|McCabe & Mrs Miller: Warren Beatty & Julie Christie|
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) is a highly praised movie (Roger Ebert called it "perfect", Pauline Kael called it "a beautiful pipe dream of a movie") that seems to make its way onto lots of internet "Best Westerns" lists (for what they're worth), so I understand I am in small company by not loving it. I don't entirely dislike the movie, though it does baffle me to the point of frustration.
|"He looks just like Jesus!" — McCabe in the tub|
When such a shot prompts the woman behind you to hiss..."He looks just like Jesus!" you may be sure you're in the presence of a movie of serious intentions. Shots that make the characters look just like Jesus don't happen by accident.
The intentions of McCabe and Mrs. Miller are not only serious, they are also meddlesomely imposed on the film by tired symbolism, by a folk-song commentary on the soundtrack that recalls not the old Pacific Northwest but San Francisco's hungry i, and by the sort of metaphysically purposeful photography that, in a tight close-up, attempts to discover the soul's secrets in the iris of an eye and finds, instead, only a very large iris.
This, I think, is my main sticking point with McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Scenes like these suggest something greater at work, some deeper meaning that I should be able to assemble from the various images and moments that look like so many puzzle pieces. Chief among these pieces are the presence of the church and McCabe's death, yet despite much mental juggling, I come up empty.
The name of the town — Presbyterian Church — begs examination, as does the fact that the actual church is never completed. This may be nothing more than a joke — the town may appear pious to anyone on the outside, though religion is the farthest thing from the minds of its people. But the church fire, and the role of the reverend in it, seem to suggest something that never quite materializes.
Is McCabe's death instead a penance for bringing the killers to town, or rather for his pride in refusing to sell, which brings the killers to town? Is it merely symbolic of the oppression of corporate America, of The Man? Or does it preach the lesson that by participating in violence, one is ultimately done in by violence?
Boilerplate writeups of this film frequently mention how it "subverts" the conventions of traditional Westerns, and perhaps this is an example: The protagonist's death makes no larger statement about the genre. Though perhaps I'm not thinking of "traditional" Westerns. I have in mind a group of films which sacrifice, via exile or death, their heroes as a form of commentary: The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon, Ride the High Country, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Shane.
At the very least, McCabe's death appears to be the realistic outcome of a gunfight between an inexperienced gunman (which is what we discover McCabe is) and three professional killers. Indeed, that McCabe is able to kill any of these men — let alone all three — is the real puzzle.
I am aware that looking for everything to "add up" is to perhaps miss what others like about this film. Roger Ebert says that McCabe & Mrs. Miller "is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come — not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem — an elegy for the dead."
|Amadeus: Quicklime on a common grave|
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
(Though I find it curious that much of the snow in McCabe looks unnatural — not like fake snow, but like a separate film of snow superimposed over director Robert Altman's footage, as if the snow-shroud is being applied to the film, not to the town in it.)
Ebert's suggestion also brings to mind an actual poem, my favorite by Richard Hugo, Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg, another elegy to another dying mining town. I don't think, though, that the film conveys a sense of sadness and death about everyone in Presbyterian Church the way it does for McCabe and Constance.
McCabe talks about poetry as well, and seems to recognize the danger of trying to turn the abstract into something concrete. "Well, I'll tell you something. I've got poetry in me. I do, I got poetry in me," he says to himself, wanting to say the words to Constance instead. "I ain't gonna put it down on paper. I ain't no educated man. I got sense enough not to try it."
Which might almost suggest this verse by Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise;
But I'm not convinced the truth of this film is fully defined, or that it is a certainty that can be revealed, even slowly. I think instead these errant "puzzle pieces" provide material for a suggestion of truth, a suggestion of a truth that will be discovered, if it is discovered, as different to each viewer, but which may evaporate if scrutinized.
Pauline Kael seemed to acknowledge something like this in her review:
A movie like this isn't made by winging it; to improvise in a period setting takes phenomenal discipline, but McCabe & Mrs. Miller doesn't look 'disciplined,' as movies that lay everything out for the audience do. Will a large enough American public accept American movies that are delicate and understated and searching — movies that don't resolve all the feelings they touch, that don't aim at leaving us satisfied, the way a three-ring circus satisfies?*
I may have a different idea of what "delicate and understated and searching" means (I'm sure we all do), but in the end, I don't connect with McCabe in the same way I do with several other movies which don't "lay everything out": In the Course of Time (aka Kings of the Road); 2001: A Space Odyssey; Apocalypse Now; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; A Serious Man; or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Perhaps coincidentally, none of these films are Westerns, and all of them present, to varying degrees, characters looking for answers, for a kind of truth, even if they or the audience never arrive at a single, solid understanding of that truth. So it may be that my expectations about Westerns are what get between me and McCabe; I never had this trouble with another non-Western, Barfly (1987), which has a similar ring.
Incidentally, my experience with McCabe and Mrs. Miller is similar to my experience with The Life Aquatic. Wes Anderson's movie leaves me in a similar lurch, scrambling for meaning: Why does Ned need to die? How does Ned's death revitalize Zissou's career? What is significant about Ned not really being Steve's son? I still don't think everything adds up, but for whatever reason it doesn't bother me as much as with McCabe, and I count The Life Aquatic among my favorite movies.
One shot from The Life Aquatic particularly echoes McCabe: During Ned's funeral, Eleanor lies in the depths of Steve's ship, cigarette in hand, with a look that could imply sadness, though her thoughts about Ned and what he represents are never quite clear. Similarly, at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as McCabe slumps, dead, in the snow, Constance lies on a cot in an opium den, cradling her pipe, with an equally ambiguous expression that is equally evocative of what-have-you. (She also examines, in the extreme close-up referenced by Canby, a small bottle, the significance of which is lost on me — though it may be nothing more than Christie's and Altman's portrayal of the effects of an opium high.)
|Hugh Millais as Butler|
|Shootout on the bridge|
McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Roger Ebert, November 14, 1999
Pipe Dream by Pauline Kael, published in The New Yorker, July 3, 1971
McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Vincent Canby, published in The New York Times, June 25, 1971
Or, as Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his comments about "puzzle movies" like Memento and the actions of the critics featured in Room 237:
One way of removing the threat and challenge of art is reducing it to a form of problem-solving that believes in single, Eureka-style solutions. If works of art are perceived as safes to be cracked or as locks that open only to skeleton keys, their expressive powers are virtually limited to banal pronouncements of overt or covert meanings — the notion that art is supposed to say something as opposed to do something.
Though I think my scrutiny of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as I mention above, was in response to a missing emotional connection with the film.