Saturday, January 21, 2017

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Criterion's restoration of Robert Altman's iconic McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a reminder of the audacity of American filmmakers in the late sixties.  Emboldened by the French New Wave, young American directors wagered that audiences could be attracted to pictures that were, in some ways, even more radical than their European models.  McCabe and Mrs. Miller is, perhaps, the most successful of those experiments, in some respects as adventurous as Godard.  Coupling a traditional Western narrative with astonishing technical innovations, Altman succeeded in creating something new that succeeded precisely because it was embedded deep within the classical tradition.  It is like Manet's painting of the encounter between naked women and insouciant boulevardiers reimagining a pastorial image by Giorgione.-- although the technique and attitude maybe newfangled the subject matter is highly traditional.  Altman emigrated to film from industrial films and TV -- as a TV director, he knew his Westerns:  he had directed dozens of episodes of shows like Bonanza and The Rifle Man.  Although McCabe and Mrs. Miller is classed as an anti-Western, in fact, the narrative is informed by classical Westerns and, ultimately, endorses their ethos and themes.  One must remember that the genre of the Western has always been expansive enough to contain something like its antithesis-- arguably William S. Hart's apocalyptic Hells' Hinges made in 1916 represents an early example of an anti-Western, that is, a Western that challenges the norms ordinary assumptions (in this case, the rectitude of the hero) and we must remember that Stephen Crane's harrowing "The Bride comes to Yellow Sky" is, also, in form, a cowboy-story.  Westerns represent a period of lawlessness in which vigilante actionis necessary to protect and affirm ordinary human rights.  In a Western, the presence of women signifies civilization.  In many Westerns, a single man is called upon to defend a community that has been established in the wilderness.  The form is pastoral and relies heavily on landscapes that demonstrate the powers of nature and the comparative weakness of men -- it is a variant on Burke's esthetic category of the Sublime: the indifferent landscape often serves as a metaphor for the ferocity of the human beings who live in that wasteland.  Almost all great Westerns have a distinctive Stimmung or mood -- this is the mood of irreparable loss:  the frontier is closing, the railroads have criss-crossed the Plains and the Indians are gone with the buffalo.  Soon enough the wild, free life will be domesticated to law and order and the landscape itself will be subordinated to industry and culture:  the lone hero rides away into the West, that is, a sunset denoting both death and the persistence of memory.  All of these elements are distinctly realized in Altman's 1970 picture.  John McCabe is first seen riding across a rocky wooded landscape, a lone figure on horseback draped in what seems to be a buffalo-skin robe.  (Leonard Cohen's lonesome-sounding ballads seemed ahistorical and, even, a wee bit grating at the time the film was released -- now that Cohen has himself ridden off into the sunset, the music seems completely appropriate and elegiac.  At the time, I assume Altman thought he was parodying the tendency for Westerns to have baritone singers intoning manly shoot-em-up ballads at the beginning and end of these films -- but what began as a ironic joke, now packs a melancholy punch:  anti-Westerns have the propensity to become real Westerns at the drop of a Stetson hat.)  McCabe doesn't correct the misapprehension in the tent-camp where he takes up residence that he is noted gunfighter who once killed a bad man with a derringer although, in fact, the protagonist is merely a semi-proficient gambler and small-time pimp.  Women are purchased like chattel and brought to the mining camp called Presbyterian Church where a half-mad preacher has built a steeple and meeting hall ignored entirely by the people who live in the gulch.  A tough cockney whore, Mrs. Miller, partners with McCabe to build a "real sporting house" and her presence in the town domesticates the miners -- they are required to take baths at McCabe's other franchise, his bathhouse, before consorting with the girls and pretty soon the frontiersman are dancing to player-piano waltzes in the lushly furnished brothel.  Women, even prostitutes, are forces of civilization -- when the bride comes to Yellow Sky, the frontier is closing.  McCabe's success engenders envy.  A mining company tries to buy him out.  When he fumbles the negotiations, mostly conducted when grandiosely drunk, the corporation sends three spectacularly bad hombres to kill McCabe.  And, at that point, all the Western tropes are in place.  As in High Noon, the townspeople don't come to McCabe's assistance and, indeed, even, Mrs. Miller is missing in action.  Left to his own devices, McCabe is forced to live up to his reputation as a gunslinger and, in fact, manages to kill the three bad guys before bleeding to death in a blizzard.  (Mrs. Miller is lost in reverie in a Chinese opium den.)  All of the elements in the climax are designed exactly according to audience expectations -- McCabe even gives a little speech about a man having to do what a man has to do.  (Altman's spin on this speech, realistic, I think, is that McCabe's first impulse to flee or buy his way out of the trouble has been thwarted and, therefore, he speaks primarily reassure himself -- in fact, because this is what a hero in a Western dime novel might say.)  Of course, Altman works interesting variations on this standard material, but it is all recognizably true to the genre.  For instance, in one scene, McCabe stalks down a hill, coat open and his six-shooter visible on his hip -- he's dressed in black and this seems to be leading to a standard showdown.  But, in fact, the adversary is a silly, grinning kid looking for his brothel (Keith Carradine indelible in one of his first roles) and no one is going to shoot anyone.  Later, when McCabe goes into the blizzard to fight the hired assassins, he bumbles through a door, falls onto a barrel, and, then, wastes a ludicrous five or six seconds wrestling with the barrel before he gets up -- this scene represents Altman's de-mythologizing staging, but, also, in the context of other classic Westerns (referring, I think, to the scene in The Wild Bunch in which the head gunman's horse gets ensnared in a drift of sand, pitching the riders rather ridiculously off their saddles.)  The final gun battle staged in a snowstorm -- the townspeople have formed a bucket-brigade to put out a fire raging in the unused church while McCabe alone is fighting for his life -- is an exemplary action sequence, tapestries of violent group action (the people working to put out the fire) interposed with the silent and deadly hide-and-go-seek game between McCabe and the killers. (And the implacable snowstorm is a classic example of nature's indifference to the puny human's struggling against it.)  In this sequence, Altman's cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond makes repeated use of his zoom lens -- the sequence should be studied by would-be filmmakers for a variety of reasons but the exemplary use of the zoom to direct and highlight action, a technique that generally seems too overt and, even, kitschy is remarkable in its own right.  (The way that the steadily falling snow controls the motion of the characters and their strategies is reminiscent of the final battle in the rainstorm, another bravura action sequence, in Kurosawa' s Seven Samurai.)  Indeed, as the film progresses toward its climax every element falls into a time-honored pattern -- the implacable killers are like the assassins in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, agents of a capitalist commercial enterprise, and the murder of Keith Carradine's hapless cowboy by one of the thugs inevitably calls to mind the killing of the foolishly bellicose settler on the muddy street in Shane.  One of the pleasures of the classical Western is to trace influences and Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller provides the viewer with a multitude of allusions to analyze and consider. 

I saw this film, probably in 1971, at the old Campus Theater in Stadium Village.  I think my father and I had been watching Dick Cavett and, perhaps, we saw either Pauline Kael or Robert Altman himself talking about the film and this moved my father, who had seen the movie before, to take me to the film.  I have never forgotten the impression made by this picture.  For the first two-thirds of the move, you strain to see what is shown in the frame -- the images are blurry and it is either too dark or the images are over-lit, flaring with excessive light that bleeds out all the colors and makes indistinct the edges of things.  As the film moves toward its climax, however, it becomes increasingly clear and distinct and, at last, the final gun battle is shot with hard edges and clear, prismatic geometry -- it's as lucid and Euclidean as the gunfight at the end of High Noon.  (The end of the film also contains a shot that I've always found to be inexplicably and mysteriously moving -- after the church fire is extinguished, the town's two African-American residents, a husband who is a barber and his wife, both turn away from the fire and the rejoicing among the townspeople and walk swiftly away, bowing their heads against the storm:  the picture reminds me for some reason of Goya's image of winter and it has, at least for me, some enigmatic and profoundly affecting significance that I can't quite describe.)  As the film's allusions to classical Westerns becomes more clear and unmistakable, the images actually seem to become clearer and more readily interpreted.  From the Criterion commentary, I now know that this effect was intentional, a tremendous fraud, in a way, perpetrated upon the movie's producers.  Zsigmond and Altman wanted to leach the color out of the film but weren't willing to shoot in black and white -- accordingly, they "flashed" the negatives, that is, over-exposed the film intentionally to create the blurry, mist-bound Impressionistic effects of the movie's first ninety minutes.  (Someone said that watching the movie was like looking through a dirty dishrag slopped over the camera lens.)   "Flashing" the negative was irreversible -- the studio couldn't correct the apparent "defects" in the footage if it wanted to. This aspect of the movie is blatantly experimental -- no major director would be allowed to do this kind of thing today -- and, yet, the effect pays-off beautifully and contributes powerfully to the film's effect.  Less effective today was Altman's similarly radical experiment with the soundtrack -- he recorded multiple layers of sound, putting a pick-up mic on each actor in his group scenes, then, he fiddled with the mix, bringing to the forefront the lines or bits of dialogue Altman wanted you to hear.  The movie is recorded in monaural and the effect doesn't really work -- the soundtrack remains very hard to decipher and also lacks depth.  I think the effect Altman was seeking to achieve requires placement of the different layers of sound in different locations in the auditorium -- in other words, Altman's multi-layered soundtrack would work well with today's surround-sound, different phrases and murmurs coming from a different virtual space.  But recorded on monaural, it must be conceded that this experimental technique fails -- rather than seeming rich and polyvalent, the soundtrack seems under-recorded, indistinct, and, in fact, one dimensional.  It has some of the characteristics of an overdubbed European film, for instance, an Italian picture dubbed into English.  This flaw, however, is a noble defect, an experiment that doesn't quite work in one of the best and most important films in American history.

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