"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (Film 434)

Apparently Robert Altman also can't resist a nice alliterative title.

We settled down last night for the second in our Warren Beatty double header, Altman's 1971 western (made when he was virtually unknown in Hollywood) "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." This is a different sort of Altman film than what we have come to associate with him: there are no grand ensembles of celebrities, no intricately woven webs of characterization that seem both entirely plot and scornful of narrative. The eccentric philosophy of sound is there, with what little plot advancement there is occurring entirely in stifled, muttered outbursts that melt away before you have truly understood them. The visual fascination with idiosyncratic detail as a building block of character and place-as-character are also there, largely (to my eye at least) unchanged over the years.

"Ah," my boyfriend said as we started the film, "Altman. Another slow meander to a questionable destination." And it is indeed slow going at first. The film concerns a, well, an entrepreneur named McCabe (Beatty) who comes to the fledgling mine town of Presbyterian Church and decides that there is money to be made there in whores, liquor and gambling. He is soon joined by Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), who convinces him that there is more money to be made in high class brothels and bathhouses than in the filthy tents he has set up. They and a few others build an entire town faster than we have understand what is at stake in these events. As far as we can tell at this point, Altman is concerned with asking the really big questions in this film, questions like "How many whores can you fit into a barrel?" and "What if it were a really big barrel?"

I began to think about how both "Short Cuts" and "Nashville" had grown on me over time, going from rather dutiful, lengthy viewing experiences to objects of prolonged intellectual interest to vividly imagistic, almost archetypal myths. Would this happen with "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"? Would distance be necessary for affection or admiration to grow? Then we entered the final twenty minutes of the film. I don't want to ruin this for anyone, although as you know I am not normally in the habit of avoiding spoilers, so I won't go very deeply into it. Suffice it to say that big business interests express a desire to buy out McCabe and Mrs. Miller's holdings in Presbyterian Church, and threaten violence if their offers aren't entertained with sufficient openness. The protagonists' response, and the ramifications of their actions for the town, transform the movie in a fairly revelatory way. The events that ensue involve (at least) one of the cruelest, most senseless murders I have ever seen in a Western, and indeed this murder takes the genre into a new sphere of morality. It occurred to me that it is often the casual cruelty of an individual scene in Altman that transforms the film into something lasting, that lifts it out of the conventions of its genre, scenes like the one in which the fishermen find a corpse in "Short Cuts," but ignore it because they don't want to ruin their vacation.

Roger Ebert has said that of the many great movies that Altman has made, this is the only one that is perfect. I pondered what he could mean by that. Although I enjoyed and admired "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," both "Short Cuts" and "Nashville" interested me a lot more, in part for their intricacy. There is admittedly a lot to admire about the production of this film, which was brilliantly designed and shot in a real town that Altman's team built (and in fact inhabited) outside Vancouver. It is obviously also a tremendously influential film for its genre, leaving its mark with particular indelibility, I now realize, on the dusty frontier amorality of HBO's "Deadwood." I grow more fond of westerns with every movie I see from the genre.

Perhaps by "perfect," Ebert was getting at a rather more fundamental meaning of the word than "flawless." Perhaps he meant the word to connote "complete," for this is one of the most containable of Altman's "great" films, the one with the narrative borders that are the least porous. This is particularly worthy of note because the Altman style is so frequently associated with the opposite of these qualities. It is an aesthetic of imperfection, of incompletion, of expansiveness; of porousness of borders and roughness of edges. In "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," by contrast, pleasure is about coziness and confinement (think of the whores in the barrel, which was in fact a tub in the bathhouse), and fear is about claustrophobia.

"McCabe and Mrs. Miller"
Dir. Robert Altman

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