i wrote this paper about robert altman's "mccabe and mrs miller" as a senior in college in 1995. the paper discusses the way that altman subverts genre convention and ideas of heroism. it focuses on a single scene. my professor's very helpful notes can be seen in the margins. looking back at my writing, i can see i was a big fan of the casual, unsubstantiated assertion -- something i'm much more careful about these days. the body of the paper is followed by a very detailed shot-by-shot outline of the scene in question.
Knight Scene Study
14 February 1995
Cowboy vs. Kid & Narrative vs. Style in McCabe and Mrs Miller
In his 1971 film McCabe and Mrs Miller, Robert Altman uses a seemingly inconsequential sequence involving two minor characters to tie together a variety of narrative and stylistic techniques which, taken together, both define the film as a Western, and subvert generic conventions. In the scene depicting the conflict between Cowboy and the Kid, Altman embraces the notion of the showdown between almost one-dimensional representations of good and evil, yet rejects the traditional victory of the honorable hero, a move which foreshadows the film's ultimate treatment of its protagonist. Altman also stresses in the sequence certain stylistic components which appear throughout the film, but perhaps are most pronounced in this particular scene, namely the strong use of vertical and lateral planes in the mise en scene, graphic matches, and unconventional camera work that employs simultaneous tracks and zooms. In an attQmpt to ~xamU;&is film as a product of the Hollywood studio system, an au-
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dience might at first be perplexed by Altman's decision to include the Cowboy/Kid scene in the film, since it does ostensibly little to further the plot or to develop any of the major characters. Yet were the scene entirely excised, the same audience might be left with a feeling that the film lacked an integrity necessary in anticipating, or accepting, the film's pessimistic end, which features the death of the protagonist. This is to say that while this ending is unconventional, the story line as a whole subscribes at least to the convention of preparing the audience for its outcome. The brief battle between Cowboy and the Kid, on(Some)narrative level, is a collapsing of the longer struggle between McCabe and Butler, one which flattens the complexities of each character and does away with the hide-and-seek, play-dead antics. The Cowboy fits the type ~~ of the clean, moral, disingenuous lead of earlier comic Westerns, who has not been tarnished by1\
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life on the frontier. Even his frolicking in the whorehouse seems more benign and innocent than
anyone else's. The Kid, by contrast, is an archetype of the villain who crosses the thin line between using one's wits and being outright dishonorable.It is telling that Altman declines to
give a legitimate name to either character, as though they were mere generic characters playing a token role in, or almost outside of, a larger plot. The fierce defeat of Cowboy, a force of good, readies the audience to accept the death of the less pure and innocent but infinitely more complex McCabe who, although the film's apparent hero, gambles and runs a brothel. Butler, for his own part, seems as different from the Kid as McCabe is from Cowboy. Butler shares little or none of the Kid's naive but malicious desire for killing, nor does he behave dishonorably (at least no more dishonorably than the film's hero, which is as useful a measure as any))In
other words, the playing out of pure good versus pure evil, with the latter victorious, works to debilitate the audience's hope for a comic ending in a struggle between the less good and the less evil. Relatedly, the sequence (framed by two scenes featuring only McCabe and Mrs Miller) does much damage to the construction of the pair's relationship. Although the issue of selling the property or "making a deal" was a contentious one, the scene immediately prior to the Cowboy /Kid sequence establishes a tone of tenderness and respect between the two which seemed to be struggling to emerge until then. That tenderness, however, operates within, and perhaps stems from, the ominous atmosphere that had taken over the brothel since Butler's arrival and cautions against a romantic conception of their relationship. The intangible ill-bod-
ing surrounding the community is only reified with the Cowboy's death, and any budding hopes of union between McCabe and Mrs Miller are shattered, indicating that the literal death of the good and innocent is commensurate with the metaphoric death of romantic idealism. The symbolism of allowing the demise of a character like Cowboy to represent the similar fate of McCabe and Mrs Miller seems at once to conform to and twist the "Western" canon. Altman gives us on the one hand the good prostitute of Stagecoach and baits the audience with suggesIThere could be drawn a parallel between Butler's contract killing and McCabe's indirect contract sex, and it is because of this parallel (and others) that I'm reluctant to paint Butler as less honorable than McCabe. McCabe does, after all, attempt to connive his way out of a fight, shoot at least one man in the back, and play dead to trick and kill his enemy.
tions of a Stagecoach-like comic ending, but then takes this away when he presents the likable but flawed McCabe as a moral match to Cowboy, and kills both men, leaving the heroine to spend her days drugged and alone. On less complicated narrative levels, the sequence establishes the direct bodily threat to McCabe, irrespective of its symbolic effects on his relationship with Mrs Miller and the achievement of the American frontier dream. Before Cowboy's killing, the only ill will Butler directed at him was to "get on the bridge" before he got angry, which turned out to be only a half-serious threat. If Butler had been alone, perhaps the nature of the apprehension would have been different, as well. The random, dishonorable, sheer malicious nature of the Kid's attack on cowboy instills the fear that a hero's death can occur without a justifiable reason, and the Kid could have easily shot McCabe as a minor figure like Cowboy. This attitude grows stronger when considering the behavior of Sheehan who, too scared to act, stares numbly at the precipitous events leading to Cowboy's death. McCabe's community seems hopelessly devoid of heroes, or even men of bravery who can stand up to men like Butler, or even gun-toting children like the Kid. Only McCabe, "a leading member of the community," has any fortitude, and even he tries to back down. Cowboy's demise, then, suggests not only the fate of McCabe in particular, but of an entire community of men too innocent, stunned, or nice to object to injustice. This suggestion extends to the identity of the men as men, as well. When the two prostitutes joke about the diminutive size of Cowboy's genitals, they humble the man who considered himself virile enough to take all the women in the house. This matches the other men of the town who, amongst themselves, are strong and manly, but cower in front of ~ outsider like Butler, whose masculinity is apparent to all. When one of McCabe's friends reports on the arrival of Butler, nearly the first thing he mentions is the exceptional size of the killer. "He must be near seven feet tall." McCabe's reaction is to ask to speak with him, but Butler says "There's nothing to talk about" and that no deals can be made with him. The other prominent men in the film ~ (Sheehan, Sears, the Lawyer, Hollander) continually try to make deal, to talk their way intoII
or out of something with McCabe, but Butler refuses McCabe's offer to deal, preferring instead to
bargain with the arguably more masculine method of gunfighting.
first arrives in town during a funeral, signaling perhaps the obsolescence of himself and men like h;m. /
On perhaps the lowest narrative level, the killing of Cowboy serves as an action se""-"--
quence, a tension-building series of events to hold the audience's attention. The previous moment of real tension in the film came during the confused bludgeoning of an insulted man, but the lighting was so dim and the justification so scant, the scene served only to show the effects of an isolated society coiled in upon itself. The introduction of foreign elements, particularly nefarious ones, helped to pick up one part of the plot, and though seemingly detached during the Cowboy /Kid sequence, build a greater sense of apprehension as the film neared its final conflict and conclusion.In this way, ~s in several others,)...1cCabe and Mrs Miller can be read as a generic prod-
uct, albeit an exceptional one, of the Hollywood studio system, in that it conforms to a variety of conventions, including the appropriate episodes of tension and resolution placed strategically throughout the film. As such, the narrative of the film intertwines with its style.
Altman takes this convergence a step beyond most other genre films by engaging in a kind of stylistic foreshadowing that cues the audience to certain implicit and explicit aspects of subsequent narrative. For example, when Altman opens a scene with a ceramic jug sliding across ice, we have yet to have any idea what awaits cowboy, but the image creates, or hints at, a tension, an impending crisis. As the next graphically matches the Kid's face with the now-still bottle, we might infer that he is to a figure in the tension, and this is confirmed when the Kid fires again at the jug but the sound reverberates as we see Cowboy riding his horse towards the bridge. There is ~e in-':he narr~~wboy approa~ that might lead us to believe
conflict lies ahead, but Altman's use of graphic matching and unconventional shots such as one of the slipping jug, which eventually is shot into the water, pushes the reader to uneasiness 1\ This, combined with subtle elements of the narrative, such as the Kid's arguing that "The trick
is to make it float," cleverly prepare the audience for th