The Importance of Sound in McCabe & Mrs Miller

McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) is no exception to Robert Altman’s genre-bending and unconventional filmography. Altman’s insistent distortion of classical and conventional techniques give all his films a consistent filmmaking style. Referring directly to the film’s soundtrack – in the broader sense, i.e the accompanying audio elements of a synchronised sound film – this essay will consider the ways in which Altman defies the ‘classical Hollywood style’ that had dominated narrative cinema since its conception. The classical Hollywood style of filmmaking was focused on concise portrayal of information above all else – every element of the film would fixate on pointing the audience in the right direction to better understand the narrative. Additionally, films in this style would uphold the conventions of their genres, for the same reason. McCabe & Mrs Miller, however takes a significantly different approach, rejecting the stylistic tendencies of the sea of Hollywood films before it and challenging the conventions of its genre, being proclaimed an ‘anti-western’ by Altman himself (Phillips, 2008).

Altman ensures that every generic aspect of the Western is subverted in McCabe & Mrs Miller, but identifiably so; despite subverting every audience expectation, the film is still discernibly a Western. One of the more obvious ways he achieves this in regards to the soundtrack is the choice to use drastically unconventional music. In contrast to the blaring horn ostinatos and galloping rhythms of classical Hollywood Westerns, such as those by John Ford, McCabe & Mrs Miller exclusively features folk tracks written and performed by Leonard Cohen. Instead of establishing the film with the optimistic Hoedown-esque (Copland, 1942) fanfares that are somewhat intrinsically linked to the themes of manifest destiny and the broad open plains of Monument Valley, Cohen’s somber tracks subvert this expectation and instead angle the atmosphere of the film towards its equally unconventional setting in snowy and rainy forests, pessimistic themes of vulnerability and decidedly anti-Western narrative. In what Scott Tobias describes as ‘mournful interstitials’ (2014) throughout the film, Cohen’s soft, downbeat guitar melodies provide the film with rich atmospheric texture and contrast conventional Western scores, just as the film’s snowy forests directly contrast desert plains. Phillips talks of the stark inversion this decision presents, explaining that through the use of Cohen’s ‘melancholy ballads’, along with unconventional visuals, ‘it is evident that Presbyterian Church contrasts dramatically with John Ford’s Frontier’(2008). In many ways, Cohen’s tracks achieve the same effect epic Western fanfares achieve, musically capturing and enhancing the fundamental emotions that drive the scenes. The first of the three Cohen tracks to appear in the film – ‘The Stranger Song’, which plays over the opening titles – is exemplary of this. Instead of blaring, upbeat brass exuding pioneer spirit and providing a fanfare for the stoic, alpha-male hero figure, the audience is met with pessimistic, somber guitar licks and ballad lyrics that mirror the situation of the protagonist they are soon to meet. The lyrics talk of a man who is yet to find his place in the world, who lives his life on the road, alone, constantly leaving people behind and not looking back. While a lone wanderer is not all too much of a far cry from an archetypal classical Western, the protagonist in the song is described as less of a stoic hero and more a vulnerable man on the run from himself, contrasting the conventions of the genre. By employing this song into the film’s soundtrack to introduce McCabe, Altman subverts the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking and inverts the conventional Western protagonist, reshaping the genre that categorises the film.

Conversely, Altman recognises that the music he omits from the film is equally as subversive as the music he includes. As aforementioned, the film – besides a few diegetic songs – has but three music tracks throughout its entire two hour runtime. The crucial, climactic gunfight that closes the film is a key moment where the omission of music is arguably more effective than its inclusion. The soundtrack feels most alive within the film when the deathly silence envelops our endangered protagonist. Traditionally, in a classical Hollywood Western – and in any classical Hollywood film, to an extent – music is included due to its arguably integral role in the tension and release of a scene. Epic gun fights that are typical of the genre are no exception to this stylistic choice, usually at the very least including dramatic stings and risers to heighten the tensions of the scene. In Howard Hawks’ 1966 acclaimed Western, El Dorado, a tense confrontation occurs when Mississippi threatens the last of his mentor’s murderers with revenge, eventually hurling a knife at one of the men. In classical Hollywood style, tension is heightened by musical cues; upon informing the men that he has killed all of the other murderers, a deep, bassy tuba stab marks the beginning of a musical sting that sonically conveys the danger of the situation. Even in a somewhat tamer scene for the genre, like the aforementioned, a dramatic sting or sometimes a full orchestral accompaniment to the dramatic action quickly becomes the centrepiece of the soundtrack in tense moments. This is even true in plenty of other classical Hollywood films outside of the Western genre. Altman, however, does not shy away from breaking the conventions of the classical style. In McCabe’s climactic manhunt gunfight, the tension of the cat-and-mouse nature of the scene is enough to peak audience attention and drive the dramatic action without the need of cues and stings. Altman’s deliberate omission of a tense backing track to raise the stakes in the audience’ minds is arguably more effective than the inclusion of this technique employed by classical Hollywood movies; the deafening silence of the soundtrack puts the audience intimately close to the characters as they make the few sounds audible in the scene, and ramps up the tension by wedging them right in the midst of the action. Compared to this aspect of the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking that is traditional of the Western, McCabe & Mrs Miller, while subverting convention, is equally as, if not more, effective than its more traditional counterparts.

A great part of a film’s soundtrack is its sound mixing. Classical Hollywood styles of filmmaking favour comprehensible audio mixing, for the sake of dialogue and narrative clarity. Generally to ensure this, primary or main dialogue in a scene will be favoured over all else, with important sounds being secondary, and atmospheric ambience or music where applicable being tertiary. David Bordwell explains the classical Hollywood system for conveying space, discussing composition of shots and blocking of characters and objects, concluding that central characters or significant objects are usually presented centrally in the frame in a balanced environment where audience attention is hardly competed for – i.e important characters tend to be foregrounded against a distinct background, fully in focus with nothing convoluting their presence, to ultimately ensure narrative clarity. He goes on to apply this to soundtracks in classical Hollywood, explaining that: ‘classical sound technique articulates foreground (principal voice) and background (silence, “background” noise, music “under” the action) with the same precision that camera and staging distinguish visual planes’ (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 1985, 50-60). In McCabe, Altman goes against this convention, with sound mixing designed to detract from the subject. On several occasions, inconsequential, ambient, ‘background’ conversations are amplified to the volume of a prominent line of primary dialogue, and vice versa. This is particularly obvious in a sequence where McCabe, checking on the progress of the saloon, asks where the tents are. Immediately this exchange of dialogue begins, the voice of the worker being questioned is soft and distant, despite being centre frame and the significant voice of the scene, from which his speech is literally cut out by McCabe’s question. In response to McCabe’s question, the man starts explaining as his dialogue fades into obscurity beneath the rest of the convoluted soundtrack. Distant laugher occludes the conversation, and an entirely new and separate inconsequential conversation between otherwise irrelevant characters becomes the primary sonic layer. This unconventional sound mixing breaks away from the classical Hollywood style of mixing and shifts attention towards atmospheric texture over narrative progression.

Overall, while McCabe & Mrs Miller intended to bend the conventions of the traditional Western and to break new ground in doing so, the film also attacks the structure that is beneath nearly every classical Hollywood movie, even those outside of its genre. In a feat of experimentation, the film’s soundtrack presents new ways to achieve desired effects, unaccounted for by the overarching style that dominated classical Hollywood. Experimenting with radically different music choice, omission of traditional soundtrack cues and stings and toying with sound mixing techniques to draw attention to the texture of the created world and away from the narrative, Robert Altman’s anti-Western proves that the modal method of filmmaking is not necessarily the most effective one; that conventions can be subverted in creative ways to produce results that rival even the best a genre has to offer – a statement only bolstered by its rather ironic placement in the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Westerns (AFI, 2008).

Bibliography

AFI. (2008). AFI: Top 10 Western. [online] Available at: https://www.afi.com/10top10/category.aspx?cat=3 [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].

Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1985). The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. Routledge.

Copland, A. (1942), ‘Hoedown’ in Rodeo [musical composition]

El Dorado. (1966). [film] Directed by H. Hawks. Hollywood: Paramount.

McCabe & Mrs Miller. (1971). [film] Directed by R. Altman. Hollywood: Warner Bros.

Phillips, J. (2008). Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. Stanford, CA: Stanford U. P., 52-68.

Tobias, S. (2014). McCabe & Mrs. Miller: profound pessimism and Leonard Cohen kindness. [online] The Dissolve. Available at: http://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/772-mccabe-mrs-miller-profound-pessimism-and-leonard-c/ [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].

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