Manifest destinies: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

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.

Imprints: ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, LCD Soundsystem – ‘This Is Happening’

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2005): Altman’s final film, about the end of a famous radio show. Light and breezy but with an emotionally resonant core. Wonderful performances from an all-star ensemble cast. Death, or at least ending, casts its shadow over every scene – sometimes literally. Recommended.

LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening: ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ kicks things off in memorable LCD style – maybe James Murphy’s best lyrics yet – but then oscillates between the sublime and the ridiculous, much like ‘Sound of Silver’ did, but more frequently and with deeper troughs. If ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ is a career highlight, ‘Pow Pow’ is a never-to-be-forgotten embarrassment. Worth a look.

3 Women (1977) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written and Directed by Robert Altman

2006: the year I discovered Robert Altman. It’s not that I was unfamilar with his work – I knew of his high status, and had seen Short Cuts and Gosford Park, considering the former to be greatly impressive. I think I was just too young for any of it to really stick with me, or to motivate me to seek out more. Well, after Nashville, I really wanted more, and decided I might as well start with one I’d read virtually nothing about. 3 Women is an extraordinary film, one that washes over you and stuns you, lingering in the mind long after viewing it, daring you to forget it.

At first it seems more about two women than three: Shelley Duvall’s Millie, a woman so enveloped in her own trendiness that she doesn’t notice that everyone is laughing at her, and Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, so childlike as to appear utterly dependent on Millie’s guidance (at work, at home, and down the pub). Here, it’s extremely tempting to simply discuss the narrative of the film, because it so closely resembles a dream; there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else one can go when discussing it. Indeed, it came to Altman fully-formed in a dream, and that doesn’t surprise given that it progresses exactly as a dream would – strange, bewildering, sometimes completely illogical, but always feeling natural. You know how you only realise how strange that dream was after you wake up? That’s what it’s like after watching this movie.

I’m not going to do that, though. I came to it untainted by any kind of plot summary, so I’m going to avoid that from now on. Like in Nashville, the characters are defined mostly by their flaws. Millie is often painful to watch, walking just behind other pairs, talking constantly but never being listened to. She sincerely believes that all the men desire her, but before she is even up the steps they ridicule her. Pinky is the exact opposite, a blank slate who approaches every aspect of adult life as though it was for the first time. She believes Millie is helping her, educating her well, which is even more painful because her mentor couldn’t be more misguided. The third woman of the title, pregnant Willie, is usually seen painting disturbing, pained figures on the pool walls and floor. She seems alienated, or alien, out of step with her surroundings. We don’t follow her the way we follow Millie and Pinky, but we often feel her presence in the background, watching over proceedings like a… something.

The music is the first clue. To begin with, it doesn’t seem to fit at all, but it steadily becomes more and more appropriate until it goes perfectly with the images and tone. And it’s not just a case of becoming used to it – the film actually changes into something different, a clear but not incongruous shift. Just like a dream. Then there’s the impeccable film technique, timing every shot just right, and in a few notable cases surprising us with anomalies such as double reflections and a wavy fluid that sometimes partially obscures the image. It’s very strange, and dreamlike. You get it, I’m sure.

Again, Altman captures the potential of the form without resorting to lazy hoodwinks or clich√©s. The notions that could lead to disappointment are there, but they are executed perfectly. You don’t necessarily understand it – and quite likely, you shouldn’t – but it doesn’t feel wrong, or a cop-out. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Mulholland Dr., but I kind of feel like Lynch pulled the wool over our eyes. Nothing wrong with that per se, but with Altman there are no smoke and mirrors, and no pretensions. He shows us some stuff, and leaves the rest up to us. A genius and a giant of cinema.

Nashville (1975) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written by Joan Tewkesbury
Directed by Robert Altman

The ensemble drama has been particularly popular in recent American film. Primary exponents are Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and Paul Haggis (Crash). However, the king of the genre is undoubtedly Robert Altman. These more recent examples offer distinct worlds that are easy to be drawn into, with fascinating characters that we do care about; the difference with Altman’s films is that every person on screen – from the part with the most dialogue, to the guy with a mullet and goatee standing in a huge crowd – comes across as a real person. The others I have seen are Short Cuts and Gosford Park, and it’s that attention to the smallest roles that sets him apart, placing him among the greatest American filmmakers.

Nashville, I would suggest, is his finest hour. (Without having seen MASH or The Player I’m not really in any position to judge, but too bad.) No better film chronicle of Americana exists that I’ve seen. All the required elements are present and correct: country music, NASCAR racing, and most of all, the sorts of interpersonal relationships that could only happen like this in America. Husbands and wives in difficulty, for various reasons (extramarital affairs, career overtaking love etc.); groups of friends in disarray; outsiders regarding the environment with fascination and ignorance, whilst being regarded with (much of the time) utter disdain. I say again, not for a second does any of it seem contrived, not even the famous climax that we know is coming but we still don’t believe will really happen.

If for no other reason, it’s all real because it’s unusually unromanticised. I expected Nashville to be a celebration of the American Dream, and in a way it is, but it is deeply critical of it; from the start it has characters singing about peace, love and understanding, then as soon as the song ends they settle back into their bitter, disagreeable, and troubled persona. Dreams don’t crumble in this film so much as they are denied outright. Everybody wants for more – that great reconciliation, that deserved recognition, that wider success – but it’s always out of reach. Some realise this and some don’t, and it is heartbreaking to watch those in both camps as they either deal with a crushing realisation, or continue to delude themselves.

I make it sound like there’s no hope in this story, but there is, and it’s summed up by the fact that the one character who really takes advantage of her big break only gets it through the extreme misfortune of another. That’s to say, outright hope doesn’t necessarily exist: through narrow-mindedness we ignore the flip side of the coin, but it is there, and it might make itself known at the least opportune time. Still, Altman sees the humanity in everyone, and they all come across as sympathetic characters in one way or another. We aren’t perfect! Nobody is! But a lot of us, deep down, have the right things at heart. A simple old message, but rarely better illustrated than it is here.

I really liked the way much of this film was shot in medium to long shot – it was another good way of making everyone seem on equal footing. The music is great, too, particularly Haven Hamilton’s opener ‘200 Years’. The acting is excellent across the board, and it would be pointless to pick a standout because there are literally dozens of good performances here. The only slightly troublesome element was that there were so many plot strands that it did get a little bit confusing sometimes… but hey, that’s what second viewings are for.

P. T. Anderson, the pretender to Altman’s throne, got Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton in this film) to play a small role in Magnolia, and that surely is his way of recognising his roots. I imagine there are hundreds of young filmmakers in America and around the world who would cite Altman as an influence. This is another legendary director who has never won an Oscar, and as such he will receive a ‘We Fucked Up‘ one this year. He’s a pioneer, an innovator, a true cinema artist, and those unfamiliar with his work should certainly start with Nashville.