(Screening today (6/26) at the Brattle Theatre, at 2:15pm and 7pm.)
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he’ll never need to deal another
(Leonard Cohen, “Stranger Song”)
Given the heroic aura that continues to surround the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ contingent of easy riding, bullishly raging auteurs, who famously made the 1970s a brief golden age of idiosyncratic yet commercially viable filmmaking–the usual suspects including but not limited to Coppola, Scorsese, Ashby, Bogdanovich, this Altman guy–it’s striking how predominant in so many of this ragged pack’s key works is an affect of defeat, deflation, and disillusion.
In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, considered by some critics to be his greatest work (Roger Ebert called it his only “perfect” film), Robert Altman telegraphed an abiding mood of sweetly somber, sardonic sorrow right from the start, as the first of several songs by Leonard Cohen, which comprise the film’s only non-diegetic soundtrack, establish, in accord with the lush bleakness of the landscape, a dreamily world-weary folk-romance of dejection, according to which all of the options available to us are, at the end of the day, variations on blowing it.
Altman’s approach to filmmaking is sometimes characterized as if it were monolithic; as if somewhere around MASH (1970) the director’s tics and tactics assumed their final form, upon which Altman then worked a few decades of variations, with sublime success (1975’s Nashville, for example) and, less often, mumblesome dither (1978’s A Wedding, which should have at least been hilarious, given its remarkable cast). I don’t think this is a fair characterization. At least three of Altman’s most enduring films of the 1970s–Images (1971), Brewster McCloud (1970), and The Long Goodbye (1973)–range pretty far from our narrowly conceived notions of the “Altmanesque,” each experimenting with novel ways of externalizing character psychology and configuring narrative while pulling the rug out from under, and rabbits from the hat of, genre conventions.
The thing about McCabe & Mrs. Miller, though, is that it epitomizes and perfects central aspects of the style that–for most of us, most of the time–Altman’s name calls to mind. It drops us, in medias res, into the life (more so than the lives) of a large group of loud, louche characters living marginal lives on the fringes of America’s 19th century frontier–in this case a tiny snowbound outpost called Presbyterian Church–and allows us to gather what we can from the buzzing, blurring cross-tangle of incident and conversation. There are stories in there, and even a plot, but they emerge in their own time.
Mrs. Miller–as memorably incarnated by Julie Christie, her moon-face aglow in lambent lantern-light–is a sad but clear-eyed cynic, for whom prostitution is a more honest (and enjoyable) arrangement than marriage, and opium a more honest (and enjoyable) version of illusion than virtue. If after laughter, as the Wendy Rene song has it, comes tears, perhaps what remains in the aftermath of all those tears is business–which, as we all know, is business.
Because she understands this, Mrs. Miller also understands that the brothel she operates with (but really for) John McCabe (big-talking, dim-witted, and played by Warren Beatty) can’t avoid its fate as grist for the mill of America’s manifesting destiny, represented here by the nefarious Harrison Shaughnessy company’s bid to acquire Presbyterian Church for its mining rights.
But Mrs. Miller’s disenchanted survivalism–she urges McCabe to take the company’s offer, knowing there’s no viable alternative–is alien to McCabe, a crippled romantic (crippled, that is, by his romanticism) still beholden to the shibboleths of love and pride. “I have poetry in me!” McCabe all but croaks to himself in one of his wound-licking soliloquies, soon before the big guns arrive and his time for making deals runs out.
There is, of course, a great deal of art and craft involved in creating illusions of artless naturalism as immersive as the one Altman creates for us here. The character of Mrs. Miller embodies an understanding of sexual pleasure and worldly success that aligns with Altman’s attitude towards filmmaking, attaining a measure of both by renouncing the mythic implications of either.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
dir. Robert Altman