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MCCABE & MRS. MILLER
1971 - Robert Altman
United States
9
Opening Shot

Strong winds are heard offscreen over the Warner Brothers logo as the film fades into an image of trees and a mountain on a rainy day. Heightened by the poetic sounds of Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song", the camera starts to track right as a stranger approaches toward the screen riding a horse - he is covered in a coat.

The Film

Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film that feels real and honest yet it's dreamlike atmosphere is unlike any other film. The film flows like a dream right through to the powerfully moving ending in the snow. The visual atmosphere is truly astonishing. The great cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, beautifully captures a muddy, grainy and stained overall look to the film with some of the most remarkable imagery in the history of filmmaking. Julie Christie gives an excellent performance as Mrs. Miller, the prostitute who agrees to join McCabe in his goal of running a casino / brothel. Warren Beatty is also wonderful as John McCabe. Theirs fabulous chemistry amongst Beatty and Christie, who collaborated in a total of three films together during the 1970s (with McCabe & Mrs. Miller being the first). Among other things, Altman is the master of realism, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is no exception (of course, Altman's patent overlapping dialogue perfectly adds to the effect). The script seems improvised, and the characters and settings disregard the cliches of most Hollywood westerns, while oddly still using the general premise of the cliches. The strength really lies with the ambiance and atmosphere that Altman creates. The background sounds (be it the wind or overlapping dialogue) and particularly the music of Leonard Cohen add to the mood of the film with beautiful, poetic, and gloomy songs. Ultimately McCabe & Mrs. Miller examines issues of capitalism and business, of love, and of death. Like all Altman films this is sort of a microcosm of humanity. I think the final images are among the most poetic profound images in film history and it expresses a great deal about not only the world of this film but of the world of Altman. In the closing shot we leave his world and move toward a different universe for Altman's is truly unique from anything else the world of film has or ever will see. To me, this is simply a flawless film in every aspect of artistic filmmaking. Altman relies on the small details and imperfections of the characters or images and the result is a film that is perfect in every way. I just love watching the innovation and beauty of this masterpiece. It's one of America's greatest films, in one of American cinemas most influential decades, by one of America's master filmmakers.

The Filmmaker

Robert Altman is one of the great maverick filmmakers of American cinema. His career has been one of the most successfully long-standing, and even now at the age of 81 years old his films remain as fresh as ever. Since his debut feature in 1957, Altman has made 36 films in a span of nearly 50 years. Over that time he has received seven Academy Awards nomination and recognition and praise throughout the world for a variety of films. He is often considered one of the pioneers of Independent American film, and finally received an Academy Award this past year for Lifetime Achievement. Altman's impact and innovation traces back to the 1970s, a decade of influence in American cinema and one in which Altman made 15 feature films. Most of these are masterpieces that rate among the finest in American film (most notable examples are McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, MASH, The Long Goodbye, Images, California Split, 3 Women, and A Perfect Couple). This decade of filmmaking represents one of the most impressive stretch for any filmmaker in history, but Altman was not done. The critical and box office failure of 1980's Popeye, forced Altman to into TV and as many of the mavericks from the 1970s, he struggled a bit during the 1980s. Of course, Altman still made some fine films (notably his political driven Secret Honor- carried by an incredible lead performance from Philip Baker Hall, and the miniseries Tanner 88). Even if all of his features were not successful what remains evident is Altman's true love and passion for filmmaking. Altman's films are generally set on two narrative scales: the smaller, intimate examination of individuals, and the larger ensemble films that interweave a number of characters. Above all Altman's focus is on characters and the lives of the characters. One of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker is the authentic moments he captures through his improvisational style. Altman has a trust and belief with his actors and he enjoys mistakes and flaws as an aspect of authentic behavior. No matter what the scale he's working with, Altman's films have a narrative style that is ambitious, messy, and overlapping. He blends plot lines, characters, camera moments, and even dialogue together in one chaotic moment. His films are without straight-forward flow or rhythm and this tends to divide some audiences, but the overall sense of authenticity for human interactions and behavior is undeniable. Altman's films also display his mastery of examining the social traditions of American society. This is expressed through his haunting, ironic, and deeply observant imagery as well as his ability to play and ultimately transcend genre. Altman has worked within all genres, yet not one of his films represent a definitive genre film, but rather a quintessential Altman film. For this it's as if Altman is a musical composer, working on one vast opus. Not one of his films are alike, yet they each represent the trademarks of all of films. Nothing he does, is done in the standard form. He simply makes films like no one else in contemporary film. Altman has made some of the greatest films in American cinema and as his recent work has proven (Gosford Park, The Company, Prairie Home Companion), he remains at the top of his form!

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