I obviously have no idea what is was like to live in the West, but Altman's vision seems so real, I have a hard time imagining it to be any other way. Altman's movies are very special to me, because, unlike many modern-day independent films that grasp at verisimilitude through a "gritty" portrayal of reality (which often just seems to me like lack of imagination), Altman's movies actually sort of achieve this believability. At the same time, they are mythical enough to fascinate. Though the dialogue is "realistic" it rings much more true than the dialogue in, say, a mumblecore film. It is more like verite, but fictional. Roger Ebert puts it better than me in his Great Movies essay on the film: "All of the characters know each other, and the camera will not stare at first one and then another, like an earnest dog, but is at home in their company." As in real life, scenes are filled with overlapping, often inaudible chatter. But, as Ebert notes, "sometimes all that matters is the tone of a room."
It's true that I have no idea what it is like to live in the West. No one does. But also I'm only marginally familiar with the idealization of the mythical American West. Of all Hollywood genres, I am pretty rusty with the Western. This is mostly because it never interested me. Too few women, too much male posturing. Lately, I've been more intrigued. Luckily, most of us have unwittingly absorbed enough of the Western myth to know when we are being fed something just a little bit different. It's one of those things, like noir, that children are beginning to understand through parody and reference before they even really see the real thing. I was watching parodies of noirs, for instance, from sources as wide ranging and unexpected as the Animaniacs and Boy Meets World, before I was ever trailed a laconic P.I. through the gritty black and white celluloid of the 1940s. Though I couldn't really say where my notions of Westerns come from, I think of wide vistas, two men squared off in a deserted town square, horses, Indians, the nebulous idea of "the posse." Close enough, right?
Altman's try at the Western is murky and elliptical, in true Altman fashion. The characters are trying to make it big, though it's hard to see what they expect to come out of their efforts. Their small town of Presbyterian Church is a more bleak and isolated place than you could possibly imagine. It is only half built, usually half-buried in snow, half frozen. This is not the West of scorching sun, where the lonely cowboy removes his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. Perhaps Mccabe and Miller (Warren Beatty & Julie Christie) see a land of opportunity, which will soon swell with homesteaders, leaving them in financial control of a booming city. As it is, they control most of the cash flow in a town hacked out of dense woods, which seems to consist solely of a whorehouse and a tavern. The town is named for the church that floats up into the periphery, hovering in the frame now and then, though no one really appears to enter or leave it until the very end of the film.
Mccabe finds his niche by exploiting the ill founded awe of townspeople who have come to believe, somehow, that he is a killer. This conjured myth establishes him as a masculine character to be awed and feared, which is a lucky break for him, because male virility is not something he seems to have in spades. Actually, he is rather maladroit and cowardly. Although the residents of Presbyterian Church have nothing to spend their money on besides their own survival, and the occasional whore, their existence still seems to be focused on money, the need for it. Yet, somewhere between scheming alongside her and paying for her services, Mccabe falls for Mrs. Miller, the enterprising whorehouse madame. Though she seems to feel real fondness for him, she is too jaded to strive for real joy in her life. The torpor she suppresses in her cockney speech is revealed in her clandestine Opium use. While Mccabe seems intent on his prosperity, her outlook seems to be mere survival--to continue living, however numbing that life becomes.
Through a mishandled negotiation, Mccabe lands in some serious trouble with a large corporation who wishes to purchase his holdings. Thus, when a solitary cowboy (Keith Carradine) rides into town, Mccabe fears trouble. But the moment the rider cracks a goofy innocuous smile, it is clear that he represents no threat, but rather a preview of the kind of tourism that will make the town flourish. We are granted a rare glimpse of playfulness and optimism as the cowboy enjoys the famous wares of Presbyterian Church. When, a few scenes later, he is mercilessly gunned down by one of a trio of more ominous visitors, it is clear that the dream has died, almost before it begun.
The corporation has sent a trio of men to take Mccabe out. Just after Mccabe humiliates himself with ineffectual backpedaling, and a generally pathetic attempt to remedy the situation, the leader of the posse laughs derisively, saying, "I don't make deals. I came up here to hunt bear!" This is kind of sick joke, as Mccabe is the one he is truly there to hunt, and they both know it. Unlike the manly face offs of traditional Westerns, what follows is a cowardly cat and mouse game, during the course of which, Mccabe manages to shoot his two of his pursuers in the back. The final of his pursuers falls into Mccabe's trap, as he plays dead like a scared, wounded animal, which is what he is. This show down takes place while, concurrently, the rest of the town has aggregated to save the forgotten church from burning to the ground. A grand show of their success is intercut with the final image of Mccabe, fallen in a mound of snow, never to rise.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Miller is in an opium den, losing herself in her high, in the textures and patterns surrounding her. The final shot of the film is in her perspective, an extreme close up of a clay pot. It is a perplexing end to a movie that, up until now, has refused to give us such a strong, singular perspective. We end in abstraction as Mrs. Miller is lost to the world around her. This singular perspective, deeply closed in, is an opposition to the wide vistas normally represented in the Western-- wide open spaces that represent infinite possibility, among other things. In the end, the journey of Mccabe and Miller is a dead end, their commercial lust leading them nowhere.
Until my dvd player is fixed, I am unable to take my own screen captures. Thank you Filmgrab, for the images.