McCabe and Mrs. Miller: The Conflicted 60s/70s Culture
In 1971, when the Robert Altman-directed film McCabe and Mrs. Miller was released, the notion of American “indie cinema” was still in a period of gestation. Distributed by Warner Brothers, Altman’s film could not very well be deemed “indie” by our modern standards, but even so, it helped set a precedent for the anti-studio system spirit that still prevails in modern indie works.
Under Altman’s direction, this “anti-Western” ignores or subverts typical Western conventions (a Pacific northwest instead of southwest setting, a final shootout without witnesses) at the same time as it problematizes more general Hollywood predispositions – because the film itself is created within the confines of an already established constellation of tropes and symbols, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is especially well-suited to use the dynamics of filmic expression to question the ideologies of not just the 1960s/1970s establishment, but also its counter-culture.
From the outset, with its right to left scrolling credits, McCabe and Mrs. Miller positions itself as a work that shall be distinct from typical American films. However, Altman’s choice is more than a brief announcement of distinction; it also sets in motion a recurring phenomenon whereby the film seemingly adopts a pervasive American concept and then complicates such a concept through an aesthetic language only film can speak.
That part of the filmic world mimics the real world – the right to left scrolling credits imitating, specifically, the East to West sprawl of ambitious migrants – attests to the film’s tendency to wrangle what is supposedly non-diegetic (not of the world depicted in the film) and then force it to become diegetic (having to do with the world of the film and the story being told). In this way, classical Hollywood notions of closure – the idea that the “film world” is self-contained and also separate from the “real world” – are threatened; thus, it is precisely this characteristic of McCabe and Mrs. Miller which allows it to lead viewers to a more thorough and probing reconsideration of their own contemporary American lives.
With that basis of non-diegetic to diegetic mutation in mind, the film’s use of music becomes that much more resonant. Leonard Cohen’s theme, which crops up intermittently in the film but plays non-diegetically in its entirety at the beginning, contains the repeated lyric: “I told you when I came I was a stranger.” Interestingly, the dark stranger McCabe’s (Warren Beatty) very first line, muttered aggressively soon after the song lyric plays, is: “Damn it, I told you.” The sheer repetition of the lyric in Cohen’s song comes off as a reaching attempt to convince an audience, and the manner in which McCabe appears to be preparing lines (like an actor) similarly presents the speaker as someone for whom persuasion holds a great deal of importance.
What is more, the fact that McCabe seems to adopt the Cohen lyrics into his portrayal of a stranger wandering into a Western town points to another instance of non-diegetic to diegetic adoption. This moment, in conjunction with later moments in the film where supposedly non-diegetic music becomes part of the diegesis (the tune of a flute plays after the town’s celebration before the camera pans left to reveal a man sitting with the instrument; a mandalin tune over a shot of the reverend walking over a bridge turns out to be played by a townsperson) offers the reading that the issues inherent in the individuals that make up the Presbyterian Church community (ignorant, gossipy, reactionary, timid) are not so different from those in the individuals that make up 60s/70s America.
Further condemnation of the Presbyterian Church/American community can be observed in the form of dialogue and the permutations it undergoes in Altman’s film. Most evident is the constant clattle of the townspeople’s gossip which, in addition to their willingness to talk while others do the same, effectively creates a flat and de-individualizing rabble that descends into meaninglessness.
However, the conspicuous entry of the British Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), who both speaks in cadence distinct enough to hear her words over the rabbling American townspeople and also whose sound track is louder than others (she loudly exclaims to McCabe, “frontier wit, I see,” and blows her nose loudly over his small talk), implicitly derides the unintelligible American clamor. The subtle denigration positions the viewer against the community, and considering the connection between the filmic and exterior communities set up previously, Altman’s style appears to readjust 60s/70s American viewer notions of ‘oneness,’ at least insofar as the film questions the benefits of that homogeneity.
Crucially, Altman’s stylistic choices are not limited to the creative use of filmic sound – image, specifically as rendered by costume, is also paramount to his aesthetic language. Overtly critical to Altman’s later film Nashville (1975), costume in McCabe and Mrs. Miller is slightly more subtle. In the opening scene, coinciding with the Leonard Cohen song, McCabe approaches a town but first gets off his horse to change into a distinctive black hat, which when paired with his large beard shrouds him in darkness.
It is clear that he yearns to be seen as a mysterious stranger from the similarity of his dialogue to the lyrics of Cohen’s song and the way in which he takes time to readjust his attire in preparation for entering the town. The care with which one fellow in the bar shaves his beard into a mustache is also evidence of the importance of image in this Western town. At first, the prostitutes bought by McCabe dress exclusively in long-johns, fully acquiescing to the ‘rough and tumble’ Western representation they believe contrasts with the Eastern culture they do not fit in with. It is only when Mrs. Miller arrives with various demands that these prostitutes are then costumed in more genteel attire.
Like her role in piercing the monotonous incomprehensibility of their speech, Mrs. Miller also threatens notions of image that McCabe and/or the townspeople have for their Western community. Just as the American counter-culture movement was significantly attached to a certain style of dressing, costume seems to be Altman’s way of illustrating a threadbare attempt by these vagabonds to distinguish themselves as a ‘one-for-all’ counter-culture community.
Juxtaposition of color is another aesthetic choice made by Altman in an effort to question the community way of life in this town’s Presbyterian Church and 60s/70s America. The Washingtons, the only black couple who appear in the film, do not get to partake in the community that is built in this supposedly escapist living fantasy. When they deliver the Oregon prostitutes to the town, they introduce themselves quite politely, but are only afforded a brief “Pleased to meet you” from Mrs. Miller before the brothel owner calls for another prostitute. That this comes from the outsider, the supposed image changer, is troubling. What is more, despite clearly assisting in putting out the fire in the church, the Washingtons walk away frowning as the rest of the town celebrates. Their simultaneous presence yet absence from the movement West and the community built there can be seen as a chastisement of the American counter-culture movement that mirrors the selectivity of Presbyterian Church.
And finally, McCabe’s dark clothes in contrast with the blanket of snow during his final shootouts drive home a similar presence yet absence from the community he cares about and assists.
While the townspeople drink and smoke in celebration, he sits dying, the dark outline of his body slowly being covered with white snow — he is a martyr, a person worthy of a statue, but his unmoving body will be fully enveloped by the community’s homogeneity. Color (of clothes and of people) yearns to be added to the movement but it is denied again and again, and Altman’s aesthetic choices archive this troubling truth.
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