McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971 USA 121mins)

Source: CAC Prod Co: Warner Brothers Prod: David Foster, Mitchell Browerk Dir: Robert Altman Scr: Altman Phot: Vilmos Zsigmond Ed: Louis Lombardo Art Dir: Leon Ericksen Mus: Leonard Cohen

Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine

In Bruegel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the foresaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

(W.H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts)

There are two basic interlocking textual strategies that mark the cinema of Robert Altman. A panoramic form which encompasses multiple characters and stories and centres around a particular event, space or institution (Nashville [1975], Short Cuts [1993], Kansas City [1997]). A revisionist form which interrogates, critiques and pays homage to the genres and archetypes of classical Hollywood cinema (The Long Goodbye [1973], Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson [1976], The Player [1992]). On the surface these might seem to be distinct types or strategies; one protagonist orientated and the other ensemble based, one a critical dialogue with classical narration, and the other representative of a move on to other modes of narrative exposition. One with its roots in classical American cinema, and the other inching closer to the forms of European art cinema. And yet these distinctions and definitions make little sense of the shared ground of most of Altman’s films. For example, McCabe and Mrs. Miller follows the coordinates of the most rudimentary of westerns; full of archetypal and cliched characters and situations such as the loner/stranger (in this case Warren Beatty as McCabe) who shakes up a frontier town and the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold (Julie Christie’s as Mrs. Miller). But these classical or archetypal elements are undermined by the film’s opaque view of its characters, its foregrounding of atmosphere and place (including the ‘atmosphere’ of place, weather), and a technique which captures characters (both their bodies and voices) within pictorial tableaux that emphasise their relativity to the unfolding drama. In this respect, parts of, and indeed images within McCabe and Mrs. Miller resemble a painting by the sixteenth century artist Pieter Bruegel; broken up into interlocking tableaux and brought up to date (i.e. into cinema) by the deployment of favourite Altman devices like the zoom, the pan and multi-tracked sound – these devices serving to distance the events and characters from the viewer while opening up the frame, and the relationship between frames, to the scrutiny of the spectator.

Altman’s films and the individual frames within them truly encounter the notion of the canvas and the opportunities that the breadth of such a canvas offers its audience for the activities of scanning and choosing. Altman’s style is akin to a painting style that retains its imperfections, flaunts its brushstrokes and provides a tapestry of observations rather than a balanced or obviously composed image. As in the films of Jacques Tati, this choice of focus or emphasis, this relative democracy, is deeply circumscribed by the stylistic choices of the films. However, Altman’s films take an almost opposite tack to Tati’s, in that they depend upon the improvisation of dialogue and performance, an intuitive response to place and situation – muddying and expanding the soundscape rather than separating out elements – and insist on the varying planes and emphases of the pan and zoom rather than the locked-off shot and deep focus. Tati produces a sense of choice (and life) through the obvious mediation of everything that is seen and heard (including the meticulous construction of a city in Play Time), while Altman produces the same effect by opening up the film to other voices, sounds, characters and narrative foci (while still constructing a town in McCabe).

It is possible to argue that Altman is the most significant and emblematic director of post-classical American cinema. This argument can be made in terms of how his films set up a model of filmmaking and narrative exposition (see the influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia [1999]), how they revisit earlier narrative and genre models (and thus establish a dialogue and intertextual relationship with the past), how his body of work offers a model of independence (and of how to keep making films when so few are commercially successful), and how to do all this within the context of contemporary American cinema (Altman moves fluidly between the studios, the independents, public and network television). McCabe was made early on in Altman’s film career, and not long after his move out of television. As much as one can place his films within the context of the New Hollywood (and the explicit revisionism of directors like Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma) or European art cinema, they can also be seen in light of his television work of the ’50s and ’60s. His command of, and to some degree boredom with, the framework of genres such as the western can be traced back to his work on such programs as Bonanza, and the ways in which such television programs rely upon the most basic formulae of these genres to enable quick and streamlined production. Altman extends this approach to the widescreen feature film by following the conventions of character and situation that define each genre – for example, if I was to tell you the basic story of McCabe you might think that it represents the most conventional of western forms and stories. But it is the emphasis that Altman places upon ambience, atmosphere and the transgressive potential of such generic elements and formulae that proves to be transformative. It is here that his films, and McCabe is no exception, become iconoclastic and start to probe the structures, ideologies and basic content of established forms. This iconoclasm also lies in elements of characterisation such as the endless mumblings of Beatty’s McCabe and the ways in which the film de-emphasises and cuts away from what might appear to be the central concerns of the narrative. This is particularly evident in the closing stages of the film, where the beautiful and brutal snow-bound fight to the death between McCabe and the ‘bounty’ hunters is shown in ‘cold’ long-shot, and is interspersed with images of the townspeople attending their burning church and, eventually, Mrs. Miller drifting away into an opium haze. In these scenes the film finds an analogue to the intricately detailed multi-narrative canvasses of Bruegel – as McCabe fights his inevitable battle, other folks, and indeed the film itself through the use of crosscutting between scenes and situations that never come together, look elsewhere.

Like many westerns of the last forty years McCabe and Mrs. Miller can be considered as a kind of anti-western. Its characters’ romantic hopes and dreams flounder against the vicissitudes of ‘progress’ and big business. In this respect the film is reminiscent of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and pre-emptive of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). It also shares many of the concerns, landscapes and geography of Anthony Mann’s The Far Country (1955), a film equally concerned with the fading or dying of particular myths and territories. Rather than focus upon the myths of frontier, individualism and the destruction of the wilderness by ‘civilisation’, McCabe contrasts various models of entrepreneurship, situating McCabe’s failure as being largely the result of the mundanity of his business acumen and vision (and not his choice of business as a whorehouse manager).

Another remarkable element of this film is its use of music, and more generally, of sound. Much of the opening thirty minutes of the film is difficult to follow and requires both an attentive eye and ear, or at least a recognition that the film wont do everything for you. McCabe is famous for disorientating many of its early audiences when the soundtrack was even muddier than it became in the subsequent release prints. Meanwhile, Leonard Cohen’s songs, often criticised as banal or half-baked, are integral to the tone and structure of the film. They drift in and out, sometimes coalescing with the images or story, while at other times providing a rough counterpoint. At no time is this relationship solid and clearly marked and the music (along with the washed-out, extremely yellow imagery intended to simulate late nineteenth century photography) also contributes to the dream-like quality of the film. Despite its firm placement within the revisionist frames of the New Hollywood, and Altman’s own seemingly systematic revisiting of genre cinema, McCabe is amongst the most classical of anti-Westerns (and like many of Altman’s films its subject is ostensibly the meaning of the term ‘America’). Counter to the acid westerns of Hopper or the ultra-violence of much Peckinpah, McCabe sits alongside The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah, in a more wistful mode, 1970) as an autumnal, almost wintry, western – less country than folk, imperfectly but perfectly scored by the melancholy and broken tenor of Cohen’s voice.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and co-editor of Senses of Cinema.