Wednesday, January 10, 2007
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) 
Ever since Robert Altman's death, I've been going over his body of work and have come to the conclusion that he is quite possibly my favorite director. This is the third Altman film I have given a perfect score to, along with The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts. A lot of reviews state this film is an anti-western, a perfect example of the genre deconstructionist that Altman was. That's not quite true; the film isn't a western in the typical Hollywood style but the characters, McCabe, a gambler who thinks he's smarter than he is played by Warren Beatty, and the humanistic prostitute played by Julie Christie are archetypical western characters. It's how Altman portrays them on the screen that raises them above standard characterization. There is an underlying melancholy in the characters, not just in their actions and mannerisms but in the film as a whole. The setting is consistently dreary, cloudy, and always raining and snowing. You can just get the feeling that the only result for McCabe and Mrs. Miller is failure. They, like the town, are doomed from the start.
This all leads back to the most prominent aspects of the film, the look and sound of it. Almost every review mentions the muddy overlapping sound, an Altman trademark, as well as the look of the film, most of which was accomplished by flashing the negative before filming. This is where the film truly lies for me. The look and sound of the film is key for the overall theme of the film. When I think of this film, I think of muddiness, not just the aesthetics, but also the town of Presbyterian Church as well as the characters themselves. The opening scene where McCabe first comes into town is as close to a perfect sequence as I could imagine. But its also the jumping point for many. The scene is so dark and the soundtrack so muddled that if you don't get it, it's better to just turn off this film and forget about it. Altman lays it all out early; this isn't going to be some pristine John Ford western, in look or theme. It's the complete difference in form that makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller so difficult yet so rewarding to those who understand what Altman wants out of it.
Also, the use of the Leonard Cohen songs in the film are absolutely phenomenal, especially the scenes when the prostitutes first arrive and 'Sisters of Mercy' is playing. Brilliant.