Thursday, October 25, 2012

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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
In his review, Vincent Canby of the New York Times — a critic who did not like the movie — commented on the scene in which McCabe, played by Warren Beatty, soaks in a bathhouse tub prior to visiting Julie Christie's brothel madame, Constance Miller, describing Beatty with "his arms draped along the sides, his eyes closed, and his bearded face hanging limply forward." Continues Canby:

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.

McCabe's death
As for McCabe's death, I have no objection to it, but I can't resist wondering what it signifies. Is McCabe some sort of sacrifice for the town, to lead the people closer to God? After all, they come together to put out the church fire, a fire started by the gunfight, a gunfight started by McCabe's refusal to sell. Something tells me no, and not just the alcohol-fuelled revelling that happens immediately after the fire is extinguished. What about a sacrifice to lead the town to a better future, a future of potential economic prosperity under the mining company? Maybe, but nothing about the company — which sends the hired guns to the town to kill McCabe — suggests it will provide a better life.

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
This is as appropriate a description as any, I suppose. I recall only one sunny scene in the movie (the arrival of the first three prostitutes); the rest of the time the town is deluged by rain or shrouded in snow, which, in light of Ebert's words, makes me recall the funeral scene in Amadeus, the cloud of rain and quicklime falling onto the bodies in the common grave, and the final lines of James Joyce's The Dead:

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.

The Life Aquatic: Eleanor
McCabe: Constance

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
I would like to point out two scenes from McCabe and Mrs. Miller that I really like. The first is the meeting in Sheehan's saloon between McCabe and Butler, the killer, played by Hugh Millais. Millais is perfect in the role, dominating the scene with his imposing stature and easygoing menace (not to mention two backup gunmen), and Beatty plays well against him; he makes a brilliant move in stooping to pick up a tray dropped by the killer, showing how McCabe is completely without recourse in the face of this threat. Every line in this scene is perfect.

Shootout on the bridge
The second is one of the most memorable gun fights I've seen in the movies, between "the kid" (one of Butler's killers, a blond, baby-faced punk) and a young, affable cowboy (played by Keith Carradine) on a small, low-hanging rope bridge. It's a terrifying scene whose outcome is preordained the moment the cowboy steps onto the bridge, though I find myself hoping it will end differently each time I watch it.

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

*[4/8/2013 update]
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.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston in Hamlet (1996)
Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle's profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso — this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima mon amour or Citizen Kane, films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise-en-scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.

— From In Defense of Violence, by Michel Mourlet, 1960

While I'm not sure I entirely agree with Mourlet (or even fully understand him), I certainly enjoy Heston's acting and films enough to acknowledge a glint of truth under the inflated praise. His "presence in any film" certainly makes the movie more entertaining, and he seemed to emerge from most of them unscathed by any of their failings. Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested the same about Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is fitting. Before Tim Burton re-made (sorry, "re-imagined") Planet of the Apes, I had heard a rumor (or perhaps I had merely made a wish) that James Cameron was planning a remake with Schwarzenegger in Heston's role, which seemed entirely appropriate. In fact, Schwarzenegger is perhaps the only star who could survive such a film and the expectations placed upon it, regardless of its success or failure (see: Batman and Robin).

Similarly, Heston was seldom bested by the often-fantastic grandeur of his films. Chariot races, talking apes, nocturnal mutants, hijacked planes, walls of fire: I don't know if he elevated such things or simply remained above them, but he certainly committed to the at-times over-the-top machismo of the characters who confronted them. This added greatly to the effectiveness of Heston's relatively understated roles. Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil, despite the makeup and mustache, is one example (certainly it was difficult for even Heston to overpower Orson Welles), and his turn as the Player King in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is perhaps my favorite, though it probably wouldn't have been if it hadn't been preceded by the gusto of "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" or "Soylent Green is people!"

The quality identified by Mourlet is perhaps what made Heston the ideal spokesperson for controversial conservative causes later in life: The theatricality of "From my cold dead hands" is a line I would have cheered in one of his films, regardless of my feelings about this sentiment in the real world.