McCabe and Mrs Miller
Subduing the Central Conflict
In his book, Poetics of Cinema, the Chilean migr filmmaker Raul Ruiz rails against the problem of central conflict theory, an idea he insists where "every plot should need a central conflict as its backbone". As he explains the notion, he points out that "a story begins when someone wants something and someone else doesn't want them to have it. From that point on, through various digressions, all the elements of the story are arranged around this central conflict." Robert Altman more than almost any other director in Hollywood was interested however in what we could call peripheral conflict, in moving towards, in Robert Phillip Kolker's words in A Cinema of Loneliness, "opening up narratives to the play of their peripheries and to images that deflect away from, rather than toward, the dead center of plot." In M*A*S*H, Nashville and A Wedding, multi-characterisation dilutes central plot development.
Yet McCabe and Mrs Miller clearly has a leading character, and one played by a major star at that. While it was true Warren Beatty wasn't especially taken by Altman's methods, the film shows as much interest in Beatty's preoccupations with threat as Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde and The Parallax View, and Beatty is no less centrally present here than in any of the other films. However we're still very much in an Altmanesque world, and it is partly because though Beatty's McCabe might be central, the closest he has to a central conflict is misguided self-aggrandizement. If in many other Altman films the centre is peripheralised by the numerous other characters; here Altman pushes McCabe away from the centre by making him a weak figure. This is the secondary aspect to Altman's cinema of the periphery, but still an important one. Whether it is the dissolving identity of Cathryn in Images, the fluidity of the women's personalities in Three Women, or the laid back acceptance of the way of things for Philip Marlowe through most of The Long Goodbye, Altman proposes characters weak to circumstances and to those around them. It makes absolute sense that John Wayne claimed McCabe and Mrs Miller corrupt, for McCabe is a man of fragile character, poor instinct and given to absurd self-mythologising. Many viewers may believe watching John Wayne films that is exactly finally what numerous Wayne characters happen to be as well, but that wasn't how Wayne's persona was presented. These traits are unequivocally present in Altman's film as it offers a revisionist take on the west: a revisionism that gets to the heart of the problem of identity.
Let us look for a moment at the issue of violence in American film, and propose there are chiefly three ways in which a character can be violent. The first is the type that John Wayne and numerous classic actors offer, and that is aggression consistent with the nature of the situation. In a western like Shane, Alan Ladd's titular character will eventually react to the taunts, bullying and abuse he receives or the people whom he cares about are subject to, and this is if you like measured violence. We're in no doubt what Shane is capable of, and we wait until he proves how adept he is with his fists and with the gun. Next we could talk about the unmeasured violence Scorsese's work often focuses upon, where we have characters like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jake La Motta in Raging Bulland especially Tommy de Vito in Good Fellas; characters where the violence comes from a combination of impulse and paranoia, from a self with poor instincts yet deep rage. Altman, though, practises much more a sort of uncharacteristic violence, where he frequently shows us characters for whom violence isn't part of their nature but necessary to the situation. If in Shane and even in High Noon the man is equal to the violent scenario he finds himself in, and in Scorsese's work often the violence within his characters is greater than the situation, in a number of Altman's films the violence comes from a character where it is a surprise both to them and to others. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe kills the friend whom he feels is robbing him of credence; in California SplitCharlie Waters receives a terrific punch that we think will be the end of the fight, and then manages to beat his opponent near senseless. In McCabe and Mrs Miller McCabe ends up dead in the snow, but not before taking out the three people hired to kill him. Earlier in the film one of the assassins says to someone that McCabe obviously never killed anybody in his life, and so we and McCabe are surprised that he manages if not to take care of himself, then nevertheless manages to take out three professional men of the gun.
Altman's work clearly isn't averse to violence, and we may wonder how he incorporates it into his world while at the same time having little interest in the central conflict theory Ruiz despises. Isn't violence a prime example of central conflict? But central conflict especially likes measured violence, where the underlying aggression Scorsese practises, or the uncharacteristic moments in Altman's films, are violent almost to the detriment of such binary notions. Where in measured violence in Shane and numerous western and action films the aggression helps propel and dispel conflicts, in the deep animosity in Scorsese, and the uncharacteristic animosity present in Altman's work, the violence works against central conflict. In Scorsese's films it is because we never know where the violence will come from as it resides in the character rather than in the situation. In Altman's films it is because the characters are so un-given to violence that it hasn't been worked towards as a conflict, but arrives much more as a surprising scenario.
Yet how does this fit with McCabe and Mrs Miller, which ostensibly does happen to offer us a central conflict? A major corporation wants to move in and buy up McCabe's business interests; McCabe decides he doesn't want to sell at the price they are offering. For a start we notice that McCabe isn't characteristically either heroic or selfless. When someone wants to take on his case as an example of the little man fighting against the big corporation, McCabe responds like it is a narrative imposed upon him that he likes the sound of; not at all the fundamental reason why he takes on the company. If in Shane the titular character takes sides very early on against the cattle barons and for the homesteader, and the heroic comes out of the selflessness of his decision; in McCabe the selflessness comes out of a certain self-heroizing. When McCabe is first offered a sum of money by a couple of representatives for the firm, McCabe doesn't turn the money down because he supports small businesses; more he wants to hike up the price and show that he has some power in the negotiations. Here we notice Altman undermining central conflict twice over: he removes essentially the conflict within and the conflict without. McCabe could have been in conflict with the corporation and at the same time in conflict with himself: he might want to fight the company or at least in deciding to sell out fight with his own consciousness in the process of doing so. The lawyer presents the sort of potential conflicts in a standard western; but these are the conflicts that haven't yet occurred to McCabe.
Even when McCabe realises that he is at war with the corporation he fails to get involved in a central conflict. When the bordello madam Mrs Miller (Julie Christie), who knows rather more about the world than McCabe, tells him that he should have accepted any offer they made because if they don't get what they want fairly, they're happy to use foul methods too, McCabe decides he needs to strike a deal, and goes and visits the man he assumes has been sent to kill him. As McCabe fumblingly tries to dig himself out of the grave he has himself dug, he asks the man what deal would satisfy the company. The apparently jovial fellow insists he isn't there to do deals; he is in the area to do some hunting, and claims he doesn't know what McCabe is talking about. There is menace in the joviality, however, clearly evident when he asks whether McCabe's nickname is Pudgy, and whether he killed the hunter's best friend's best friend, Bill Roundtree. "I'm going to count to ten. If you're not on that bridge by the time I am finished, I am going to get very cross with you," the hunter says. McCabe has been completely wrong-footed and Altman has once again undermined the possibility of central conflict.
Thus not only has he utilised uncharacteristic violence, not only created a character whose self-aggrandizement has nothing to do with heroism and selflessness, he has also created an edgy, off-centred conflict where McCabe doesn't know exactly who he should be in conflict with. Not long after the scene with McCabe and the hunter, another character is crossing the bridge and gets gunned down by one of the hunter's cohorts. It is an absurdly meaningless death, where a guy who has been visiting the town because of its brothel, gets slain for no other reason than for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at the mercy of a character with the unmeasured violence that creates premises to justify his behaviour. In another film McCabe would be privy to such a scene; it would be part of the righteous anger that could lead to the heroic and selfless conclusion. Vital to the degeneracy that Wayne perceives doesn't only lie in the character of McCabe, it also lies in the method Altman adopts to undermine dramatic intensification. After the young man is shot on the bridge, the film cuts to McCabe getting into bed with Mrs Miller, and we have no idea whether McCabe knows of what happened earlier in the day. What interests Altman is McCabe's increasing sensitivity and vulnerability, and Altman films McCabe resting in Mrs Miller's arms, a pieta that surely represents the antithesis to the image of the western hero.
Yet the film does conclude on a shoot out, and an incredibly long drawn out one at that. But it is as if the director has learnt from Penn and Peckinpah, has noted the sort of reverse adrenaline they worked into the closing scenes in Bonnie and Clyde, and the opening scenes of The Wild Bunch. These are not scenes of central conflict, especially; more moments of potential dread. Now one of the paradoxes within the western action sequence is the suspense required to generate tension in the sequence, without proposing that the tension is especially within the character. If the hero is in a state of trepidation, then has the western failed to work that balance between the tension in the scene and the calmness of the protagonist? Often such an approach is resolved by the use of reaction shots, where a subsidiary figure, a woman or a child, the fretting locals, can hint at what is at stake, but the hero's nerves are very much intact. Here the dread and fret are internalised in the character of McCabe as he doesn't so much go out and kill the baddies, as try desperately to save his own skin.
What is interesting about this scene is the meticulous and miraculous wintry landscapes that Altman utilises, where it started to snow near Vancouver where he was filming, and Altman took the risk that it would last long enough for him to film the entire sequence in wintry weather, and thus offer another contrast to the western trope of sunshine. But even more so is that Altman sets up the conflict between McCabe and his three assassins as barely a conflict at all. Thus the sort of elements that would go into making the fight between McCabe and the 'baddies' significant, like the presence and concern of the love interest, and the fret of the locals, are displaced. From the start of the fight to the end of it, we don't have a single cutaway to Mrs Miller, who though she's warned him several times of the dangers he is in, loses herself in the opium pipe when the inevitable happens. Also while the villagers rush around to put out a fire in the church, they are oblivious to McCabe's struggle at the same time. The two areas of displaced tension, the reaction shots of the locals, the concern of the love interest, are absent during the shoot-out: a scene that usually unites the couple and the town more generally.
It is true that the fire and McCabe's gunfight aren't entirely separate events: the key assassin shoots another man while looking for McCabe in the church, and as he kills him, the lamp he is carrying sets the church on fire. But where a central conflict oriented filmmaker would make it clear that the assassin was responsible for the fire, and the locals would be at the same time helping McCabe, trying to kill the assassins and saving their church, they seem oblivious to McCabe's gunfight, and the reason for the church being ablaze. It isn't central conflict that interests Altman here, but disjunctive action. When Altman finally cuts to Mrs Miller, she is lying on her side smoking opium, oblivious to McCabe's existence or demise; perhaps barely aware of her own consciousness.
In Ruiz's essay on central conflict theory he mentions the philosopher A. N. Whitehead's term, 'misplaced concreteness', a phrase he uses to explain how the instantaneous cause and effect in American films and he believes American life create a false sense of cohesion. There may be those who see McCabe and Mrs Miller an incoherent work, just as John Wayne believed it to be a corrupt one, but it is chiefly a film that wants to address the world if not as it is, then at least without the misplaced concreteness of many a western where the central conflicts create an overly coherent work to the detriment of peripheral possibilities.
McCabe dies in the snow a victim of his own self-aggrandizement and the town-folk's indifference. He dies not a hero's death but that of a misguided fool, yet with a curious belated heroism within that misguidedness as someone caught between various myths and his own fumbling reality. The central conflict that fascinates Altman here isn't the diegetic one of heroes and villains; more the conflict between the mythic notions of the west and the injection of dirty realism into those myths. Whether its talk of enema bags and the clap in the whorehouse, an arm vividly blown apart in the closing shootout, or overlapping dialogue that reduces the usual conversational byplay to a mellifluous babble, Altman searches out a verisimilitude within the mythic, albeit a very personal one. As he proposed, "with every film it is like 'come look through my window', the way it looks from here is the way it looks to me. And this may not be any more the truth than the truth from over there. But just look through my window..."
© Tony McKibbin