Director: Robert Altman
Producer: Robert Altman (ABC, Paramount)
Writer: Joan Tewkesbury (screenplay)
Photography: Paul Lohmann
Music: Arlene Barnett, Jonnie Barnett, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Gary Busey, Keith Carradine, Juan Grizzle, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel, Joe Raposo
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, Barbara Baxley, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown, Keith Carradine, David Arkin, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert DoQui, Allen Garfield, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, Keenan Wynn, David Peel, Timothy Brown, Allan Nicholls, Cristina Raines, David Hawyward, Bert Remsen, Gwen Welles, Elliot Gould, Julie Christie, Howard K. Smith
Picture a movie that runs nearly three hours, has no conventional plotline and 24 different major characters and you have Nashville. Robert Altman’s masterpiece may be the most ambitious movie ever made and it’s one that’s admittedly hard to “get,” and intentionally made that way. First viewings may bring calls of “rambling,” “pointless” or “boring,” mirroring quite accurately the initial reactions of many in 1975. Nashville was not a box office success by any means, making a measly $9 million, and even the most distinguished of critics admitted to falling asleep during it on the first go-round. (B)
But the film always had its fighters — Siskel and Ebert both called it the best film of 1975 — and over the years Nashville‘s reputation has grown thanks to the admiration of such supporters. Most telling is the film’s rise from no spot on the AFI’s original Top 100 in 1997, all the way to #59 in 2007. A similar phenomenon can be said about Altman himself, who did not receive a single Oscar until his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Together, Altman and Nashville are made for eachother, by eachother, both initially off-putting, unashamedly maverick, and gradually more appreciated the more they are studied. Few films capture their era better, and even fewer have had the power to ring true over the years.
Sandwiched between the social activism of the ’60s and the patriotic furvor of the Reagan ’80s, Altman geniously sets his story during America’s 1976 bicentennial celebration, pointing out the paradox of celebrating a nation that had just met its match with the Vietcong and whose Watergate president had just been ousted from office (the Grand Ole Opry scenes were shot on the day Nixon resigned) (A). Even more poignant is the film’s setting in the American heartland, in the heart of country music, Nashville, where politics and showbiz collide, both presented as equally cut-throat industires, one commenting heavily on the functionality of the other. Spanning just five days, the story follows a whole hoard of characters, each involved in either the city’s ongoing political campaign or its upcoming country music festival, both of which share the stage of Nashville’s Parthenon for a bicentennial event in the film’s shocking conclusion.
It can be hard to keep track of the film’s 24 players, so here’s a (not-so-quick) run through — Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), a gospel singer, mother of two deaf children and wife of lawyer and political fundraiser Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty); Barbara Jean (Ronne Blakley), the unstable queen of country music, a Loretta Lynn type five years before Sissy Spacek won the Oscar playing Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980); Barnett (Allen Garfield), Barbara Jean’s controlling husband/manager; Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), her idolizing, uniformed guardian; her biggest rival, Connie White (Karen Black), a Tammy Wynette-type sparkplug; John Triplette (Michael Murphy), the slick campaign manager of populist third-party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker (never seen); elderly Nashville citizen Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn); his scrawny, sex-driven niece, “L.A. Joan” (Shelley Duvall), who beds multiple guys, including a charming magician (Jeff Goldblum) and a young man named Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward), a drifter carrying a gun in his guitar-case.
Then there’s Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a self-important country star with similarities to Hank Snow and Roy Acuff; his son Buddy (David Peel), a Harvard law graduate and country music businessman; Haven’s Minnie Pearl-esque mistress Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), one of the losing 481,453 Tennessee votes for JFK, the only time she “went hogwild” for a liberal; Star (Bert Remsen), a hillbilly farmer always after his ditzy blonde wife Winifred (Barbara Harris); Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a red-headed waitress aspiring to be a singer but lacking the goods; Wade (Robert Doqui), Sueleen’s frustrated, dishwashing black co-worker; Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown), a rare successful black country artist a la Charley Pride; and a free-and-easy folk-rock trio, comprised of rocky husband and wife pair, Bill and Mary (Allan Nichols and Cristina Raines) and the womanizing Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), not to mention their chauffer Norman (David Arkin). Throughout, many of these characters are interviewed by the intrusive Opal (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin), a pretensiously philosophical BBC reporter making a documentary on Nashville. Look out also for cameos by Elliot Gould, Julie Christie and newscaster Howard K. Smith, all playing themselves.
Do you have enough characters to keep track of yet? No doubt Nashville was a project of unprecedented (and still unmatched) breadth. Whereas previous ensemble films had featured, say, four equal parts as in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Nashville obliterated that notion with its uber-ambitious structure. The film created the real meaning of “ensemble film” as we know it today, of which films like The Usual Suspects (1995), Magnolia (1999) and Crash (2004) owe heritage, but none of which has even come close to equaling Nashville’s masterful interweaving of so many lives. In counting down its 100 Greatest Movie Moments, Entertainment Weekely ranked Nashville and “Robert Altman introduces the company of many” as #46, showing the ensemble piece’s importance as much more than a gimmick. Indeed, the film’s emphasis on so many character studies made for the perfect actors’ movie, providing multiple breakthrough performances for many and two brilliant, Oscar-nominated performances by Tomlin and Blakley. Blakley is entirely believable as a mentally unstable celeb, so haunting singing that song in her wheelchair. And Tomlin provides the film’s seminal moment — her facial expression to Carradine’s song “I’m Easy,” realizing that he is singing the song directly to her, and the other girls slowly coming to realize it, too.
Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that the film’s only Oscar went to Carradine’s song rather than to Tomlin or anyone else. Ranked #81 on AFI’s 100 Movie Songs, “I’m Easy” is a beautiful piece, reminiscent of Cat Stevens, and soaking wet with a ’70s vibe. Many of the songs sound more folky than they do country (especially the country that modern fans are used to hearing). But as Alan Jackson says, “Some of that stuff’s not much different than Dylan.” The 27 total songs in Nashville — most written by the actors themselves, including Carradine, Gibson, Tomlin, Blakley, Peel, Nicholls and Black — combine for more than an hour of music in the film (a daring decision by Altman, especially for songs no one had ever heard, ones written by actors). With the music playing such an integral part int he film, it is important viewers actually listen to the music, disect its moods, understand its expression and ponder why each piece was chosen. Country music’s greatest strength has always been its ability to tell a story, and in Nashville, the songs are interspersed so as to tell its own thematic yarn — “I’ve lived through two depressions, and seven Dust Bowl droughts. Floods, locusts and tornadoes, but I don’t have any doubts. We’re all a part of history, why Old Glory waves to show, how far we’ve come along ’til now, how far we’ve got to go.”
For weaving such a complex tapestry, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury deserves credit for her controlled ambition. But without a doubt, the film belongs to Altman, whose own maverick approach is the only fit for such unconventional storytelling modes. When Altman directed the documentary The Story of James Dean (1957) early in his career, it was a foreshadowing of his approach to Nashville, his docudrama sensibility and his own insistence on working as a rebel without a cause. When Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers placed Nashville #19 on his list of the 100 Maverick Films, it was a testimony to Altman’s against-the-grain nature and to Nashville’s place as his most maverick of all. In describing the film, seemingly everyone uses the word “mosiac” — Leonard Maltin, Peter Travers, Tim Dirks, David Thomson, Joshua Klein — as it seems to be the only descriptor necessary. After all, Nashville is Altman’s work of art, comprised of small, overlapping pieces, which when put together, and looked at from a distance, reveals a work of epic beauty.
With all due respect to fans of M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville seems to me his most worthy of the title “masterpiece.” Here, the director goes to work from the opening credits, where he presents the cast and soundtrack in the form of a country album infomercial, a blaring voiceover promising “24 — count ’em — 24 of your favorite stars,” thus accenting his concept of the ensemble cast. Within this framework fits Altman’s own signature approach, of leaving his camera back from the scene in long takes and allowing mutliple layers of audio (simultaneous conversations, P.A. systems, a politican’s van-top megaphone) to overlap one another in a certain poetic, multi-track harmony.
Visually, Altman utilizes every inch of his wide-screen frame, both two-dimensionally (as in the shots of Kenny’s rented room) and three-dimensionally (like L.A. Joan in the background checking out Glenn in the foreground). Particularly impressive is the famed strip scene, where parts of Sueleen’s naked body are covered by heads, pianos and other objects in a scene so crucially symbolic to the movie. Could there be a more blatant indictment of showbiz thatnindustry execs exploiting a young performer who must prostitute herself in order to achieve stardom?
In the cutting room, Altman he is equally as brilliant, using cuts to convey meaning, as in the montage of the three women falsely believing in their own personal claim to “I’m Easy,” and his impeccible use of the jump cut, the most impressive of which occur back-to-back in the film’s second half. The first comes after Mr. Green learns of his wife’s death, breaking down into a pattern of sobs that jump-cuts perfectly into the laughter of Opal and Triplette in the next scene. There, the two discuss Lady Pearl’s favorite subject, political assassination, during which Opal gives her theory: “I believe that people like Madam Pearl and all these people here in this country who carry guns are the real assassins. Because you see, they stimulate other people who are perhaps innocent and who eventually are the ones who pull the trigger.” Boom, jump cut to Kenny, the “innocent” one who will “eventually pull the trigger,” a brilliant bit of foreshadowing by Altman. Here, Kenny talks on the phone with his mother, as L.A. Joan picks up his guitar case in the background, causing him to yell at her to drop it (knowing his gun is inside). Such details may whizz by first-time viewers, but are revealed to be all the more genius with each repeat viewing.
It’s also important to note that in both these scenes, Altman gives us false displays of communication, first as Glenn speaks to an unresponsive Mr. Green (not paying any attention because he is in shock), and second as Kenny hangs up on his mother, faking the end of the conversation in front of L.A. Joan. Such moments get right to Altman’s core theme of “a failure to communicate,” expressed through his overlapping dialogue, intertwined lives and humans constantly crashing into one another, as they literally do on the highway early in the film (when all the characters are introduced). Ironically, the most honest form of communication may come in Linnea’s sign-language to her deaf kids. Was it a lack of this communication, between Kenny and his parents, that led to his transformation into a drifting, ticking time bomb? And what influence does the lack of communication between partisan political hard-liners have on the assassination? Has the turmoil of the ’60s killed for good the idea of traditional America? Is the assassination a symbol of that? And has Nashville itself lost its own identity?
The film truly is one of the great examples of the indepedent filmmaking spirit. This was Altman’s American epic and he would see to it that it was made his way. When United Artists bailed on the film, Altman was found independent funds from Paramount and ABC. And when studios considered slicing the film in half and releasing it in two parts, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue, Altman saw that it remained his one connected work (C). The length is actually vital to the film’s atmosphere, its deliberately slow allows each character’s storty to unfold in real-time, creating the feel that we are taking a five-day snapshot of all these different lives. When people talk about such things as “human films,” those that capture humanity in all its honesty and authenticity, they are discussing a bar set by Nashville.
Unfortunately, the majority in the mainstream will be lost in this movie. How then, you might ask, can such a movie be considered one of the greatest of all time? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of watching movies? Perhaps, but only if one stubbornly believes that his or her movie-processing ability is perfected to its highest level. Isn’t it possible that a film could be so big, so involved, so authentic in its account of so many characters, that it may go over your head the first time? And then isn’t it also possible that on repeated viewings, once already familiar with the characters and the conclusion, that the very same movie might reveal itself as an amazingly powerful work, the likes of which was impossible to fully grasp the first time around? This is exactly the case with Nashville. As one of the most demanding of all the “great” movies, this one requires further contemplation, multiple viewings and, yes, even some reading (check out Pauline Kael’s review in her compilation Reeling).
The fruit is in the journey, not the immediate payoff. Instant gratification is temporary, and leaves you with less. So as uninviting as it may seem, sit down to watch Nashville. Pick a time where there will be no distractions, like alone on a Saturday afternoon (not a Friday night with friends). Then, after you stick it out, see it again, even if you hated it the first time. If you don’t have the open-mindedness or patience to at least do this, you will be cutting yourself off from a potential enlightment as to the possibility of what movies can do beyond the general public understanding of escapist entertainment. Perhaps you will never be a fan. But, if you take the time, you will learn to appreciate it. And going on in life, you will most certainly encounter situations and information that will call your mind back to Nashville, its images, its characters, its themes, and you will feel better equipped to interpret the world around you. As Ebert wrote in 1975, “Sure, it’s only a movie. But after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser. It’s that good a movie.”
CITE A: rogerebert.com
CITE B: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE C: Tim Dirks, filmsite.org