Nashville June 22, 2016
No movie has critiqued American life better than Robert Altman’s 1975 magnum opus, Nashville. It doesn’t even feel like a film. Its utilization of a Willis Tower-sized ensemble, supplemented by plotlessness (we follow its characters around for a few days as they strive for self-actualization), naturalistic dialogue, and bare-bones photography, provides it with atmosphere perhaps more uninhibited, more truthful, than a full-fledged documentary. Not that I’m suggesting it rejects cinematic values — its satirical edges are much too pointed to ease us into unhesitant realism. It's that Altman, who stands among the finest filmmakers of all time, recreates (and reinvents) the conventionalities of writing and directing with the gusto of a Baroque-era-defining Caravaggio.
Altman was one of the premier directorial voices of the 1970s. Unlike the more commercially celebrated Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (Altman is more comparable to the similarly uncompromising John Cassavetes), his celebration of actors, pitted against to his lackadaisical screenplays and his refusal to accept glamorization, resulted in some of the best movies of the decade.
Nashville, momentous in its size, formidable in its resolve, and subdued in its emotions, is his crowning achievement. It’s the film in which his unorthodox stylistics ring with accessibility, the film in which his trademark empathy is so spotless that his characters don’t so much seem to be creations of his mind as much as they do civilians he voyeuristically observed during plainly unattractive periods within their lives. The movie is less of a said movie and more of a kinetic, life-changing experience. Something changes in you after having seen it.
Though I suspect you’d hardly anticipate such results after just a few minutes into its running time. Its aesthetic is less traditionally epic and more nonchalant, reminiscent of a documentary akin to the decidedly unflashy Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. But as soon as we’re hit with the realization that all on display is a mirage, not a depiction of everyday life, we begin to feel the effects of its sneaky brilliance.
It takes place, of course, in the eponymous home of country music. It spans five days, all leading up to a political rally for Hal Phillip Walker (never seen), a Replacement Party presidential candidate whose liberal methodologies are increasing in their popularity across the nation. In those 120 hours, we cross paths with a disparate array of characters, some stars, some losers, some wannabes, some rising talents. Comparable, though, are their searches for contentment, which vary in terms of desperation and in terms of eventual success.
As 24 actors are considered to be leading characters in Nashville, the viewing of how Altman connects them all is endlessly intriguing, his intricate linkings so blasé you barely notice them. His most prolific connector is the kooky Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a BBC journalist (that we suspect might actually just be a crafty groupie) who travels from one character to the next in hopes to further her status, both (allegedly) professionally and personally.
Among the most memorable people we meet are Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a conservative music legend who’s skeptical of Walker’s politics, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a beloved starlet trying to recover from a long hospital stay; Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), a gospel singer with deaf children in the midst of a marital dilemma; Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), an aspiring talent with zero singing skill; and Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), the womanizing frontman of a folk-rock trio he’s dying to separate himself from.
Support likably comes in the form of Connie White (Karen Black), Barbara Jean’s less talented but nevertheless charismatic rival; L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall), a ditz in Nashville planning to visit her sick Aunt Esther; Winifred (Barbara Harris), a budding singer/songwriter who only needs a single opportunity to show the world what she’s made of; and Del (Ned Beatty), the ignorant husband of Linnea.
Nashville’s biggest accomplishment, unsurprisingly, is the way these characters manage to feel equally multifaceted. Even a cameo flashes with multidimension. And that’s directly an effect of Altman’s unwillingness to stoop to giving an individual a “scene” — no obligatory instances of long-winded monologues, of cleverly written exchanges, are in place to announce the arrival of a new personality. Like the world in which we live, people come and go with the mercuriality of the weather. It’s the less-fickle characters who stick, and Altman, against the odds, maintains prickling satire while simultaneously towing a Trojan Horse of actors.
Such is a spectacular feat, especially considering how far-reaching Altman’s commentary is. It’s not just in line with the American Dream, either. It also takes notice of the superficial nature of the political scene, the misogynistic undertows of the male-dominated country music crowd, and the misanthropic irony of idolization (and its tying into the vulnerabilities that come along with fame).
Walker’s running, despite its being characterized by governmental views I’m sure might still be received with decent warmth today, is almost an annoyance; it’s an embodiment of the public’s tendency to blow a candidate’s stances and persona so out of proportion that an election erupts as a popularity contest, not necessarily a case of a nice guy finishing first. Political agendas are a major part of many of these characters’ composition; just look at the way Hamilton, who wants to run for state governor, backs Walker not because he agrees with him but because Walker has consented to support him so long as he play at his rally.
Comparatively alarming are the discrepancies in sexual politics that exist between Nashville’s characters, too. Altman’s daring for highlighting the lack of equality and the lack of respect for women in the film’s climate — the 1970s country music community was outraged by his suggesting that several figures used their idealistic tunes as a front for both political and sexual self-interest — and his comments are tartly flavored but commendably drawn.
Misogyny is most boldly represented by Tom Frank, who uses women like napkins. We cannot tell if he simply objectifies them and therefore forgets that they, too, possess emotions, or if he gets off on the Seduce and Abandon principle. In one scene, he phones one partner as another is getting ready to leave, just to ensure that both feel weak under his spell of sexual power. More disturbing is the sequence that finds Sueleen Gay singing to an audience of men that ultimately boos and hisses at her until they break her into giving a humiliating sort of strip show. And if Barbara Jean and Connie White were men, would they be pitted against one another as Nashville’s most bitter rivals? Altman is impressively observant, though he never lets his probings look any different than what we’d see in our everyday existences.
But Nashville most interestingly spotlights the unforgiving milieu of fame, unromantically illustrating doomed aspiration and unromantically illustrating a descent from the top. The tragedy of Sueleen initially introduces itself to be uncomfortably humorous — we certainly all know someone with her same lack of self-understanding — but its dejection grows as she ends up in the wrong hands and ends up deflated in the process. Then you have someone like Connie, who has fame but is nonetheless consistently discarded as the B-version of Barbara Jean behind closed doors. And the latter, struggling psychologically, is given no sympathy from the public when a concert is interrupted by her cognitive torment; if she’s not singing, she’s no longer a source of interest. She’s an electronic songbird, not a person. The only beacon of hope among the ruins is Winifred, who’s humble in her talent and is rewarded during the film’s finale. But if one keeps in touch with Altman’s critiquing, she might as well prepare herself for a fate similar to Barbara Jean’s.
And yet, as cynical and critical as I’ve made Nashville sound, it is, at heart, a comedy, albeit a very human one. Its setbacks and misfortunes are kept at a minimum, its parodical overtones more prevalent. Forty-plus years later and it’s still among the greatest films ever made. It’s a symphony of personal style, tone, and emotional astuteness; only Altman could have made it, and only its magnificent cast could have played these characters (they also wrote their characters’ songs, to add to their exceptionality). You’ll never see anything like it, unless you pick up another one of Altman’s ensemble flicks or, in a surprise twist, rent Nashville again and watch it an additional time. I doubt it will lose its ability to challenge, to thrill. A+