There have been plenty of remembrances over the past three weeks marking the emergence onto the cultural landscape of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which was released 35 years ago, June 20, 1975. It became not only one of the most popular movies of all time, but because of its subject matter—Will the town of Amity open its beaches so Bruce the Shark might have a summer holiday feast?-- and proximity of its release to Independence Day, it became perhaps the great Fourth of July picture, commemorating the holiday with a uniquely cinematic fireworks display that, all these years later, has gone virtually unmatched for sheer, giddy terror. The remembrances marking the date usually focus on the peculiar and difficult history of the making of the movie or on its wide-release marketing campaign— nearly unheard of in 1975—which blanketed opening day cinemas with 2,000 prints. But my favorite tribute to Spielberg’s great adventure came from David Edelstein, who referred to the movie not in a specific tribute but instead in a prologue to a review of another instant summer classic:
“(It’s) the best summer movie ever made. People forget how real it seemed. It was shot in a beach resort (Martha’s Vineyard) in the days when Steven Spielberg was forced to use the world as he found it instead of building one from scratch. I loved the tension between the texture of life and his smooth, beautifully modulated, movie-ish technique.”
It’s that observation about the contrast between the texture of life—Mrs. Kintner confronting Chief Brody on the dock during the town’s celebration of killing the wrong shark; the three men crushing beer cans (and Styrofoam cups) and trading stories, which leads to Quint’s show-stopper about the U.S.S. Indianapolis; a depressed and worried Brody sitting at the dinner table with his son who quietly mimics his dad’s every downcast gesture—and that beautifully modulated technique that Spielberg used to squeeze another kind of life out of Peter Benchley’s pulp best-seller (and the seemingly hopeless plasticity and rusted mechanics of his own resources), that I find striking. The audacious marketing got the masses into the theaters, but it was the movie that kept them coming back, and in four beautifully phrased sentences Edelstein crystallizes why moviegoers did just that.
But there was another movie that had its premiere the week before Jaws, one which had captured the anticipation of the cognoscenti (the American critical and intellectual community published long editorial pieces and discussed this movie on television-- imagine such a phenomenon) and was positioned as a bittersweet tribute to an America which had just fled the bloody catastrophe of Vietnam, which was embroiled in the nation’s first energy crisis, and which had just shown Richard Nixon the door. Robert Altman’s Nashville was the antithesis of the kind of genre-specific popular entertainment that seemed to be at its peak in Jaws, and despite the critical kerfuffle it wouldn’t come close to capturing the popular imagination (the movie, budgeted at around $2 million, turned a tidy profit with some $9 million in box-office receipts). But the kind of hype that suggested it might was a huckster’s language, and the huckster had to know, in this case, that what was being sold was too all-encompassing, too contradictory, too full of spirits buzzing this way and that, bumping into each other and affecting the path of everyone the came in contact with in unknowable ways to ever coalesce into what constituted the appeal of a major motion picture hit. In other words, Nashville was too much like America itself to be contained in a package that mainstream moviegoers could ever get behind. But one of the many glories of the movie is that director Robert Altman, the movie’s guiding huckster, the hip impresario (as Ray Sawhill called him) in the center ring of this enthralling circus of red-white-and blue humanity, knew going in that his own subject matter couldn’t be wrestled to the ground, and yet there he was dancing with it anyway.
Altman’s movie stands for me, 35 years past its premiere date, as the perfect prism through which to reflect upon this country’s greatness, its follies, its stubbornness, the tension between the patriotic, pluralistic impulses of its politics and the religious certitude woven into its structure and attitudes, and, of course, the exuberance and celebratory nature of political and artistic freedom, which, as the movie recognizes, can be celebrated while observing the ways in which those freedoms are also hampered and restricted within a society ostensibly built around their unfettered expression. As a love letter to America’s potential for both glory and disaster (and the myriad meandering possibilities in between) Nashville seemed to some too bitter a pill to swallow at the time, perhaps too ambivalent in its passions or cutting in its satirical observations. It was a film ostensibly built around the efforts to whip up support for a populist Replacement Party candidate by the name of Hal Phillip Walker—who is heard on the soundtrack bellowing his Perot-esque outrage and Libertarian-style political remedies over the loudspeaker of a van roaming in between the cracks of the movie's main events. But Nashville, appropriately enough, is centered on a community—famously of 24 characters, unprecedented at the time, but really a whole community of artists and businessmen and its self-consciousness that extended far beyond the specificity of those characters— all living their lives and making tenuous connections that they may not even be aware of. Their social interactions, their religious practices, their desires and the first stirring embers of those desires, their selfishness and their odd, unexpected generosity, and the narcissism and entitlement embodied and displayed in the civic and regional pride and hopes of retaining one roots while reaching for the highest firmament of fame—these are all elements at play at any given time as these 24 characters buzz in, about and through the outlines of the situations that the movie sets up.
Henry Gibson’s patriarchal country star Haven Hamilton, introducing the movie while trying to lay down the basic tracks for his pompous bicentennial anthem “200 years” (“We must be doin’ somethin’ right/To last 200 years”) presides over Nashville like his own presumed fiefdom-- he’s constantly berating the people swirling around him to take note that “We don’t things that way here in Nashville,” and he’s the one who can be heard shouting “Let’s show ‘em what we’re made of here in Nashville,” a call to (perceived?) communal unity over the bleeding body of one of the industry’s and the city’s most beloved icons. The movie fearlessly folds the atmosphere of political assassination that was still shrouding the nation in the wake of the Kennedys (John and Robert) and Martin Luther King into its mosaic, as if to say this is what we are now, what we have become, an acknowledgement of the perpetual haunting of the American legacy. But it also chillingly anticipates the fates of John Lennon and even Ronald Reagan and how that legacy of assassination would become more about the delusional connection between assassin and victim, and the creation of the cult of a celebrity killer to counterbalance the destruction of the target, than about political anger or racial fear. One of the most chilling things about Nashville is how it binds our impulse for stardom with our tendency toward self-destruction—the aftermath of the horrific death of superstar Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) doesn’t really morph into but instead co-exists with the emergence of Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) on stage, who seizes her American Idol-like moment of fame and turns a tragedy into a celebration of the indefatigable American spirit. Unless, of course, the words to the song Albuquerque sings—“It don’t worry me/It don’t worry me/You may say that I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me”—stick in your throat a bit, in which case you may be thinking about the willful ignorance that can spur a people past such eruptions of violence and the implications tragedies like assassinations and racial oppression and economic barbarism have for the most hopeful and heartfelt manifestations of the American spirit.
Turning back to Edelstein’s comments, Altman’s film has the texture of life and then some, but it doesn’t have anything like “smooth, beautifully modulated movie-ish technique." It was, in fact, the pinnacle of a style of moviemaking that acknowledged richness of technique but put it to different, more diffuse ends. Altman was brilliant at playing riffs on popular genres—his biggest box-office success was M*A*S*H, a distinctly counterculture take on American war films. And through the early ‘70s he also transfused the western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), the gangster film (Thieves Like Us) and the detective film (The Long Goodbye) with new blood. As Ray Sawhill noted in his essay “A Movie Called Nashville,” published by Salon on the occasion of the movie’s 25th anniversary, as an essayist on popular culture Altman was our Godard; in his view of life as a circus populated by characters both funny and sad, usually simultaneously, he was our Fellini (the director acknowledges as much at the end of Brewster McCloud); as a seeker of truth through the souls of our best actresses he was our Bergman; and as a chronicler of people as part of something larger, more exultant, more probing than themselves, he could be considered our Renoir. It is this last comparison which rings most true for Nashville, a movie that Sawhill acknowledges as part of Altman’s most original, if least overall successful working method:
“There was a third kind of film Altman has made over and over again -- films whipped up out of nothing but how he makes movies. Over and over, from Brewster McCloud to H.E.A.L.T.H. to Ready to Wear, they've been duds. Nashville is the great exception. There's an exultant quality to it, as though the artist is glorying in his prowess, that can remind you of Picasso once he learned to cut loose with his own language. The film has often been described as a tapestry, and that's about right. The city of Nashville is used as a nexus or hub; even the people who live there seem like they might be tourists.”
What’s fascinating from a technical standpoint about Nashville, and about all those Altman movies made in this style, is how much juice the director is able to conjure without all the usual acoutrements of style and flash that are in evidence in some of his other films. One would be hard-pressed to complain about the fragile , diaphonous visual beauty brought by Vilmos Zsigmond to a movie like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, for instance, or the attention to detail found in both Marty Wunderlich’s production design and Polly Platt’s perfectly unostentatious costumes forTheives Like Us, or Lou Lombardo’s editing in The Long Goodbye, which manages to sustain the necessary tension of Raymond Chandler’s plot elements while making room for Altman’s shaggy, breezy adjustments. By contrast, certainly H.E.A.L.T.H. and Ready to Wear (both movies I like a lot) seem haphazard in their construction, and they share with A Wedding an indifferent, distracted visual style. Nashville itself is a spectaclar example of a great movie in which a multitude of potent imagery and visual strategies are at work-- Altman’s experimentation with the zoom lens and its ability to provide the illusion of gliding through multiple layers of conversation, a visual corrolary to his pioneering work with six-track stereo sound, reached its zenith here. And yet the movie boasts only serviceable cinematography (by Paul Lohmann) which may have been a necessity of Altman’s insistence on giving the film an immediacy it might have otherwise have lacked had it been more classically framed and shot. The movie does not have a visual style that calls a lot of attention to itself in terms we normally reserve to describe the beauty on display in a movie like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or the ethereal, otherworldly dread manifested for the eye by Charles Rosher in Three Women, yet it is in its own way undeniably spectacular in a visual sense. In the best sense, Nashville is trumped visually in sheer comic bravado by the movie Altman did next, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), a movie released just in time for the actual bicentennial celebration that expanded upon the dark underbelly of Altman’s vision of a corrupt and deluded democracy. I think it makes a brilliant companion piece to Nashville, a devastating one-two punch to our nation’s sense of self-mythologizing arrogance and entitlement and obsession with notoriety, a movie whose satiric vision has only deepened over the years. Altman even makes room for a sincere tip of the wide-brimmed hat to that can-do pioneer spirit while dismantling Buffalo Bill's bombastic personality. But the movie was a disaster, both at the box office (torpedoing Altman’s chances to work with Buffalo Bill producer Dino De Laurentiis on an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime which Milos Forman filmed instead) and with Altman fans, many of whom found the director’s temper too curdled and redundant this time out.
In the summer of 1975 I saw Jaws and thrilled to it like no other movie I’d seen to that time, and it’s marvelous to note how well the movie holds up today, even after having been lapped countless times from a technological point of view. Like Nashville, Jaws goes a long way toward proving that technology is only part of the story. (And isn’t it amazing that there was once a world in which movies like Nashville and Jaws would be released within a week or each other, and during the summer no less!) Nashville used the medium in ways that seemed almost foreign to me when I first saw it, sometime during the spring of 1976, I believe. My hometown theater was always about a year behind the latest releases, though I was still only 15 years old when I saw Nashville for the first time. Not too surprisingly, this small-town kid, who grew up watching all kinds of movies that were out of the wheelhouse of the typical youngster, found Nashville mannered, annoying and, most importantly, perplexing. I just didn’t get it, and that had everything to do with the amount of life I’d lived up to that point. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I began to manage a clue as to what was actually stirring about Altman’s audio-visual jamboree, and by the time I was nearing graduation in 1980 I had fallen fully under its spell (I managed to see the movie three times in one day when studying Altman in a film class that year.) I had become fully obsessed with the director and the movie, a blissful state in which I remain to this day. Nashville is alive to me in ways that few movies are— it seems fully engaged with all aspects of the humanity it chooses to document, unconcerned with dangling loose ends-- it sometimes actively encourages them. Yet it is as fully satisfying a grand entertainment as it seems possible to imagine in its social questioning, in its representation of a time capsule of Nashville-- that is, American-- society and the indulgences and glories of the country music of the time, and in its presience, the way it reverberates and comments on the foibles and strengths of the American character that still concern us in the 21st century. With Nashville Robert Altman didn’t set out to make the Great American Movie—if he had, he probably would have missed by a mile, like most do whose goals are so grandiose. But he got there just the same, and 35 years later I can think of few better films to commemorate and consider the American experience over this Independence Day weekend. You could even throw on that DVD of Jaws as a second feature and pretend it’s the summer of ’75 all over again.
Postscript: In the year 2000 Paramount Home Video released a Nashville DVD as part of the celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary. The DVD marked the first time the movie had been seen on home video in its proper aspect ratio, and I was lucky enough to get to create the entirety of the subtitles for the deaf and heard of hearing (SDH) for the DVD. Though there have been many changes in font size and placement since that DVD was issued, at the time Paramount was very pleased about the subtitles and even sent a note to one of my supervisors relating as much, along with a note that Altman himself had seen them and given them his approval. Quite a thrill for me. I still blanch at those yellow titles and the relative giganism of that font, but I’m still proud of being able to work with the dialogue and sound of Nashville in such a way, and when I think of scenes like the barbecue at Haven’s, or the post-concert gathering in the club with Haven, Lady Pearl, Connie White, Del Reese, John Triplette, the “lovely” Julie Christie and so many other characters, where there’s so much to choose from in terms of what to listen to, I feel like I rose to the challenge and gave Altman fans who punch the “subtitle” button on their DVD players a pretty accurate and true picture of what the revolutionary soundtrack of Nashville was able to include. I just hope that someday Criterion gets it in their company craw to do up Nashville in their inimitable style and that I’ll get another shot, as I did with Secret Honor and Tanner ‘88, to create new subtitles for Nashville that live up to the high Criterion standard.
(I have to acknowledge two writers, other than Pauline Kael, who have contributed immeasurably to my understanding and appreciation of Nashville in my adult life. First, the aforementioned Ray Sawhill, whose “A Movie Called Nashville” is one of the best pieces on any movie I’ve ever read. And then Jim Emerson, whose essay “String of Pearl: The Lady of Altman’s Nashville,” which focused on the character of Lady Pearl, Haven Hamilton’s companion and keeper of the Kennedy flame so beautifully embodied by the wonderful Barbara Baxley, made me realize, some 25 years after Nashville became the central movie in my life, that there was a kindred spirit out there who appreciated the movie as I did who could bring so much new light to the experience of someone who had already seen it so often. A multitude of thanks to you, Ray, and to you, Jim.)