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The History Of The Revisionist Western Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1954 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Robert Altman chronicled his own 1971 naturalist motion picture McCabe and Mrs. Miller an anti-western perhaps due to the fact that the film blatantly ignores or subverts a number of Western conventions. Westerns, a term that is used to describe the landmark mid-20th-century American film genre, are nostalgic eulogies to the early days of expansion on the untamed American frontier where fragments of civilization border on typically warm, expansive, open landscapes. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, however, ignores this idyllic representation of the American frontier and, instead, Altman sets his story in the cold, murky, mountainous wilderness. Furthermore, the protagonist in McCabe & Mrs. Miller deviates strongly from the traditional gun-slinging, confident cowboy that characterizes the genre. With careful attention to hyper-realistic mise-en-scène elements (most notably elements of setting) and naturalistic, largely non-obtrusive diagetic sound effects, Robert Altman crafts a successful ‘revisionist western’ that, while retaining many of the same themes and elements pertaining to the classic western genre, differs substantially in both tone and style in ways that promulgate Altman’s revisionist approach to the established genre.

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Since the John Ford era of western cinematography, audiences of Western films had been primed to anticipate expansive, open landscapes, red-orange deserts and plains where a sweeping sense of freedom in interrupted only by the isolated smoke signal or Native American scout. Ford often contrasted this expansive terrain with the insulated chaos of his towns, bars, and other interiors which tended to make the lone ranger protagonist claustrophobic. Immediately in the opening scene of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, John Ford’s idyllic frontier, perhaps one of the most adored staples of the Western, is challenged. In Altman’s universe, the outdoors are cold, murky, rough, and unwelcoming. Any sense of freedom in this landscape has ceased to exist. Our hero John McCabe is burdened with trekking an uneven, rocky, meandering path through the snow-capped woods – a path as restrictive and uncomfortable as the harshest of Ford’s interiors. The mise-en-scène elements Altman employs in this case serve to distinguish McCabe & Mrs. Miller from the classic western formula by providing a stark contrast in setting (and, by extension, tone). It is not a complete contrast, however. As film reviewer and Altman scholar, Gregory Lallone writes, “Altman’s interiors are just as suffocating, his untamed towns just as dangerous and ruled by greed, brutality, and chaos. It is simply a little warmer inside.”

Thus we may begin to analyze the lighting elements Altman employs in depicting McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s interior locations as similarly untamed but significantly warmer than the surrounding, harsh outdoors. Altman’s interiors are met with a profound use of low-key lighting to reflect this dim, foreboding, and even risqué nature of the town’s bars, businesses, and brothels. Kerosene lamps are usually the only lighting sources that cast a warm orange light onto the camera’s subjects – a light that strongly contrasts with the drab whites and grays of the cold wilderness. Especially prevalent during scenes at the whorehouse and during Mrs. Miller’s opium dreams, this orange light gives off a suitably warm, inviting, dream-like quality to the picture. While still dim and claustrophobic, the low-key indoor lighting reflects a similar push for period-authenticity (via the kerosene lamps) in conjunction with the picture’s incredibly authentic set, while also serving to categorize interior sequences as warm and safeguarded (e.g. whorehouse scenes and opium dreams) or dangerous and foreboding (e.g. gambling tables and shooting hideouts).

In conjunction with period-appropriate setting and lighting, naturalistic sound elements are used throughout the film to convey a sense of uninterrupted continuity unusual to the medium. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film,

“The is the classic Altman style… It begins with one fundamental assumption: All of the characters know each other, and the camera will not stare at first one and then another, like an earnest dog, but is at home in their company. Nor do the people line up and talk one after another, like characters in a play. They talk when and as they will, and we understand it’s not important to hear every word; sometimes all that matters is the tone of the room.” (Ebert, 1999)

Rather than presenting only the vital bits of information and dialogue to the viewer to forward the film’s narrative, Altman instead uses ambient sound and background conversation to embroider a profound sense of location that, oftentimes, favors realism over narrative efficiency. When John McCabe first enters a saloon and settles down at a table, everyone in the saloon is under the impression that he once shot a man… The air is tense and, all the while, somebody is vaguely heard in the background asking, “Laura, what’s for dinner?”

With the exception of the occasional, dreary Leonard Cohen folk tune (which, admittedly, I found distracting and out-of-place), McCabe & Mrs. Miller makes no use of non-diagetic sound for dramatic effect. This is another clear departure from the traditional Hollywood string instruments (notably banjos, guitars, and fiddles), harmonicas, and ‘bum-bum-BUM’s that embellish dramatic moments in traditional western cinematography. As such, the ambient, diagetic soundtrack plays an especially central role in establishing tone and dramatic tension. During the final shootout, silence dominates so much of the audio track that every rupture of silence becomes vitally important. Each footstep, each crack of a wooden plank, and each breath McCabe takes might very well give away his position and result in his death. Thus we see that the intentional absence of non-diagetic sound can be just as effective as (if not more so than) its inclusion.

Just as the frontier landscape is modulated, made somehow more ‘truthful’ with the insertion of a bit of dirt and realism, the protagonist himself is similarly transformed. While differing in many respects to the conventional western hero, John McCabe is actually not too far removed. His fight is largely the same – defending what is rightfully his against outlaws and big business. He differs in that he lacks the toughness, the braggadocio, and the super-human courage of the Gary Coopers and Henry Fondas. Any shred of idealism and heroism McCabe claims to embody is counteracted by a narrow-sighted quest for profit, instances of clumsiness, and displays of outright cowardice. John McCabe is not a cowboy, a homesteader, a sheriff, or of some “honorable” profession; he owns a whorehouse. McCabe’s non-traditional characterization is further evidenced during the final showdown where the ‘shootout’ is more accurately described as a slow and anxious game of cat-and-mouse. McCabe hops from one hiding place to another knowing that winning a gunfight out in the open Gary Cooper-style is unrealistic. A true Western hero might denounce McCabe’s tactics as cheating and cowardly. He shoots two of the three gunmen in the back from a concealed hiding place and he overcomes the third by playing dead. Departing from the larger-than-life nature of classical western heroes, director Robert Altman injects a darker realism into his protagonist that reflects the revisionist nature of the film.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s final twenty minute sequence, the climactic shootout, serves as an effective microcosm for how the aforementioned mise-en-scène and sound elements contribute to the protagonist’s characterization and the film’s overall narrative themes. Beginning with setting, the scene displays and features all of the following:

The harsh, unforgiving, cold wilderness that serves to contrast with the conventional warm, expansive Western landscape.

The authenticity of the town’s still-in-progress wooden infrastructure that serves to accurately encapsulate the harshness and resource-conscious realism of the period.

Regarding lighting, the sequence displays:

The low-key hideout interiors that signify danger and dramatic tension.

The warmly-lit opium den, tragically contrasting with the bitter outdoors, which in this case, falsely indicates a safe haven or retreat.

And finally, the sequence displays the following effective usages of non-diagetic sound techniques:

The unfocused recording of background chatter during the moments surrounding the burning church which serves to further Altman’s push for realism over narrative efficiency while simultaneously contrasting with… [below]

The dramatic silence during McCabe’s cross-cutting shootout sequence interrupted by the occasional dramatic footstep, creak, breath, or gunshot – sounds that increase dramatic tension.

The ambient snowfall which eerily serves as a hollow, bitter replacement soundtrack throughout the sequence that increases in amplitude as McCabe’s body is swallowed by the elements.

These mise-en-scène and sound elements work seamlessly together to achieve what I believe was Altman’s ultimate goal in the making of McCabe & Mrs. Miller: to approach the Western genre with a non-traditional sense of realism and authenticity that, while retaining some of the same conventional themes and elements of the genre such as the pursuit of justice and the championing of order on the American frontier, re-envisions the two most fundamental staples of the genre: the setting and the protagonist.

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By making particular, non-traditional use of various mise-en-scène and sound elements in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, director Robert Altman, refutes the conventional narrative pioneered by the classic Western that the American frontier was a sort of idyllic paradise. Ford depicted the frontier as the quintessential American arena where battles were fought and won by “good” men who, because of their very nature, triumph over the bad. Altman’s western frontier is simply no more than a showcase of lawless capitalism and greed–men and women mercilessly arguing and fighting over profits like fleas over rotting flesh. However, one must not be too quick to conclude that McCabe & Mrs. Miller exists solely as an attempt to challenge or ridicule the established themes and conventions of the western genre. For while Altman does in fact transcend a number of expectations and subverts a number of established norms, the archetypal structure remains the same. The audience remains sympathetic towards the heroic gunslinger, even though the scope of that heroism is somewhat narrowed. John McCabe’s role as the “gunfighting goodie” struggling against an oppressive force of injustice and greed stems directly from the Western genre. Rather than conceding to define McCabe & Mrs. Miller as an outright ‘anti-western’, we can analyze how Altman’s stylistic elements both propagate parallels to established conventions while, at other times, delineate clear departures from the genre that serve to effectively categorize the film as none other than a revisionist western narrative and a cinematographic work of art.



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