Tuesday, November 15, 2011

McCabe, maybe, but definitely Mrs. Miller

At points, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film that exists only through a fog. Director Robert Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond purposefully 'flashed' the negative and several of the camera filters to irreparably distinctify the film style, but this eerie distance isn't merely achieved visually. Leonard Cohen's nostalgic compositions make moments feel consigned to myth as we watch them. The first half of the film is about McCabe's (Warren Beatty) efforts to build a new town, and so McCabe & Mrs. Miller itself builds reality out of the fog, slowly gathering an heavy earthiness as it progresses, eventually becoming overwhelmed by the elemental. It's an experience that makes the mundane disquieting, where Mrs. Miller's (Julie Christie) matter-of-fact business smarts slice through the muted atmosphere with startling bluntness.

So obtuse I had to add a white circle so you'd even notice.
Mrs. Miller's introduction is the briefest of glimpses - a purposefully obtuse concealment. It fits perfectly into Altman's filmmaking style but it's a tease. Julie Christie is a movie star and you're waiting for her. There she i- no. Not yet.

When she finally reappears, it's perched on a carriage pulled by a steam engine struggling up the hill, puffing deafeningly. An inconspicuous entrance into McCabe's life, but then she hops off and marches into the film without any nonsense. "You John McCabe? Mrs. Miller. I came up from Beatport to see ye'," she says, an astonishingly Cockney accent in the American Northwest. The accent is never discussed or disputed, and is merely an element of the difference of the character that hangs over proceedings. She and McCabe are the different, the focus, and though she's been absent for a quarter of the film already, Altman seems to inject her straight into the film's centre. As she pauses in the half-built saloon, the camera seems to take breathe with her, a short sharp shot of her at an angle 90° apart from the neighbouring frames:

When in the restaurant, the camera isolates the eponymous pair, the naturalist aesthetic retaining the sound of the community around them but this lofty angle setting them into a dark, reclusive corner, glowing in their own light. Christie's accent compounds the brisk, straightforward mundanity of what her entrance brings to the film - she yanks it back from the misty nostalgia, talks of the prostitutes' "monthlies" and greed for money and blows her nose like a foghorn. Unlike that which surrounds her, we know nothing about Mrs. Miller's past, her directness, and Christie's brusque, unfettered characterisation ensuring that her present is her sole existence for the majority of the film.

"You get out of my shot, you wanker."
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is about masculinity. It's about McCabe's bravado, his cowardice hiding behind a legend, and how Mrs. Miller cracks straight through it, leans him out of the frame and challenges his restricted dreams. She is the reality, the smart and the active; where he is the fool, the coward who has a distorted sense of the real world, of its currency and its death. It is also about modernity - the steam engine shuddering up the hill - and, as the economic crux of the film makes itself apparent in the suited agents, the film slowly gets heavier, earthier, more present. The romantic gauze of the early scenes seems to vanish, and the whistlingly nostalgic music fades away, lost and entwined in the howling wind. The physical reality of the town he built up ultimately surrounds McCabe and suffocates him.

Finally, lost in Mrs. Miller's observation too...
Mrs. Miller's own ending stares into the vibrant red and answers nothing about her feelings for McCabe. Altman frequently zooms breathlessly onto people merely observing, no answers to be found in their own face, nor any questions being asked. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an escape into a nostalgic past where people are just as inert as they were in 1971, and as they are now. As colour and music drain from the film, it is not accidental that proceedings become more realistic. This is a life without colour, and possibly without love. But it is that possibility that lingers, and where the masterpiece might lie. A-

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Nice words. Just a few weeks ago I was watching Shampoo with these two and I remember thinking that they're so good together, and yet their individual presence seems to repel each other. Sort of like when they pair up to act it's almost too much, a feeling that's more potent in McCabe and Mrs. Miller because Shampoo is playing around with a much larger ensemble.