Yes, three “Song for a Sunday” features and two of them are Robert Altman films. (Wait until we get to Nashville!) The only connecting thread in these is that I like them and think the songs are used well in the movie, and Altman definitely knows how to deploy songs to structure the plot and mood.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an austere version of that skill, and maybe the best non-Nashville example of it. The story – of a travelling gambler and would-be whorehouse entrepreneur teaming up with an experienced madam to make a life in the mining town of Presbyterian Church, just as the mythic West of the American imagination is being overrun by the trappings of civilized society – is scored to exactly three songs, each by Leonard Cohen, which fade in and out of the film at distinct points. Cohen’s vaguely, ambiguously mournful melodies, the enveloping strumming of the guitar, the barebones nature of the recordings, and his seemingly wise, exhausted crooning suit the film perfectly. It’s a funeral for something or someone – a way of life, a possibility of a kind of freedom, and, eventually, for a flawed hero who told himself he had poetry in him, even if no one else could see it.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of my favorite films, so it’s easy to wax rhapsodic about it, but as far as the music goes, it really is singularly effective. In terms of the washed-out images, the scenes so damp you feel kind of cold just watching them, the lamp-lit interiors that Stanley Kubrick apparently phoned Altman about, to find out how he got those shots – these are natural environments for a Leonard Cohen song.
And, in terms of plot, it’s amazing: when Cohen sings, “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” how could he be speaking about anyone except Warren Beatty’s McCabe, rising and falling and searching for rebirth in a town called Presbyterian Church? When, in “Winter Lady,” one of the two other songs, he intones, “I’m just a station on your way / I know I am not your lover,” how can he possibly not be referring to McCabe’s melancholy desire for Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller, doomed by their partnership, his impetuousness, her aloofness and addiction, all the dangers and distractions of this self-creating town?
And yet Cohen had already written and recorded the songs before the film was even in production. (In fact, he didn’t even initially like how Altman used them, if “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Peter Biskind’s rather disreputable catalog of 70s New Hollywood gossip, is to be believed … which is a big if.)
In any case, the lyrics and mood are almost too on-the-nose … or would be, if they had been written for the film. That they weren’t ends up feeling mysterious, like a lot about McCabe & Mrs. Miller. A few more: “Like any dealer he was watching / for the card that is so high and wild / he’ll never need to deal another,” for example. Or: “I was waiting, I was sure / we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for / I guess it’s time to board another.” That’s, of course, part of Cohen’s genius as a songwriter and part of why he’s so intensely admired by his fans: these are lyrics from everywhere and nowhere, oddly specific and yet taking on the feel of a universal statement. You can enter into them from wherever you stand, and imagine they were written specifically for you.
But notice the past tense in each of those lines, and the resignation: these are, if nothing else, songs written from the future. McCabe’s dream unfolding in the film, and Mrs. Miller’s too, weren’t even impossible … they were already over while they were beginning, in the rain and snow and creeping politics and sudden violence of a non-place in the middle of nowhere. They were just some Josephs looking for a manger.
Full song, live version: