Monthly Archives: July 2016

Manifest destinies: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

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The church. Image via drmvm1 (Flickr)

Altman’s thoughts on the American Dream, so fully realised in Nashville, are also central to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In their efforts to find fortune at the frontier, Beatty’s McCabe and Christie’s Mrs. Miller are two sides of the same flawed coin: one a projection of self-belief with few smarts to back it up, the other jaded (and drug-addicted) but knowledgeable and streetwise. Their manifest destinies lie not in ever-expanding fortunes but at the end of a gun wielded by a more ruthless and powerful man, and at the end of an opium pipe.

The American Dream theme goes beyond the business partnership at the film’s core. Sheehan, proprietor of the local tavern, is a committed small-timer, quick to cosy up to any man who acts a little bigger or smarter than he is. All the women in the film are ultimately objects, but within that limited scope of their possible lives, they find value in themselves and in each other. There’s even a moment in which the town’s only black residents, having just joined in a community effort to put out a fire, shuffle hastily away as raucous celebrations begin. Better not stick around in case things get ugly.

And as a whole, McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels cobbled together, as though Altman didn’t quite get all the shots he needed and had to improvise in the editing. But whatever limitations were imposed on his production — whether by the weather, the studio, or the disgruntled star — ultimately serve to improve the film as an artistic statement.

I recall being enchanted by this film when I first saw it, despite its deep sadness. And I found it just as enchanting on a second viewing — not only for the perfect marriage between Vilmos Zsigmond’s images and Leonard Cohen’s music, but also for the lighter touches. The town drunk dances sloppily on a frozen pond. The barman muses about how best to groom his beard. Everyone’s got to kill time somehow.

That’s the way it goes. You work and you kill time until your number’s up, and along the way, you try to find some beauty in it all. Some meaning. This film has both, in spades.

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A study in disappointment: Tokyo Story (1953)

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Sake. Photo by cleber (Flickr)

It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.

***

So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.

***

The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.

I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.

I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.

And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.

***

I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.

This is a great film in every way.

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