Take 1: 2000
The American essayist Phillip Lopate once mused on the phenomenon of guilty pleasures – those trashy films we secretly love – and proposed another, complementary category: guilty unpleasures. These are the films that come to us as canonised, sanctified masterpieces which we duly consume, perhaps more than once – but in our heart of hearts, we just cannot see what all the fuss is about.
Everybody would have their own, individual list of guilty unpleasures, ranging across everything from Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999). High on my list is Robert Altman's Nashville. I do not say this lightly, since I am a long-time Altman fan, and have endured this particular so-called classic at least half a dozen times, hoping on each occasion to see the light. But, alas, I have never been convinced of its much-touted greatness.
Nashville was Altman's first large-scale attempt at a sprawling, loosely plotted, multi-character piece, after fascinating movies of the early '70s including McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and California Split (1974). As in a number of later Altman films – generally, like Prêt-à-Porter (1994), not his best – it was constructed like a vast, slightly uncontrolled happening: dozens of actors wandering around in character, a time, a place, a mood and a vague purpose – to take the pulse of the nation. ("A snapshot of who we are here and now", as the aspiring filmmaker-hero of Dawson's Creek – doubtless a big Nashville fan – once helpfully put it.)
Altman is at his most sententious when he climbs a soapbox and becomes grandly satirical. Everything is painted in broad, facile strokes. Such is certainly the case here, as a veritable carnival of hungry fame-whores, deluded wannabes, slimy entrepreneurs and jaded stars move from airport to barbecue to Opry to rally ... The film is about everything and nothing: celebrity, politics, mass media, alienation, fundamentalism.
Nashville has certainly been influential – and mainly for the worse. Every time we see a movie with many sad cases criss-crossing within one city over the course of a night or three (Boogie Nights , Wonderland , Welcome to LA , etc), Altman's touch is evident. Most of these post-Nashville events reflect not only the pretentiousness of their model – the presumption to capture the zeitgeist in a nutshell – but also the superior, mocking, ceaselessly ironic tone.
Nashville is a film that ridicules its characters while flattering its knowing audience. This is, I suspect, a chief reason it is so popular among film critics (especially, it seems, in Australia). On this level, the supreme post-Nashville movie is the similarly overrated American Beauty (1999). Altman gets himself into especially murky waters by choosing a specific music culture as his target – and films made about a type of music by people who basically detest (and thus cannot even begin to understand or appreciate) it are unfailingly awful.
So, one must here suffer supposed Country'n'Western songs with lyrics like "You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me", and supposed singing stars (such as Karen Black as Connie White – get it?) who struggle to hit correct notes. It's easy to laugh at these characters if their music and performances are in some way off – but this is a game rigged well in advance by the filmmakers, and it plays into the worst, supposedly sophisticated snobbishness about this genre of music and the people who love it.
Altman has always preferred his story lines – like his multiple cameras and microphones – to drift and wander, chancing upon an important development or a punch-line as if by accident. He trades the resulting jazzy, busy ambience for an incredible unevenness of detail. Some actors in this ensemble (Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin) shine, others grate with their distanced smugness (Henry Gibson) and a few (including Keith Carradine) look plain dazed and confused.
The American critic Richard Jameson once compared Nashville to one of its many progeny, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), faulting the latter for being written "very thinly, very baldly, from moment to moment." Nashville cannot be exactly criticised for its writing – since so much of it was improvised by the cast – but it is certainly thin and bald. Almost none of its plot threads contain any satisfyingly poignant or dramatic shape, whether classical or modernist.
Still, there is a new way to enjoy Nashville in 2000: as a blessed antidote to the Australian hit The Dish (2000). Where Rob Sitch's populist movie strives to gather all its characters together in happy, patriotic reconciliation – through work, community, historic world events and television – Nashville ruthlessly dissolves this dream. Crowded highways, social occasions, family ties, sing-alongs at every turn: every channel that should unite people in fact drives them further apart. It is perhaps a cold comfort but, nonetheless, it is one of the very few pleasures this dead '70s monument now offers.
Anywhere But Home
Cultural analysts call them non-places: spaces that thousands of people pass through, that they assemble in for a few hours, spots where they might loiter for a moment – but where nobody actually lives. Places of transit, places of work, classrooms, highways, petrol stations, offices, entertainment centres …
Robert Altman was American cinema’s master of the non-place. Like Jean-Luc Godard in France, he fixed on particular emblems of 20th century dislocation: the airports where people land and from which they depart; the recording studios where people gesticulate behind large glass windows, surrounded by technology, lost in a babble of intercom voices. This latter emblem is, in fact, exactly where Nashville begins in earnest: in a recording studio, where the self-proclaimed journalist Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) flits from booth to booth, bumping into a different world each time. In the first: Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) singing “200 Years”, a boastful anthem devoted to the USA’s persistence in remaining, indomitably, the USA (Haven cuts off the session to throw out the long-haired session musician played by the film’s own master composer/arranger, Richard Baskin). In the second: a revved-up, black, gospel choir led, somewhat incongruously, by Linnea (Lily Tomlin), doing her level best to get into the spiritual, soul groove.
Altman had a fine sense of the multiplicity of possible non-places, at all levels of social function and usage, that he had at his disposal. The world – certainly, the world of Nashville – is one big loading zone in his vision of it: people spilling in and out, very often exactly the same, recognisable people (chosen from his central list of around 25 characters) dotted amidst a sea of local extras, endlessly, restlessly on the move. Key scenes happen in hotel rooms, hospitals, on and off performance stages. The ‘Tricycle Man’ (as he is credited) incarnated by Jeff Goldblum is the central image of this perpetual motion: he just cruises around for the whole film, without ever saying a word, turning up everywhere, having a meal or a shave or a liaison wherever he can.
The essential element of a non-place is that it is anywhere but home. It is characteristic of Altman’s work as a whole, from the earliest to the final films, that his characters often rarely seem to even have a permanent place to stay – and, if they do, it is not important for us to see them in that setting. They seem to be permanently in exile from home, drifting, resting only temporarily in some pit-stop of the modern world. In one of the most famous set-pieces of the film, suggested by writer Joan Tewkesbury (and based on her real-life observations in Nashville), we see a strange, temporary community formed spontaneously in the middle of a highway – prompted by a road accident and a traffic jam (a milder echo of Godard’s automobile apocalypse in Weekend). This is not merely another clever way, early in proceedings, for Altman to introduce and underline his key characters: during this unforseen intersection, paths cross, links are made, a woman (Barbara Harris as Winifred) runs away from her husband …
When Altman does concentrate on domestic environments, they are invariably cold and cavernous, beset by tensions and secrets, about to fly apart at any moment: anything but home. This is the case, for example, in the glimpses we are given of Linnea’s home life with Delbert (Ned Beatty) and their two deaf children – constantly interrupted by the harsh ring-tone and the tinny, invasive voice down the line of folk singer Tom (Keith Carradine), seeking an intimate rendezvous with her. Another kind of home that is evacuated of warmth is that of Haven and his wife, Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley): a reception occurs outside and all around it, but we never get inside.
What is Nashville about? It is too easy to respond that it is a critical panorama of American society in the mid 1970s, or a snapshot of its contesting forces (right and left, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, conservative and progressive, etc). From the very first moment that the film introduces its ingenious framing device – the campaign truck of Hal Phillip Walker and his Replacement Party, ceaselessly blaring out its monotonal, political message – we know that the film is concerned to target a particularly insidious perversion of populism: Walker represents the supposed voice and mind of the people, geared to its most reactionary and fearful default position. Altman aimed high as a social satirist and commentator – he was never afraid to do so – but we would not revisit his films so often today unless he had succeeded in finding an indelible vehicle for his myriad observations. Nashville focuses its ever-wandering crowd of characters upon the twin issues of spectacle and celebrity – both conditions created by a modern, media landscape.
The film intricately traces a hierarchy of celebrity in this country’n’western world. Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is at the top: a figure whose life-long, non-stop regime of hard work has taken a toll on her physical and mental health. Everyone else is arranged at various rungs below her. Connie White (Karen Black), for instance, can perform as Barbara Jean’s fill-in, but is never allowed to perform on the same stage or the same bill as the big star – she is a rival, a contender for the crown, but the rivalry is safely managed and contained by Barbara Jean’s ill-tempered, hyper-controlling husband-manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield). Haven, on the other hand – as he eagerly offers – can and will perform anywhere; he is the classic showbiz glad-hander (he warmly greets passing cameo-celebrity Julie Christie but, once she is out of earshot, curtly confesses that he cannot recall for which film she won an Oscar.)
Much further down the ladder are the various aspirational types, the hopefuls and the dreamers – talented and untalented alike. They show up and hang out, hoping to get near the stars and catch a piece of their spotlight. Winifred surprises everyone (us included) when, completely by chance, she hits the stage during the finale and fires up the crowd with a rousing rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me”. Sueleen (Gwen Welles) is the exact opposite: completely deluded, she sings tunelessly, oblivious to the reigning agenda of the all-male fundraising event she is hired for – where is required only to strip and gyrate.
The social space of Nashville – this permanently impermanent, perpetually reassembled crowd that moves from one non-place to the next – is defined by its porousness, its looseness. It is easy for anyone (such as Opal) to slip in anywhere and talk to anyone. This is also true of the mysterious characters who have no direct relation to music-making, but think of themselves as fans, or simply interested (or obsessed) observers: Scott Glenn as a Vietnam veteran, always in his soldier’s costume; and Kenny (David Hayward), the loner carrying a violin case.
Nashville is also, as many have noted, about the all-pervasive concept of ‘the show’, daily life as an in-the-round spectacle. Cameras and tape recorders are visible everywhere in this world; the media are never far away, and they are always in place to capture a sensational, chance event – such as Barbara Jean’s several public misfortunes. Characters are constantly ‘broadcasting’ – like, unforgettably, when Tom sings his ‘intimate’ love ballad “I’m Easy” to every potential female companion in the room. More generally, anyone can suddenly be on stage, in the centre of the media lens – from the pushy Replacement Party girl who holds up her placard for the TV camera (Altman instructed these extras to “get into the shot” anyway and anytime they could), to Barnett who finds himself imploring the disgruntled, open air concert crowd to “have a heart”. Altman deliberately blurs the line between the barrage of media coverage he acidly depicts and the ‘product’ that his own film inevitably will become, by transforming his opening credits into a maddening ‘TV sales’ advertisement complete with garish, cartoon graphics.
Altman referred to Nashville as a kind of musical and, of course, it is saturated in songs and instrumental performances. Lively arguments have raged about this music staged by Altman, Baskin and the many cast members who pitched into the songwriting chores: is it authentic or ersatz, heartfelt or too smug in its parodic stance? Are the lyrics too ironic, or a faithful reproduction of the clichés and stereotypes of the genre? Are all the cast members good enough singers and performers to carry these numbers? Is the film, in short, made for those who consider themselves, as cultured spectators, ‘above’ this kind of popular, hicksville fare, even before the first note is struck?
Altman, I believe, stuck to a particular conviction about this – one intimately tied to his vision of the porous, social space of media celebrity and spectacle. To him, it did not matter much whether, for example, Timothy Brown as a Charley Pride-type celebrity – “the whitest black man in the room”, as Sueleen’s friend Wade (Robert DoQui) angrily yells in public – is ‘objectively’ a great musical performer or merely OK. This is because the assumed quality of any celebrity in a media world is always a matter of fantasy projection, an ‘aura’ mysteriously conferred by a confluence of various factors: their look, their style, the social values they embody – not to mention who they know and what deals they have managed to make. This is why ‘anybody can become a star’ in the mythical world of Nashville – and, conversely, why some very talented people will never become stars. Celebrity is an unstable combination of luck, talent, cunning, and the ability to grab a crowd and ‘mean’ something to that mass.
Altman staged a quiet revolution inside American cinema. He has his evident heirs who knew him and were directly associated with his projects (Alan Rudolph, Paul Thomas Anderson), but his influence is much vaster and more diffuse. Altman created his own form of narrative action, and his own conception of character psychology or behaviour. The stylistic tics for which he is most famous – overlapping voices (the live recording system used, Lion’s Gate 8 Track Sound, gets an up-front credit), zoom lens, wandering camera, ensemble acting within an open frame – are important in themselves, but they are especially significant for the ways they help sculpt these new forms of action and character.
The forward march of the narrative is often temporarily suspended. The characters gather, and then there is a ‘happening’. This happening is often, simply enough, a set of simultaneous conversations or interactions. Several times in Nashville we linger on the long, expectant moment in the crowd before a performance begins on stage, or between acts. In the after-show that follows the Grand Ole Opry concert, for example, we can study how carefully constructed – both in staging and editing – such scenes really are. For over four minutes, the film juggles multiple interactions, each one left hanging at every cut: the threads include Lady Pearl’s maudlin lament for the dead Kennedys, and the suspicions of Bill (Allan F. Nicholls) over the possible affair between his wife, Mary (Cristina Raines) and their fellow trio member, Tom. Then, a sudden cut to a new scene concludes the happening and provides an answer to one its lingering questions: Mary is, indeed, in bed with Tom – with the latter, as always, narcissistically playing tapes of himself singing.
Are there conventional, three-dimensional people portrayed in Altman’s world? He certainly gives us indelible vignettes of people in the crucible of their suffering, humiliation, abandonment or confusion, like Mr. Green (Keenan Wyne) grieving over his dying wife … But he also shows us individuals who live out their alienation, their lack of a defined, fixed self, quite happily, such as Martha (Shelley Duvall), a wandering, hippie-type who has officially changed her name to L.A. Joan and – like everybody in Nashville – is always in the right spot to be on the edge of whatever spectacle is taking place. You might say that she ain’t free – but it don’t worry her. This is, ultimately, what makes Altman’s social satire so unique and enduring: he harshly criticises the world as it is, but he is equally fascinated with the new mutants and mutations that it ceaselessly, spontaneously creates.
© Adrian Martin October 2000 and April 2014