Written by: Aerlan Barrett
Edited by: Candy Lam
Robert Altman Retrospective: Nashville & McCabe and Mrs. Miller @ The Pacific Cinematheque
The Pacific Cinematheque is one of the last places in Vancouver to project non-mainstream films on a weekly basis and to exhibit those movies on film prints. While other institutions are interested in commercial exhibition, it acts as a non-profit institution that interests itself in continuing the appreciation of cinema as an art form by choosing to program foreign, classical and independent films. It ships prints from all around the world to exhibit retrospectives of directors that the public wouldn’t see theatrically or on celluloid. The specific event I attended was part of the Robert Altman retrospective where they project Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
The common assumption that this experience isn’t unique because it’s “just a movie you could watch at home” is what makes this exhibition so important. The mass production of the medium has allowed greater access to it, but twisted public perception into seeing it through only its exhibitional value. “If I can just see it at home, why go out?” is a sentence rarely connected with any other artistic medium. Someone avoiding live theater because it’s been videoed, or ignoring a Jeff Wall print because it can be Googled or not bothering to attend a curated exhibit because it can be streamed is incomprehensible. Yet in film, it’s common place. This general trend is what makes watching Altman’s film’s such a pleasure. As a director, he intended the specific works to be seen theatrically, on celluloid, and it’s a unique privilege that a local institution values this enough to curate as retrospective.
Marshall McLuhan stated famously “The medium is the message” and differentiated between hot and cold mediums. This theory couldn’t be more relevant, because the environment of watching Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller changes its impact because it isn’t until seeing it projected on a big screen that we feel the message of the film. Nashville is a three hour, interconnected narrative which borrows from the convention of a colder medium. The shot lengths are much longer than contemporary films because they were designed to be consumed on a twenty-foot screen. Many of his framing choices are much wider because its narrative needs to see more than one character on screen because of its multiple protagonists that will ultimately project on a twenty foot screen. It is very possible that Altman may have directed his film completely differently in the contemporary context, and if he intended the film to be seen on video, laptop or iPad. In many ways, the only way to understand Altman’s Nashville is to see in its originally intended space. This respect is rarely given to cinema and is so often seen as pretentious or even elitist to presume, but if this were any other medium, an audience would respect the artist vision more rigidly.
The experience of watching a film alone versus with an audience is extremely different as well. I’ve seen Nashville many times at home on video, but it wasn’t until hearing the audience laugh that I realized it was a satire. We were able to gauge how the film was received; the racist stereotyping left people with gasps and the crushing vulnerability left many cringing. When I left the theater, many of the comments were “I could hear the people around me. I’m not sure why it’s always that way at the Cinematheque!” My theory is that it’s due to the mainstream multiplex’s audio being turned so high to drown out the audience. McCabe and Mrs. Miller has an almost silent climax, which left us so aware of the people around us. How exposed the character was, as well as our reactions to the film. This kind of experience would have been impossible unless we saw the art in its original format.
With the good also comes the bad. The film prints were in bad shape from being shown so many times, especially McCabe and Mrs. Miller. From reel to reel, it appeared as a completely different movie. Some reels were faded so badly that it caused a horrible green and yellow cast, while the others were pristine and clean. The new digital medium has superior quality control over the final image, but Altman was working with a different practice than digital and anticipated this imperfection in his process. He used an experimental technique of flashing the film with light before exposing it with McCabe and Mrs. Miller to create a murky sense. This kind of technique allows the film to shift and mold over time creating an ethereal sense, as well as transporting the audience to an alternate filmic world. This could only translate faithfully with a projection on film.
Although the projection of an old 70’s movie seems like an outdated, unimportant exhibition in comparison to local events, it’s equally as valuable and is extremely important. It allows a window into the past and continues to foster the cinematic medium as a viable art form.