Earlier this year, I rented and watched about ten Robert Altman films over a two-week period (MASH, "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Nashville," among others). It was an "Altman Orgy." My clear favorite of all of these was the 1971 "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."
I first saw "McCabe" in the early 1970s at a Sunday Night "Flicks" at Stanford along with 1,500 "enthusiastic" students. It's the story about John McCabe, a gambler (Warren Beatty) who goes to a Northwest frontier town to start a brothel. Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) arrives and convinces him his brothel needs a woman to turn it into a more profitable enterprise. The two build the business into a success. Then the bad guys from a mining company arrive on the scene to buy McCabe out.
When I saw "McCabe" thirty-five years ago, I thought it was hauntingly beautiful. When I watched it again recently, I still agree. It's one of those rare movies you see when you're younger that still holds up today. In fact, I liked it so much I watched it twice — the second time with the Robert Altman commentary running.
One especially interesting point was Altman's comment, "McCabe was the only movie I ever made in which I shot the movie entirely in sequence." (This was because the film had to follow the weather changes from autumn through to winter.) This must have been challenging, but Altman and his team handled it well. (I don't think I've ever created anything from beginning straight through to end. I jump around a lot, and I would imagine most of you do as well. Can you imagine having to execute your next creative project in a linear fashion?)
There are two things I always liked about Altman. First was his working style: he'd have a clear plan of what he wanted to do, but he'd always leave plenty of room for improvisation in the execution of that plan. It was often messy for others, but it gave him the results he was after. (I can identify with that type of creative process.)
And second, fame and glory came relatively late to him — his first feature, MASH, was released when he was 45. Before that, he was making baseball instructional videos, among other things. I think that helped him keep a relative sense of humility in the ego-crazed culture of Hollywood.