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Breaking Point
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Soon after Robert Altman released his “art film” hippie Western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Stanley Kubrick called from London with a burning question, “How’d you get that shot where McCabe [Warren Beatty] is lighting the cigar?” The shot—just a blink during the opening credits—is a tone poem: a distant point of flame against a black figure on a rope bridge in a pastel forest.

“Well, we just kind of waited till the end of the day [for the right light],” said Altman, who took the filtered telephoto shot through a pane of saloon glass. Incredulous that it was done simply by “feel,” the precision-minded Kubrick pressed for specifics. “Yea, but after you shot it, how’d you know it was good?”

“Well, we didn’t.”

Nor could Altman be sure if minutely pre-exposing his film to incremental light—“flashing” it—could destroy the negative through overexposure.

Flashing, explains Robert T. Self in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, gave the movie’s saturated colors a faded daguerreotype look. Although Fred Young originated the technique—for Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair (1966)—its full potential wasn’t realized until McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond recalled doing everything he could “to destroy the clarity of the film, including using a heavy number three fog filter.”

Altman thought himself a painter, film his canvas. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, set in 1901, pays homage to Van Gogh: rich browns and a glowing lamp over a poker table evoke “The Potato Eaters” (170). Music also nurtured Altman’s visual imagination. Three stunning Leonard Cohen songs structure McCabe. Each song sequentially reflects a character’s point-of-view: “The Stranger Song” is Mrs. Miller’s; “Sisters of Mercy” conveys the McCabe & Miller partnership; “Winter Lady” is McCabe’s (158-9).

Like an oracle looking down, Cohen foretells the intersection of tragic paths. So perfectly do the lyrics fuse narrative and screen image, many suppose that Cohen composed the songs for the film. Yet the songs occurred to Altman only during postproduction, at a cannabis and scotch party in Paris, where the Canadian poet’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), was on the turntable.

“‘That’s my film!’ [Altman] remembers exclaiming before he rushed immediately back to New York for the sole purpose of purchasing the music from Cohen” (158). Cohen initially disliked the film, but nonetheless gave the songs to Altman for “next to nothing.” Two years earlier, Altman and his crew had worn out two copies of Cohen’s album while editing That Cold Day in the Park (1969) in Vancouver. However, during the shooting of McCabe & Mrs. Miller the songs never occurred to Altman, who surmised he must have subconsciously directed the scenes to fit the lyrics.

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is much more than belated recognition for a box office flop now deemed an American masterwork. Self explores the film as if it were a museum of American culture set in the northwest wilderness. The portrayal of mountains and forests in reddish-gold and blue-green tonalities enshrine the landscapes of William Keith, Thomas Moran, Worthington Whittredge, Thomas Hill, and Albert Bierstadt (170). The colossal, belching 1899 Case steam tractor that “lumbers screaming” into town signifies the “machine in the garden” (14). Self examines the cinematography, the artifacts/props, the story—based on Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel, McCabe—not as isolated curiosities, but as fragments of a fading collective memory, which is his grand theme: the Western’s pull on national identity. Self plumbs both the mythic west of literature and film, and the historical west—fur trapping, deforestation, strip mining, immigrants, brothels, commerce. Altman’s film straddles both.

Clint Eastwood called the Western “one of the few art forms that Americans can lay claim to.” Yet the primal tension and resolution that structures the Western is universal, rooted in mythic archetypes. Self casts frontier stories in mythic terms: the hero’s bravery mediates or resolves the tension between wilderness and civilization. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the typologies and narrative patterns common to the genre are secondary to the details. (To a degree in other Westerns, too; evil must die, but...