Saturday, March 04, 2006

On McCabe and Mrs. Miller, at Length

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a film with three endings*. In one, the town puts out the fire in the church and celebrates. In another, McCabe dies alone, while the snow drifts over him. In the third, Mrs. Miller lies stoned in Chinatown, staring at a marble egg. Altman doesn’t really resolve these endings, they play out in parallel, they don't cohere. They represent three incompatible interpretations of the story, none of which Altman favors over the others. Is McCabe a tragic hero, a small timer up against a heartless vicious corporation, a man who makes a mistake and pays for it with his life? That is how he sees himself. The way Altman shows his death - from his surprising, and heroic, killing of Butler, to his end, disappearing under the drifting snow - supports this feeling. Or is he a fool? A man who badly miscalculated his situation, and then insisted on playing the martyr instead of heading for the hills? This seems to be how Mrs. Miller sees him - more or less admirable for that heroism, but still a fool. Or is he simply irrelevant? As far as the town is concerned, his troubles pose a much less immediate threat than the fire in the church. They put the fire out, acting together, as a community, and celebrate, oblivious to McCabe’s death or Mrs. Miller’s absence.

Altman does not force us to choose an ending, or an interpretation. He might lean toward Mrs. Miller's point of view (the films ends with her literal point of view, after all), but that doesn't cancel the other endings. He undermines all three. The town may have come together to put out the fire, and the celebration reflects that, but after all, McCabe or Mrs. Miller are not there - nor are any of the Chinese (who have no part in any of this), and the last shot of the celebration is of the Washington’s (the black barber and his wife) walking away, alone again. We can believe that the town has been brought together by the crisis of the fire - but not long enough for the embers to cool. McCabe’s ending is tragic on the face of it - he dies, heroically, in a sense, but completely alone, forgotten by everyone, and the last we see of him he is being buried by the snow. Even Mrs. Miller’s ending is a barren one. She is stoned, after all - mindlessly absorbed in the blankness of the egg. The same wind that blows over McCabe’s ending blows in hers. Altman’s last shots of both McCabe and Mrs. Miller are long slow zoom-ins, and they are similarly unresponsive - she is as good as dead.

The whole film is like that. Altman consistently presents multiple perspectives on the story, showing the story (the world of the film) as it is experienced by different people, as they interpret it. He sticks mostly to McCabe's story, but the life of the town around him, and of other people, are always present.

Some years back, I wrote a paper** about this film for a class - the only requirement for the paper was to bring in the writings of one of the filmmakers covered in the class. I applied a bit from Godard's writings (an outline of his approach to making Two or Three Things I Know About Her) to the Altman film. Godard's comments on that film seemed quite applicable to many of his films - and to those of other filmmakers, such as Altman. Godard's four movements:

1) He will describe things and people from outside - as objects.
2) He will describe things and people from inside - as subjects. With people, this means showing their thoughts and feelings - “scenes more or less well written or acted.” Objects can be shown from inside, especially inside looking out.
3) He will describe “structures” - not, Godard writes, “a generalized overall truth” but “laws one must discover and apply in order to live in society.” He also notes (an important concept for understanding Altman) that there is no harmonious society. Godard speaks of consumer values; Altman, similarly refers to capitalist values in general.
4) Through these first three, Godard hopes to arrive at “life” - that is, a sense of how an individual experiences living in the world.

Those comments were written specifically about Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but I think they are generally applicable to Godard’s work, and might be even more generally applicable to Altman’s. Altman returns throughout his career to stories involving large numbers of people interacting within a specific milieu - a place, an industry, a charged moment, in which he does try to do justice to the “world” of that milieu, to individuals in the “world,” and the ways they interact with each other and the “world.” He does so in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, showing us people, telling us their stories, probing their ideas and feelings - while placing them in a society and showing us how that society functions, where they fit (or more commonly, don’t fit.)

He emphasizes the physical world around the characters - the town, the mountains and trees and rivers, the snow that falls on them. He moves back and forth between showing the world (and people) objectively, and showing the characters' perception of the world, as well as investing objects and places with his own meanings. This often takes the form of quite literally moving the camera in and out of spaces - shooting the outdoors from inside and indoors from outside. He places a great stress on transitional spaces - bridges, stairways, doors, he shoots through doors and windows and railings, as well as trees, through clouds of smoke or snow or rain and light and dark, all ways to hide people from one another. We see the town from outside, we see it being built, we see it filling up - we see the objects brought in, furniture, machinery, food, bottles, cards, lamps. Altman's documentary experience must be relevant here - objects are emphasized, the color of the unpainted wood, the way people wear their hair, their clothes, the type of guns people carry. At the same time, we understand these things "subjectively" - we see these things as physical objects, but also for the meanings they are given, both by the characters themselves, and by Altman. Guns and lamps say - are invested with significance. Guns carry fairly conventional, phallic significance (as in the over-the-top contrast between McCabe's derringer and Butler's blunderbuss), but it's undercut - size is no guarantee of victory, and indeed, reliance on the gun is usually disastrous. Or lamps - throughout the film, Altman contrasts golden lamp light with cold exterior light. Lamplight often seems to promise warmth and shelter, but this can be deceptive - the preacher’s lamp starts the fire at the church, and lamps are associated with Mrs. Miller's opium smoking. Locations are important - the church, the bathhouse, the bridge, Sheehan's saloon. We see them from outside, we see them from inside.

This is true of the people as well - we see them from inside and outside, and in relation to the whole. Much of the film takes place in public places: Sheehan’s saloon, McCabe’s saloon, the ante-room of the whorehouse, the street, where people come and go, interact,. but usually only superficially. Altman observes people, takes time with marginal characters (a conversation between Smalley and Sheehan’s bartender; the interplay between Mrs. Miller’s women and their customers; the women and customers spying on each other) without explaining what is going on. Altman also shows people subjectively. He shows them when they are alone, especially McCabe. He shows them as they are seen by others, sometimes with literal point of view shots, sometimes by showing people looking at others (Lil watching the Seattle women bathing, for instance.) He frequently picks out the people on the margins of the film and the town - the preacher, the town drunk, the man with the braids. These people seldom, if ever, speak - but they are present at significant moments, at the edge of the scene, observing, being observed - and sometimes oblivious, lost. The drunk appears first in Sheehan’s, when McCabe gives him a drink to finish - he appears a few times later - standing alone in front of the fire while the other men work on the bathhouse; standing at the bar in McCabe’s place when Smalley tells Robby about Bart’s injury and McCabe that the men from the mining company have left. The preacher is visible in a few scenes, usually whenever anyone comes in or out of the town (the church, after all, is the gateway to the town), and he passes through the shot during the fight that kills Bart. In some scenes - that fight for example - other townspeople are shown watching the scene, without getting involved, or without being able to do anything about it.

Altman brings all of this together, but in a way that mirrors what Godard called the "complex" - the ways people try to live together. He tends to do this through discourse - through the ways people talk to one another. Or, usually, fail to talk effectively. Altman’s films are famous for their murky dialogue, the ambient noise that makes it hard to hear, the overlapping conversations interfering with each other, the low recording levels - that is a factor here. But even when they can hear each other, they can't understand each other. People speak differently. People don’t listen. McCabe gets along well among the men of the town with his gnomic style, his jokes and riddles and bluster, but when he comes up against others he gets in trouble. He can’t get a word in edgewise with Mrs. Miller, who sweeps him away with her practical plans, her competence, her plain speaking. McCabe’s meeting with the lawyer goes the same way - the lawyer postures away, spouting political slogans, and McCabe sits like a schoolboy, hat in hand, utterly taken in.

The most important instances of this are the talks between McCabe and the men from the mining company. McCabe starts out with his characteristic patter, telling jokes, reciting riddles, and so on. It doesn’t help that he is stinking drunk, but the alcohol is less a factor than his style - he acted the same way sober with Sheehan at the beginning of the film. Sears and Hollander are not impressed, though Sears, at least, tries. He laughs at his frog and eagle joke, he offers to buy McCabe a drink, while Hollander just glowers in the background. Sears drops hints that there is violence behind their offer - McCabe doesn’t catch any of it. Their next meeting goes a little better, but still they talk past each other. The mining men don't take McCabe's gifts. McCabe barely listens to Hollander’s smooth, patently insincere pitch (“I have a son named John”), and doesn’t register his implied threats (even though by this time he had been warned by Mrs. Miller.) They think his demands - $14, 15,000 - are ridiculous, but he doesn’t give them time to try to talk him down. Through it all, McCabe thinks they are negotiating and he can talk them up; Sears, for that matter, thinks that McCabe is negotiating, and he can talk him down. They come close to talking the same language for a while - but Hollander doesn't care. He thinks that McCabe is too much of a fool to come down - or, more likely, he does not care one way or another and just wants to get back to civilization as soon as possible. And that is that.

The limits of what we know of other people is one of the strongest themes in the film. It's part of the difficulty of communicating - we don't understand other people, we don't try. McCabe is repeatedly shown paying no attention to a conversation he is having. He gets away with not listening to Berg ramble on about paperwork, but when it's Hollander threatening him, it matters. Even when he listens, he doesn't hear what he should. He misses the threats in Sears’ and Hollander’s words; later, when Mrs. Miller begs him to leave, he hears nothing but the subtext. He hears her concern for him, but not her words, her warning. Not that anyone else is better at it - Mrs. Miller, for all her practicality, does not understand how to deal with McCabe except by bullying him. When he thinks he hears love in her words, she promptly puts up her best materialistic defenses. There is also the notable example of Butler, who makes the same mistake about McCabe that McCabe makes about others. McCabe stutters and stammers and squirms when they meet, and Butler thinks he knows him. "That man never shot anyone in his life," says he - but in the end, he gets what Bill Roundtree got. We can't even dismiss McCabe, you know.

What we have, then, is this - a film about a town, about the people in the town - especially about 2 of those people. We see the town, from outside - we see its land and houses and streets, we see these things as objects, in some detail, and see them as they are used by the people in the town. We see the people - interacting, trying to connect to one another and usually doing it badly. And we see McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in particular - we see them as they see themselves, but also, as they see each other, and as others see them - and as we see them, from outside the story. We see things as they are, and as they are seen; we see the meanings given to things and places and people by the people in the story - and we see meanings given to things and places and people from Altman's perspective. We see these meanings overlap, change, contradict each other. We see communities forming and dissolving at the same time. We see a world and the people in it, never quite in synch.

* Obviously, with a beginning like that, you shouldn't need spoiler warnings.
** The source of most of this post, in fact. There's no end of things to write about this film - which stands as one of the short list of all time greats. Shorter than that even. An almost infinitely dense and complex film - I could write all day about it, cutting down to something manageable is not easy.

No comments: