Monday, March 15, 2010

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Poor kid. I'm referring to Keith Carradine's nameless cowboy who drifts into the town of Presbyterian Church looking to lose his virginity and leaves (spoiler) as a corpse half submerged in an icy river. The picture's not really about him. He has maybe five minutes of actual screen time and, yet, from the moment he steps into the whorehouse until he is shot dead he brought an injection of life the picture was in need of. His cowboy is just a kid. A gullible (some might say dumb), innocent kid with a wide and goofy smile. He carries a gun, but, as he tells his eventual killer, "I couldn't hit nothin' with it". His death is more heartbreaking, and meaningful, than any in the picture. Finally, here, amidst all this dreariness, is a character we like. Everyone likes the kid. Even the whores he paid. When he attempts to leave town and buy some supplies he must cross a bridge to get to the store. On the other side, awaits a bored (previously seen shooting at a can in the river) gunman, also a kid, younger than Carradine. Any other Western would have presented Carradine's "aw-shucks" demeanor as just an act. Not this one. Nope, in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller there are no heroes.

So, I got mixed feelings about this one. I'll be honest here. The only Altman I've seen are Popeye and Mash and I saw those when I was a kid. This picture opens with a gambler (that would be McCabe played by a nearly unrecognizable Warren Beatty) riding into town, winning some money, and then opening a whorehouse which is later managed by Julie Christie. Later, some men come into town looking to buy the whorehouse. McCabe refuses. Men react by hiring some gunmen to kill him (including the kid that killed Carradine). This being an Altman movie (I hear this is his style and have to concur after watching this), everything is naturalistic, we got long moments of muted conversation or even silences. The set design is wonderfully filthy (and therefore seems authentic) and we've got non period songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen. Lots of improvising on this picture I'm sure and, to be honest, some genuine boredom on the part of this viewer. Yeah, I'm calling myself out. I didn't appreciate this "masterpiece" quite as much as I'd hoped.

What Altman has done is present us a snow bound "wild west" type town completely devoid of heroism. Beatty is very good as McCabe but he's not exactly someone that lives by a code, unless it's the code of "do whatever it takes to stay alive". The picture doesn't round into form until the moment Carradine's cowboy is killed and then we have long scenes of McCabe awkwardly running from building to building desperately trying to escape being shot. He shoots the first gunmen he sees directly in the back so we know this guy is no Eastwood or John Wayne. He shoots the next guy he sees through a window and also in the back. McCabe is a coward but I guess Altman is saying that most of us would pull the same shit, and I can't disagree. Nobility has left Presbyterian Church. Hell, even the town minister threatens to shoot McCabe if he doesn't leave the "sanctuary" of his church. Guess he doesn't practice the parts of the bible about not turning your back on a fellow man. I haven't read it, but I'm sure there are parts like that in there.

Then the church burns as Julie Christie sits in an opium den. Wouldn't be surprised if Altman and his cast and crew partook (basing this statement on reputation...since I wasn't there). Anyway, this is a strange picture. I guess that ultimately I liked it. The beginning meanders too much for my tastes. Too much drifting in and out of conversations, too little focus. It's weird 'cause I'm a huge fan of Terrence Malick, who has a similar style often to the Nth degree, but I just had trouble getting into this one. However, the end establishes itself as a mini-masterpiece where McCabe struggles to survive amongst some drifting snow and Christie (oh yeah, she was Mrs Miller) continues to get high on Opium. Also, there was lots of nudity. So, I guess between the so-so beginning and the masterful ending let's just split the difference and call this one good.

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