“Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes.”
“I insist that they do what they became actors to do. I want them to create something and not just hit marks and say words. So they all love that because they’re playing. It’s called playacting. Their contributions are not only welcomed, but are accepted and used.”
Born: 20 February 1925, Kansas City, Missouri, United States
Died: 20 November 2006, Los Angeles, California, United States
Directing career: 1957 – 2006.
Movement: New Hollywood.
Traits: Ensemble multi-character narratives, attempts at more realistic dialogue and observational interest in the human details of his characters, improvising with actors. Iconoclastic revisions of classical genres, themes of American life and American history. Use of the zoom lens, dense framing and overlapping dialogue soundtracks equally fighting for the viewer’s ear.
Collaborators: Shelley Duvall, Bert Remsen, Elliott Gould, Rene Auberjonois (actors), Vilmos Zsigmond (cinematographer)
Related Directors: Arthur Penn, Bob Rafelson, Terrence Malick.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Maverick director Robert Altman spent the 1970s reinventing the classic Hollywood genres with his own twists. McCabe & Mrs. Miller has him tackle the Western, that most American of mythologies traditionally tinted by nostalgia for a bygone era where gun-slinging heroes expanded the frontier and represented order and civilisation. But, true to iconoclastic form, Altman totally demythologises these clichés, stripping away all romanticism to leave behind disillusion and melancholy. As small-time entrepreneur McCabe (Warren Beatty) sets foot in a mining frontier town, he opens up a whorehouse saloon, with assistance from Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a cockney madam with shrewdness aplenty. McCabe represents the self-made ‘little guy’ who according to American ideals has every chance of standing his ground against the behemoths and monopolies of Big Business. But in reality, the couple’s initial success only leads to the mining company (a cold, ruthless capitalistic power) arriving in town ready to stop at nothing to buy out their business.
So McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a retelling of American myths and a take-down of the so-called American dream. But it is also a charmingly, wistfully painful love-story of two outsiders, gradually falling for each other. Christie’s Mrs. Miller is an escapist who turns to opium when life gets too hard to bear (as it frequently does) and her character’s habit left its mark on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Beatty is as good as he’s ever been as McCabe, the clumsy, wannabe success-story who envelopes his ego in the comfort blanket of a ridiculously gigantic bearskin coat, who we know is doomed the moment he rejects the opening offer for the sale of his brothel despite thinking himself a negotiations genius for doing so, and yet can’t help root for all the same. But this film belongs to the very greatest category of Altman’s work thanks to how all its elements add up to the unforgettable experience of letting its atmosphere enshroud you.
The film’s elegiac beauty is best epitomised by the soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs (Cohen agreed to let Altman use his songs because he had happened to watch and love Altman’s preceding film, Brewster McCloud) and the autumnal colour tones from legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsgimond, who deliberately overexposed the negatives to create the foggy look Altman longed for. Altman is in meticulous control of just what we get to see and, especially, hear. Not long ago there was a big brouhaha over BBC TV dramas where the sound design wasn’t clear enough for the dialogue to be heard, and hundreds of viewers complained about this ‘mumbling’ — what would they have said about McCabe & Mrs. Miller we can wonder? At times the dialogue is, notoriously, inaudible. Altman very purposely pushes his multiple-layer soundtrack technique to an extreme, so that if we’re in a bar we really do hear all the cacophony of the various conversations, or the din of town-life in the streets, rather than ‘cheat’ by aurally zooming in on what is ‘interesting’ and cut out the rest. The resulting aura is of a recreated frontier town community where everyone has a voice, with Altman’s unique brand of verisimilitude returning an imperfect lifelike-ness to the past.
Altman was a serial radiographer of the American psyche, and he knew as well as John Ford the everlasting duet between the real USA and the mythological imagery of the USA; which shapes the other first is a sort of chicken-and-egg question as the two are inextricably intertwined. In this version of the Western, violence is no longer glorified but utterly futile (cf. the notoriously gratuitous murder of Keith Carradine’s goofy, more-lover-than-fighter, cowboy), the conventional final shoot-out at high noon turned deliberately anti-climactic, the American dream of the little guy having a chance as long as he’s enough of a go-getter is shown to be a total sham (summed up in the scene between McCabe and the ridiculously mustachioed lawyer spouting this superficial guff), and lives painted as no more than a cheap commodity to be exploited. One chilling comment made by the mining company’s hitman on the sheer worthlessness of the lives of immigrant workers makes the bitter truth of unregulated capitalism hit home: to the Big Business that rules all, these human toilers are worth absolutely nothing more than a cheap utensil in the extraction of money.
There’s never been a more beautiful, wistful and affecting condemnation of the American Dream’s chimerical nature and the corporations running the show behind its illusory facade. At heart it’s a poem to dreamers and losers, like most Altman’s great films, who wanted to survive in a dog-eat-dog world and to love each other, but end up freezing to death forgotten and alone or escaping into opiate irreality to forget the harsh pain of life. (October 2017)