I don't care what anybody else says. The greatest American movies were almost all made around the 1970's, it's a proven scientific fact. It was universally agreed upon during this period that three directors towered over everybody else: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman. There were dozens of other American directors making wonderful movies, but until the emergence of the Spielberg juggernaut and the precedence of box office returns, no director fired the American imagination like these three. Among these three, Altman is easily the least remembered. Scorsese may be 5'3, but he's now the Giant of Cinema - the most legendary living director, still making movies in his seventies that are occasionally as amazing as ever before. Coppola is a nub of his former self in every way but his weight, but The Godfather Saga and Apocalypse Now will live forever.
Robert Altman's been dead for ten years, and so far time has done his reputation no favors. He is easily the most challenging of the three, and easily the least influential on contemporary American culture. There's nothing in his output that instantly acclimates you to its climate the way you might be to the Corleones or to the Goodfellas. He throws you into his plots with as much preparation as a prankster gives before dumping cold water on you - characters talk over each other just as they do in real life, and once you decipher what they say, what they say is often not that memorable.
And yet, the more I see, the more I wonder if Altman might well tower head and shoulders above the other two. Great as all three are, none of the three is so absolutely titanic as to be above criticism, but the criticism of Scorsese and Coppola has to be more basic than mere difficulty. Both Scorsese and Coppola are, in their unique ways, seduced by the lure of evil and violence to the near-exclusion of warmth, tenderness, affection, and gentleness. They tell manly stories about manly issues that have a perverse fear of women and the feminine. They portray very small, very particular slivers of humanity that venture hardly at all out of their realms of comfort. Their comfort is in violence, rage, ego, sin, and possession. Such subjects make for unforgettable stories, but also for lots of repetition - particularly with regard to women. In both Scorsese and Coppola, women exist as objects to be pursued and possessed. In Taxi Driver, neither Betsy nor Iris is ever seen as more than their purpose an object of male attention. In The Godfather, Kay is little more than a chaste breeding mare. Both Scorsese and Coppola are considerate enough to show these women bristling at being so constricted by men, but not remotely considerate enough to let female characters exist outside of stories about men.
This is not a criticism you could ever lay at the feet of Robert Altman. The true elite of the arts have androgynous imaginations. On my current, and always shifting, list the very greatest directors, male as they've been so far - Renoir, Ozu, Hawks, Almodovar, Lubitsch, Ray, Louis Malle, Altman? - one of the criteria is that directors have to demonstrate clear interest in the whole of the human story, not just obsess about particular slivers of it.
Roger Ebert called McCabe & Mrs. Miller a perfect film. It is emphatically not that. He also called it one of the saddest films he'd ever seen, it is even less sad than it is perfect. It is, in its bittersweet way, a joyous film, or at very least, a film about an oasis of joy amidst suffering. There is nothing in either Coppola or Scorsese's output that's anything like the overwhelming warmth and hope of this movie. At its core is not sadness but sacrifice - two hedonists found a whorehouse in a mining town that brings the town together. At the end of the movie, John McCabe may be shot dead and Constance Miller may be lost to opium, but in the wake of their lost business, the miners in the town will probably marry the hookers and start families. McCabe & Mrs. Miller literally gave their lives so that a new town could thrive.
In the unblinkingly masculine world of the Western, the subject of sex is almost taboo. There are women in the world of John Ford, but like so many things in the John Ford universe, they exist in a sentimental haze - even the hookers exist to be future saintly mothers, like a kind of proto-Spielberg heroine. Amid so many quarreling alpha males, you never see women with their own ambitions or motivations - they exist purely to support their men. But in such a rough and violent world, sex had to be a subject about which people were dealing with constantly, but in the age of the production code, who could possibly deal with it realistically?
Sex in the Old West must have been a terribly brutal thing. It was tough enough to be a man in the Old West, where men constantly had to prove their masculinity lest they seem less manly and unthreatening to people who could easily kill them for trivial reasons. But to be a woman in that period among so many madmen must have been its own kind of hell.
But in this pit of sexual despair there occasionally come women like Constance Miller. A low-class Cockney Londoner with an addiction to opium whose European experience can pass for classy in 1900 Seattle. She's long been a fallen woman, far too smart for her line of work, and she's starting to get older than her colleagues. She needs to become a Madame before her price goes down, so when she briefly meets a genuinely stupid man named John McCabe, she knows a great opportunity when she sees one. She goes from Seattle to the rural mining town where he wants to make it as saloon-keeper and a pimp, and she makes him the offer he needs to become a success. He puts up the money, she runs the saloon, and elevates it into an oasis of class and respect and dignity and happiness in a place bereft of those.
The saloon is obviously a one of the most honored places in the Western mythos; a place not only for socializing, but of virtually the only kind of love that existed in these towns. Crushed men without futures or commitments would go west in search of the opportunity they never had in the more respectable East. The only source of affection and love available to them was as a business transaction, and with the crushed women who kept them company, they could pretend for a time to have a bond more intimate than was ever allowed them... Or at least that was the ideal, the reality could probably be much more brutal. Nevertheless, there was a kind of courtliness and dignity in the transactions of the 19th century whorehouse that could never be present in an era of free love.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a flawed movie, but its flaws are the flaws of our own era. Between its sentimentality about sex, its willingness to blame unrestrained capitalism for every glitch in the best laid plans of mice and men, its soundtrack almost exclusively made of Leonard Cohen songs, and its video-game like shootout at the end, you'd think that it would be a perfect movie for 2016 - and yet hardly anyone in my generation's seen it.
Even Robert Altman's greatest movies come down to our era like a message of past solidarity with Bernie Sanders. For all his obvious humanity, here is a director who truly loathes capitalism, and one of his most glaring flaws as an artist is his willingness to lay every human problem at the feet of capitalism and industry. McCabe & Mrs. Miller's business is undone by the unrestrained, mafia-like capitalism of Sears & Roebuck, who make McCabe a not particularly generous offer to buy his saloon, and when he refuses, they send a hitman to kill him. The hulking presence of a faceless corporation in this movie is both terrifying and a little unfair. Surely a man as clearly incompetent as John McCabe could have come undone by something far more trivial.
But McCabe & Mrs. Miller is still a toweringly great movie in its way, and its scope and reach puts nearly any American movie of more recent vintage to shame. As it thankfully is in television today, the 1970s was a movie era when art, not money, controlled the means of production. A great artist like Altman or Coppola was free to pursue his vision to the ends of the Earth, and gave us a truly American art worthy of the name as never before or since. One day, I have to believe, these great movies of the 1970's will be rediscovered as perhaps the crown jewel of the art of moviemaking. I hope we're all still around to see it.