I really want to like Robert Altman. He has so many films that have been nominated for Oscars (but of course the Academy is always wrong). His films are often in the conversation of best American films and he is considered one of the greatest living American directors. Actors love him because he gives them the freedom to explore characters in complicated but unstructured ways. Film scholars and critics salivate over his incisive social critiques, turning various film conventions into vehicles for commentary on American myths. So, why can't I enjoy his films the others do? (a rhetorical question, Omri, so please do not answer) Yes, he makes some excellent films (Short Cuts, Nashville), but in the same company as Scorsese, Hitchcock, Kubrick? (now you can answer)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is Altman's take on the American western. He goes to great pains to demythologize the frontier as the site for the maturation of masculine individualism (take that Frederick Jackson Turner). McCabe eschews a life of gambling to found a mining town in Washington. McCabe's hard guy persona is challenged when a mining company offers to buy him out; he arrogantly refuses, seeing this as part of the proper negotiating tactics. Mrs. Miller, his bankrolled lover that runs, along with McCabe, the local house of vice, warns him that the corporate giant will exploit all avenues of lawlessness to acquire the town (you know, it's hard out there for a pimp). These first two acts are bit slow, developing characters we ultimately do not care about (one of my problems with some Altman films). However, the film is redeemed in the third act, where tension mounts as the company hitmen seek to gun down McCabe.
The cinematography is the reason to see the film. Although this particular transfer we saw tonight was in poor condition, the sense of grit and depression, from inside the unfinished saloon to the harsh external conditions, came through the scratches and dirt that damaged the film stock. Altman's trademark zoom-ins, close-ups and overlapping dialogue scenes can be found in spades throughout the film. While these are often signatures of Altman auteurism, so often they come off as erudite gimmicks. But, then again, I am probably wrong.
Altman uses the Western genre ironically as a vehicle to indict corporate American and the myopic social dynamics that inform the traditional generic fare. While his critiques, in this film and many others, are often insightful, I always find Altman films to possess an air of condescension--the arrogance that accompanies one who has lifted the veil of ignorance and feels obliged to let everyone know about it. Like MASH, I find that this film does not age well (the critique is still relevant, sure). The Leonard Cohen songs, which function as the Greek chorus, are quite anachronistic, echoing film score conventions that haunt too many films of the 70s (still the best decade in American cinema).
All told, see it.