So, I didn’t watch a musical after all for the second act of snow day viewing (there are only a few musicals I love anyway). I decided that a western would be a good complement to Out of the Past and decided to spend a couple of hours with my adored Robert Altman by watching his 1971 revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (disclaimer, I hate the use of ampersands in titles or about anything else).
First, let’s have a little context. I think westerns are the easiest films to locate in broad cycles of their genre. The primitive phase, in which conventions are established, goes back at least to 1903 and Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Robbery (which you can find easily online with a little trolling). All the basics are there: good guys and bad guys, settlers, guns, horses, trains, civilization and wilderness, etc.
The classical phase, in which conventions are fully developed, is marked by the transition from the popular “B” westerns into another level with John Ford’s much-lauded Stagecoach. Remember, this film was released in 1939, a year distinguished by some of the best films ever made, and it also made John Wayne into a leading man.
Of course, classical films invite parodies, and Blazing Saddles is surely the best-known (though not the only) parodic western. Mel Brooks has made a career of genre parodies, and this 1974 release is one of the broadest yet most insightful and most effective.
There are some interesting transitional westerns that challenge the conventions of the form without fully breaking away to contradict them, High Noon (about which I recently read over 70 final examination essays and still love) comes to mind. And, there are revisionist westerns that break with the established conventions of the past.
While I like a few of the classical westerns, I tend to gravitate toward the transitional and revisionist because of the complexity of these films. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is surely different from those that came before it. Though The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) questioned the way legends are created and The Wild Bunch (1969) blurred the line between good guy and bad guy, Altman’s film went further.
Altman’s narratives unfold in a rambling way (a macro version of the overlapping and unpredictable dialogue in his scenes) that defies the viewer to predict where the story will lead. Everything is so understated in this film that it feels real moment to moment. There is a grittiness to the day-to-day and a profound isolation to the longer term for the characters populating this town that provides a bridge to later efforts like the gripping Deadwood series (HBO 2004-2006) or one of my favorite films of recent years, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).
While it is possible to chart the progress of Clint Eastwood’s work in the genre from his spaghetti western days in the 60s to the pleasing Pale Rider (1985) and the magnificent Unforgiven (1992), there is also another, parallel, vector for charting films moving from classical forms of the western into a different, more complex, set of revisionist narratives.
Robert Altman is on that path. Just typing his name makes me want to see Short Cuts (1993) right now. It’s my favorite of his films, though I wouldn’t mind seeing Gosford Park (2001) or The Player (1992) or MASH (1970). So many films…so little time.
This afternoon I’m going for something entirely different, however. I’m heading out soon to see Avatar.