July 20, 2021

"Most of the words in movies aren't worth hearing anyway, and you forget them — they're like words on television — dramatic shows. It's no great loss if you don't get all the dialogue...."

Says Pauline Kael in 1971, here:


She's fighting for a particular movie — Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" — that got trashed by some critics for it's hard-to-hear soundtrack. But watch as the camera pulls back and reveals that sitting next to her is Rod Serling, whose "Twilight Zone" was a television dramatic show and it absolutely did expect you to get every word. There was no random chitchat that you could let drift by and be satisfied to think of a component of the general ambiance.

I respect Kael's staunch defense of a great movie that needed saving from oblivion, but that gratuitous swipe at television writing while sitting next to Rod Serling? Painful.

Here's Robert Altman himself — shortly thereafter, on the same TV talk show (Dick Cavett) — explaining that the soundtrack of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" really had a technical problem. It wasn't an artistic choice. 


Altman doesn't bullshit and fight for himself the way Kael fought for him. He's more of a bumbler, like a character in one of his films. Ironically, Kael, the appreciator of the messy workproduct, is crisply delineated, like a character on "Twilight Zone."


Ann Althouse said...

Joseph writes:

"I love Pauline Kael. Have all her collections and have read some of her reviews many times. Her comments about McCabe are interesting because her review didn't really highlight the sound, but her reaction on the Cavett Show is of a piece with her feelings about the somewhat evocatve, indirect qualities of the film. Altman's comments are a bit puzzling, since he should have had the ability to correct the sound in post production.

"Kael's review, and her comments on the show illustrate a couple of things about being a reviewer or critic. At least part of what you're doing in that job is bluffing. You pretend to know things you might not know. These days you can get in touch with a publicist over e mail or find promo material online and get an answer about a technical question. But even connections you make--between film makers, musicians, or writers, for example--are leaps of faith, hoping others will see or hear those connections.

"I remember there was some fuss about the fact that Kael called out the sound in the exterior shots in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Kael thought they sounded like they were done in a studio when, in fact, George Roy Hill took pains to record them outside. If you listen, she's right. It sounds unnatural. She may be technically incorrect, but her instincts were right.

"So, maybe the sound in McCabe and Mrs. Miller was the result of a technical malfunction, and maybe it made for a better movie. "

Ann Althouse said...

Temujin writes:

""I've got dreams I haven't even used yet."

"One of my all-time favorite directors talking about one of my all-time (Top 5) favorite movies. I watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller every two years. Don't think too harshly of me. I used to watch it once a year. I always loved the uneven sound and until watching this post, thought it was part of the plan. To me it fit the uneven way of life in the early Northwest portrayed in the movie. The story, the acting (except for Beatty), the costumes, the dialog, the landscape, the mood were all so perfect to the story. The uneven sound to the dialog fit. Also the great soundtrack from Leonard Cohen was such a precise fit for the movie it's hard to imagine anything else playing in the background.

"Altman's movies seem to fit his personality. Unscripted, loosely run, seemingly out of control until it all comes together.

"Speaking of Warren Beatty, even though he is McCabe and it's now hard to imagine anyone else playing that role, I still think he's the weak link in the movie. I've never thought he could act. Not like his sister."

Ann Althouse said...

Gregg writes:

"One of my retirement projects is to rewatch all the Altman movies. - how to they hold up? I recall really liking The Long Goodbye (Jim Bouton is in it!) and Nashville. I hated Three Women.

"The early to mid 70s was a great period for movies- the Hays office was gone, giving movie makers more freedom, giving most of these guys (and some gals like Joan Micklin Silver) some latitude, but before directors thought that throwing in a lot of swearing and sex scenes substituted for good dialogue and plotting. Not to mention what I call the Star Wars-ization of movies. Spielberg’s a talented hack, and Lucas made one really good movie, American Graffiti, but the rest, yuck. I will submit that that one great movie is one more than I’ve made...."