Nashville (1975)

*. You could debate Robert Altman’s best film, with a number of plausible contenders, but I think the majority opinion is that Nashville is his most representative work. In the words of David Sterritt, it’s “the film Robert Altman was born to make.” Now: what does that mean?
*. Is it a movie about Nashville, Tennessee? Or the country music business? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence Altman cared much about either. It may be a movie about America. But the way I see it, what it’s mostly about is how people relate to one another.
*. Not having any clear agenda, it has left itself open to a variety of interpretations. Given my own reading of it, I want to look a little more closely here into how this works by discussing how Altman presents his characters, and how critics have responded to them.
*. Pauline Kael: “During this movie, we begin to realize that all that the people are is what we see. Nothing is held back from us, nothing is hidden.” I don’t know what to make of this. On the face of it, I think it’s very wrong. Altman’s fly-on-the-wall approach — showing not telling, with most of the dialogue coming in overheard fragments — only lets us see pieces of the people on screen. Some pieces are more revealing, or at least seem more revealing, than others, but they are still just pieces. Why does Kenny shoot Barbara Jean? Was that even his original plan in coming to Nashville? And what do we know about Tricycle Man? Is that all he is? A bike? Or is he just a narrative element, mere “connecting tissue” in Altman’s words.

*. I’m not criticizing Altman for this approach. I appreciate what he’s doing. How much do we know about anyone else in our lives, even those closest to us? How well do we really understand them? We have to make our judgments based on fragments. But such judgments can only be speculative, partial projections and shots in the dark. So when Kael starts explaining what the characters mean to her (all they are, remember, with “nothing hidden”), I tend to dig in my heels. How does she know?
*. For example. (1) “Barbara Jean is the one tragic character.” Really? Nashville seems stocked with tragic, sympathetic figures, with Sueleen Gay and Mr. Green being only a couple of the more obvious. (2) Tom (Keith Carradine) sleeps “with Geraldine Chapman, whom he’ll barely remember the next day, and with Lily Tomlin, who he’ll remember forever.” It seems to me as though he won’t remember Tomlin five minutes after she’s out the door. I think Kael wants Tom to remember Tomlin, but it’s not at all obvious he will. (3) Who, watching Haven Hamilton sing “Keep a’ Goin'” “would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?” Again we have Kael discerning a character’s true spirit on spotty evidence. Hamilton seems like a pure shit to me. Was he really thinking of the audience before himself at the end, or was he just trying to keep his political future on the rails?
*. In his Great Movies essay on Nashville Roger Ebert quotes from a couple of Kael’s readings and agrees with them. I find them unpersuasive, as I do Kael’s initial premise that “all that the people are is what we see.” Still, if that’s the way you want to read the film, it is at least a point of view that’s available.
*. Standing before such a monument to indeterminacy and irresolution I don’t think it’s really possible to say what Nashville is about. I can only say what it means to me.

*. A constant motif throughout the film is that people don’t listen to each other. Nashville is a place where everyone wants to be a star, which means they want to be heard without having to pay attention to anyone else. Shelley Duvall’s L.A. Joan is a comic example, but really everyone is like this. The groupie and the celebrity have much in common.
*. This is something we see repeated over and over. Opal tells Bud Hamilton she’d love to hear him sing the song he wrote and then just gets up and leaves him when Elliot Gould walks by. Does anyone listen to the loudspeaker van or is it just background noise? When Winifred gets to sing at the racetrack we can’t hear anything over the noise of the engines, and presumably no one else can either. Del doesn’t want to hear about his boy’s swimming lessons. Pfc. Kelly doesn’t care about Wynn’s wife Esther dying, while Wynn isn’t interested in anything else. Finally, when Winifred sings “It Don’t Worry Me” it seems not so much a plucky or courageous anthem as simply a reflection of the crowd’s apathy. A couple of people have been shot but they’re all still there. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t care, any more than they care about the politics. They’re just there for the free concert and the hot dogs.

*. I think this is the central irony of Altman’s presentation: the overlapping, fragmented and muddy dialogue forces us into being ever more intent upon hearing what nobody in the film is listening to. I think it’s interesting that one of the few times we do see a character paying attention is when Del listens in on Linnea talking to Tom, eavesdropping (like the audience) on a conversation he isn’t a party to.
*. The film itself thus becomes a sort of exercise in determining what’s important. Given that there’s a lot of dialogue that’s hard to hear, and improvised, or just plain inconsequential blather, we have our work cut out for us. And this is one of the reasons why interpretations of the film diverge. We hear what we want to hear, or what we came in primed to hear.

*. I don’t know what it was with Altman and misandry. He made shocking changes to his sources in films like The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to work in violence toward women. According to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, when giving directions for the script for this film he only said he wanted a woman to be killed at the end “for whatever reason.”
*. The improvisation and humour foreshadow the comedy of Christopher Guest, as does the focus on celebrity culture. The two seem to go together, and to be sure the awful banality and amorality of publicity are easy marks. Fame is a cruel game. The vile crowd of local politicos hooting for Sueleen to strip are really no worse than the Opry goers who boo Barbara Jean during her on-stage meltdown. The public can be so demanding, and what it demands isn’t always right.

*. The ending seems slack to me, with its waving flag and sense that the show will go on even after everyone has gone home. I don’t see it as at all hopeful or affirming anything. We’re not even sure if Barbara Jean is dead. It’s a conclusion where nothing is concluded, which is fitting for a movie that was only superficially going somewhere all this time.
*. It’s hard to pin down the magic of a film like this, and of Altman more generally. The style is that of a documentary, which may be thought of as a kind of anti-style. Altman certainly didn’t want you to notice anything about the filmmaking. Then there’s no real plot and a general diffusion of interest across a wide spectrum of characters who often aren’t even connected. As already noted, much of the dialogue is just presented as background noise. Hell, even most of the music, and there is a lot, is pretty bad (again, deliberately). And yet one can’t deny the fascination such a film has, even (or maybe especially) on repeated viewings. Perhaps it’s the constantly teased connection between order and chaos, meaning and its absence, the significant and the ephemeral. Make of Nashville what you will and it obliges.

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3 thoughts on “Nashville (1975)

  1. Tom Moody

    I read Kael’s writing, mostly in the ’80s, and I don’t remember her being this wrong about movies. You’ve quoted her a few times with real doozies of misreading — such as these statements about Nashville. I knew she had her pets and pet peeves but this borders on critical malpractice. I agree with you that egotism and indifference are the main subjects here. I always took Nashville as a not-so-disguised film about Hollywood — sort of Maps to the Stars 40 years early.
    Changing the subject, did you mean to use the term “misandry,” since you were talking about Altman mistreating women? He is definitely a misanthrope.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think Kael was a great writer and I love her general essays on film. When it comes to individual reviews she can sometimes be really good but I find she has real biases that occasionally lead her off track. She certainly played favourites. She also has the attitude that there’s only one way to view or interpret a movie and that’s her way. This is always a dicey proposition when discussing any work of art.

      Yeah, I think a lot of Nashville was meant to be Hollywood. As far as I can tell from his commentary and interviews Altman didn’t have much interest in country music at all.

      I did want to say misandry. What I mean is the number of scenes Altman likes to include where men mistreat and abuse (or kill) women. Yes, this is an ugly reality, but it’s such a persistent theme I get the feeling that he just didn’t like men very much. I’m not a real expert on Altman though and I just threw that in as thought. These are only notes I take while I’m watching these movies and I wouldn’t want them to stand as my last word on anything. The next time I watch Nashville I’ll probably come away with some other impressions.

      Reply
  2. Tom Moody

    OK, thanks for the further thoughts on that. I will watch his films with that in mind. The treatment of Hot Lips Houlihan in M.A.S.H. is now looked at scornfully (not so much at the time) but I generally think of him as an equal opportunity hater. But then, there’s Sally Kellerman in Brewster McCloud as the avenging angel mowing down men…

    Reply

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