Deconstructing Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller


Because of its many moving parts and modes of storytelling, this is not an easy film to digest nor review. It is haunting and atmospheric, leaving a resonant melancholy long after viewing. And yet somehow the film does so by rejecting viewership and forcing a disconnect between subject and object. It is the closest in formal step where Altman mounts a Brechtian or Godardian influence; its renewal of Western mythos paired with a dreamy low saturation colour palette (flashes on the film strip itself) and contemporary romantic soundtrack appear to clash and alienate, creating a formal disharmony between sound, image, and story. This formal deconstruction is later pieced together by the sub-liminal as a collage of image and sound most relatable to one’s morning revelation of a dream. The film thus conjures a strange, unique experience of an untold world.

From a cinematographic perspective, McCabe’s use of long lenses and zooms is unparalleled. What is considered a rudimentary, even crude technique, is the film’ most evident formal signature, from the slow zoom towards the centered but diegetically insignificant fiddle player to the zoom towards Keith Carradine’s dying cowboy figure to the zoom towards Warren Beatty’s still silhouette being hidden by the pure white of falling snow, the repeated utilization of slow zooms in soft lighting during emotive moments convey a chord of tragedy integral to the film’s unique audio-visual symphony.

On another signature element, Leonard Cohen’s music serves the film’s haunting atmosphere, and yet it does so by feeling asynchronous or out of place—in a world of its own. Though beautiful melodies stir one’s emotions, the soundtrack’s readily apparent isolation from story and cinematography deject the profilmic, pushing visual elements into the background while at once entering the center of attention. Rather than integrate the music and use sound as a tool for transformation of image, Altman here does quite the opposite; the brilliant visuals often subserve the music and thus the image is used as a tool for transformation of sound. This technique, which I would compare to Godard’s use of music in Le mepris, turns the film into something quite different and unique, inhabiting multiple worlds at once.

Though its artistic value is for question—I tend to more easily realize aesthetic experience when it is conveyed through a singular artistic vision than through multiple—McCabe’s innovative digressions from a traditional understanding of film art and cinematography is one worthy of exploring as it surely influenced a number of filmmakers and American cinema as a whole since its development.

88/100 – Excellent.


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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