Acid Westerns: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman's 1971 "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is generally left off lists of Acid Westerns, and I assume this is for two reasons. The first is because it's a film that slots neatly into a number of categories: It's a revisionist Western, an anti-Western, and I have even heard it be called a marijuana Western, which seems fair.

Altman was an outspoken weed smoker, and all his films seemed to show the influence of the drug. They tended to be a little spacey, episodic, and scattershot, like a stoned person was telling you a story. They also were frequently slyly subversive and given to improvisation and left-leaning politics, although, as Julie Christie once said, he tends to go at the subject "sideways."

There's no real conflict here. All these phrases — revisionist, anti-Western, Acid-Western — are just critical terms used to describe qualities of the film. Revisionist Westerns tended to revisit and upturn the tropes of the classic Western; Anti-Westerns tended to focus on morally ambiguous characters; and Acid Westerns tended to approach the West with the techniques and the concerns of the 60s counterculture. A film can be one of these thing, or it can be all of these things. "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is all.

I also suspect McCabe & Mrs. Miller is left off lists of Acid Westerns for the same reason that "Little Big Man" is, although I think both films qualify. Specifically, I think it is because Acid Westerns are viewed as a cult subgenre, and these films are generally seen as classics.

There may also be a problem with language, as, for many critics, "acid" seems to imply hallucinogens. I am using it more broadly, to describe films that share the concerns of the psychedelic era, which ranges from the early 60s to the mid-1970s. If a critic is to demand that an Acid Western directly reference hallucinogens, it will be a vanishingly small subgenre; that is, however, not how Jonathan Rosenbaum was using the phrase when he invented it, and while I might be more inclusive in my list of Acid Westerns than Rosenbaum was with his, my inclusions are consistent with Rosenbaum's description, as summarized by Wikipedia: The films display an "artistic and political sensibility derived from the 1960s counterculture."

By these standards, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" very much is an Acid Western, from its plaintive soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs to its serio-comic and episodic storytelling to its profound suspicion of capitalism. It even closes on a psychedelic image, that of a stoned woman examining a gewgaw while the camera closes in on it, staring it is with the same awestruck fascination that tripping hippies would apply to their extended hands.

Altman described the novel the film is based on, "McCabe" by Edmund Naughton, as being a series of cliches, which is thoroughly unfair to Naughton. The film follows the book's story, in which a gambler opens a brothel in a mining town, picks up a seasoned prostitute as a partner, rejects a buyout from a mining company and is murdered by them.

None of these are Western cliches, and so I must assume that either Altman was being self-serving as describing them as such or was woefully ignorant of the Western genre. I'm going to guess the former, as there seemed to be a disease of unnecessary self-congratulation among the new wave of Hollywood filmmakers. Indeed, Warren Beatty, who starred as McCabe, will sometimes take the lion's share of the credit for the film, and calm down boys.

Credit where it's due, though. For an actor with movie star good looks, Beatty was an extraordinary character actor, and was (and remains) extraordinarily good at playing fragility, incompetence, uncertainty, and other humiliating emotions. He is instantly outclassed by Julie Christie as the experienced prostitute, who has obviously experienced her share of mediocre men failing upward and has no patience for it anymore. She quickly takes charge, and Beatty is superb at showing that he both can't stand it and knows she's right.

It's a classic Beatty performance, but before he uses this as a pretext for taking credit for the film, it exists in a classic Altman environment. The little mining town Altman carved out in West Vancouver and Squamish looks like nothing ever put onscreen before, and it has a name like no other: the town is called Presbyterian Church.

This is a very woodsy, very snowy Western, sumptuously filmed by Vilmos Zsigmond, and Presbyterian Church is an odd, lopsided series of tents, huts, and unfinished buildings built around a lake with a rickety rope bridge across it. The town is populated by the frontier version of Altman types: garrulous and goofy, constantly interacting with each other, with the camera sometimes wandering to pick up unrelated conversations, such as a bartender who constantly wants to discuss his facial hair choice. (Soon I will write an essay about cowboy movies in which cowboys discuss their hair; I'm surprised at how often it appears.)

Pauline Kael was struck by this, by how effectively Altman made us feel we were peeking in on a larger location, with other stories, all going on simultaneously but only glimpsed by us. Altman includes a very brief series of scenes of a young woman, played by Shelley Duvall, who goes from mail-order bride to widow to prostitute almost in an instant. Altman gives her enough time, and Duvall was such an expressive actress, that her miniature storyline feels as full as the main story.

And, to Altman's credit, there is not a scene in the film that feels like an Western than preceded it. There is a gunfight on the bridge between a lanky cowboy, played by Keith Carradine, who looks 15, and a murderer in a Buster Brown suit and fiddler cap, like he just leapt off a boat from Holland and grabbed a gunbelt. It's the strangest gunfight filmed — it's not even that, it's a murder, and a completely random one at that. The whole of it is weird and nauseating and cruel and almost unspeakably sad.

The film is full of this sort of detail, including its climax, which, rather than a heroic gunfight, is a chase through the warren of this small town, with Beatty stalks by a hulking British killer with a long gun.

And this is why I don't believe Altman was ignorant of Westerns when he made the film. There is a theme in Western of the heroes being morally nebulous people who nonetheless are willing to make the sorts of violent decisions that creates space for civilization. It's why John Wayne stands outside a door in the final shot of "The Searchers," and walks away, back into the wilderness.

This scene echoes that, with the town coming together to stop a fire, visibly coalescing as a community. Beatty is left out, dying in the snow, but he's not alone. We also see a Black family leaving in disgust, and we see an entire part of the town made up of Chinese immigrants, and they aren't part of the firefighting efforts, and we see Julie Christie, in an opium den in the Chinese section, staring at a bauble.

The movie has the Acid Western's profound suspicion of capitalism, borrowed from the book, where the mining company is represented by two profoundly uninteresting and impatient men who lowball Beatty as a mere formality before sending in people to kill him. But it's suspicions are deeper than that: The film suspects that the towns that popped up in the West were far from inclusive.

The independent small businessman, the ambitious woman, and ethnic minorities are all excluded at the climax. The film sees its outsider heroes replaced by predatory capitalism and the development of an all-white power structure. It's about as pessimistic an ending as you're going to find in a Western.

It also feels true.


Popular Posts