How Mccabe And Mrs. Miller And Blade Runner Subvert Their Genres And Defy Audience Expectations Two genres which have always been Hollywood staples are science-fiction and the western. The genres can be seen in films made as early as Le Voyage Dans la lune (Georges Melies 1902) and The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter 1903). On the surface the two genres are very different, however if one looks closely at them they are similar in many ways.
Both genres usually feature uncharted frontiers, strong silent protagonists, frightening savages (played by either space aliens or Native Americans) and damsels in distress. The formula for these two genres was established many decades ago and in recent years it takes a film that defies and subverts those expectations such as Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood 1992) or Alien (Ridley Scott 1979) to receive an enthusiastic critical and box office response. Two other films which subvert the traditional genres of westerns or science fiction films are McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman 1971) and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1982). These films use archetypal settings, characters and action in a way which is substantially different from our expectations and the results are extremely memorable films.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller is the story of a man, John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who tries to set up a whorehouse/tavern in a small town in the Pacific Northwest in 1901. He meets an astute madam, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who runs his business and shares in his profits. The business thrives and they develop a relationship. A mineral deposit draws powerful mining company men to the town to try and buy McCabe’s holdings. He refuses to sell and they retaliate.
He ultimately is mortally wounded in a bloody showdown with the mining company’s thugs leaving Mrs. Miller all alone. Robert Altman created a film which Pauline Kael called a beautiful pipe dream of a movie — a fleeting, almost diaphanous vision of what frontier life might have been. The film certainly feels different from most Westerns, featuring the distinctively different music of Leonard Cohen and a washed-out style of cinematography which Altman claimed was trying to get the feeling of antiquity, like the photographs of the time. The cinematography is starkly different from the vibrant colours of The Searchers (John Ford 1956) or Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks 1959).
These elements help to create a kind of western most viewers haven’t seen before. There are many other factors which make this film unique despite its use of an archetypal plot elements and setting. One important change from traditional western is the cold, the film is set in winter in a cold climate and Beatty goes around bundled up like a bear in a thick fur coat. The viewer can almost feel the wind whipping through the poorly built houses and the residents shivering. Altman features the snow and the weather prominently in his film, this is in stark contrast to a traditional western which takes place in a warm state and in which the climate is rarely an issue. Another difference is the way in which Altman peoples his film with realistic characters whose flaws he makes clear to the audience.
This is not an idealized west peopled by beautiful looking movie stars, even Beatty, sporting a thick beard, and Christie are willing to look less attractive than usual for their parts. The people who live in Altman’s West have had difficult lives. They have poor hygiene and poor social skills. These realistic characters include the workers McCabe uses to build his whorehouse as well as the whores he first brings to town, while Altman treats these people sympathetically and their appearance and actions are realistic it is clear that they are not prime examples of human beauty, intelligence and cleanliness. This use of realistic characters is not always the case in idealized westerns such as High Noon (Fred Zinneman 1952) starring the movie star-lawman Gary Cooper (Will Kane) as well as his movie star bride Grace Kelly (Amy Kane). Another factors which contributes to making McCabe and Mrs.
Miller substantially different from most westerns is the fact that the hero is not necessarily heroic. He is nicknamed Pudgy, he gambles too much, he is awkward with women and doesn’t have a head for business. Altman says about McCabe He keeps winning- but always knows he was going to lose in the end because it’s built into his character. It’s a character I know. The gambler who never expects to win.
I’ve been there a lot of the time. McCabe is shown as a human being with flaws. He makes mistakes bargaining with the mining company and with Mrs. Miller. Also in the end he shoots his killers unethically (two in the back and one while feigning death) which while not diminishing his courageousness shows how different a protagonist John McCabe is from the traditional Western protagonist.
All of these factors combine to make McCabe and Mrs. Miller a thoroughly unique and entertaining film which uses its archetypal action, characters and setting in a new and exciting way. Blade Runner is the story of a man, Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is a blade runner, a man who hunts down renegade replicants, androids who look human. The film is set in Los Angeles in 2019. He is trying to leave the force when he is forced to take on the job of tracking a group of replicants who escaped from slavery on an off-world colony and hijacked a ship back to Earth.
Over the course of the film he tracks and destroys the replicants with the climax being his destruction of the group’s leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). The film subverts many of the traditional science fiction film forms. The film is set in a future that is not glamorous or even superior to the present. Scott’s future is bleak, crowded and paranoid. In Scott’s Los Angeles of the future the prosperous elites have long since left Earth and the dregs of society are left to fight it out.
The film doesn’t take place in outer space or feature any rocket ships or space aliens. The setting of this film while clearly futuristic is vastly different from the setting of a traditional science fiction film such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise 1979) where mankind has solved its own problems and is busily solving other species’ as well. Another way in which Blade Runner defies the usual expectations of science fiction films is through its plot. The plot makes the viewer wrestle with the morality of what Deckard does for a living. Deckard himself has a difficult time hunting and destroying beings who don’t realize they aren’t alive. The viewer must answer the question: what characteristics must be present for a creature to be called alive? This question is not easy and the fact that it is central to the film shows how much deeper Blade Runner is than a traditional science-fiction film. The viewer must also deal with the fact that most of the replicants simply want to be left alone to live their lives with free will as any human might expect.
They are not trying to wipe out civilization and replace it with an all-replicant one. This morality question is not present in other films in which humans try to destroy robots who have become sentient such as The Terminator (James Cameron 1984). Deckard’s character also fails to fit into the category of a traditional science-fiction hero. He is not glamorous or especially handsome. He is troubled by his job and does not want to do it anymore.
He feels regret for doing what society tells him to do but he does it anyway. This is a stark difference from Captain James T. Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Scott is clearly trying to create a film which does not fit into traditional science-fiction formulas and he has succeeded with Blade Runner. Both McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Blade Runner are excellent films, they manage to succeed in subverting traditional genres in a way that creates fresh and different movies which both critics and movie goers have not seen before.
This kind of genre shifting has grown more and more popular in recent years as movie goers have grown tired of seeing formulaic films filled with stock characters. In the future as young filmmakers look to the past for inspiration to create fresh and unique films which subvert genres and defy audience expectations hopefully they will look to the work of Robert Altman and Ridley Scott as prime examples. Bibliography Jacobs, Diane. Hollywood Renaissance: The New Generation of Filmmakers and their works. 1977. New York.
Dell Publishing. Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. 1996. New York.
Harper Collins. Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. 1994. New York. Vintage Books.
Films and Cinema.