The permanent winter setting for Quintet is one that was explored by many filmmakers in the time before glasnost when the threat of nuclear war was still very present. A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in July 2007 maintains that the negative effects of a nuclear winter would be catastrophic. 'A global average surface cooling of –7°C to –8°C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4°C. Considering that the global average cooling at the depth of the last ice age 18,000 years ago was about –5°C, this would be a climate change unprecedented in speed and amplitude in the history of the human race' (Robock, Oman, and Stenchikov 2007).

diegesis_ icefield

Altman describes the opening of Quintet in the 1979 interview in Fantastic Film:

When the film opens up, we’re above the tree line, with nothing but frozen wasteland, and here is this modern train. You don’t really know it’s a train until you reach a certain point, but it tells you this is not Nanook of the North. But that there’s a train, and it's obviously been frozen in for God knows how long. And then you see these people walking. And then we take them into this first shelter. Which again, has a futuristic look to it, so you know that you’re in some time. (Altman 1979, 28)


The action of the science fiction film Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979) takes place during a nuclear winter. The sets are barren and post technological: a snowscape punctuated by derelict modern architecture and frozen machinery. Quintet was shot in the remains of the pavilions of the 1967 Montréal World's Exposition as well as in the territory of Nunavut, Canada. Altman uses the (nuclear) winter setting of Quintet – the expanses of white snow, the ice-encased structures, and the fogginess produced by condensation in the cold – to construct a diegesis that exists beyond our understanding of time and space. 


This project maps the locations in the old Expo 67 site that were used in the film, investigating how the representation of the international, modern architecture and design of the Expo pavilions could shift from signifying promise and potential for social betterment to becoming an index of technological catastrophe and social decay. It considers how the architecture of Expo 67 – both as a site of technological spectacle and as an impromptu film set – has disappeared, looking for what is left of these sites and mapping this process of looking. 

The map has three layers: islands shows the islands Notre-Dame and Sainte-Hélène as they were experienced when visited in the fall of 2011; diegesis ia a map of the fictional, post-apocalyptic city where the action of the film Quintet takes place; terre des hommes is a map of Man and his World, the themed site of Expo 67.

In Buster Keaton's film The Frozen North, much of the action takes place in a bar where the patrons are playing cards and gambling. As in Quintet, the north of The Frozen North is a place where time is occupied by playing games. The characters in the Altman film have nothing left to do but play the game Quintet. The alternative is to wait until eventually dying of cold and starvation. Waiting is replaced by playing a game. Altman borrows from a common leitmotif of the north, existing at least since the time of the Yukon Gold Rush, the gambling house. In the Yukon, gambling served as a dubious method for the unlucky miner to profit from the luck of his fellow prospectors, but it also served to help pass the time in a harsh place and climate. In the relative comfort of the bar or brothel, the gambler was, temporarily, oblivious of the cold and darkness outside. Caught up with the strategy and play of the game, the obsessive gambler knows neither night nor day, summer nor winter, occupying a temporal dimension that exists beyond the hours of the clock and the days of the calendar. The dark winter of the Arctic, like the nuclear winter of Quintet, is seemingly endless; in the continual darkness, time is not marked by the passing days, but by other, more psychological, conditions.

The first scenes of Quintet are those filmed in Nunavut. In these, the vastness of the arctic terrain stands for the barren frozen landscape of the future. Essex and Vivia, his companion, are heading towards his native city. Most of the action of the film takes place in the ruins of this city. The architecture and layout, as well as the way in which Essex describes it to Vivia, suggest a technologically advanced city, a metropolis of five million divided into five sectors and twenty-five levels. After the expanses of the first scenes, the action is now confined to the claustrophobic city complex and mostly to interiors. While the architecture and design of the city are modern, the economy and society would seem to have reverted to medieval models. 


The winter setting of Quintet exists outside place, due in part to the snow and icescape effacing details of the land. It also exists beyond time. In his recent book The Idea of North, Peter Davidson writes of the north as the end of our geographical imagination. 'Direction is suspended at the North and South Poles; they are places outside place' (Davidson 2005, 13). Nuclear winter results in a north beyond our temporal imagination. The action of Quintet takes place in the future, but it is hard to determine how many years hence. Again it is the winter landscape that obfuscates our understanding of the time period. The film opens with a long travelling shot showing a train frozen in the snow. The aforementioned scenes indicate a time after an environmental catastrophe has left the world a frozen wasteland. Davidson writes that since Scott’s ill-fated polar expedition, 'there is a presupposition attending ideas of north of disaster, loss, expeditions that fail to return' (ibid.) The image of Scott's failed expedition to the South Pole is recalled in the first scene of Quintet as two figures are shown struggling to make their way through a harsh frozen landscape reminiscent of cinematic depictions of Antarctica.



In the film's diegesis, Quintet is a participation game popular before disaster struck the world. It is still played and it consumes most of the inhabitants time in the city. There is nothing else for them to do but wait to die of starvation or cold. When, at the end of the film, Essex discovers that the rules of the game have changed and that the goal is to kill off one's opponents, he decides to leave the city, alone. The film ends in the same landscape as it began with the solitary Essex walking into the whiteness of the snow.



The where and the when of the film's diegesis is never revealed in the script or through the location and sets. No places are named; Essex, the protagonist played by Paul Newman, speaks at the beginning of the film about the city he remembers without naming it or placing it in an identifiable history.


I was trying to never show the audience the perimeter of the film. Keep you in a kind of interior claustrophobia. A residual effect we got out of it was that we found we could make people appear and disappear right in front of your eyes. I mean they don’t leave the hard sharp frame when they walk out. They walk toward the edge and they just disappear. [...] It helps the cold because it gives you that kind of sensation of looking through a frosted windowpane. (Altman 1979, 35)


While Quintet is not Nanook of the North, the initial shock upon seeing the train frozen in the snowscape is reminiscent of another film with a northern theme from the same year as Flaherty’s classic documentary but made in a different spirit. Buster Keaton's comedy short The Frozen North opens with a shot of a New York subway entrance standing in a snow covered field. Keaton's character first appears coming out of this structure, suggesting he reached the Arctic by subway. The juxtaposition of urban transportation infrastructure with an empty wilderness is used by Altman, not as a surreal gag in the style of Buster Keaton, but to destabilise the viewers' expectations of where the action in his film might be taking place.


Watching a film in a climate-controlled, darkened cinema takes us outside diurnal time, to the time of the diegesis, to a time of memories and dreams. The American artist Robert Smithson, in 'A Cinematic Atopia', an essay written for Artforum in 1971, posits the cinema as a space of corporeal inertia and apathy, one in which the spectator succumbs to entropy and reverts to near catatonic state. 'Going to the cinema results in an immobilization of the body' (Smithson [1971] 1996, 138). Roland Barthes sees the cinema as a psychological space where we encounter our unconscious selves. In his essay, 'En sortant du cinéma', Barthes remarks on the shock one feels when leaving the cinema and returning abruptly to the time and space of the exterior world. The immersive cinematic experience has changed much since the release of Quintet and since Barthes and Smithson were writing. Technological, commercial, and social developments have made going to the cinema a rare activity; disorientating immersion occurs elsewhere, in the mediatised home theatre perhaps, but certainly often in museums and galleries showing contemporary moving image based art practices.



This controlled state of darkness outside daily time would have been the way in which most of Altman's audience would have first experienced Quintet – at a screening in a cinema. The audience would have presumably experienced the disorientation that Altman intended through the diegesis and effect of the film to produce in them. And they would have experienced a second disorientation through the darkened contained space and time of the cinema.




If I showed you the city, you would see something that you had never seen before, and you would consequently not believe it. It would look like a model [...] And I never wanted to show the perimeter of anything. I leave that to your imagination, because if I had shown you what it looked like, the magic would have been gone. (Altman 1979, 28)


In the last scene of the film, Altman employs a type of shot that uses the light and atmospheric conditions of the northern landscape to play with our perception and disorient us. The closing shot, which lasts more than two minutes, shows Essex disappearing into the landscape. It is impossible to determine at what moment we loose sight of him. In an experimental video work made in the same year, Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat), Bill Viola recorded on video a similar and now classic scene during a blizzard in rural Saskatchewan. In this scene, the figure walks towards the camera; we are not at first aware of his presence, blurred by the cold and snow, and cannot say when we first see him.

In Images de surface Christine Ross writes of this scene, 'Comme le remarque Gene Youngblood, les prairies enneigées de la Saskatchewan sont géographiquement sans limites et se présentent visuellement comme des espaces sans profondeur qui minent la perspective quattrocentriste. D’emblée, les yeux se cognent contre une surface sans repère constituée par la confusion mimétique de la neige et de l’écran' (Ross 1996, 84; my translation, 'As noted by Gene Youngblood, the snow-covered prairies of Saskatchewan are without geographical limits and appear as a depthless space contradicting Renaissance perspective. The eye is confronted with a picture plane lacking any indication of depth or scale. This lack of perspective is caused by the surface of the screen mimicking that of the snow'). 

As well as being a characteristic quality of the electronic image of video art, the lack of depth of field that the Saskatchewan snowscape presents us with in Viola’s video is the effect of the cold and the winter landscape on our perception. Capturing this blurring of perception was a reason Altman was interested in shooting in the cold.