By Daniella Nichinson, Staff Writer
2016 took the life of one of the few talented artists left from a revolutionary generation, a poet as much as a musician — Leonard Cohen. His lyrics captured the core of humanity, haunting listeners with their gravity and moving melodies. To honor Cohen’s immeasurable brilliance, Anthology Film Archives will be running a series titled “Darker: Celebrating Leonard Cohen,” which features both documentaries and feature films.
One of the films showcased will be “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” a picture that not only solidified Robert Altman’s skill as a director, but also included one of the most memorable scores in film history, composed by Cohen.
The film, set at the turn of the 20th century, focuses on two very different characters in pursuit of success: John McCabe (Warren Beatty), a gambler and rumored gunman and Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a headstrong British woman. McCabe decides to open a brothel in a somewhat-remote town, only to be challenged by Mrs. Miller that she can prove a better businessperson than he. The two develop an unlikely bond, but as they find out, great success also comes with great enemies.
There are three of Leonard Cohen’s songs featured in the film: “The Stranger Song,” “Winter Lady” and “Sisters of Mercy.” As with most Cohen pieces, these seem to reverberate with sorrow and a sense of immense burden. Even when the film offers up moments of relief and hope, the songs serve as reminders that this is only transient, and that a downfall will soon rear its ugly head. It is most amazing, though, how the lyrics of Cohen’s works so ideally match up with the story of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” as if the two were born for one another, achieving a unity that could not be possible separately.
Both Beatty and Christie slip into their respective roles, nuanced by their abilities to deliver raw and unadulterated emotions. These two actors add a vibrancy to the film that is contrasted with the bleak snowfall and dreary weather of the Western setting. Yet at the same time, the audience can always feel McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s harrowing despair — both yearning to be with each other, but thwarted by their own unfortunate circumstances. They are unable to manifest their pain in words, but it can be heard and understood in Cohen’s lyrics. Most of all, however, Beatty and Christie act through their facial expressions, so while their characters don’t say anything, they can recognize the other’s sadness.
Would “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” be the same work of art without its Leonard Cohen score? Perhaps not, but as you examine the two as separate entities, you find that the film and the music contain certain aspects of beauty that, when put together, create an unforgettable picture that manages to play on the emotions of its viewers. “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” reminds us of the power and influence that music can have on a film, especially when that power is harnessed from someone like Leonard Cohen.
“Darker: Celebrating Leonard Cohen” will be running at the Film Anthology Archives at 32 Second Ave from Feb. 17-20.
Email Daniella Nichinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.