Monday, February 8, 2010

Art Imitates Life, Literally

Welcome to the anti-western. It's a sad, sad genre. No more glorious John Wayne justice around here.

I ask pointless questions all the time: "Where did you buy this?" "Why is the answer to number five 6.52?" "Why did Pip end up with Estella, even though she totally ruined his life?" It annoys many people around me. They accuse me of thinking too much into things that don't matter.

So obviously, this brings me to how I simply don't understand why McCabe & Mrs. Miller is such a revered film. This is what Roger Ebert had to say in his Great Movies entry:

Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).

I am clearly missing something. I haven't seen many Altman films, but I guess I don't need to watch another one if McCabe & Mrs. Miller is as good as it gets.

So, I think the movie is about this gambler named McCabe (Warren Beatty)? And he ends up in the testosterone-ridden middle of nowhere? And he wants to open a saloon and whorehouse? And he becomes partners with a prostitute named Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) because she understands women better than McCabe does? And McCabe falls in love with her, but she cares more about her opium? And some men want to buy McCabe's property and he refuses and the men decides that it's time to kill McCabe because this is how justice works in the unestablished west?

Um, okay...

The film is blurry. I can't hear the conversations half the time. The actors mumble their lines. A billion conversations are going on in a single scene. And apparently, that was the point?

I do like the part where McCabe delivers that monologue where he confesses his feelings for Mrs. Miller. That's really a sweet, lovely moment, especially when he turns and looks at the whorehouse. Almost a little too hopefully sentimental for the film's desperately cynical atmosphere.

Beatty and Christie's performances are terrific in this film, I just don't care much for the world their characters inhabit. Christie is the perfect firecracker here, though I wish her character belonged in an entirely different world that isn't nearly as grim and depressing. And as for Beatty's McCabe, I wanted him to win at the end of the day. Even under all that beard, Beatty is still pretty darn charismatic.

I understand this is a "slice of life" picture. Yet I've seen documentaries more engaging than this film. When I see a movie, I want to see a movie. Not a lifeless portrait filled with too much Leonard Cohen at random intervals.

So enlighten me, please. Explain why McCabe & Mrs. Miller is "perfect," or close to perfect. Ebert had his say. Not even the film's IMDb page includes any disgruntled viewers to refute. C


  1. Marcy, I understand exactly where you're coming from.

    I wish I could explain why M&MM is supposedly so perfect *rolls emerald green eyes* but I find that particular description rather inaccurate.

    To say the least.

    I saw M&MM once many years ago on television, hated it and had no desire to revisit it. Not even remotely.

    I never have.

    The only noteworthy thing about it is that it was one of the first films back in the early 70s (along with CARNAL KNOWLEDGE) to be shot in my home town.

    "The film is blurry. I can't hear the conversations half the time. The actors mumble their lines. A billion conversations are going on in a single scene. And apparently, that was the point?"

    Oh, dear Lord...

    I know you said you've seen some Altman films. I wish I knew which ones.

    Sad to say, they're almost all like that. To one degree or another.

    Robert Altman's work is exceptionally revered by some. I agree that he deserves a certain level of respect for what he accomplished cinematically. But he was never a favourite of mine.

    He often employs that documentary/realism aesthetic to no particular effect. There's only so much overlapping conversation, barely audible mumbling, muddied cinematography and barely visible plot lines that a cinephile can take.

    Some people worship his films? Great.

    But I'm a girl that's drawn to old Hollywood glamour and passionate romance. Altman clearly isn't for me.

    On the other hand...

    He has made a number of motion pictures that I actually admire.

    I do own PRET A PORTER. It's about fashion, it's exceptionally funny and it has a delicious cast: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Julia Roberts, Kim Basinger, Lauren Bacall, Tim Robbins, Sally Kellerman, Teri Garr and Linda Hunt.

    Some of his obscure stuff is really quite good (BEYOND THERAPY, A WEDDING, COME BACK TO THE FIVE & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN and HEALTH).

    FOOL FOR LOVE has its problems. But Kim Basinger is blonde dynamite in that. She and Sam Shepard have incredibly hot chemistry.

    Then there are a number of fascinating films that he directed towards the end of his career. IMO they're the best movies he ever made: SHORT CUTS, THE PLAYER, GOSFORD PARK. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is a magnificent gem.

    Like you, I adore Julie Christie and Warren Beatty. Especially together. But MM&M was just a waste.

    I'd put it right at the very bottom of the barrel.

    But that's just me...

  2. Miranda, the only other Altman film I've seen was The Company, a film about these ballet dancers that Altman directed near the end of his life. I didn't like that film either. It's another one of those "slice of life" Altman pictures where nothing really seems to happen. The film feels like a documentary without a purpose.

    I've always wanted to see Short Cuts and Gosford Park. I've heard some great things about them and I've been bypassing them at the library. Time to actually watch them?

    Julie Christie and Warren Beatty seemed like a lovely couple. They really were a charming pair in Heaven Can Wait.

    However, I'm still shocked that Heaven Can Wait was nominated for eight Oscars back in 1979, winning one for Best Art Direction. I just saw it as a simple fairy tale. Charming, a little odd, somewhat imaginative, but not a film that made an irreplaceable impression on me.

  3. I love this film. I don't particularly love Altman, but this one is tops. I'm sorry you don't feel the same way.

    If there's one Altman I could recommend to you with the knowledge you didn't much care for this one, it would be SECRET HONOR - with Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon. It's basically a monologue on film, but it's great. Also, possibly see THE PLAYER. That one might work for you.

  4. If you have trouble with overlapping dialouge (or how people really talk) I wouldn't recommend Gosford Park. Its a great film but overlapping dialouge with British Accents requires careful attention and perhaps 2 viewings to get it all.

    Sounds like you might like Prairie Home Companion if you can stand Garrison Keillor.

    I'm an Altman nut. Why? Because the wiley keen observer shares what he sees, dismantles convention and delves under surfaces with a poetic and satirical scalpal. For instance in McCabe, you take in the the west. The brothel gets built and painted while the church remains half finished. The final shootout is over a business deal, not cowboys and indians, no sherrifs and gunslingers. Altman makes you question and see silly cultural myths, gives you real humans his inversions of genre, people dealing in real time and place. The lyrical cinematagraphy and soundtrack with perfromances by Beatty and Christie makes this such a pleasure to watch, I'm going to go buy it today becasue I can't believe I don't have it to go alongside The Long Goodbye (1950's detective noire inverted through mores of 1970's LA, values that can no longer live in new setting. Most obscure Altman that is a revelation is Quntet. These movies demand engagement by the viewer, thats what makes them so good.

  5. @Matt
    Thanks for the Altman recommendations!

    I'm not familiar with Garrison Keillor, but I'm sure there's a possibility that I would enjoy A Prairie Home Companion. The cast is terrific.

    McCabe & Mrs. Miller is probably just not my cup of tea. I'm all for details, and I admire Altman for that, but I also like a strong narrative to back it up.

  6. Well, haven't seen M&MM but I can say that I deeply recommend M*A*S*H (the film not the sitcom) and NASHVILLE which, I think is, a masterpiece. SHORT CUTS is interesting too... The directing job for GOSFORD PARK is superb!
    McCabe & Mrs. Miller is on my waiting list so I'll share some thoughts when I'll watch it.