Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Game of Chance: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Some forty-five years after its initial release, Robert Altman's seductive and allusive 1971 western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, still has the potency of a dream you don't wish to wake from. And as dreams distort the familiar, Altman's picture also alters our sense of reality and transforms the genre's myths we've come to recognize into a lingering reverie of the past. Despite a script, based on an Edmund Naughton 1959 novel (McCabe), Altman doesn't just tell a story here; he lets one unfold intuitively as our narratives often do in life and from directions we can't predict and with outcomes we can't anticipate. The howling wind that opens the film may push gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) towards his fate in the growing town of Presbyterian Church (just as it will later bury him in the snow), but Altman is also playing a game of chance, and destiny is as much a crap shoot as the changing weather. While the camera pans right, the credits move horizontally to the left, turning our field of vision into a peripheral map that's always in search of a focal point. It sets us up beautifully for an elliptical tale where the meanings are delineated from between the lines of the story. Robert Altman might draw from the sources of the western, but he does it as if he were trying to uncork an old undiscovered bottle that once stored its essence.

The idea of the stranger who goes out to settle a growing town is a familiar archetype from many American westerns. But Beatty's McCabe doesn't ride nobly on his horse through the barren prairie landscape the way John Wayne, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, or Alan Ladd once did. Riding in the rain through a lush forest and buried in a mammoth fur coat that seems to be swallowing him up, Beatty plays McCabe as a foolhardy dreamer who flies a lot of flags but without the benefit of a flagpole. His uncertainty is also part of his appeal and it leaves him open to various stories of mistaken identity (including one that he is a famous gunfighter, 'Pudgy' McCabe, who killed a cheater in a card game). But it also renders him vulnerable to circumstances that become his tragic undoing. Despite his unmoored ambitions of making the town prosperous and with the best whorehouse in the county, McCabe is still a man disguised the way a poker player keeps his true face masked and his cards close to his bosom – that is, until Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes to town.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a romantic story about unlikely romantic partners. While McCabe establishes a loosely functioning brothel, the cockney Constance Miller comes to town to show him how he could run it more profitably. Once they become business partners, and the brothel and town starts to prosper, McCabe also begins to fall in love with Mrs. Miller. But where McCabe lives in his dreams and is given to self-deprecation, Mrs. Miller is a strict pragmatist who only surrenders to her whims when she lights up her opium pipe. They are each other's opposites. But they are drawn together like moths to a candle because one completes the other. The inarticulate McCabe, who says he has poetry in him (but also the sense not to write it down), is mesmerized by her cool confidence and that gives him substance (despite her "freezing his soul," as he puts it). For Constance, McCabe is the kind of man she seldom encounters: he wishes to put a smile on her face. Whereas she is used to being in control, and not accustomed to men seeking to make her happy, McCabe opens her up to areas of defenselessness she'd rather not touch.

It's rare to find gifted movie stars who can give the kind of unaffected performances both Beatty and Christie provide here. As good as Warren Beatty was as the callow Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, or as the communist idealist, John Reed, in Reds, his moments of reticence in both those pictures came across as self-conscious attempts to deflect the attraction of the light. But in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Beatty gives in to John McCabe's unsureness, and his braggart's pose comes across, as critic Paul Coates described it in his book, The Story of the Lost Reflection, as "a man trying to hold a map straight in the wind." Beatty shows us how the movie star attracts the light while the actor inside provides the flame that gives it the glow. Julie Christie similarly shines with the varnished radiance of what Pauline Kael called "an animal hiding in its own fur." Christie turns down the heat as Mrs. Miller in order to hide the secret flame she holds for McCabe.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which was shot in West Vancouver and Squamish, is a movie in flux and always in process of discovering itself, just as the town is slowly being constructed as the picture goes on. Characters come and go, but they make their impressions felt –  whether it's the obsequious presence of the bartender Sheehan (RenĂ© Auberjonois), the toothy smile of a young hooker (Shelley Duvall), or the touching, brief presence of Cowboy (Keith Carradine), a boy trying to fill a big hat who is doomed to a tragic end born of bad timing. The people in Presbyterian Church are able to move freely as if they are not held in the frame by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's translucent eye. (Zsigmond's illustrious work was made even more striking by this new restoration in 4K Blu-ray for the Criterion Collection. The picture's soft focus, originally created by 'flashing' the negative with light, shows the rain and snow falling from the sky like droplets of paint continuously dotting the screen.)

As the town grows more prosperous, it draws the attention of the Harrison Shaughnessy mining company, which tries to make a deal with McCabe to sell his holdings. Partly to impress Mrs. Miller, but also trying to use his gambler's sense, he overplays his hand in refusing their agents Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland). Before he can reassess his offer, however, bounty hunters are sent to kill McCabe to obtain the town and make an example of him. While the threat of violence to the civilized man is key to every western, and is why the settler is never allowed to live in the home he's trying to create, the finale of McCabe and Mrs. Miller goes against the grain of the formal gun battle that settles those scores. In every western from Shane to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the gun battle between the righteous settler and the outlaw becomes the story's centerpiece. But Altman contrasts McCabe's fate with the distracted townsfolk trying desperately to put out a fire at the local church (an institution no one has ever attended except for the mad preacher who occupies it and whose lantern accidentally sets it ablaze when he's shot). As the three bounty hunters go after McCabe in the freezing snow, an institution that ties America to its Puritan heritage becomes more valuable than the human life left to die in the drifts.

Robert Altman once described McCabe and Mrs. Miller as an "anti-Western," but it really isn't. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, with its degrading narcissism and self-reflexive parodism, is probably better defined as an "anti-western"; McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which is perfumed with a frangible melancholy, illuminates the romance of the Western rather than punishing us for believing in it. Altman meditates on its essential themes instead of trashing them. Those themes include the contradictory heart of the country's ideals, where the idea of the lone individual never reconciles with the notion of a civilized country where all men are created equal. Those thoughts are given full value, too, in the delicate ballads of Leonard Cohen ("The Stranger Song," "Sisters of Mercy," "Winter Lady"). Cohen's music, which wasn't composed for the film, seems to come from what Paul Coates calls "the inner voice to which the characters alone attend." Cohen doesn't provide emotional cues to nudge us into a mood; he creates one instead. Altman lets Cohen's music speak for the unacknowledged inner lives of the characters on the screen. "[E]ven on the frontier, people walked around with headphones on," Coates goes on to observe. The Seventies audience at this movie, who did own records and even had headphones, came to imagine that the gambler John McCabe was actually living out that experience heard in "The Stranger Song."

Seen today, John McCabe appears to reach across the decades, beyond the movie's time period and into the age of the Walkman and MP3 player, to perform his own shuffle mix to suit his mood. Maybe McCabe selected "The Stranger Song" as his own because, after all, he was indeed "a Joseph looking for a manger." No doubt fully aware of the pop dreams of the movie audience in 1971, Robert Altman was also in tune with the era's music. Cohen's songs, like cryptic parables, were already being shared by people discovering new ways to walk and talk. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a period movie, but Altman understood, to paraphrase music critic Jim Miller, that popular music was common experience and personal obsession. So much so that he knew the film audience would end up accepting the idea of John McCabe having his own theme song, one that had the power to protect him from the slowly falling drizzle in the lush forest. "The Stranger Song" and "Winter Lady" were his tunes just as "Sisters of Mercy" speak later in the movie for the hookers who attend the desperate dreamers in that frontier town.

On the commentary track of the DVD, producer David Foster laments that if McCabe and Mrs. Miller had a happier ending, where Mrs. Miller was able to save John McCabe from his terrible fate, the picture might have been a hit in 1971. He put me in mind of Brian de Palma's political thriller Blow Out, made ten years later, which also suffered at the box office due to a tragic ending, where the hero couldn't save the woman he loved. But both films, staying true to the dynamics of their stories and transcending the tropes of their different genres, found their audience in time. They did it by having the nerve to reverse our expectations for safety and security and instead trusted in our ability to demand more from the screen than to be placated. A number of years ago, jazz trumpeter and traditionalist Louis Armstrong was invited to a session of new music by be-bopper Dizzy Gillespie. While history is mute on exactly what the hipster played for the veteran pioneer that day, the response itself from Armstrong was duly noted. "Well, man," the jazz legend with a voice as smooth as sandpaper replied, "you have to know how to play pretty damn good to play this bad." Knowing the rules before you discover new ways to break them is also perhaps a fitting definition for the modus operandi of film director Robert Altman.

**The Criterion Collection DVD both regular and Blu-ray contains a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Audio commentary from 2002 featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster. New making-of documentary, featuring members of the cast and crew. New conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell. Featurette from the film’s 1970 production. Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen. Excerpts from archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Gallery of stills from the set by photographer Steve Schapiro. Excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael. The trailer for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. An essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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