McCabe & Mrs. Miller ★★★★½

McCabe and Mrs. Miller operates in a fantastically counterintuitive mode: build a comprehensive fictional universe from the ground up (literally) and then relinquish all control until the camera’s a fly-on-the-wall witness. Compound that by the fact that Altman directs the way Brueghel paints: multi-dimensionally, so that every element of a canvas—or, in the case of a movie, a set—is accounted for and operates independently (carriages rolling about town, donkeys prancing through the snow, drunks discussing nude women, etc.). Record everything with 50 microphones, film it all on a telephoto lens with a generously loosened tripod head, and you’ve set yourself the challenge of finding a focus within the very world you’ve built. The overwhelming effect on screen is of a surplus of detail, a bigger reality just outside the full grasp of the mind, in which no gesture seems conscious of its being documented. It’s cinema as a partially inhabitable environment, not a story delivery device. Of course, there is a story arc here (and a devastating one about the annihilation of the American small town by thuggish capitalist forces), but it’s almost incidental given how governed the film is by cuts and emphases that are non-narrative-based. Altman’s aim is more about checking out what’s going on over here, getting bored with it, moving to over there and then being surprised by what’s changed when the camera returns to its initial point of departure. McCabe’s “just some Joseph looking for a manger,” and Altman knows his pursuit’s not ending anytime soon, so why not take a look around? A major achievement technically, aesthetically and historically, with so many subconscious ripples across film history since.