Monday, October 07, 2013

NASHVILLE: MOVING PICTURES, STILL LIFE



No movie has ever been able to sweep me up, take me outside myself, wrap me in its blinkered, effervescent, caustic, yet somehow forgiving mosaic of American individualism and its narcissistic underbelly more effortlessly than Robert Altman’s Nashville. It’s so alive, so hypnotic in its offhanded and overheard style of observation, so richly humored and casual in its connectedness—between its 24 major characters and all those whirling around them, but also between the world in which it was made and, curiously, the world from which we watch it now—that even its rough edges and contradictions (it’s a marvel of surprising visual beauty despite the fact that its lighting, by Paul Lohmann, is often crude and pedestrian) are crucial to its overall effect—they’re intrinsic to its soaring nature, to its status as an authentic, tempestuous satiric vision of this country, to what in fact makes it American.

I think Nashville would make an inspired double feature on a program with Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Pairing it with Altman’s equally brilliant California Split might be too much of a bliss-out even for me, but the conversation between Altman and Spielberg's visions-- one microcosmic, one macro-slapstick, both of an America in transition, perhaps in free fall, teetering on the edge where national pride and confidence give way to the cacophony of community and the fear of the unknown, the road yet to be traveled, would be fascinating.

Even after 38 years and God knows how many viewings-- 25? 30?-- the movie catches me off guard and thrills me in new ways every time I see it, and it’s the only movie since the art form began to mean something to me, around 48 years ago, that I’ve loved so much as to feel compelled to sit through it three times in one day, a side benefit of screenings for my University of Oregon film studies program during the fall of 1980. (Thanks, Bill Cadbury!) 

Seeing it Friday night, projected on 35mm for the last time before its premiere on Criterion Blu-ray in December, the movie continued its revelatory spin through the course of my adult life, embracing me with its loose-limbed confidence, its vision of a world where optimism and defeat are mutually exclusive but can often coexist in the same moment, making meaning with each new apprehensive breath. Friday night the New Beverly Cinema was filled with like-minded admirers sitting among those who had never seen it on the big screen or perhaps never before at all. But we all marveled at this 38-year-old film, that it would still be so vital, would still have so much to say about the world in which we’re still struggling and exulting, in which pop culture still serves as an impetus for us to “keep a-goin’,” even as it sometimes provides too many distractions from the profound cares of our lives which insist themselves upon us entirely outside its influence.

During each one of the multiple times I’ve seen it since 1975, it seems like I’ve always latched onto something new in Nashville, or been the recipient of thoughts, impulses, memories and connections that had never occurred to me before, often sparked by specific images or exchanges that I was certainly familiar with but which lead me to a different way of seeing them depending on where I was in my life at the time. There are many things I could say if I had more time. Instead, I'll let the images speak for themselves, with approximations of some of the thoughts that flashed in my head as those images passed by. Let me show you some of the things that stood out to me this past Friday night. 



"Be the first on your block to marvel at the magnificent stars through the magic of stereophonic sound and living-color picture right before your very eyes without commercial interruption!"

I've often wondered what young people make of this giddy bit of comedy, seeing the movie for the first time and being relatively nonconversant in the sort of TV advertisements being parodied here. It's one of my favorite of the many great opening credit sequences in the career of Robert Altman.

"Featuring the all-time great Dave Peel...!"




Hal Phillip Walker, the down-home Replacement Party candidate, roaming the streets disembodied, echoing against buildings and down streets, a cross between Ross Perot and the Wizard of Oz:

"Fellow taxpayers and stockholders in America. On the first Tuesday in November, we have to make some vital decisions about our management. Let me go directly to the point. I'm for doing some replacing. I've discussed the Replacement Party with people all over this country and I'm often confronted with the statement - 'I don't want to get mixed up in politics,' or 'I'm tired of politics,' or 'I'm not interested.' Almost as often, someone said, 'I can't do anything about it anyway.' Let me point out two things. Number One: All of us are deeply involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. And Number Two: We can do something about it. When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that's politics."



The first of many frames within frames: Haven Hamilton, country/western icon, transparent man of the people, immediately set apart from colleagues and admirers, casting disparaging glances from points of isolation and positions of assumed power, looking for Pig and getting Frog.




The traffic jam as block party. Opal from the BBC, Altman and Joan Tewkesbury and Geraldine Chaplin's vicious jab at the very sort of outsider summing up Altman himself would be accused of in some circles, sees it somewhat differently: 

"I wish my cameraman had been here. He's never around when he should be. You see, I need something like this for my documentary. I need  it. It's America. All those cars smashing into each other and all those mangled bodies..."





Linnea, Jimmy, Del Reese and the difference between engagement and the despair of being shut out, even when the separation is self-imposed.



Jim Emerson, from his brilliant essay "String of Pearl: The Lady of Altman's Nashville":

"...There is one, and only one, purple strand running through the Panavision tapestry of Nashville, one character who combines red, white and blue, and that's Lady Pearl, wife of Haven Hamilton and stepmother of Bud Hamilton (who is clothed like an oversized baby in pastel yellow synthetic double-knits). Pearl's hen-on-helium voice, cackling laugh, incandescent red hair and purple-and-white ensembles stand out in Nashville's display of Bicentennial colors, but to follow her thread is to see how tightly she's interwoven with the fabric of the movie as a whole."



No stage is too small, no talent without its stage. The Smoky Mountain Laurels on open mike night, and Sueleen Gay is next...


Albuquerque is not only indifferent to the chaos she sets in motion-- on some level, conscious or not, she thrives on it, which makes her a perfect drifter through the compressed (and readily unleashed) energy and opportunism floating through Altman's musical city.


As my friend Paul Clark observed, Connie White undoubtedly gets top billing by default, stepping in as Barbara Jean's last-minute replacement at the Ryman Auditorium. One deleted scene I'd love to see is Haven Hamilton's seething indignation at the situation-- he's already repeatedly deferred to Barbara Jean's near-sainted status with the Nashville public, but how could he abide playing second fiddle, even just on a billboard, to a second-tier star like Connie White?


I love Karen Black's evocation of dolled-up singers like Lynn Anderson in her performance here as the catty Connie White, who smiles backstage just long enough to satisfy the photogs before relaxing back into a natural frown. (One of Walker campaigner John Triplette's snotty asides is directed toward her: "Last time I saw a dress like that, I was headed to the junior prom.") And she gets to introduce a real country music legend: "He's the best. It's Vassar!"


"I love you... I love you... I love you." Mary's mantra, delivered to the sleeping Tom while a recording of one of his own songs plays on a reel-to-reel tape deck. If she says it enough times, maybe he'll finally hear it. The song is Keith Carradine's "Honey," one of the movie's best, and perhaps most undervalued tunes, and its sweetly romantic lyrics play in brilliant contrast to the two lovers in bed, one who desperately wants to believe the song is, or could be about her, the other blithely dismissive, even in sleep, of the lyrical sentiments that bear no resemblance to the way he lives his own life. ("Life is short/A precious gift/This thing we have/Please don't let it slip away") Emotional delusion, one of the many recurring threads that bind the men and women of this movie together.


One of my favorites sequences is the one which contrasts the various Sunday worship services attended by some of the characters-- the sober formalism of the Catholic mass attended by Wade (Robert DoQui) and Star (Bert Remsen), and Miss Pearl (Barbara Baxley) with head covering that looks more like a doily-- Sueleen (Gwen Welles) is there too, wearing a fuller mantilla, singing in the choir where she and her musical abilities are finally afforded a modicum of grace; the Presbyterian service where Del (Ned Beatty) brings his kids, a big, ornate Protestant service befitting the mainstream of the Nashville religious community (there's even a sign language interpreter for the benefit of the many deaf worshipers, the Reese children among them) which sees Haven (Henry Gibson) in choral robes, no less pompous in this sacred mode-- like everywhere else, he's there primarily to be seen; Linnea sings with the gospel choir (presumably the one she's seen with at the opening of the film) at a black church-- Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) is also there-- where the choir provides the background setting for a baptism; and finally, Barbara Jean, seated in a wheelchair at the front of the modest hospital chapel, engaged in a heartrending rendition of "In The Garden" ("Well, He walks with me and He talks with me/And He tells me I am his own...") while her husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), Pvt. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) and Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) listen intently.


Opal, on the other hand, worships at a different sort of temple, one seemingly ready for any and all metaphorical significance she's willing to dream up at a moment's notice. 


And later Albuquerque sings to a congregation whose lack of receptivity to her message can at least be blamed on the screaming wheels and grinding gears of the culture at large, and not just spiritual vacuity or, perhaps more generously, the potentially hollow habits of worship.


I absolutely adore the way Cristina Raines plays this scene, when Opal begins fumbling around revealing her one-night stand with Tom. She shuts out Opal's faux-modest blathering, the clueless astonishment of the driver, a.k.a. Norman (David Arkin) and her own husband Bill (Allan Nicholls), who suspects Mary's infatuation and passive-aggressively delights in her humiliation, and directs her gaze instead to Tom, on stage, who is about to call her and Bill up for a chance to sing and, of course, for a few more jabs.


On stage together for what will undoubtedly be the last time, Tom, Bill and Mary tear through another of Nashville's two or three best tunes, "Since You've Gone," written by Gary Busey, who was originally slated to play Tom before Keith Carradine became involved. One of the charges most often leveled at Nashville is its inauthentic representation of country music and the country music scene that was prevalent in the early to mid '70s. (Take a listen to Johnny Wright's "Hello, Vietnam" and then ask yourself how exaggerated satiric anthems like "200 Years" or "For the Sake of the Children" sound.) Given the leeway that is not unusual to grant works of satire, this seems like a ridiculous charge, made mostly, I'm guessing, by those who demand , because of its deceptively documentarian style, that the film display some sort of stricter fealty to "reality." Ironically, I've also heard complaints about the film having a slapdash, pieced-together quality, as if Altman were just out there filming what he saw, that creative choreography and dramatic convention were entirely beyond his concern. From Ronee Blakely's gorgeous "Dues" to Karen Black's "Rolling Stone" and straight through to Keith Carradine's "It Don't Worry Me" and the Oscar-winning "I'm Easy," the music of Nashville,  presented with the typical adornments of the day and often by actors who approached their roles as singers with honesty and purpose, remains one of the movie's most consistently pleasurable elements.



Facing the fans at Opryland, deadpan and respectful, and eventually hostile, Barbara Jean melts down, while Barnett, John Triplette and Del Reese look on, helpless, stunned. Many such scenes have shown up in dramatic music biographies, but none, not even the one in Coal Miner's Daughter, in which Sissy Spacek enacts the life of Loretta Lynn, on whom the character of Barbara Jean was partially based, can match the sheer empathy, laced with comedy and even more wonderful singing, that Ronee Blakely generates in this scene. Every time I see the movie, I'm always surprised, during her performance of "Dues," that she doesn't just float away from excess grace.


And at Opryland, Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward) listens in as Opal presses Pvt. Kelly on his Vietnam experience. One of the most satisfying things about Nashville is that it feels no obligation to provide a "satisfying" answer to who Kenny is and why he does what he does. We can listen to him interact with veiled hostility when Del tells him to move his car during the traffic jam, or observe his agonized phone call with his smothering mother, or watch here as he considers, with confusion and apparent rage, the curt, indifferent answers Kelly provides to Opal's insistent questions. But having done so, we are no more equipped to "understand," in a strictly behavioral, psychological fashion, what he imagines he's doing at the Parthenon. We aren't privy to Kenny's version of Arthur Bremer's diaries or the ramblings of Mark David Chapman. We cannot even say "he was a quiet fella who kept to himself; you'd never expect him to do something like this." He is an enigmatic figure from start to finish, whose behavior demonstrates the ultimate unknowability of a person marginalized, set adrift, who finds the brightly lit world of Nashville entirely suitable as he moves through its crevices and cracks in search of... 


"Little more than a year ago, a man named Hal Phillip Walker excited a group of college students with some questions-- "Have you stood on a high and windy hill and heard the acorns drop and roll? Have you walked in the valley beside the brook, walked alone and remembered? Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" Within a commencement speech, such questions were fitting, perhaps, but hardly the material with which to launch a presidential campaign. Even those who pay close attention to politics probably saw Hal Phillip Walker and his Replacement Party as a bit of frost on the hillside. Summer, if not late spring, would surely do away with all that. Well, now that summer, along with presidential primaries, is heavy upon us and the frost is still there, perhaps we should take a closer look. Hal Phillip Walker is, in a way, a mystery man. Out of nowhere with a handful of students and scarcely any pros, he's managed to win three presidential primaries and is given a fighting chance to take a fourth-- Tennessee. A win in that state would take on added significance, for only once in the last 50 years has Tennessee failed to vote for the winning presidential candidate. No doubt many Americans, especially party-liners, wish that Hal Phillip Walker would go away, disappear like the natural frost and come again at some more convenient season. But wherever he may be going, it seems sure that Hal Phillip Walker is not going away. For there is genuine appeal, and it must be related to the raw courage of this man. Running for President, willing to battle vast oil companies, eliminate subsidies to farmers, tax churches, abolish the Electoral College, change the National Anthem and remove lawyers from government-- especially from Congress. Well, at this point, it would be wise to say most of us don't know the answer to Hal Phillip Walker. But to answer one of his questions, as a matter of fact, Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me."


Hal Phillip Walker and his motorcade approach the Parthenon. Not for nothing does it resemble, in this shot, a funeral procession...


Among all those gathered at the Parthenon on stage for the Hal Phillip Walker rally, only Albuquerque seems natural, relaxed, in her element...





The moments just before and just after an unfurling national nightmare comes home to roost. "They can't do this to us here in Nashville!" shouts Haven Hamilton to a stunned, perhaps even slightly oblivious crowd. But "they" have surely done it. Sueleen knows it, the air of her own self-deluded dreams of stardom flying permanently away on a chorus of gunshot and scarlet sprays of blood.


Albuquerque seizes the moment...


the gathered crowd responds...


and the movie ends on the most exhilarating, cynical, ambiguous refrain of blinkered optimism American movies have perhaps ever produced. Tell me it doesn't resonate still today:

They say this train don’t give out rides, it don’t worry me
And all the world, is taking sides, it don’t worry me
Because in my empire life is sweet, just ask any bum you meet
And you may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me
It Don’t Worry Me, It Don’t Worry Me
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me. 
The price of bread may worry some, it don’t worry me
Tax relief may never come, it don’t worry me
Economy’s depressed not me, my spirit’s high as they can be
And you may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me...


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7 comments:

Katherine Wilson said...

An incredible magnum opus of a review. Period.

Roderick Heath said...

I very much agree re: the similarity between this and 1941 and their neatness as a great (if long) double bill. In fact, there's a distinctly Altman-esque strain in all of Spielberg's early films, i.e. the flocking crowds in The Sugarland Express and the July 4 montage in Jaws. Perhaps indeed if 1941 had been a bigger hit Spielberg might've pursued that aspect of his creativity more deeply.

Robert Fiore said...

I saw it on Thursday night, and I was actually going to e-mail you to give you a push if you were on the fence about going. My history with the movie is something of the opposite of yours; I don't think I'd seen it in 30 years. The last time I watched might even have been on the Z Channel. To me it was one of those things I was sort of afraid to revisit. It's sort of like Apocalypse Now in that I wasn't sure whether it was the last good one or the first bad one. It was all so contentious when it first came out, not only with the contentiousness around Altman but the contentiousness around Pauline Kael, and I wasn't sure how much of my original view of it was colored by being on Altman's side. In particular, I feared that it would be condescending in the way that for instance O.C. and Stiggs was. The thing that always made you wonder was the shtick about having the actors write their own songs, with the implication that country music was something any idiot could compose. (Incidentally, I reread her review after I saw the movie, and man that contains some of the most inane things she ever wrote. Her view of country people and their relation to country music could only be called bigoted. It was like a British sahib talking about wogs. How could someone who was living on the opposite side of the continent from where she was raised characterize country people as rootless? I mean, of all the things you could criticize the simple people of the soil for I would think rootlessness was the last. I think "rootless" was just something that New York intellectuals accused people of back then.)

Anyway, I was pleasantly amazed at how well Nashville had held up. Actually, I think most of core Altman has been aging well. It is absolutely an outsider's view of Nashville, and has no particular insight about the place. The music for the most part isn't country but either country rock or folk rock or plain old '70s singer-songwriter -- the sort of city boy music that engaged people like Vassar Clements as sidemen. But its lack of insight into Nashville is beside the point because what it's really about is how show business rather than politics or religion has come to define public life in America. It has to be about country music because country music is willing align itself with authority, as opposed to rock music which was still posturing as revolutionary. The milieu ultimately seems to portray Hollywood more than it does Nashville. Haven Hamilton is not so much a mockery of country music stars as a representation of the corporate mind. (The joke in "200 Years" is that for a country 200 years is not a particularly long time to have survived.) Nearly 40 years later its depiction of the direction of where public life was going rings true. Its portrayal of an assassin targeting a beloved entertainer rather than a politician now seems spookily prescient -- there are after all no beloved politicians anymore. I predict film school dissertations comparing the use of ensemble in Robert Altman and Mike Leigh, if it hasn't happened already.

I'm glad you singled out Christine Raines' reaction when she finds out she's being two- (or three- and four-) timed. It was the one thing I was most impressed by when I first saw the movie all those years ago, and seeing it again confirms my belief that it was one of the finest pieces of movie acting ever committed to film.

P.S. How about that fucking Jose Uribe -- can't even get down a bunt. Could you have imagined at the beginning of the season that by the end you might want to bring him back?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I recall an interview where Altman wanted to have two different versions of Nashville, showing the some of the same scenes from different points of view. I'm sure there is enough footage to create at least one more movie. Too bad that never happened.

John Johnson said...

I get the New Beverly's email newsletter so I knew it was playing but just couldn't do it. This was one hell of a review Dennis, I don't think review is quite the word, some body already used "Magnum Opus" so I am stumped?

Anonymous said...

Funny, I forget the name of her remarkable character, but not the actress that saves the rally AND the film at the end, Barbara Harris!

really nice appreciation here, Dennis. I LOVE this movie... maybe more than any other Altman, and that includes The Player.

Robert said...

I watched the movie again the other day after a gap of something like 15 years just so I could better appreciate your tribute. The movie floored me more so than my last go round for its "immersive" quality - a term that gets tossed around for every other 3D release. I tell you this, the first half hour of Nashville is more immersive than all of Gravity. Perhaps because of its sometimes barely whispering, dreamlike movement from character to character, the movie completely took me back to being a little kid in the 70s, when adult conversation was somehow "over there" and the accumulation of these untouchable interactions IS reality. On the other hand, the movie is strong for the very depth of character Altman is able to wrangle from the smallest whisps of a scene. The scene that got me most is, unexpectedly, the women in Tom's life one by one realizing his song is not for them. It's like the cheap "oh, that wave wasn't for me" joke, told by a guy who that really happened to, with the commensurate earned pathos. After watching the movie after so long, I immediately wanted to watch it again.