Remember video stores? As a Marquette University undergrad, I had no strong affinity for them. I’d occasionally rent something from the Blockbuster just off campus but mostly borrowed VHS tapes from the nearby Milwaukee Public Library Central branch. Even after I began taking classes for my Film minor, I didn’t have much time (or cash) to seek out stuff to rent on a regular basis, apart from watching popular and/or silly movies with friends. In that pre-internet era, I mostly stuck to TV (and movies I recorded off the TV.)
This all changed once I moved to Boston. Without much of a life apart from my coursework, I not only had ample time to watch movies, but it was also pretty much expected of me (I was pursuing a graduate degree in Film Studies.) In addition to everything I saw in classes, I began frequenting my neighborhood Videosmith, an “indie” chain alternative to behemoths like Blockbuster and West Coast Video (it was pretty much the movie rental equivalent of still-in-business New England record store chain Newbury Comics.) That first time I stepped inside the Allston location (since consumed by the adjacent CVS) and signed up for a membership, I meticulously browsed through the store’s packed shelves, seeking out the ideal first title to rent. I ended up choosing Celestial Clockwork, a somewhat frothy, now mostly forgotten 1995 Venezuelan/Parisian trifle that a recent ex had recommended.
Before long, I settled into a groove: still cash-starved, I’d stop by every Tuesday after my last class to take advantage of that day’s 2-for-1 special, usually walking back to my shitbox apartment with four tapes for the price of two. One could rent new releases for two nights; older titles could be kept for up to five. Sunday would roll around and I’d be back at the Videosmith, picking out another tape to rent if I had the money to spend. This biweekly video store ritual was an ideal way to fill out the gaps in my film viewing which were becoming ever more apparent with the amount of stuff I was exposed to in classes and at revival houses like the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archive. That first semester alone, I can recall the first-time watches I rented, including but not limited to The Godfather, Malcolm X, Repo Man, 8 ½, Heavenly Creatures, Stranger Than Paradise, Eating Raoul and Kenneth Branagh’s let’s-film-the-entire-play Hamlet. In the process of coming out, I also rented every gay-themed movie I could find, from mainstream crossovers (The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Longtime Companion) to stuff on the margins (The Living End, Swoon, Go Fish.)
One late afternoon the following August, I walked down to the Coolidge Corner Videosmith—a little further from my apartment, I had started making the trek there more frequently, for it had a wider selection than the Allston store (including a long out-of-print VHS copy of John Cassavetes’ final feature Love Streams (1984), then otherwise nearly impossible to see outside of a film print.) I was three days away from moving across town to a larger place, but still had time to watch movies amidst all my packing. That day, I picked out McCabe & Ms. Miller, Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist western starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the titular roles. Halfway home from Coolidge Corner, isolated raindrops quickly escalated into a downpour. I ran the rest of the way, sticking the VHS tape under my t-shirt so that it wouldn’t succumb to water damage.
Back in my apartment, after drying off with a towel still somewhat damp from an earlier shower, I moved a few half-packed boxes blocking my TV screen and stuck the tape into my Panasonic VCR. It opened with credits in a lower-case font slowly moving left over a right-tracking shot of a man on a horse as he made his way through a rustic, partially wooded landscape beset by clouds, rain and wind. That last thing was the first sound heard, immediately followed by Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song”, an acoustic folk tune recorded in 1967. Given McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s setting of roughly 65 years before, this choice should have come off as incongruous or jarring; instead, somehow, it just fit the imagery beautifully. The lyrics seemed to relate to the lone figure riding through the terrain even though they were conceived four years earlier; the melancholy and longing in the song’s minor chords and Cohen’s plaintive, untrained voice also set an ultra-distinct tone that a more traditional score or even music from the film’s period might not have grasped.
It’s rare, but I have fallen in love with a film over its opening credits sequence a few times: Monty Python and The Holy Grail for its sheer hilarity and absurdity; Nicolas Wending Refn’s 2011 neo-noir Drive, its throwback synthpop meshing brilliantly with its nighttime shots of LA and the credits’ hot pink font; the gradual surveillance zoom-in and super-intricate sound design of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Still, the fusion of sound and image in McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s very first scene stands apart in how such an odd pairing on paper proves so effective onscreen. Altman would later explain that in looking for the right score, he’d heard Cohen’s debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen playing one day and thought, “That’s my movie!” He added, “We put those songs on the picture, and they fitted like a glove. I think the reason they worked was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for them.”
Even though I had admired Altman’s output probably all the way back to watching Popeye (1980) in a second-run cinema when I’d just turned six years old, I’d put off renting McCabe & Mrs. Miller simply because I wasn’t a big fan of Westerns. I’d seen and appreciated classic genre titles such as Stagecoach, Red River and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in my classes but wasn’t moved to check out more. As a genre, the Western peaked in the mid-20th Century and felt like a remnant from a long-past era. Its focus on masculinity also served as a deterrent as it did in some of my other less-preferred genres such as action and war films. Still, I’d scanned over Pauline Kael’s rapturous New Yorker review and, as a fan of such Altman touchstones as M*A*S*H and The Player, I dutifully decided to give his Western a shot.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s frontier setting, populated by horses, saloons, guns and a brothel is certainly the stuff of traditional Westerns; same goes for its story of John McCabe, a tall, dark stranger arriving in town and making a name for himself as a self-made businessman only to face the pressure and wrath of someone more powerful than him (in this case, a corporation that wants to buy out what he’s built.) However, Altman deftly subverts this trope by the introduction of Mrs. Miller, a cockney transplant and seasoned madam who arrives in town, partners with McCabe and immediately towers over him in her intelligence, business acumen and general brashness (Beatty’s look at Christie (his real-life girlfriend at the time) as she authoritatively orders and wolfs down an overflowing plate of food during their first meeting in the saloon is priceless.) Altman also instills within McCabe a certain level of hubris while not allowing him to overcome it and triumph; instead, he easily conveys his pride and stubbornness, telegraphing his downfall.
Still, even with that particular narrative core, one can imagine a more conventional Western (perhaps slightly updated for post-Hays Code times) depicting the goings-on of a brothel with an openness unthinkable just a decade before. Instead, in fully rendering this a revisionist Western, Altman takes a more impressionistic approach. Following the opening credits, McCabe mounts his horse and enters a saloon occupied by at least a dozen men. Rather than deploying an establishing shot or cleanly introducing all the characters one by one, it’s like we’re abruptly thrust into the middle of a scene without context—in other words, from McCabe’s perspective as a stranger. Altman’s camera slowly moves around the set, occasionally zooming in or out, capturing seemingly random bits of conversation. As usual with this director, the dialogue overlaps extensively—in Altman’s own words, “You don’t need to hear everything people are saying to know the world they’re living in.” You can barely see anything as well—most of the lighting comes from gas lamps (as it would in that time and place.) About ten minutes in, when a group of men gather around a card table and one of them lights the lamp hanging directly above, you can suddenly, distinctly make out every person’s face for the first time; it might be the Altman equivalent of the initial view of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
Speaking of self-constructed worlds, in addition to being filmed near Vancouver (as a stand-in for neighboring Washington state), McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s setting, the fictional town of Presbyterian Church (named after its tallest structure) was built from scratch for the production (something Altman would do again in Malta for Popeye nearly a decade later.) Actually, the film was shot in sequence as it was built; thus, one gets a keen sense of how the town develops as the film proceeds, from a ramshackle backwater where the prostitutes live (and work) in makeshift tents to (after Mrs. Miller and her girls arrive) something resembling a civilized village complete with brick-and-mortar dwellings, lushly furnished rooms and such newfangled contraptions as an enormous primitive jukebox of sorts where citizens stand in awe, watching it intently as one outsized disc containing recorded sound changes over to the next.
As the narrative gradually comes into focus, Altman continues to pepper both the edges of the frame and the soundtrack with brief asides that have nothing to do with McCabe or Mrs. Miller; however, they add character and texture, transforming the film into more expansive yet lived-in community. In the first saloon scene, there’s a brief exchange between two men. One asks if he should cut his beard and the other responds, “What d’ya wanna do that for?” A few scenes later, without warning, these minor characters reappear. The first, now clean-shaven asks the other, “Do you like it?” to which he gruffly responds, “No.” The exchanges aren’t integral to the film, but they add something special that most directors wouldn’t think to include—the second one sports the recognition of a callback to the first (for those viewers paying attention), and the comedic timing of the other man’s responses adds some welcome levity.
While the novel setting, unusual sound design and striking cinematography (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who used various filters and the practice of “flashing” the negative to achieve the film’s burnished, muted glow) are all key stylistic choices that set McCabe & Mrs. Miller apart from films of its era (or any era, really), I still go back to Altman’s use of Cohen’s music to explain why it seems so singular, so visionary. In addition to “Stranger Song”, two other tracks from his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen are featured extensively. The first, “Sisters of Mercy”, plays over an early montage before Mrs. Miller comes to town. Cohen’s near-androgynous croon relays an enigmatic tale of women (maybe nuns?) who bring some unspecified comfort to him, but Altman’s placement of the song is a touch less sacred. Its presence almost ironically comments on the action, the soothing folk tune and idyllic imagery (watch the light when a man affixes a crucifix to the top of the church, probably one of most gorgeous shots of all time) appear at odds with how ill-equipped McCabe is to run a brothel on his own, unable to prevent one of his ladies from attacking an unruly john, befuddled when another one needs something as common and yet urgent as a place to use the bathroom.
If “Stranger Song” serves as McCabe’s theme and “Sisters of Mercy” the sex workers’, then the third Cohen song, “Winter Lady” is Mrs. Miller’s music. It surfaces multiple times throughout the film’s second half after she has established herself in the community and also following McCabe’s initial mishandling of the company men sent to make him an offer he shouldn’t refuse but foolishly does. Like “Sisters of Mercy”, the tune is a waltz-ballad, plucked acoustic guitars seasoned by a yearning flute and a gently chiming celesta not too far off from the music of that primitive jukebox in Mrs. Miller’s parlor. “Traveling lady, stay awhile, until the night is over,” Cohen trills, adding, “I’m just a station on your way, I know I’m not your lover.” Though again not written for the film, the lyrics fit the character almost seamlessly, seemingly alluding to her transient nature and her strictly businesslike relationship with McCabe—even though their chemistry and growing closeness is apparent, when he sleeps with her, he still has to pay her for her time.
“Winter Lady” closes out the film after a bravura, music-free, twenty-minute shootout sequence between McCabe and the hired guns the company has sent to assassinate him. Far from a heroic High Noon-like standoff, the action unfolds as a blizzard slowly moves in. By the end of it, everything is covered in a heavy blanket of snow, the town’s titular church has caught on fire (its citizens haphazardly come together to put it out) and the hired guns are all dead, as is McCabe (one can’t imagine Beatty was too pleased to see his character unceremoniously die alone, heaped over a snowbank after getting shot.) The song kicks in as Altman cuts between shots of dead, freezing McCabe and Mrs. Miller taking refuge in the town’s opium den; she is suspecting his fate without even witnessing it, lying down on her side, pipe in hand, smoking herself into oblivion. The tenderness and yearning in Cohen’s lyrics and vocal are especially poignant in accompanying Miller’s drug-induced state as she drifts off and away from a world with no room for magnetic, idealist souls like McCabe.
M*A*S*H was a surprise, zeitgeist-capturing hit for Altman, but his follow-up films throughout the early 1970s flopped at the box office. In McCabe & Ms. Miller’s case, it’s not difficult to comprehend why—apart from a rave like Kael’s, it was mostly met with indifference given its unusual narrative approach and radical sound design. It wasn’t so much a film ahead of its time as one strangely outside of any particular time, fusing period dress with contemporary music and perhaps an outlook that defiantly bucked its genre conventions. I’ve barely scratched the surface of its political implications: how McCabe, the self-made man, could never possibly win against the corporation. When a friend of mine watched it with me for the first time five years ago, she drew comparisons to contemporary government encroachment of small businesses that I hadn’t ever considered.
Granted, I tend to react to films emotionally rather than intellectually. Both are valid ways of comprehending art but all it took to attenuate myself to McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s wavelength was hearing “Stranger Song” over those opening credits, its mournfulness and the slight catch of awe in Cohen’s voice instantly drawing me in and not letting go. It’s one of many ways a film can have a positive welcoming effect on us. Similarly, I had to learn how to regard video stores as but one way to find a film. As subscription services and then digital streaming made the brick-and-mortar rental store obsolete, I had no choice but to adapt. Besides, we still find new films through a variety of methods: we can no longer go to Blockbuster (or better yet, a Mom-and-Pop video store, with few exceptions), but we can still visit cinemas, read reviews, check out items from the library and scroll through endless online streaming platform menus to find something new to watch. I still fondly recall how I got to see McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the first time, but what remains is not how I saw it, but that I saw it and can still watch it again and again, no matter where I can find it.
Essay #9 of 24 Frames.
Go back to #8: Edward II.