Brainflow Feed

That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, they revolve mostly around films.)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Monday, October 12th, 2009 4:04 pm—Film

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (USA 1971, Drama/Western), Writers: Robert Altman, Brian McKay; Director: Robert Altman

I’ve recommended McCabe and Mrs. Miller too many times for it not to be up on this site. It happened again last Friday night when I was out with CDC and DB, listening to their stories of how Leonard Cohen’s music has impacted them over the years. Quite simply, if you love Cohen’s music, you have to see McCabe and Mrs. Miller. His songs—like Sisters of Mercy and The Stranger Song—define the mood and tone of the piece, and help make it one of Altman’s best.

Based on Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel McCabe, the movie tells the story of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who arrives in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington to open a brothel. Soon after his arrival, Mrs. Miller (the luminous Julie Christie) shows up and helps him transform the business from a low-class joint to a well-run establishment that serves as a main attraction for residents and passersby. But as the town begins to prosper, a big-shot mining company takes an interest in buying McCabe out. When he resists, the company sends hired guns his way and things quickly go downhill.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is usually described as an anti-Western because it subverts so many of the genre’s conventions. It does, in the way it tinkers with character stereotypes, and especially in the way it treats what would normally be seen as the Western’s climax—the pivotal showdown. In McCabe’s world, times are changing. It’s easy to get swept away and forgotten in a snowstorm.

But what’s most powerful to me about McCabe and Mrs. Miller isn’t the story; it’s the telling. As a writer, I can easily get caught up in the words. (Though if you’re going to do that, Leonard Cohen is definitely your man. His words make drowning everything else out worth your while.) Sometimes you need to just feel the rhythm and the beat behind the story, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller does that for me.

The first time I saw the movie, it didn’t fully register. I watched it in film school, when we saw movies constantly—in class, as homework, and even for fun because everyone there loved movies so much that no matter how many hours we spent studying them, watching another was still one of our favourite things to do. But seeing so many meant that sometimes things got lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t until our next class—when my prof kindly called on me to talk about it in front of everyone—that I realized how I really felt. For a moment, I had nothing to say. And then I recalled the feeling I’d had when watching it. I stepped back into the world Altman had created and discovered how present it still was. Because the lighting and camera work and music and performances all combined to create an incredibly powerful atmosphere that I can’t recall finding in another film.

Our prof, Derek Redmond, chose the film as an example of outstanding cinematography, and it was a fantastic choice. There are other things I love about the film—the way the characters are humanized, Julie Christie’s performance. But what I love most is the look of the film, how it completely captures the time and tone and season, and how Cohen’s music complements and completes that mood. The Stranger Song is pitch-perfect for the story, from those first rambling guitar chords… I don’t want to dissect the film’s backstory and meaning. I just want to watch it play out because I love the way it makes me feel.

I can’t think of a better time to recommend McCabe and Mrs. Miller than mid-October. It opens to autumn rain and closes to a quieting, blanketing snowstorm. This movie offers a great way to spend one of the next few weekends—listening to beautiful music, watching one of the most tangibly atmospheric films ever made, feeling winter’s first chill from somewhere warm inside.

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