blu-ray series #2: belle de jour (luis buñuel, 1967)
by request: invaders from mars (william cameron menzies, 1953)

what i watched last week

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971). Each of us has movies that we somehow missed, and there is no surprise in most cases. I haven’t seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or The Mask, haven’t seen Aladdin or The Lion King or the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, all of them popular movies that don’t quite fit my taste preferences. Robert Altman, on the other hand, is the kind of director who does fit my taste preferences, and I have seen many of his films. The Long Goodbye is probably my favorite, with well-known works like Nashville and Gosford Park right up there, as well. I also have a fondness for some of his lesser-known movies, like 3 Women and California Split. Heck, I kinda liked Popeye, and if I wasn’t very impressed by Buffalo Bill and the Indians, at least I saw it. McCabe & Mrs. Miller would seem to be right up my alley … it has the second-highest ranking of any Altman film on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time (#184). Yet somehow, I missed this one until now. As usual, it’s hard to come at an acknowledged classic for the first time, 40+ years since its release. And I admit the movie got off to a bad start for me once I realized there would be frequent Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack (this is not a knock on Cohen, or on the use of his music in movies, just the use of his songs in this particular case). The songs tell what the movie has already shown, and aren’t necessary. The shaggy-dog feel of the movie, which is v.Altmanesque, also takes a while for the viewer to get accustomed to. You have to give yourself over to the rhythms. Once you do, a lovely movie emerges, one that messes with genre just as surely as does The Long Goodbye. And for all its loveliness, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a very sad movie. But not sad in the cheap way of a standard weeper. Instead, it’s sad because we see how tentative is McCabe’s outward bravado, because we know that despite her competence, Mrs. Miller ends up in the opium den. We want the titular characters to have a happier ending, but that isn’t going to happen. And everything sneaks up on you, because when Altman is at his best, his movies always sneak up on you. 8/10. For more Altman, check out any of the above-mentioned movies … well, you could probably skip Buffalo Bill. For a depiction of emergent capitalism in America that offers a slightly different take, watch the TV series Deadwood. And if the sight of Julie Christie’s frizzy hair sends you into rapture, see Don’t Look Now, where, to be fair, her hair is more curly than frizzy.

Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933). I remembered this being better than it actually is, probably because there are a couple of scenes that burn themselves in your memory. It matters less that Wellman directed than that it is one of Warners’ socially-conscious melodramas. And it’s pre-Code (a bit of a misnomer … the Code was already in place, but it wasn’t pushed too hard yet). Frankie Darro’s a bit much in the lead … he’s always bursting to show what he can do, like Mickey Rooney on the lam. (Darro gets to show off his circus background with a set of backflips at the end of the film.) Dorothy Coonan has a fresh-scrubbed appeal, although her film career didn’t amount to much. By the next year, she was married to Wellman (it stuck … they were married until he died more than 40 years later). And the various action scenes of the teenage hobos are exciting. The ending was tacked on by the studio, and it’s an odd one … a judge decides to help the kids, and there’s a WPA poster on the wall behind him, suggesting that FDR himself is going to take care of those kids just as soon as he can. 7/10. For more Wellman from that period, you could do worse than The Public Enemy. That movie’s star, James Cagney, shows up briefly in Wild Boys when they run into a movie theater that is playing Footlight Parade. And other, better, movies from 1933 include 42nd Street, Dinner at Eight, Duck Soup, and King Kong. Or, if you’re a sucker for Oscar winners, Cavalcade won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1933, but I haven’t seen it, so I can’t recommend it.

Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967). 8/10.



"The songs tell when the movie has already shown, and aren’t necessary."

Strongly, strongly disagree---I can't imagine McCabe & Mrs. Miller without Cohen. (And if I try, I get a movie that's hard to follow, harder to hear, and wouldn't be half as evocative.) Also: one of the greatest last couple of minutes ever.

Just about as long as the song, coincidentally.

Steven Rubio

It's a personal irritant, and perhaps ties into the problem with seeing an iconic movie for the first time so long after its release. There are certain ways songs are used that are guaranteed to drive me crazy, but the craziness comes because its use is so ubiquitous today, and is almost always a shorthand, lazy way to express what should have been clear without the addition of the songs. So I'm cranky about Cohen in an early-70s movie because too many TV shows in 2013 do something similar, and do it worse.

Also ... and this may be the first and only time McCabe & Mrs. Miller is compared to Killers Three with Dick Clark ... but I recently saw that piece of junk, and it was the worst example of all time of using songs (in that case, Merle Haggard) to explain what we'd already seen. So I'm hypersensitive about it, and had a knee jerk reaction the first time it happened in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It's not that something like "Winter Lady" is a bad song, or even that it is misused in this case ... but it makes me roll my eyes. Altman gets the blame because the people who make Sons of Anarchy can't get to the end of an episode without an explanatory song. So chalk this one up to something silly in me.


At the other end of the spectrum, I'm too forgiving when it comes to pop music in movies, and far too influenced by it. The only thing that really bothers me is when a great song starts up and the director either cuts it short, or drops the volume way down. (And, of course, lazy and unimaginative use; The Flamingo Kid is the first example I always bring up, also a lot--but not all--of Forest Gump.)

Short version: I think your points are very valid, and I've come across other people expressing the same exasperation. (It's a problem that gets worse all the time...blame Scorsese or Tarantino, I guess.) I just wouldn't apply them to McCabe myself.

Steven Rubio

I wouldn't blame Scorsese, who at least in his early years was a master of using songs, Mean Streets being my favorite example. I guess I differentiate between ambient music and whatever the opposite is. To use Altman as an example, I never complained about the music in Nashville. And it was a minor complaint in McCabe & Mrs. Miller ... reading your comments, I wish I'd led with something else and mentioned Cohen in passing, because it wasn't the most important thing about the movie. The contemporary master of how I like music to be used is David Simon. In The Wire, there was never any non-ambient music until the final episode of each season, which would close with a montage that was earned, because of where we'd been throughout the season. And in Treme, he uses ambient music, but since 3/4 of the characters are musicians, Treme has more music that just about anything you can think of.


I think both Marcus and Kael (Tarantino, too) didn't like the way music was used in Goodfellas--wasn't connected to the characters' lives, like in Mean Streets, one of them said. Connected or not, I love the way music's used in Goodfellas. Where Scorsese started to lose me was Casino--in overall quality (Devo's "Satisfaction"? terrible choice...), and the way it sometimes felt like songs were there only because it was Scorsese and songs were supposed to be there. A couple of highlights ("Love Is Strange," "I Ain't Superstitious") were somewhere in the mix.


Hmmm...always proofread your tags.

Steven Rubio


I liked Goodfellas a lot, never managed to get all the way through Casino. Liked the music in Goodfellas, but I'd have to watch again to have anything interesting to say.

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