances from his actors. Controversial, misunderstood, and always intriguing, Robert Altman is a true original, and this set is a testament to his love of filmmaking and ever-increasing influence. Given their reputations, we are really lucky to have these films on DVD at all, which makes this collection even more worthwhile.