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.
Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions
No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.
No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.
Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.
Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture
The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.
“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.
But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?
Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.
In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.
Will Win: Green Book
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.
Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.
Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman