“I Got Poetry In Me!”

Film critics all around the world love McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The late Roger Ebert went so far as to call the movie “perfect”. In fact, this movie has not only been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, it also sits easy at #8 on AFI’s Top Ten Best Westerns.

title

It is, naturally, my least favorite western to-date.

SUMMARY:

McCabe (Warren Beatty) partners with Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) to open up a gambling hall/brothel. It’s all going rather splendidly until a mining company tries to buy them out.

NOTES:

1. There’s a case to be made that I would like McCabe & Mrs. Miller better on a second viewing. I’ve seen three other Robert Altman films besides this one, and I didn’t care for any of them on the first go around: I enjoyed elements of Gosford Park but ultimately found it too slow; I actively disliked almost everything about The Player, and I hard time accepting anyone other than Alan Alda as Hawkeye in MASHOn a second showing, though, I switched my tune — at least on Gosford Park and The Player. I haven’t tried MASH again, so I’m not sure about that one — I think I might still have trouble separating the show from the film, but it’s at least conceivable that I could take less issue with other elements, like pacing. (Pacing seems to be one of my biggest complaints with Altman, but it’s also something that I know usually deserves a second chance.)

So, yes. McCabe & Mrs. Miller could be like other Altman films I’ve seen. If I try it again in a year or two, I might feel completely differently about it.

I kind of doubt it, though.

2. The pacing is only one of my problems with this movie, although admittedly, it’s a significant one. McCabe & Mrs. Miller gets off to a damn slow start. I wasn’t remotely interested until Julie Christie showed up, and that didn’t happen for a good half hour. And while there are some benefits to Altman’s typical “let the audience eavesdrop on the characters” approach to filmmaking, I think overall, the story suffers for it.

3. My biggest problem with this movie, though, is that the relationship between McCabe and Mrs. Miller never quite plays out for me.

beattychristie

There are individual scenes between them that I like. (Especially the one where Mrs. Miller argues that she can run the brothel better than he can. Man, that’s awesome.) But I don’t know that their relationship builds enough for me, that I see enough change in it. I don’t want to get into spoilers too much, but I feel like the end of the movie — and really, kind of the whole story — hangs on the idea that these two characters have become fully entangled in each other’s lives. The basis of that entanglement doesn’t have to be Love or anything — I’m not trying to turn this into an epic romance — but I do need to feel like these two have become hugely significant to one another, even if that significance is based purely on financial need and future aspirations.

But, unfortunately, I never really felt that way — I think because their individual scenes don’t link together all that well. Like, there’s this one moment between them near the end of the film, and on its own, it’s not a bad scene. In that particular scene, I can tell that McCabe and Mrs. Miller are supposed to be more than just business partners to one another. But I don’t feel like the movie’s earned that moment. Throughout the film, I haven’t bought the arc of their relationship, and that’s a serious issue for me.

4. It must be said, though, that Julie Christie is kind of awesome. She got a Best Actress nod for her work here, and since she’s clearly the best thing in this movie, good for her. (Not that the other actors are bad — I’m just not convinced they have much to do. But hey, Rene Auberjonois! Also, an impossibly young Keith Carradine.)

5. As far as Warren Beatty goes . . . I think he does what he’s supposed to do, but I struggle with McCabe as a protagonist. On one hand, he goes against some common western tropes about the mysterious man from out of town, which is kind of great. (Altman called this movie the “anti-western,” which makes me feel like I should like it a whole lot more than I actually did.) On the other hand . . . McCabe’s not hugely likable and, more importantly, he’s just not terribly compelling. As an idea, McCabe is sort of interesting, but as an actual character, he feels awfully flat. Which is basically how I felt about the whole movie.

6. Although, hey, maybe that’s because I couldn’t hear half of it. Good Lord. Between Altman’s eavesdropper-y approach, my shitty hearing, and . . . I don’t know, 1971 sound quality? Yeah, I had my volume up to, like, 55, and I was still struggling to catch all the dialogue.

7. You know who I could hear just fine, though? Leonard Cohen. Jesus Christ.

This is the first five minutes/opening credits of the film — and unless you’re worried about being spoiled for Warren Beatty’s frightening fur coat, you’re safe to watch. The music here, and everywhere else in this movie, is by Leonard Cohen, and I’m aware that the Bohemian Music Gods are about to strike me dead at any moment, but apparently I only need Cohen in small doses because wow. This score felt intrusive as hell to me. I actually like the song above just fine — it fits pretty well with the mood of the film — but Leonard Cohen between every other scene? Too much. Way too much.

8. Finally, before my very brief Spoiler Section, I do like the look of this movie. A lot of the cinematography is very well done. None of the people are ridiculously good-looking. The town is kind of ugly, and there’s a lot of bad teeth to go around. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is kind of the opposite of romanticized, and that’s sort of neat.

Unfortunately, I don’t think a good attempt at authenticity makes up for sub-par storytelling.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

From the moment he arrives in town, everyone assumes that McCabe is this badass killer dude, but it’s clear relatively early on that McCabe isn’t a badass of any kind. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, either, and he seriously screws up while badly attempting to negotiate with the mining company. When he (finally) realizes his life’s in danger, he tries to backpedal as fast as he can, but it’s too late: three hired guns are out to kill him.

The last fifteen minutes of the movie or so, where McCabe and the hired guns sneak around town trying to kill one another isn’t bad. I just preferred it in High Noon, is all. (Although I’m definitely all for the “hiding and shooting bad guys in the back” approach.)

In the end, McCabe kills the last guy by playing dead. Unfortunately he’s still been shot to shit and dies anyway, sitting up in a snowbank far away from everyone else. Meanwhile, Mrs. Miller is an opium den, dreaming away. The final shot of McCabe is a powerful image, and it stuck with me for the rest of the night, but if I gave a shit about him one way or the other, it would have hit a lot harder. The same goes for his relationship with Mrs. Miller — if I bought into their relationship at all, the juxtaposition between their final moments would have had so much more impact. But since I don’t . . . . I don’t really care.

This is a very bleak film, but at the end, I didn’t really feel sad. Mostly, I just felt relieved that it was over. Also, a little bit of this:

I know your pain, Fred Savage. I know your pain.

CONCLUSIONS:

Playing against tropes can be a lot of fun, and Julie Christie’s awesome, but I just didn’t connect much to this story at all.

MVP:

Julie Christie

TENTATIVE GRADE:

C

MORAL:

It’s okay if you’re not good at math. Even basic math — we all have our flaws. But if you can’t add 16 +9 in under twenty seconds, you probably shouldn’t be making major financial decisions for the business by yourself.

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11 Responses to “I Got Poetry In Me!”

  1. Macabre says:

    So, according to your grade, it’s a worse movie than Red Dawn. Talk about blasphemy.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller, although I do look forward to seeing it at some point. In recent months I’ve watched Nashville, Short Cuts, and California Split, all three of which I thought were excellent, so I plan on working my way through Altman’s filmography in the near future.

    • The problem with the grading system, as a whole, is that I don’t judge movies by the exact same standard. Mortal Kombat, for instance? It’s a terrible movie if you’re comparing it to something like, I don’t know, The Shawshank Redemption. But you’re not supposed to compare it to The Shawshank Redemption, are you? Obviously not. You judge it by other movies in the same genre, your expectations of it, its potential, how much fun you had, etc.

      I had very few expectations of Red Dawn. Which doesn’t excuse it for missed opportunities or shitty writing, but I didn’t think it was as bad as it could’ve been. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, though . . . that is a movie where I expect a touch more quality. And while there’s certainly more craftsmanship and vision in the latter film, the final result is so much less than I wanted it to be. It sought for more and thus fell harder when it failed, or at least, when it failed for me.

  2. sooldman says:

    As always I love your reviews (especially when done without the “purpose adjectives”)…Bob Altman made a “career” out of the anti-_____…its easy to make a bad movie when you tell everyone it’s not suppose to be good…Alan Alda is my least favorite actor in all of the TV Mash and if I was a woman the next time he tried to use “women’s issues” as a soap box I would drop to one knee and shoot him in the ass…love, Papa

    ________________________________

    • Sorry, Papa, but I enjoy the ‘purpose adjectives.’ They are a part of Carlie’s writing voice. Perhaps if she were writing for someone else’s site it would be inappropriate but as this is her own blog I feel she is entitled to all the swear words she wants 🙂

      • Swear words can be fun. And yes, on this blog, they aren’t going anywhere. You know my new favorite? “Fuckmuppetry.” I read that in a Jim C. Hines blog post about Theodore Beale and was utterly delighted. It might be one of my favorite words ever.

      • Teacups says:

        Carlie, I have a newfound appreciation for your father’s gentle admonishing – last night, mine heard that I might be using curse words in the serial killer comedy I’m writing, and told me that it meant I needed to develop my skills as a writer, because good writers don’t have to use vulgar language like that. *facepalm*

        During the argument that followed, I kept thinking “Damn, couldn’t he just say that he personally doesn’t like the swearing, instead of deciding it makes me a bad writer? Carlie’s dad manages it.”

        Sorry for venting, and “fuckmuppetry,” is a fabulous swear word. 🙂

        • What amuses me most about this is that your father apparently doesn’t object to the content (comedy about violence), only the swear words. Also, no apologies required: I have — unsurprisingly — little patience for the idea that good writers don’t have to resort to cursing or that swearing necessarily decreases the artistic value or integrity of a piece. And it sucks when someone you care about makes judgements on the quality of your work and/or skill-level based on arbitrary factors. On the plus side, my eyes lit up at the idea of a serial killer comedy. This sounds excellent, and I hope it goes well. 🙂

          So yeah, I guess my old man is all right. (I’m totally allowed to call him that. You’ve been calling me Chuck for years, Papa!)

      • Teacups says:

        I know, right? He doesn’t say anything if I describe them murdering innocent people (including, early on, the apparent hero of the piece) and it being played for laughs, but swear words are taboo? I don’t know.

        He also thinks mild profanity and substitutions are out (at least, that’s what he said when I pointed out that most things that don’t use actual swear words just use a substitute instead – they might say crap or shtako instead of shit, frak or freak or frick instead of fuck, gorram instead of goddamn… Even “heck,” and “darn,” are just family-friendly versions of naughtier words). Which I think is funny, because that’s basically… everything. I don’t know where he’d find a profilic writer who never had even a single “rats!” So according to his logic, nearly every published author and professional writer isn’t any good at their craft. He says Tolkein never did, but really, he’d have to have a perfect memory or personally comb through Tolkein’s entire works looking for profanity to be sure.

        This might not come as a huge shock, but for context’s sake, he has absolutely zero background in writing.

        Thank you for the kind compliment regarding the serial killer comedy. 🙂

        • I don’t know Tolkien well enough to back up or refute that particular claim. But yeah, eliminating even substitution swear words like “crap” is seriously limiting the vocabulary. For God’s sake, I feel like I’ve read kids books with the word “crap” in it.

          A mild aside: “shtako” is a pretty decent swear word, as far as swear words go — it’s got a nice, guttural sort of sound to it — but I feel like they overuse the hell out of it in Defiance. I suppose it’s not any worse than “frak” in BSG, but it somehow feels less natural, and I’m not sure if I should attribute that to the writers using it too much or the actors not delivering it properly. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like it oughta be a drinking game. Take a shot for shtako!

          Also, I think Farscape had the best swear words because they had such a variety of them. Sure, “frell” was the most common, but there was also “dren,” “hezmana,” “yotz,” etc. I think Defiance needs to add a few more, mix it up a little.

      • Teacups says:

        I haven’t thought about it before, but I guess it’s weird that, if everyone’s so willing to swear, they almost only *only* say “shtako”? Like, how many people do you know who only use one swear word, and no others? Maybe the show needs to follow Farscape’s lead.

    • I’m not really familiar with anything Alan Alda’s done outside of acting, although I just did a quick search on Google and found a few feminist quotes and some work on ratifying the ERA Amendment. Nothing that I found personally offensive, although I really only looked around for about ten minutes or so. As a general rule, I don’t mind if celebrities want to try and champion political causes because they’re in the position where they can be heard and might do some good, although I think it’s a terrible idea to expect them to do so. I have very little patience for the idea that actors or singers have the obligation to be role models. (Which isn’t what you’re saying here, I know; it just reminded me.) But as far as acting goes, I loved Alda on M*A*S*H*. Hawkeye was my favorite character. I watched a LOT of reruns late at night while I was in high school.

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