McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Steven Hellerstedt | 04/19/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've got to admit I'm a little surprised to read the negative critiques of McCABE & MRS. MILLER here. In my opinion this is one of the five greatest movies ever, in any genre, and I'm not an Altman fan. Anyway, here's my response to some of the criticism.
This film has too much realism - I watched the movie with the audio commentary by Robert Altman and producer David Foster (which is good, as far as those things go), and the short documentary on the making of McCABE & MRS. MILLER, which I believe was made shortly after the movie. The realism, in my opinion, is what gives this movie depth and texture. The town was being built while the movie was being shot (the film was shot in sequence), and the buildings are not facades. They are real buildings. Interior shots were done in them and not in studio. It's pointless, boring and pretentious - I think because Altman focuses so much on characters and their motivations the viewer may miss the plot. The plot here is pretty simple - At the turn of the last century a man builds a gambling/whore house in a small mining town. An astute madam joins him and in short order the venture is a success. Such a success, in fact, that an outside concern wants to buy him out. Two men are sent to the small town to negotiate with him, and he drunkenly refuses their offer. They leave and the outside concern takes the next step, which is to employ three hired killers to do away with McCabe.
I suppose letting characters evolve and refraining from throwing plot points at us can seem pretentious. To me, it simply felt like the director wasn't talking down to me. Altman says somewhere in the voice over that movies are canvases to him, and he likes working in the corners. That's not everybody's cup of tea.
And the ending.... Well, it ain't supposed to end like that, and even those of us who love the movie wish it had ended on a more positive note. We wish it only because we've become involved with the characters. But, if it had ended differently, if Mrs. Miller hadn't made that midnight run to Chinatown, we probably wouldn't be talking about it 30+ years on. Dismal story, dismal photography - Altman speaks some about the "look" of the movie. The cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, "flashed" the negatives to give it a daguerreotype feel. Flashing a negative is briefly exposing it to light before developing it. I hadn't noticed until I rewatched it the other day how the look changes after the pivot point - the failed negotiations. Before that the film looks warm and soft-focused, after that it acquires a harsh, white, sharp-focused look. The look, from set design to photography, is perfect. McCABE & MRS. MILLER killed the genre - That's kind of like saying Pete Rose destroyed baseball. I'm a huge fan of Westerns, from Gene Autry to John Wayne to Clint Eastwood and all stops in between, and I think this fits comfortably in the genre. I certainly think McCabe's response to the threat at the end of the film is truer to reality than most. When you got skilled bad guys tracking you, you hide in the corner and shot them in the back if you get the chance."
The real west, brought to life with a harsh, brutal beauty
John Grabowski | USA | 09/07/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"C'mon now, fess up: did you ever really believe in John Wayne as a cowboy? Or any of the other actors from 30s, 40s and 50s westerns? With their clean shirts, their white hats, their crisp scarves and their middle-America ethics, they were about as convincing as Harrison Ford as the president of the United States. The westerns of times past were about what we wanted the west to be, not what it was. Because the real west wasn't pretty and it wasn't romantic. It stank.
With this movie I was able to believe in the western setting for the first time. Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (from a novel by Edmund Naughton) not only deconstructs the cliches--the lone hero standing up to lots of bad guys, the hooker with a heart of gold, the town that pulls together--it suggests far more plausible realities about how the west was won. Altman's town is in business for its own survival. While, as Roger Ebert points out, "everybody knows everybody," and has long before the picture started, there's no team spirit here. Each character is a mercenary, and no one is noble. That's probably how it was in the real west if you wanted to survive past next Tuesday. That's probably why the film focuses so much on the church--it's a little bastion of relief after all the hypocracy that goes on from Monday through Saturday.
Early on Beatty's McCabe says he is trying to get away from "partners," people coming into his life and telling him what to do. One of Altman's central points is you cannot do that in a world that mirrors an organism, where many parts and not the single cell are what determine survival. More even than Fred Schepisi's excellent and underrated Barbarosa (1976), this western is about the anti-hero. Or maybe the non-hero. We sense McCabe will not escape the men who want his business interest from the first time they meet--everyone seems to figure that out but him. Mrs. Miller also seems to be fleeing something--we're never sure what exactly--but she appears out of whole cloth looking for McCabe and says she was "sent" to look for him, not really explaining anything with that explanation. Her motivation for hooking up with him remains elusive to me. She could have done better elsewhere. --Or maybe she just needed a man to boss around.
The rest of the cast do what ensemble casts do in Robert Altman films: they advance the director's bird's eye view of his surroundings. From the quirky Shelley Duvall to the low-key John Schuck, they inhabit a brutal world, both emotionally and physically. Everyone and everything is dirty. Nights are dark. Comforts are few, and are mostly found in the bottle and in intercourse, both social and carnal. Is it any wonder these people care only about themselves?
And that was the final message I took away from McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Towns--and business empires, and everything else--are founded by tough people who persevere and are anything but the romantic idealized symbols they become much later. The west of John Ford, of William Wyler, with tall cowboys and god-fearin' townsfolk, is comforting. It's a Disneyland vision of how we came to be, with a higher purpose as part of the mix. But whether it's big corporations or big towns, their survival was the result of violent actions, amoral choices and pure survival instinct. It's that instinct that McCabe, despite being his own sort of anti-hero, lacks, and pays the ultimate price for. Wal-Mart comes to town. That's part of the American story too. We subscribe to this myth that America is the land of rugged individualism, but in fact America embodies the collective corporate more probably than any other non-totalitarian country on the face of the earth. Or maybe even counting totalitarian countries--it's just a different kind of totalitarianism. Freedom, Altman tells us, is a myth, or at least the type of freedom Americans always hold to be theirs and theirs uniquely. It's not the kind of film to leave you with a smile as you walk out of the theater, but then, most of Robert Altman's movies aren't. In a way, this film is the antithesis to Wyler's The Big Country, which tells us that there's plenty of everything for everybody, and everyone can have his piece. In the 1950s, that seemed true enough. By the time we reached the 1970s, however, the world was a different place.
The film is gorgeously shot by one of my favorite cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmund. It's a cold beauty, but if you can find poetry in mud puddles and cloudy skies, you will be impressed. (This is one of the few movies I've ever seen where rain is actually *beautiful.*) The extremely low-key lighting matches the mood, and makes us feel cut off from the rest of the world. (I don't know why Gordon Willis got slammed so much in Godfather for his lack of light when this movie was made a year earlier and is every bit as dark.) Leonard Cohen's songs are a perfect complement. Their contemporary feel and lyrics tell us that the western genre is being deconstructed, once and for all.
For some people, McCabe and Mrs. Miller may not be their cup of tea. It's a film that yields more after subsequent viewings. There's not a lot of plot, and a few elements that are there still baffle me--the shooting of one coyboy in cold blood for no apparent reason, for example. The film takes its time to get from point A to point B, and in this post-Star Wars world that may prove frustrating to some. Still, for those who take their time with it, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a beautiful poem about the west, both the real one and the one that exists solely in our imaginations.
The print is good, though not pristine. There are scratches and nicks, which is the film's fault, but there's also fuzziness and a low-contrast, slightly washed-out image, which is not: Altman *liked* his movies to look that way. He deliberately flashed (slightly exposed) his film and shot with fog filters on the lenses to give the picture a rough-and-tumble documentary look. (He also did this with The Long Goodbye, Nashville and MASH, and other films. In more recent pictures he stopped doing it.) The music track sounds fine, but sometimes the dialogue is murky and hard to understand--even for Altman. Supposedly he was asked to clean up some of the sound elements and for some reason refused. The trailer is, surprisingly, anamorphic. (You won't care unless you have an HDTV.) There's not much for extras, just an Altman commentary (that's pretty good for once) and a short TV behind-the-scenes documentary. I liked this film a lot--to me it's another one of those great "70s sensibility" flicks like Chinatown and Godfather and Network--but I can understand how it might be an acquired taste, especially today.
Thoughts after watching the film again, 5/20/09:
I was struck this time how much this film is like MASH, in both obvious stylistic ways but also in structure and content. In fact, you could argue (this would make an interesting college thesis paper) that Mc&MM is largely a downbeat, pessimistic remake of MASH. You have the outsider come into a town that's long established, filled with colorful people (many of them played by the same actors as MASH) living on the frontier edge. He brings changes to the way things are done. A woman (Hot Lips) enters and brings "nurses" with her. The stranger is a rebel who chooses to go his own way. Two major differences: this rebel has no sidekick, no Trapper, no Duke. And the ending is bitter and tragic. Far more sobering than two wacky doctors who shake up the 4077th.
As with MASH, you feel in this film that the town has existed long prior to our hero's arrival, and will go on long after his "departure." Altman does this incredibly well with his films--creates a world that feels like it's already there and thus wasn't really created. I recall that the day before Larry Kasdan started shooting The Big Chill he had his actors live in the house and stay in character to prepare, so that it would really feel as though they were living there and it wasn't just a set they arrived at every morning. Similarly in Mc&MM, the cast and crew lived in the shacks constructed for the film, which were fully functional. Some writer/directors give us tight plots, some give us lone characters, some action extravaganzas. Altman creates whole worlds without seeming to do anything at all. His film never feel rehearsed. They just seem to "happen" in front of the camera. That's his gift to filmmaking, and one that, when it works, I personally can't get enough of.
Final thought: the 1970s were a wonderful time, artistically, where concepts such as heroism, individuality, responsibility, and identity were questioned. Today we're too busy battling CGI monsters. Pity. I was just reading in today's New York Times about how people today are more than ever uncertain about the future and their place in it, and how this is causing increasing levels of anxiety according to therapists and mental healthcare givers. I also note the utter lack of reflection in our literary and cultural lives. Connection? Could be..."
A Great Western, A Great Deconstruction, A Great Film
Arthur | Lawrence, Kansas | 07/13/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is one of my favorite Altman films (Vincent & Theo, The Player, The Long Good-Bye, and Short Cuts round out the top 5). He takes the Western--a great American genre, but an oft-hackneyed one--and injects new blood into its withered old veins. Gone are the trademarks of the old Western, many of which simply transplanted bourgeoise America onto the Plains: the setting is cold, wet, snowy, green and mountainous as much of the west was and is--not flat, dry, still and khaki-colored; the dialogue is common, vulgar and overlapping--not genteel and well-schooled; the people are crude, dirty and uneducated--not clean and prim; the hero is not a hero at all, not brave and skilled at gunplay--in fact, not everyone owns a gun; etc. etc. etc. Altman recreates the Western in this brilliant tale of greed, cowardice, power, cruelty, progress, and the calculus of addiction. Warren Beatty, Julie Christy and the rest of the cast are outstanding."