Monday, September 7, 2009

MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, 1971, USA)

“You find he did not leave you very much even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
That is so high and wild, he’ll never want to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”.

-Leonard Cohen

The inscrutable loner John McCabe wanders into the frontier, looking for a place to rest and finding only his final resting place. McCabe is a man who presumably has a “big rep”, identified as a gunslinger by the local saloon owner, but who seems to be only interested in business and pleasure. Soon, his brothel is literally booming with climactic profits thanks to Constance Miller, another stranger who has traveled to this forsaken mining town: together, they form a monetary partnership that is beneficial to both…but their physical association is always kept emotionally cold like a winter storm. Director Robert Altman’s revisionist Western depicts a masterful antithetical vision: from small mountain town in Washington State to a drunken and heartbroken protagonist, who never draws his gun until the final act; there are no sidekicks or posses and the final shootout is during a snowstorm where McCabe is hunted, hiding like a wounded animal, where morality is a shadow hidden by a deeper darkness. Here in Presbyterian Church a man’s integrity is not judged by high noon gunfights but by survival. Altman eschews the genre conventions and films an intimate portrait of two people who are separated by an immeasurable and ethereal distance while focusing upon the inhabitants of this small community. The attention to period detail is amazing, showing the dirt, sweat and grime of frontier life much like Michael Cimino’s epic HEAVEN’S GATE. Altman utilizes a few Leonard Cohen songs to great effect, his deep voice resonating throughout the narrative like a melancholy narrator. The use of long takes and slow camera pans while pulling focus towards the subject, overlapping dialogue that blends into a chaotic aural whirlpool, and the use of ambient lighting adds a visceral realism to the drama. Robert Altman has made not a Western but an allegory concerning religious pretensions and the predatory nature of Capitalism: firstly, the town is named after the church and the reverend turns away McCabe when in most need (very unChristian-like: but poetic justice is served, not by a congregation but conflagration), and McCabe finally decides to make the deal for his business but the conglomerate Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company hires a hit man to close the sale. Even the hallowed Halls of Justice remain silent, a lawyer offering only impotent advice without action. Finally, Constance escapes to her opium dream and McCabe flees into a raging snowstorm, three professional killers in pursuit. McCabe is a small businessman consumed by monopolistic greed, a gambler who has played his final game. And lost. (A)

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