Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller enraptured generations of moviegoers. One of them is David Milch, creator, executive producer and head writer of HBO’s Deadwood, which is entering its third season. In conjuction with Robert Altman Blog-a-Thon Weekend, Milch gave an interview to The House Next Door to discuss McCabe and thank Robert Altman for directing it.
Milch’s Deadwood is spiritual kin to Presbyterian Church in McCabe, a dingy town full of mostly desperate people navigating society’s labyrinth, hoping to get a bit closer to their dreams. There are incidental echoes galore—the soupy streets and candlelit interiors, the teeming church services, saloons and whorehouses; the hubbub of hoofbeats and overlapping conversations; the portrayal of the bedroom as a sanctuary where lovers shut civilization out and improvise their own social contract; the acknowledgment that in life, intoxicants are sometimes necessary (opium for Mrs. Miller in McCabe, laudanum for the widow Garret in Deadwood, and alcohol for nearly every character in both works); the tension between the necessity of moral censure and the impulse to judge not, lest ye be judged; the admission that in all societies throughout history, violence, like shit, has invariably rolled downhill; and the frank acceptance (rare in American culture) that race, nationality, gender and money decide the outcome of most encounters before they’ve begun. (Milch once told Salon, “The idea of equality before the law is an operating fiction of democracy.”) Yet in both McCabe and Deadwood, these fascinations are wheel spokes fixed in one hub: community.
To some degree, nearly all of Altman’s films are anatomies of community. Ditto Deadwood, which week to week showcases a panoramic concentration that recalls Altman at the top of his game. Like Altman, Milch is not content to fixate on the plight of one individual—a fundamental creative choice that puts both men temperamentally at odds with much of American popular culture. Both Altman and Milch prefer to see the big picture, the pointillist mural that takes shape when an artist asks the audience to take a few steps back from the canvas. They study human constellations comprised of distinct human beings who embrace different religions, inhabit different social strata, imbibe different substances, muse on their own pet obsessions and pursue their own strange agendas, all the while remaining largely oblivious to their impact on everyone else. Both Altman and Milch are not just storytellers. They are dramatic anthropologists, devising a collective organism in order to scrutinize it.
Altman and Milch’s interests are reflected in their methods. Both tend to work with gigantic ensembles. Both nurture actors’ individuality and push them to be generous to other actors, creating a communal spirit on the set that informs and strengthens the fictional community shown onscreen. Both have a fondness for lyrically meandering dialogue (with one key difference; every line Milch writes is hammered into a particular musical shape, while Altman prefers cacophonous improvisation). And Milch could be described in terms that Bill Roundtree, in an essay on McCabe, applied to Altman: “The filmmaking equivalent of Spinoza’s God: the creator as noninterventionist.”
He said that when he first saw McCabe & Mrs. Miller, “…I thought that it was a very ambitious and almost fully realized work… Certain materials are particularly congenial to certain sensibilities, and Mr. Altman’s disposition to improvisation, I think is very well-suited to the idea of a community making itself up as it went along.” Milch was also taken with “…the kind of improvised quality of McCabe’s identity, and his reach-out for a kind of authority, if for no other reason than to attain Mrs. Miller. It was a beautiful match between a storyteller’s instincts and the material.”
Milch, once a self-described “alcoholic, heroin addict and degenerate gambler,” was also taken with Altman’s depiction of intoxicants as social lubricant and emotional anaesthetic, his frank and unglamorous depiction of sex and violence and most of all, his interest in community. Central to this interest, Milch said, is Altman’s depiction of a collective human organism that derives its life force from the energy of all these distinct, eccentric, myopic individuals bustling about in pursuit of their goals, their imaginations locked in a vise-grip of illusion. When individual illusions come together around shared pleasures and beliefs, a community begins to take shape. McCabe, said Milch, depicts how a society is built from “the piling of illusion upon illusion, and the agreement upon illusions.”
“Here’s McCabe pretending to be a man of vision. He’s someone who’s moved to be more than a pimp by the impulse to impress Mrs. Miller, who is herself moved to sort of organize her life upon the embrace of illusion. These characters pile one illusion upon another illusion and they end up building something bigger than themselves. McCabe & Mrs. Miller presents the agreement upon illusion as the liberation of an energy that is greater than one person can generate.”
But while Altman sees that social mechanism and must feel a certain affection for it (otherwise why spend a career on it?), he doesn’t let himself or the audience fall too in love with it, to the point of sentimentalizing either individuals or their community. There is persistent melancholy undertow. It originates in our being reminded that everything is impermanent: nations, cultures, customs, beliefs and of course, specific lives.
Milch said McCabe treats illusion itself as yet another type of intoxicant—as a substance with which to numb pain, forget mistakes, obscure one’s awareness of social constraints, or give oneself permisson to act ambitiously, recklessly, selfishly or idealistically. Like every intoxicant, illusion gives people permission to do things they know could lead to trouble. “I remember the first time I shot up,” Milch said. “Just before I shot up [my supplier] said, ’Dope’s gonna give you everything, but you’re gonna have to give everything to dope.’ There is that sort of sensual surrender when you are frankly embracing an intoxicant, something that you know is poisonous, as the organizing element in your life.”
McCabe takes that notion even further, Milch said, by depicting a community’s collective agreement on certain principles as yet another kind of intoxicant—perhaps the most powerful one of all.
“An agreement that creates a community is an agreement upon an illusion, an agreement upon an intoxicant,” Milch said. “Our founding document jumps off from, ’We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ which to me seems a frank agreement upon illusion—not that these are self-evident truths, but that we agree on an illusion that these are fucking truths.”
Altman has covered this philosphical terrain so thoroughly that all successors must walk in his snowy footprints. Milch said he likes to think of Deadwood as a way of speaking to McCabe & Mrs. Miller across time, answering one work of art with another. “I think that everything you write is part of a conversation with everything you’ve read and seen,” Milch said. “I answer Mr. Altman’s work because I have an affinity for it. St. Paul is my guy, in terms of saying that idea of community is central to understanding, and that we mistake our deepest nature if we fail to realize that we are part of some larger organism. The illusion of individuality is probably more pernicious than any other…The failure of certain individuals to explore that fact is the source of their tragedy.”
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.