McCabe and Mrs. Miller (YGtCTO #39)

Movie directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay, based on the novel by Edmund Naughton

When I was growing up, some magazine lying around the house purported to dissect the best movies that had ever been made. They sliced and diced by genre and critic and popularity and awards and whatever else they could use to fill the space. This was well before the Internet, so spending time perusing its pages was pretty much the best equivalent available to surfing IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert’s site– essentially a good way to spend an hour if nothing better were available.

I remember that the editors of the publication had saved their final pages for critics’ selections of the best movie ever. As it floats before my mind’s eye, the usual suspects of that day were named: Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, and Gone With the Wind. Growing up in a movie household, I knew all of them but two. Citizen Kane made its way to me in its time, but one lone outlier had selected M*A*S*H, a film that I knew as the television show, which I had not really seen yet. Careful close reading revealed that the same critic had also called M*A*S*H the greatest war movie, also- explicitly praising its anti-war tone.

That was enough to make me think that I might not want to ask around the house about the film since I really had no idea what sort of can of worms I might be opening. Self-censorship, especially the unnecessary kind, is never a good thing, but we do learn it at a young age. The most I ever heard from my dad about the movie was that he had enjoyed it- I think he had seen it with one or both of my older brothers. So, I was on my own later to make sense of that first viewing. Robert Altman does not make easy films. By the time I got to it, the TV show was burned into my consciousness, so I had to set that imprint aside. In the end, M*A*S*H, Nashville, and a lot of others by Altman proved favorites, and always enjoyable.

For whatever reason, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and I had never intersected until recently. I’ve been thinking about that critic who called M*A*S*H an anti-war war movie (which most “war” movies are- they may be patriotic, but truly pro-war themes usually falter after “we had good reasons”). One of my viewing companions asked if people really thought of McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a western. The ambiance is present and there is a long gunfight, but the world shown is not standard Western fare.

I thought the movie was fantastic, but could it have existed without all those westerns before it? The strange thing about stories that “defy” genres is that the person who writes them has to inhabit the genre in order to see the unexplored corners. You need to slip into the envelope before you can push it. Genres only become tired when people police them for acceptable content. Between the border pushers and the authors wishing to avoid classification, I don’t know where this all leads. Readers are playing fair when they just want a mystery… are they in conflict with the writers seeking their attention?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 261 more to go.

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