Sunday, June 10, 2007

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

I have more or less bypassed movies over the last few decades, and Netflix is allowing me to catch up. Watching movies often fills me with a little dread, and again Netflix allows me to watch the heavier ones in shifts, as it were, so that I can spread the dread enough to get through it without falling into a funk. And it also allows me to live in a filmic world over a longer stretech, and luxuriate in contemplating that world in between snippets.

In the case of Robert Altman's 1971 McCabe and Mrs. Miller, my friend JG more or less pressed it on me ... that is fine since I certainly need help in picking movies given that I have been absent from cinema for so long. He told me that Leonard Cohen, whom I adore and have worshipped since I was a teenager, did the music, so I managed to watch it in two sittings spread over a week.

I noticed that there is not much story, or leastwise that the story is not what drives the experience. Altman confirmed this in his commentary, saying that the story was not particularly well written, and contained so many stock elements that he knew that the audience would know, so he did not have to spend much energy as a director in telling the story. Instead, he could view the movie as a painting.

This approach is the essence of preliterate storytelling, more properly called radically oral storytelling or oral formulaic storytelling. This is the form of storytelling that has been the basic mode for most people for most of history. My dissertation was about a form of storytelling in the anicent Malay world in which writers wrote down stories intended to be performed for radically oral (that is, non-literate) audiences, and I treated of the problems of expressing complexity and contrarity in a language and form which was, formally at any rate, additive rather than recursive, to use the word my friend IM and I were discussing today.

I am a little tuckered out today consequent upon one too many Monte Carlos, a rye and benedictine drink, consumed last night to celebrate IM's return. So I will leave this brief thought about McCabe and Mrs. Miller by referencing my favorite literary critic, Kenneth Burke, on the subject of what drives the radically oral storyteller ... I think it dovetails perfectly with Altman's thoughts about his own work.

In his Counterstatement (1931), Burke wrote an essay, "Psychology and Form" in which he argues for a distinction in art between a psychology of information as against a psychology of form. He sees us having entered an age in which art loses sight of the psychology of audience and substitutes a psychology of information. He writes: "... the great influx of information has led the artist to lay his emphasis on the giving of information with the result that art tends more and more to substitute the psychology of the hero (the subject) for the psychology of the audience ... Proposition: the hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form."

Why do we watch Hamlet, he asks, even though we know the plot? He answers that we watch because of the eloquence of the performance, the form. "We cannot take a recurrent pleasure in the new (in information) but we can in the natural (in form)."

The suspense in a film like McCabe and Mrs. Miller is minimal, and once you have seen it a first time or figured out the likely direction of the plot, you can safely ignore the minimal suspense and luxuriate in the eloquence of the telling, of the form. I think a principle like this can be applied to Altman's work throughout, but I should probably do a lot more research before advancing that thesis with any confidence. McCabe does have a rather Hamlet-like make up.

That little essay by Burke influenced my thinking about art and storytelling more than any other single piece of writing. It really deserves a lot more exposure than it gets at this point. I will return to it frequently, I suspect, in this blog.

(BTW, it is curious also that Altman noted that the town was built as they filmed, and that the film was shot in scene order. That too dovetails with the additive nature of radically oral storytelling in which complexity is indicated by juxtaposition and reversal ... so as the story grows, the town grows, and as the town becomes more complex, so does the story. Again, more on these sorts of ideas down the road.)

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