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McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

At home with Krystle as part of our weekly movie watching.

Despite my general dislike for Altman - Gosford Park is a masterpiece, Nashville bored me and The Player was ok but nothing to get excited about - it was the one and only Pauline Kael who made this film a must see for me. An interviewer once joked that given Kael's strong opinions on film, who in their right mind would ever dare disagree with her? Kael laughed and replied that in reality she wasn't all that bad, but then in her typical fashion went on to say that she wasn't sure if she could ever be friends with anyone who didn't love McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And that was that.

A lot of love and devotion has gone into every aspect of the production of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: the costumes, the cinematography with its beautiful soft filters, the construction of the Presbyterian Church town etc. All too often accolades for production value of period pieces are mistaken for refinement or simple beauty when they should be given for the degree to which they allow the viewer to truly inhabit the time and place being depicted.

The look of M&M versus traditional Westerns is about as close as that of Blade Runner and traditional slick science fiction, which is to say, not at all. It certainly isn’t beautiful by any traditional standards: the picture is too dark and soft, and the characters themselves seem to always be bundled up in strictly functional – and as such, unflattering – clothing. The men are greasy and unkempt while even the harlots in the whorehouse are, well, nothing special to look at. But M&M does not merely look different, but brilliantly – if not “beautifully” – so. It’s hard to describe how effectively this is all done. Hollywood is certainly full of many able craftsmen whom are able to reproduce depressingly blue overcast skies or muddy streets, but these intangibles are captured to such a degree here that we not only see but experience these unrefined elements weighing on and trying us as they do the characters in the film.

It's a shame that none of this devotion is translated to the treatment of the actual storytelling elements of the film.

At a tribute for the recently deceased Altman, his son Rick described him as “not so much a lover of truth as a hater of lies.” A more succinct summary of his approach in telling M&M there never was. Its ending and numerous threads within the film seem devoted to countering the conventions of the traditional western, and even Altman himself described it as an “anti-western”. That’s all great and original, but the next question is, to what effect?

The film seems to exist for no other reason than to be iconoclastic. It may be called “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, but Altman isn’t able to resist his auteur-ish callings and ends up dividing his time equally between the eponymous couple and his typical menagerie of characters. The difference here is that unlike say Gosford Park or Nashville, M&M is not your typical ensemble piece. The pros of the ensemble film are by definition mutually exclusive to those of the protagonist-driven film, and yet Altman tries to have his cake and eat it too. This results in an overall weakening effect on both. The relationship between McCabe & Mrs. Miller seems, well, non-existent to tell you the truth. Some critics may choose to use the word ‘subtle’, but I certainly don’t see it. The quantum leap transition in the dynamics of their relationship from screwball to repressed longing is so sudden and seemingly forced that it's almost laughable.

No filmmaker in history from past to present has yet come up with a technique to quickly yet subtly depict a blossoming relationship, and thank goodness for that. This is of course why masters like Ozu and Hou are still relevant to this day. Altman knows these rules (having learnt that from the master himself, Renoir). And having said that, one has to wonder what he was thinking in trying to tell such a subtle love story – of sorts – while splitting equal screen time with scenes that are so emotionally and tonally different in their utter nihilism: Shelly Duvall stabbing her client, her husband being killed, the entire thread involving the young cowboy, the hitman etc. And it’s the inclusion of all these nihilistic elements that is troubling to me, not simply because they disrupt any sort of continuity that might have existed in the McCabe & Mrs. Miller thread, but because of their seeming existence for no other reason than to cynically oppose the traditional image of the Western.

The interesting thing about this stance is how “unfair” it is. Altman isn’t attempting to “say” anything morally reprehensible in the film by making an anti-western. One might even make the argument that he’s doing a service by setting the record straight about the “real” west. But this is film and art, not a historical document, and M&M is certainly not a documentary.

This brings up an interesting issue regarding morality and art. Moral arguments are not “fair” insofar as they say that there is really nothing wrong with a film whose only purpose is to entertain and bring joy (trite and excessive manipulation aside) but a film whose only intent is mean-spirited nihilism is bad. Despite its relative lack of any excessive profanity, sex, or violence, M&M seems to fit the latter. A few moments aside, it seems to not simply document but revel in Altman’s immorally revised West. Unlike some of his other ensemble pieces where his technique of the floating camera allows him to subtly get away with tangentially showing immoral things without any subconscious moral retribution on that part of the viewer – and thus giving the impression of documenting rather than propagandizing – M&M is completely unmasked because of its aforementioned split focus on Beatty and Christie’s characters. There is no logical preceding action to things like Shelley Duvall’s stabbing of the patron, her old husband being killed and most reprehensibly, the young cowboy being shot in cold blood etc. They feel expressly invented and we cut to them for the explicit reason of seeing their actions so that we might be left with a revisionist idea of the west. In reality, I found them to be more masochistic than informative, more mind-numbing than thought-provoking.

This nihilism is made ever more clear by the ending which is only redeemed by Altman’s fantastic visual storytelling. The unconventionality of the film up to that point adds to the suspense of every sequence. Unlike a regular Western where – deep down inside – we know that good will triumph over evil, in M&M our expectations are circumvented at every bend that it seems anything really could be possible.

M&M may still look and feel like a maverick film by one of the most well-known maverick filmmakers, but it seems to me that when one finds themselves as the lone dissenter for the sake of being different rather than for the love of truth, “curmudgeon” becomes the more appropriate word.

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