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Robert Self
Robert Self

Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

November 8, 2007

In new book, NIU’s Robert Self trains sights
on movie western that turned genre upside down

Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller.’   — Roger Ebert, “The Great Movies”

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University’s Robert Self, an expert on the films of the late Robert Altman, surely wouldn’t dispute this claim from the world’s best known film critic.

Self has written a new book devoted to chronicling the greatness of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” a long neglected movie classic that turned the western genre on its head, reflected the counterculture movement of its time and served as a precursor to academic studies that portrayed the American West in a new and more realistic light.

“This is Altman’s most beautiful film and his most poetic film in a lot of ways,” says Self, an NIU professor emeritus of English and acting associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Self’s new book, “Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: Reframing the American West” (University Press of Kansas), was a three-year labor of love.

“My editor and I felt there had been widespread recognition for some of Altman’s major films, such as ‘MASH,’ ‘Nashville,’ ‘The Player’ and ‘Shortcuts,’ but there hadn’t been the kind of critical and public attention to what we felt was one of his best films. That’s really what motivated this book project,” Self says.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” debuted in 1971. The movie tells a downbeat story of a gambler and a prostitute in a hardscrabble mining town in the Pacific Northwest, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. “Altman’s portrayal of the American frontier is not the mythic West that we see in westerns of the ’40s, ’50s and into the ’60s,” Self says.

The hero, played by Warren Beatty, is not a gunslinger who makes right the path of civilization, but an inept opportunist who dies a meaningless death at the hands of corporate gunmen. And Altman elevates Julie Christie’s Academy-Award nominated role as Mrs. Miller to a place of parity in the text with the male. Prostitution is given a realistic portrayal.

“Everyone perceived the film as an anti-western or alternative western or not a western at all because it violated the classical norms of America’s oldest generic story,” Self says.

The film appeared at an experimental time in moviemaking. Filmmakers such as Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Clint Eastwood recognized that the West wasn’t won by idealism—that western expansion was, in fact, a conquest fueled by genocide of American Indians.

“The filmmakers were in many ways ahead of the historians,” Self says. “Their films came along at a time when there were widespread challenges to traditional American values and notions of the past. Their films were part of the counterculture, which challenged concepts of authority and the treatment of women and minorities and made us reconsider the way we told our stories and depicted history.

“ ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ takes a stance toward the West in a way that the New Western History would begin to develop by the end of the ’70s and ’80s, when historians actively revised the historical view of life on the American frontiers,” Self adds.

Altman’s western also was noteworthy for its moviemaking innovations. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was shot sequentially along with the construction of its set. The filmmakers built the town as they shot the movie. “As the story begins, the set starts off as a crude settlement,” Self notes, “and by the end of the film it’s a busy mining town.”

Altman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond achieved a faded, old-fashioned quality to the imagery of the movie by "flashing" the film stock, or exposing it to light, before shooting. The golds and reds and greens of the set design reflect the landscape painting of the Rocky Mountain School of American painters. Intertwined throughout the narrative, Leonard Cohen’s trenchant ballads of loss on the soundtrack add to the film’s melancholy feel.

Self, who has seen the movie more times than he cares to count, says his new book is aimed at a general audience, ranging from hardcore Altman fans to those who want to be introduced to the director’s work. When he died in 2006, Altman left a rich legacy of films, though not many were successful at the box office.

“ ‘MASH’ was his biggest box-office hit, and that was in 1970 at the beginning of his Hollywood career,” Self says. “Robert Altman was a renegade director who innovated the style of the American art cinema, an artist as he said who made gloves in an industry that sells shoes. He won’t be remembered as a popular or blockbuster moviemaker, but I think in the realm of serious filmmaking he stands as one of the more important directors of our time.”

Self lives in Sycamore and has been teaching at NIU since 1969. His previous books include "Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality" (University of Minnesota Press), a comprehensive analysis of Altman films.

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