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McCabe and Mrs. Miller - Robert Altman goes to Canada

Christopher Buchanan

Robert Altman was a filmmaker who belonged to the 70s. An integral part of the New Hollywood movement, if his name isn’t thrown around in mainstream conversations beyond MASH and Nashville (or Popeye), it could be accredited to the fact that his work was- and remains- intricate and challenging studies of raw humanity. Watching your first Altman is like being thrust into an entirely new language of film. At first, it feels like an assault on the senses. Dialogue from about a hundred different sources crashes over you at the same time, the camera drifts from person to person - often at a distance - and the viewer truly feels apart of the film’s world rather than simply being an audience member. Immersion is a word thrown around too generously and too inaccurately these days but when it applies to Altman, it doesn’t seem like enough. His talent for weaving together a multitude of character storylines has famously imprinted itself on Paul Thomas Anderson, and Altman’s penchant for satire, naturalism and humanity has its fingerprints all over today’s landscape. Famously, his career dropped off in later decades and he found himself unable to get projects off the ground. In the age of the blockbuster, sprawling character epics didn’t pay: It wasn’t the 70s anymore. But if one wanted to explore Altman’s legacy and was looking to ease in before tackling one of his three hour long pieces, you can’t do better than 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Altman referred to the film, based on Edmund Naughton’s novel McCabe, as an “anti-Western.” Nowhere in McCabe is there glamour. There are no heroes, gunslingers, idols or moral beacons. Idyllic sunsets and desert landscapes are traded in for Snow with a capital S. White blankets of it will come to smother the mining town which John McCabe (quintessential Warren Beatty) rolls into one day and who - with all the professionalism of any esteemed businessman - opens the town’s only brothel. He’s eventually joined by the ambitious Constance Miller (Julie Christie, nominated for an Oscar) who becomes McCabe’s partner and they create a successful, high-class establishment. All goes well until big business expresses an interest in purchasing the business…

After the box-office success of MASH, Altman offered the title role to Elliot Gould but he turned it down. According to Gould, Altman told him he was making the mistake of his life and Gould eventually went on to agree with him. Warren Beatty was in England at the time and, when he was offered the part, he flew to New York where he watched MASH, then continued on to Los Angeles where he signed on for the role.

If there was ever a film that feels like it was shot in Canada, it’s this one. Filmed in both Vancouver and Squamish, the production built the set for the entire town. Tucked away in beneath the BC mountains, the film has an undeniable quality of realism and captures the simultaneously beautiful and threatening quality of raw nature. Some of the carpenters on the film were young men fleeing conscription by the US government into Vietnam and were dressed in costume so they could continue building the set while filming took place. The eventual blanket of snow which accompanies the climactic action of the film was a genuine Canadian contribution and Altman along with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond decided - against Warren Beatty’s wishes - to shoot in it.

It is impossible to discuss the film without mention of its music, which consists entirely of songs by Leonard Cohen. From the opening credits, it immediately creates a beatifically haunting atmosphere which carries through the entire picture. Cohen had only released his first album in 1967 which Altman greatly admired and said he shot the scenes with the lyrics “etched in [his] subconscious.” Despite this, he did not have permission to use the music and was a pleasantly surprised when Cohen granted it.

Upon release, the film split reviewers. Some were off-put by the unconventional style while others embraced it for the same reason. It resonated immediately with Roger Ebert, who gave it 4 stars, stated with it that Altman “earns his place as one of the best contemporary directors,” and eventually added it to his Great Movies collection. It’s gone on to become one of the absolute essential Westerns, precisely for its unconventionality. In 2008, the American Film Institute placed it at a #8 on its Top 10 Westerns and was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress in 2010. Altman is a mountain which, once you start to climb, you not only want to continue your ascent, but are also imbued with a desire never to get off it. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a remarkable first rock to grab hold of.

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