Monday, June 11, 2007

McCabe and Mrs. Miller redux

Had a few more thoughts about McCabe and Mrs. Miller today ... but first the personal context ... funny day at work as we are less than a week away from the biggest day of the year at MRU, and my big boss is retiring at the same time to great sadness for those of us he leaves in the saddle. He is a fine man, possessed of an obvious and evident stability and bearing that is a little more rare in the halls of the academe than one might expect. He manages to manage an executive administative post with the panache, intelligence, and flexibility that one expects from an academic and intellectual. Anyway, I doubt he will ever read this, so I can say unashamedly that I admire the man, and am selfish enough to regret his leaving us for the deserved relaxation of retirement.

But that has nothing whatsoever to do with McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There's another issue in this film, beyond the issue of eloquence which I addressed yesterday. Let me get to it presently.

When John McCabe first appears on screen, you know he's going to end up dead. But for two-thirds of the movie, the action moves slowly, languidly. The first killing develops out of nothing more than a pair of socks. It is shocking not because you do not expect it, but because it is so senseless; it is the more shocking because the murder is infused with sexuality, both of the recent visit to the whorehouse, and of the invitation by the killer that the presumptive victim strip off his socks. But the internal audience of townspeople, led and represented by the barkeep Sheehan, the Rene Auberjonois character, cowardly watch the action without protest or movement. The film languishes on the body of the dead boy, so recently running half naked among the whores, in the freezing water ... the observer keeps wondering if he will rise, if he is truly dead. The killer, a kid himself, has a face twisted by the presence of death. He coolly contrived a situation in which he could freely kill by duping the boy to pull out his gun. As soon as the gun is there, the bad boy shoots to kill. No one protests, no dialogue is wasted on explaining what is obvious but incomprehensible. It happened, it is over. No one retrieves the body.

That is the first of six killings in this little town which is both actually and literarily manufactured out of wilderness as we watch the film. None of the killings exacts comment, only one is witnessed by the spineless locals. The second killing, of the preacher in his temple, is shocking, brief, and over. The third killing, where the first killer gets his just deserts, is the closest thing to suspense in the film, but it too is over before it starts, and the body floats in another water, this time a vat. The fourth killing takes place through a window, and we do not even know for a long minute if the bastard is dead. And the fifth killing, of the assassin, is obvious, dramatic and fast. A derringer shot to the head, drops dead.

Again, none of this is witnessed. No one in this town, notwithstanding the burning church that is strictly a background action, a coloring of an otherwise ochre scene, no one notices that six men have been shot to death, that their bodies litter the streets. No one hears the shots. No one sees McCabe expire slowly in the snow, the only victim who did not die instantly.

In rhetoric, there is an idea called the implied author. See this as counterposed to the real or biological author. The biological author of the novel is Edmund Naughton. Perhaps we can say that the biological author of the film is Robert Altman, but it is also the producer and the actors ... a film has a committee of biological authors. The implied author is the author whom the observer can construct from observing. It would be a mechanical reduction to assume that the implied author matches the real author ... a real author can play the same sort of game with the implied author as he can play with an unreliable narrator. The implied author is a source of deception, of misdirection, of both innocence and complicity. The implied author is one of us, even is he is not of us. We observe, he pretends to create.

The curiosity of this amazing film is that the implied author is so passive, so uncaring, so unobservant. Live, die, what's the difference. There is no tragedy here. McCabe, who arrives in town exuding threat, turns out to be weak, confused, bamboozled. He has no chance, he never had a chance. Like a cur, he lives till he dies, and no one notices. The strangely flat Mrs. Miller is stoned on opium in a Chinese tent as the bloodshed mounts. She cannot care, she could not care. All that will matter to her is whether she can extract her 1500 bucks. But the film, the implied author, does not bother to tell us that. The implied author does not care.

This relationship between implied author and implied audience (which is to say us as we are predicted and implied and constructed in the text) drives this work, but the driving is weak, just like the townspeople, just like McCabe, just like Mrs. Miller. Six cadavers scattered around, and nothing matters. It reminds me of Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts:

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind upon a tree.

What does this teach us ... do not innocently give in to the affect of the work of art, even as you resign to its conceits. For it is not only, perhaps not especially, the named author with whom we interact, but it is also a chimera, a falsehood, a deception, the author who never existed but who is created each time the text is experienced.

That is why I loved this film ... it left me weak, resigned. It made me a dog going on with my doggy life in a world I neither control not fully understand.

So I leave you with this thought ... this is precisely the Malay idea of pesona, often translated "enchantment". I will return to that on some future occasion.

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