The Quiet Western:
"McCabe & Mrs. Miller"
The film is, in some ways, an unsettling one. It opens on a rather passive, almost ambiguous note; while Leonard Cohen sings, the slowly panning camera introduces us to the relative solitude of a forested area somewhere in (supposedly) the Pacific Northwest, including the trees, the hills and the dirt and rocks along a cliff. After a while, as we’re looking at the area from above, a man shows up on horseback. When the camera “notices” him, it’s as if purely by happenstance, and then it “decides” to follow him. Two hours later, the story is told, we’ve met John McCabe and Constance Miller, and the focus has shifted away from them once more. He is dead, and she is lost in an opium-induced haze.
What are we to make of Robert Altman’s film “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”? Is it a Western? My answer is yes. I disagree with those who call the film an “anti-Western.” This term seems to imply that Westerns are defined by the style/elements common to most works of that genre, and I do not agree with this. Per Webster’s dictionary, a Western is a work that “(deals) with life in the western United States, especially during the latter half of the 19th century” (“western” def. 2).
The point is, “anti-Western” is used to refer to the small number of films that forgo the conventional, romanticized depiction of the West, instead portraying it more realistically. “Western” is an objective, definitional word. If people don’t like the unrealistic portrayal common to most films of the same-named genre, then they shouldn’t call those films “Westerns”! Altman’s film is an anti-stereotype, not an anti-Western. It is a real Western. The film questions standard genre conventions. I for one refuse the “majority rule”-type notion that films always define their genre. Why? The majority may be wrong. The focus here will be on how “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” differs from conventional Westerns.
What is striking about this film—and what sets it apart as a unique Western—is the sense of solemnity and silence, and the sense of place. The driving force behind the film seems to be an urge to remove the falsity and fabrications of Hollywood’s Westerns and show us what remains. Little was glamorous or romantic about the real era that for which Westerns were named, and the film knows it. It has no desert, saloon, perfectly staged bad guy-good guy showdown, picturesque sunset or anything else. Save for the Cohen songs, the film has no soundtrack, just the diegetic sounds (such as what is played by the music box).
In some ways, what we see is more of an observation, a brief glimpse, than a story with a clear beginning and ending. The story and dialogue are not of primary importance. Movie critic Roger Ebert points out that “the movie is about a period in the lives of several people,” not “a series of events.” He observes that the two main characters are “there along with everybody else in town, and the movie just happens to be about their lives” (Ebert).
This point is also seen in the visual and audio composition of the film, both of which are often murky or unclear but feel natural and real. Visually, the brown, murky, dimly lit building interiors recall old sepia-tone photographs, or daguerreotypes. One essay, titled “Just Some Jesus Looking for a Manger,” likens the photography to “a painting style that retains its imperfections, flaunts its brushstrokes and provides a tapestry of observations, rather than a balanced or obviously composed image” (Danks).
What’s more, we don’t see what we might expect is the focal point. The camera is placed in “inconvenient” locations, or it notices something insignificant, because we’re just supposed to feel like we belong, not analyze the scene. What the camera observes hardly even matters. The actors act like they don’t know they’re being watched. Unlike most Westerns, this film doesn’t try to follow the action or make every shot meaningful. Danks adds that the film’s approach is to employ “the varying planes and emphases of the pan and zoom, rather than the locked-off shot and deep focus.”
Not at all unlike the visual aesthetics of the film, the acoustics are interesting mostly for what we can’t quite make out. Dialogue generally takes a backseat in the film. Conversations and musings of characters are indistinct. The film prefers “muddying and expanding the soundscape,” says Danks, “rather than separating out the elements.” It’s a point worth considering, and it is the tone, the atmosphere of a room that’s important, not what everyone is saying. One source of sound worth paying attention to, though, is the Cohen songs, which serve a few purposes. They contribute to the lonely, mournful mood that pervades the film, and they also act as meaningful “dialogue,” being articulate where the characters’ voices are not. Sometimes these songs unite with the story or with an image, and other times, they “(provide) a rough counterpoint,” Danks says.
Another interesting element of the film to look at, beyond just the visual and audible qualities, is the theme of community and civilization, especially with regard to the ending. Most good analyses would focus on John McCabe and Constance Miller, and what they bring to the town, because clearly there is much worth exploring about their characters. But instead my focus here is on the mining company that comes to buy out the town.
One film critic, in an essay titled “’McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ Postscript,” says that “most classical Westerns blindly embraced civilization as a positive force that the story’s hero would eventually bring to a rugged, feral town … but whereas classical westerns bathe these large civilizing forces in a for-the-good-of-mankind, angelic glow, Altman stares intently at their cold, harsh, ruthless underpinnings” (Sapolin). The mining company is representative of “the spirit of civilization,” Sapolin says. The businessmen turn from proper, civilized practices to cold-blooded murder and hired assassins; of this, Sapolin says that the film is showing us that “the cultured and uncultured, tamed and untamed, civilized and uncivilized are all closely interwoven” and that “civilization has just as many faults and evil streaks as a raw community.”
In the end, no one has really won, because no villains or heroes were ever really established in the film. The businessmen and hired killers are hardly typical Western villains. Neither McCabe nor Mrs. Miller is a particularly admirable character. Completely contrary to most Westerns, the female character of this Western is the strong, entrepreneurial one, and Constance isn’t exactly the hooker with a heart of gold. Protagonist or not, John clearly lacks any heroic qualities.
Eventually, though, the civilizing force of capitalism will have won. Even with the killers gone, that won’t stop the mining company and its businessmen, who can always send more people or buy out the town from someone who will sell. Jared Sapolin’s take on the situation is that “even the final holdouts eventually succumb to capitalism – though not by ascent but through futile resistance.” John McCabe, he suggests, represents the “single dreamer, (who) has no place in the world of big business.”
So what should we ultimately make of the ending? I can’t claim to have the perfect answer, because there is none. The movie has deconstructed and demythologized the West in nearly every possible way. Very little is certain, other than that McCabe is dead and Mrs. Miller is on an opium high. The movie ends on a sad note. Both the townsfolk and the camera will turn their attention elsewhere; life will go on.
Danks calls our attention to the deadly cat-and-mouse confrontation between McCabe and the three killers, pointing out that the whole sequence is “interspersed with images of the townsfolk attending their burning church” and Constance Miller gradually slipping away from reality. “As McCabe fights his inevitable battle,” Danks says, “other folks, and indeed the film itself, through the use of crosscutting between scenes and situations that never come together, look elsewhere.”
And so ends the film. The community of Presbyterian Church was there before McCabe arrived, and it goes on after he has ‘left.’ He and his partner brought success to the town by opening the new brothel. McCabe’s death is far from insignificant—in a way, it’s the sacrifice of individualism—but the community doesn’t notice, and eventually, neither does the camera. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” doesn’t have to have more focus than it did, and it can’t be faulted for ignoring what we might think would be primarily important to the narrative. It doesn’t have to be romantic or happy, nor does it have to have crystal-clear sound and perfectly composed visuals. Why? Because in the real Old West, none of that was there, either. In real life, we don’t have perfect lighting or crystal-clear hearing, and sometimes there’s nothing more to a scene than just the overall mood of it.
We appreciate the film for what it doesn’t show to us, because we realize that what’s missing is unnecessary. Most Westerns seemed convinced they had to conform to a clear-cut storyline, stock characters and other arbitrary conventions. In a sense, Altman asks us if we still recognize the Western after he takes away all that is make-believe and staged. Without a clearly evident dramatic superstructure, this film isn’t primarily about a story unfolding, so there doesn’t have to be a clear beginning or ending. The camera just happens to be there at a particular moment in time, just as McCabe just happens to show up and catch the camera’s attention. He is gone, but the community survives him. The cold, harsh wind blows through the trees, just like at the beginning, and there is nothing more.
Danks, Adrian. “Just Some Jesus Looking for a
Manger: ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller.’” Senses
Aug. 2000. 8 Aug. 2006. <www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/00/9/mccabe.html>.
Roger. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller (review).”
Chicago Sun-Times: Roger
Ebert Movie Reviews
30 July 1971. 7 Aug. 2006. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com>.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Dir. Robert Altman. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1971.
Sapolin, Jared. “‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’
Postscript.” CinemaScope: JaredSapolin.com 12 Feb. 2003.
7 Aug. 2006. <www.jaredsapolin.com/mccabepostscript.html>.
“Western,” def. 2. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1989 ed.