Commentary Magazine


Block That Cult!

Wild Rovers. William Holden. The waning of the old style cowboy cum bank-robber. The heroes bathing together, and affectionately dallying with Mexican whores. Deaths in slow motion. A post-mortem reprise of the heroes in their happiest, most expansive moments. (Their happiest moments, a “lyrical” slow-motion ode to the breaking of a wild horse: Marlboro Country. The main difference between fondly-remembered cigarette commercials and movies increasingly just that the latter cost you $3.00 and leave you with several hours fewer to live. Caution: this movie may be hazardous to your health.)

A shameless plagiarism of The Wild Bunch, you might think (and it’s really dispiriting, after Holden’s performance in that film, to see how he has been encouraged to trade on facile charm in this), though the connoisseur will note a touch of Butch Cassidy, too, in its spinelessly pretty photography and the first part’s labored cuteness. But if you think it can simply be dismissed as such, it’s clear you’re not a sophisticated moviegoer. For Blake Edwards, the writer and director of this thing, is not just, as you might think, another nonentity trying to cash in on someone else’s success, but the object of a devoted following. Consult the film magazines and you will find solemn exegeses of his previous work, Darling Lili. Indeed, among Edwards’s admirers, Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch and principal victim of his theft, is liable to be held in peculiarly low repute. (Don’t ask me why: address all queries to Andrew Sarris.) And though Wild Rovers seems to me in every respect, both compared with Peckinpah and taken on its own, wholly pathetic (that is to say, a miserable failure judged even by its own low intentions), I doubt that, starting with the Sarris-acolytes already pumping it up into Edwards’s latest masterpiece in the Village Voice, it will lack for enthusiasts to call me wrong.

And perhaps I am playing a tricky game in dismissing it. Probably, for the uninitiated, the very idea of taking films like Darling Lili or Wild Rovers seriously is worthy of ridicule; and yet there are films at least as disreputable on whose “seriousness” I’d want to insist. What makes Edwards (whom I don’t like) a cult director, and Robert Siodmak or Vincente Minnelli (whom I do) not? (Of course, Minnelli is a cult director, in the sense of his having a cult following; that is, a following indiscriminately liking both his good films and his bad, and liking his good ones for the wrong reasons.) The basic proposition on which such cults are founded—that some directors without prestigious reputations and working in commercial genres lacking cultural esteem have produced work of great artistic merit—is one I wholeheartedly subscribe to. But it is one thing to point out that such work has been achieved in culturally disreputable circumstances despite the restrictions of commercial formulas; quite another to praise directors because of their being culturally disreputable and slickly commercial. (Often, the belittling of a Peckinpah seems merely the converse of this: he is dismissed as a primadonna-ish maverick who gets himself fired; but the John Ford model of working within the system, however fruitful it has proved for Ford, simply doesn’t apply to Peckinpah, and there’s no reason why it should.) The cultists’ adulation of an Edwards or a Preminger is rarely far from resembling literary people’s advocacy of Realpolitik, from being a case of the aesthete’s worship of power. “Professionalism” becomes the honorific quality for which an Edwards is admired; but the Hollywood film industry is one place where professionalism can be a dubious virtue, a place where professionalism and conformity all too easily merge. In Hollywood, to be a professional and not to be a John Ford is often to be, like Blake Edward’s, an accomplished hack.

Nor will it help to explicate a Darling Lili, and discover in it Edwards’s views on love, war, and the human condition; one can play this game with virtually any film of any director if one is sophist enough, and has the inclination. The cultists have been at work on this for years with the Ross Hunter productions (Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, etc.) directed by Douglas Sirk, but, however little expositions of Sirkian philosophy will wash, one at least has in Sirk a director with a real talent for mise en scène; and, if his visual-decorative flair does not, in any sense, finally make silk purses out of sows’ ears, it can at least provide pleasures while one watches the trash hauled by. But what of Edwards? I’ve seen most of Edwards’s films, and enjoyed some: Mr. Cory is a nicely efficient young-man-on-the-make genre film, The Perfect Furlough and Operation Petticoat funny if machine-tooled comedies, and High Time a surprisingly amiable entertainment. With what should be a moody thriller in Experiment in Terror, however, Edwards’s sleek glossiness becomes a decided liability, and the result has all the resonance of a dime dropped into plush pile carpeting in a soundproofed antechamber to the Vatican. And, increasingly, production values and the ethos of affluence become the raison d’être, and repetitions of successes the formula. The Pink Panther was funny; OK, we’ll make A Shot in the Dark and milk it dry. Silent-comedy chases were funny; OK, we’ll make the longest, most expensive silent-comedy-style chase ever (The Great Chase, naturally), and run that inspiration into the ground. And for all you Julie Andrews fans, how about her apotheosis as Darling Lili (whoops, a bit of bad timing there!). Well, anyway, you remember how much you liked Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch. . . . Of course, the cultists and auteur critics are there, trading in subtleties the naked eye usually cannot see, to tell you that this is all philistine abuse of the director’s art, but the fact is that film is supremely the art of the visible; in the movies, if you don’t see something, chances are it isn’t there.

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In my piece in the September COMMENTARY (“Jules and Jack”) I wrote in praise of Drive, He Said that it was the kind of work we probably need in our films now even more than we do a polished, perfected, self-contained masterpiece. I had no reason to believe then that, so very soon after, I would be seeing a film to put this proposition to the test. McCabe and Mrs. Miller might not exactly be described as polished (it has been carefully contrived to look rough), nor is it really perfect, and probably it isn’t even a masterpiece—but it is close enough to at least a suggestion of all these things to be the contrast to Drive, He Said I thought I was hypothesizing.

And, frankly, the idea that this might be so was one I resisted even before seeing the film, from the first laudatory word of it. However much I genuinely hope that each new film I see will be good, there was something inescapably annoying in having Drive, He Said surpassed within a week of my having committed myself to the opinion of its being the most exciting American film since The Wild Bunch. And Pauline Kael’s claim that McCabe and Mrs. Miller “places Altman in the top rank of directors, right next to the great Europeans” was one I found putting-off in form as well as content. Even if I could bring myself to believe that the man who made M*A*S*H but two films before was now rubbing shoulders with Renoir (hardly credible to me despite my having seen from the perspective of Brewster McCloud, Altman’s interim work, that M*A*S*H was more of a director’s film than I’d originally taken it for), the idea that it’s necessary to raise the “European” standard in order to praise the artistry of American film-makers is one I reject on general principles as strangulating snobbery. Nor did my resistance to McCabe and Mrs. Miler end on my entering the theater. Unless there is some compelling artistic reason (that is, some reason other than disguising the age of the leading lady) to do otherwise, I think it is in the nature of the medium a reasonable expectation that what is on screen in a film always be brought sharply and clearly in sight, and the studied murkiness of the photography in the film’s opening scenes left me feeling nothing so much as a strong urge to shout, “Focus!” Yet by the end of the film, I had come to accept even the look of it as beautiful, and its ability to bring one despite oneself to see the aesthetic rightness of an uncongenial visual style is probably as true an index as there is to the film’s achievement. Even Warren Beatty, who has often filled me with a powerful desire to go out and catch a double feature during the course of his getting through a sentence, here seems finally close to being unimprovable.

In writing of Drive, He Said, I spoke of the difficulty of saying, in traditional thematic terms, what the film was about. There is a different but related difficulty in discussing McCabe and Mrs. Miller, though what the film is about thematically is never less than clear. McCabe, a small-time gambler, drifts into the ramshackle, barely half-constructed mining town of Presbyterian Church on the Washington frontier, and sets up shop with his cards in the saloon. Recognizing the entrepreneurial possibilities offered by the town’s almost exclusively male population, he soon imports a few unlovely prostitutes and establishes a rudimentary and mismanaged whorehouse in tents. Mrs. Miller, an ambitious, opium-smoking prostitute, gets wind of McCabe’s activities, and offers to run the business much more profitably for him on condition that he invest in adding to its amenities. Though reluctant, he is persuaded, and closes the brothel for alterations to reopen it as a warm and comfortable establishment with private rooms, an attached bathhouse, and new talent recruited by Mrs. Miller in Seattle.

Before long, McCabe and Mrs. Miller have become the town’s most prosperous citizens; so much so that he is visited one day by two representatives of a large mining company who offer to buy him out. Though McCabe declines their offer cavalierly, Mrs. Miller prevails on him to take them, and the formidable purposefulness of the interests they represent, more seriously, and he resolves to settle with them the following morning. But the following morning they are gone, and soon after the town is visited by two very different agents of the mining company—a huge, menacing man clothed in furs, and his malevolent-looking, silent companion—who claim to be in the area only for some hunting, but admit to being employed by the company in cases where its regular representatives have been unable to make a deal. McCabe offers to settle with the men, but their spokesman rebuffs his efforts with the incredulous, laughing declaration that they don’t make deals. McCabe visits the town in which the company has its local offices, and confers there with a lawyer who eloquently promises to defend him without pay and make of his situation—the small businessman trying to stand up to the forces of monopolistic combination—a test-case of the rights of the enterprising individual. But McCabe returns home and the lawyer is not heard from again, and one day, as there was no doubt they would, the two killers, joined by a young tough from the town who attaches himself to them, come after him. With those among the townspeople who might have helped him distracted by a fire in the town’s never-attended church, McCabe is left alone to face his stalkers, and though he succeeds in killing all three of them, he, too, is shot down and left helpless, to be buried by the thickly falling snow. Mrs. Miller, who had come to be involved with McCabe in a relationship at once tough and tender, sinks back into opiumpipe dreams.

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That the themes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller are those of the little man devoured in the capitalist jungle, and of America, even on its mythically individualistic frontier, as the place in which this happens, will readily communicate itself, I trust, even from the foregoing synopsis; and many of the film’s critics have taken the work at face value as simpy this, a harsh depiction of cutthroat business dealings, acclaiming Altman’s zealous naturalism for achieving the first portrayal in films of the American West as it really was. Yet more interesting than the film’s themes themselves (and, in truth, they cannot really be called interesting) is the extent to which they and the film’s meaning—that is to say, the actual quality of its impress on us—coexist but do not converge; even the work’s naturalism—its meticulous devotion to the creation of a surface look of well-worn clothes and lived-in buildings as well as its much-noted emulation of real conversation’s occasional inaudibility—can be seen ultimately to serve purposes beyond historical authenticity. Indeed, it might not be too much to say that McCabe and Mrs. Miller is two films, the one culminating in the scene with the lawyer (which is surely the feeblest scene in the film), the other diffused throughout and constituting what one might call the film’s secret life, a mysteriously pulsating life of nuances, reverberations, shifting textures. Were McCabe and Mrs. Miller merely a study of cutthroat business—were it, that is, reducible to its themes—one would expect the work of bitter irony which a synopsis suggests; but one’s experience of the film, on the contrary, is that of idyllic sweetness, gentleness, and reverie. Thematically, the film may be about the grinding heel of corporate capitalism; expressively, at the heart of the work lies the construction of the brothel and bathhouse as a haven and refuge, an oasis of warmth and cleanliness sheltered from the inclement world that rages outside.

The sense of this is conveyed in images whose resonance has a power far beyond the simple ironies of the film’s stated themes: images of the brothel girls and their patrons raptly watching the big metal discs slide into place in the house’s newly-installed, primitive jukebox; of Mrs. Miller, smiling secretly to herself as she lies in bed and reads, moving her lips and tracing the lines with her finger (will we discover what she’s reading? we wonder; we don’t); of a solitary miner, dancing happily and abstractedly on ice to the amusement of some onlookers the night the two gunmen ride into town. Above all, what emerges is a sense of burgeoning community with the brothel at its center, a fugitive vision of community made all the more poignant for one’s knowledge of how fragile the basis on which that community is sustained. The idyll is never so far out of touch with reality that McCabe doesn’t continue to pay Mrs. Miller for her favors, even after their emotional involvement, or that he can’t visit her expectantly only to be told she’s “got company.” In the end, the oasis is ravaged not so much by conflicting business interests but, as personified in the gigantic, fur-clothed killer, by what seems an incursion of brute and elemental nature. In a sense, the most accurate paraphrase of the film might simply be: for a short time, the miners and whores of the town of Presbyterian Church lived together happily; then that time ended.

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Seen thus—less as a re-creation of the way it was than of a fleeting dream of how one wishes it to have been—the film’s naturalism—the artfully cluttered interiors, the flow of movement and hum of conversation heard, half-heard, and almost overheard—imparts to it not so much verisimilitude as textural richness, weight, and density. Altman has spoken of his method of casting actors rather than extras for even his films’ smallest roles in the hope that, staying with the film through the course of its shooting, they will establish some kind of rounded identity for themselves in even the briefest of background appearances and perhaps it is owing to this that McCabe and Mrs. Miller, like M*A*S*H before it, seems so thoroughly peopled a work, so teeming with activity even at its edges. And the place these people inhabit in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a town constructed for the film and actually lived in by the actors, has a solid existence in space as three-dimensional and topographically detailed as that of any other Western town I’ve seen in films before, perhaps only those in My Darling Clementine and Shane equaling its vividness as a physical creation. These best things in McCabe and Mrs. Miller—the sense of place, fullness of detail, and loving evocation of communal happiness—are so fine that one may be tempted to claim that they are the film rather than the sensuous subtext of a work of thin ironies about entrepreneurship and the American myth of free enterprise (with its cluster of related ironies, as when a woman whose husband is killed in a fight when she is mistaken by another man for one of the whores ends up working in the brothel, and the like). And it would be equally mistaken, I believe, to assume that the film’s director (who speaks in one interview of the particular significance of the lawyer’s line, “until people stop dying for freedom we won’t be free,” and has elsewhere described a similarly sententious line in M*A*S*H as the “key to the philosophy” of that film) really quite understands, for all his technical audacity and stylistic command, what he has created.

I don’t suggest this lack of consciousness makes the creation any less his—only that it throws into question the idea of Altman as a film-maker on the order of the great European masters, and perhaps, given that an Altman cult now threatens (however different in make-up from the Blake Edwards following), throws into question also the idea of the cult of the director in general. Probably, more than any other medium, film has an autonomous life of its own; a life of sensuousness and suggestiveness overflowing all those thematic molds within which filmmakers may think to contain it. It sometimes seems that there have been no more than a handful of directors truly capable of making films whose range of meaning can be seen to be wholly encompassed by an artist’s vision and imagination; films, that is, which can be said to be wholly achieved artistic creations rather than the mongrel offspring of a bastard medium; an achievement of this sort might indeed demand comparison with the great European masters if one is thinking of Buñuel or Renoir (or the great Americans if one is thinking of Chaplin and Keaton). A film such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller seems rather to consist of a small work well under its director’s control and a larger one engaging materials that have not been fully worked out or artistically controlled but which nevertheless command a greater imaginative power than those things in the work which have: materials involving the creation of a small, idealized community set apart from society at large, and the association of this with a curious sexual innocence to be found behind the film’s bawdy façade, elements of which things one can see in M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud as well.

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Yet finally more interesting than any analysis of these specific materials themselves, or of the degree of consciousness and intentionality in their handling, is the very fact that McCabe and Mrs. Miller does achieve a richness and meaningfulness greater than anything its articulated themes might have seemed to allow. Robert Warshow has written that “no film ever quite disappears into abstraction,” but it is probably true, and true because of the deep affective power of film images, that no film ever wholly resists a pull toward abstraction either. Despite the ability of films to seem simply to be physically and neutrally there, there is, I think, an even greater drift of the medium toward the accretion of meaning, however different from intended meaning where this lacks power; toward an incarnation of values even in images, like those of Marienbad, aspiring to exclude all significance. Though there are moments in films that attain a virtually self-sufficient fullness of painterly beauty (like the shot of Rod Taylor at his desk with the American flag flapping in the background in Zabriskie Point) or luxuriant sensuousness (like the tango in The Conformist), even these seem finally to partake of that “hum and buzz of implication” (in Lionel Trilling’s phrase) in which the life of fiction resides. If, at its weakest, McCabe and Mrs. Miller serves to remind one that, in trying to get at what (and how) a film means in the largest sense, the explication of themes and of the art of the director may be only a part, the film at its best is also good enough to demonstrate that works of art, and films when they are works of art, can never wholly be made to yield themselves to any critical explication—that they are never equatable with their meaning even in that term’s largest sense. Somewhere amid the play between abstraction and concreteness, between the expression of meaning and communication of a purely sensuous delight, McCabe and Mrs. Miller has its sometimes flickering but luminous life.

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