McCabe And Mrs Miller

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs Miller



As Ang Lee now redefines every genre he touches, so did Robert Altman three and more decades ago. Here’s his remodelling of the western, an “anti-western” according to him, though these days what Altman was doing decades ago has mostly been incorporated in the mainstream – the “anti-western” is now just a western. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie take the leads – he a lousy entrepreneur with a plan to build a whorehouse, she a Cockney madam with an opium habit and a determination to make McCabe succeed in the enterprise they agree to jointly undertake. They sleep together but she charges him top dollar. It’s that sort of relationship and that sort of town. This is the American West as it is being made, a building site of half-dug holes and half-built buildings where such niceties as manners and morality have yet to arrive.

McCabe & Mrs Miller is a painfully elegiac film, and thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, and Leonard Cohen’s songs on the soundtrack, beautiful and fragile too. It plays out in a landscape where it’s always just about to rain, or sleet, in a town called Presbyterian Church. It’s the sort of film where little is said outright. At one point McCabe is offered money for his land. He suggests a price that’s way too high. It’s only later that he, and we, realise that by doing that he’s effectively signed his own death warrant.

Like Altman’s Mash, Altman’s western gives us characters who arrive on the screen fully made and situations we feel privileged to be overhearing. It’s probably Altman’s best film, Christie’s and Beatty’s too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


 McCabe & Mrs Miller – at Amazon




Tom Cruise in Magnolia



Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights disappointed those who were hoping for more Dirk Diggler and his prosthetic schlong. At 182 minutes it also caught out those who were watching at the cinema with a beer or two inside them – knotted legs don’t make for maximum movie fun. At home with a pause button it’s pure luxury. Stylistically it’s heavily in debt to one of Anderson’s readily acknowledged influences, Robert Altman – the overlapping dialogue, the wandering camera and the faintly disengaged performances. By which I mean the actors are not all constantly presenting three-quarter profiles to camera (no, not even Tom Cruise).

Yes, Tom Cruise. How often is it that you can see Tom Cruise in a film that’s not a Tom Cruise film? In terms of plot Magnolia is multi-stranded, with lots of characters, each starring, to some extent, in their own mini-movie. That’s Altmanesque too (see Short Cuts). But Anderson’s theme is all his own. He follows a bunch of flash, empty characters – among them the trophy wife (Julianne Moore), the over-eager sex guru (Tom Cruise), the former child star (William H Macy), the ineffectual policeman (John C Reilly) – as they descend into an existential inferno of their own making. Except for one man (Jason Robards), whose take on existential activity is coloured by the fact that the Grim Reaper is sharpening the scythe in the hospital ward his intubated body is currently occupying. No, not literally the Grim Reaper, that was a figure of speech. Though at the end of the film, after he’s spun his separate stories closer to coherence, Anderson does do something which shatters the absolute matter-of-factness of everything that’s come before. And if you haven’t got wind of his most oddball of endings, I won’t ruin it. Magnolia is not a film for plot-junkies but it does deliver something rather magical in its place – virtuoso zeitgeist film-making with a message that could have been lifted from a medieval morality play.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


 Magnolia – at Amazon





Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould

An on-screen statement, put there at the behest of a nervous film studio, claims this film is about the goings-on at a field hospital during the Korean War. That statement apart, this is obviously a film about Vietnam, a war the Americans had already lost at home, if not yet out on the field of battle.

Now, decades later, from the other end of the countercultural telescope, Mash’s relentless portrayal of the military hierarchy as being overrun by charlatans and buffoons seems a bit old hat.

But the director making it had earned the right to his opinion. Robert Altman was a veteran of the Second World War who’d gone on to become a maker of industrial films, exploitation films and TV dramas. Unlike the other hotshot countercultural guys of the early 1970s – Lucas, Spielberg, Bogdanovich etc – Altman was no long-hair. He was 45 when he made Mash and, by the by, he had very little hair at all.

This was his breakout movie and it sent its anti-authoritarian heroes – Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland as the two brilliant army surgeons with specialisms in skirt and the cocktail olive – straight to the A list.

Made in the now-customary but then revolutionary style of laying story upon story, dialogue overlapping all over the place, it drops the audience right into the thick of the action and then lets them work out for themselves what’s going on.

It looks only a touch less naturalistic now than it did in 1970 – very few people are as witty as scriptwriter Ring Lardner Jr makes these guys look – but the brilliance of Altman’s film-making holds up.

Mash – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

Dr T and the Women

Richard Gere in Dr T and the Women

If, as the old joke has it, gynaecologists are always up to their elbows in work, how much more taxing would that job be if you were Richard Gere? That’s the proposition that Robert Altman lays before us in a film that’s often dismissed, his last of a line of flops that lay between Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001). But Dr T is really worth a second look because of what Altman is doing, possibly unbeknown to his cast.

Scouring Hollywood, he’s found a handful of irritating, self-obsessed and unhinged actresses and cast them just as they are – or is it more the sort of type they very often play? Either way, Altman does not stop there. He’s then gone and found a gang of normally vanilla actresses and cast them entirely against type. Say hello to Shelley Long, Farrah Fawcett and Laura Dern, Helen Hunt, Kate Hudson and Liv Tyler – you work out who falls into which group. Stir in the odd real witch or two, then drop in poor Richard Gere, playing the knight errant and everyday decent chap, a gynaecologist surrounded by a very strange mix of female friends, lovers, relations and colleagues, and you’ve got something like Pilgrim’s Progress updated to the new millennium.

The film absolutely bombed, and no wonder – it looks from the title and casting like a light bit of rom-com whimsy aimed at the stereotyped woman. Then, once your female viewer is all settled in, along comes 117 minutes telling her how tough it is being a man.

It’s a comedy by the way. While you’re not laughing – this film has many plus points but being funny isn’t really one of them – try and work out how Altman escaped alive.

© Steve Morrissey 2000

Dr T and the Women – at Amazon

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