My Favorite Movies: Nashville

Nashville: long legs, the microphone, and America

So, a few days late (it was a hectic week), I begin my third installment of “My Favorite Movies,” and I’m a little intimidated. That’s because this is a big movie – in terms of scope, subject matter, and sheer cinematic size. It’s Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), and… as with Berlin Alexanderplatz, the question is, where to start?

I could start with the director. Altman, by 1975, had made several great films, with M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye among them. If you can consider these, respectively, to be a deconstruction of the war movie, western, and film noir, then Nashville could be a deconstructed musical. It’s also one of the first of what Wikipedia calls “hyperlink” films – an early forerunner of recent popular films like Crash, Babel, Magnolia, and even Altman’s own Short Cuts and Gosford Park. Altman was amazingly adept at handling huge, multilinear storylines with great ensemble casts, darting back and forth from one point of view to another, and it’s done beautifully in Nashville. Hell, a new sound system was even invented to capture all the layered, overlapping dialogue. It’s not just one story: it’s two dozen.

Or I could start with the cast. The opening credits are presented as a rapid-fire advertisement, introducing the movie as a spectacle (and it is, as echoed by the tagline “The damnest thing you ever saw”) and as a product selling itself. It also connects right to the high-stakes world these people inhabit, where country music, politics, and sex intertwine just as frequently as the characters’ lives. But whether the characters are outside looking in or happily on the inside, Nashville has a place for them – even a role without dialogue (Jeff Goldblum’s itinerant hipster Tricycle Man) gets some time to steal the show. And it is, above all else, a show, as spectacular as any ever produced in Nashville, Hollywood, or Broadway; what makes it subversive is that underneath the overenthusiastic musical/cinematic trappings and ironic self-advertisement is a detailed presentation of a huge, hypocritical system.

We’ve got those on top: comedian Henry Gibson’s blustery musical patriarch Haven Hamilton; Ronee Blakley’s much-beloved, emotionally vulnerable Barbara Jean (who, ultimately, is the star of the show); and Karen Black’s smiling queen bitch Connie White. But for every one of them, we have five more troubled souls either waiting at the margins or trying to claw their way in. Character actor Keenan Wynn, at the end of his career, plays an old man whose greatest desire is to get his promiscuous hippie niece (Shelley Duvall) to see her ailing aunt. Gwen Welles is Sueleen Gay, a no-talent waitress who idolizes Barbara Jean, while Robert Doqui is the grumpy black coworker who watches over her. And perhaps most tragically, we have the great Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, married to Delbert (Ned Beatty), a lawyer who can’t admit his emotions, and pursued by the lecherous scumbag Tom (Keith Carradine). As you can tell already, it’s a vast, tightly-woven web of characters that illuminates contrasts but withholds judgment. Nobody gets their just deserts; a blind wheel of fortune is in effect here, where some rise and some fall, but the sun shines also on the wicked.

The meek Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) during the "I'm Easy" scene

I could start with the satire. Nashville may not impose moral judgments on its characters, but it certainly lets them act out their follies. The film’s environment is permeated with the voice of Replacement Party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker, whose nonsensical but reformist rhetoric is broadcast from a fleet of vans; it’s his cajoling, manipulative campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), who circulates through Nashville’s social circles with the shy Delbert Reese at his side in order to set up the massive fundraising concert of the film’s climax.

Walker, whose campaign was written independently by Thomas Hal Phillips, speaks mostly in elaborate metaphors, generally appealing to a “Vote the bastards out!” mentality; he launches his candidacy with a speech asking, “Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”, and this indicates nicely the tendency of characters to buy into ridiculous bullshit because it’s superficially appealing. (Compare this with the tediously vanilla anthem Haven Hamilton is singing as the film begins: “We must be doing something right to last 200 years…”)

Then there’s Opal from the BBC. Played by Geraldine Chaplin (who I watched the other day in another favorite movie, Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos), she runs frantically from scene to scene, always paying attention at the worst moments and losing interest at the best. She listens to Haven Hamilton’s son talk about his lost dreams of singing, then suddenly turns and cries, “That’s Elliott Gould!” – showing her shallow colors by prioritizing celebrity over emotional honesty – and when Linnea talks emotionally about her children’s deafness, she begs to change the subject. Opal, with her outrageously British accent and tourist-y hat decorated with musical notes, is the comical side of one of Nashville’s great themes: outsiders. (It’s worth noting that a deleted scene had Opal breaking down to reveal she wasn’t from the BBC, which is perfectly plausible when you consider the rest of the movie; maybe she’s not so broadly humorous after all.)

The infinitely naive Opal from the BBC

In addition to Opal (a journalist) and John Triplette (a politico), we have an outsider among outsiders, a troubled young man named Kenny (David Hayward) who comes from out of town and plays a vital role in the film’s tragic ending. He carries around an instrument case, leading others to ask if he’s a musician (i.e., part of Nashville’s elite), but his identity is in flux; he drifts from collecting Hal Phillip Walker stickers to being transfixed by a Barbara Jean performance as if trying to settle on a new, larger than life father and mother. We’re given a few spotty psychological clues (an angry telephone conversation with his actual mother, and the symbolic statement that his car is “stalled”), but have to draw our own conclusions. Is he a victim of a dysfunctional culture and its idols? Or just a garden variety psychotic? The film lets its characters do what they do, and lets you sort it all out.

Sorting out is a tough process with Nashville. For 3 hours, we’re bombarded with so much sensory information, with subtle hints popping up in background dialogue and recurring pieces of what sound like nonsense (an example is Albuquerque’s “fly swatters with red dots on ’em”). I read, in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s interesting essay “Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville,” that Altman originally planned to make two 3-hour films focusing on totally different groups of characters. It’s a possibility that’s easy to imagine (with hunger in your cinephiliac eyes); if he could make a movie this big, well, another one doesn’t seem like too much more to ask.

Even more incredibly, Nashville never feels disorganized or jumbled. Joan Tewkesbury’s script is surprisingly tight, considering its length and breadth. Watching it is like enjoying a weekend with friends, even if some of them get a little trying at times; for every lothario like Tom Frank or blowhard like Haven Hamilton, we’ve got a reassuringly sensitive character like Linnea or Barbara Jean. Ultimately, the film seems amused by the bulk of human behavior, how people will jump from one bedfellow to another, how they’ll be ready to panic unless a singer comes onstage and tells them “It don’t worry me” (a song that comes up in many incarnations, like the title tune in The Long Goodbye).

Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) sings before having "another collapse"

A lot has been written about Nashville, and there’s much, much more I could say. It’s a movie about a lot: about power structures and the disenfranchised; about the intersections of race, gender, and class; about how our background informs our reactions; about how it takes all kinds to make a world. It’s about a city that acts as a microcosm for ’70s America. It’s about good and bad people, and it has good and bad songs (from Haven Hamilton’s saccharine “For the Sake of the Children” to Barbara Jean’s genuinely emotional final number “My Idaho Home“). It surprises me, on reflecting, that one of my favorite movies should have a soundtrack full of country music, but I can’t help it. Nashville is so deeply good, so fun to come back to time and time again, that I can’t resist it. As a taste of Altman’s genius, I think I’ll touch briefly on one of the film’s greatest scenes – the one where the slimy, self-obsessed philanderer Tom sings a damn good song (which won an Oscar), “I’m Easy.”

This is Nashville at its best: deftly moving, through editing and zooms, from woman to woman, each of whom is given a chance to speak her piece through facial expressions. Duvall gloats, Chaplin is dumbstruck, Cristina Raines’s Mary rejects Tom’s plea, and Tomlin is mesmerized. And, judging from Tom’s past and future behavior, the viewer has the secret knowledge that the song probably isn’t for any of them; he’s most likely just exercising his gift for songwriting in order to lure another women into bed before callously phoning up the next. It’s one of the film’s sad truths that a very unpleasant person can be a very talented performer.

I’m sure I’ll return to write more about Nashville another time. It’s too rich and beautiful of a film not to talk about. Granted, some of the characters remain a little sketchy – there’s just not enough time for everyone. But it all fits so effectively together, each story pointing out aspects of another, and so many of the roles are so lovingly performed. With its enormous, well-rounded cast of characters and its incisive critique of America’s institutions in its 200th year, Nashville is one of my favorite movies.

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