Friday, January 10, 2014

Nashville (1975)

USA, 159 minutes
Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Joan Tewkesbury
Photography: Paul Lohmann
Music: Arlene Barnett, Jonnie Barnett, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Gary Busey, Keith Carradine, Juan Grizzle, Henry Gibson, Allan F. Nicholls, Dave Peel, Joe Raposo
Editors: Dennis M. Hill, Sidney Levin
Cast: Ronee Blakley, Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Henry Gibson, Keenan Wynn, Geraldine Chaplin, Gwen Welles, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, David Hayward, Shelly Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, Thomas Hal Phillips, Barbara Harris, Richard Baskin, David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Elliott Gould, Julie Christie, Howard K. Smith, Steve Earle

Nashville has always seemed to me much larger and more generous than its rather narrow view of country music—a movie with ambitions of the white whale and designs on America (and/or "America") itself. Which only makes sense given its timing, made in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam 'n' Watergate, a time when cynicism naturally felt like sincerity. Straight ahead, a host of chambers of commerce were looking to the 1976 American Bicentennial for balm and healing, but no one else was. Nashville is here to explain some of the reasons why.

As a self-conscious Bicentennial checkpoint for director Robert Altman (and writer Joan Tewkesbury, and members of the very large cast, who improvised much of their dialogue and in many cases wrote their own country songs to sing), it tilted decidedly toward one side of today's stark national divide. It's full of mocking derision for the South, smug movie stars making cameos, elitist to its core, with adultery, casual sex, drugs, corruption, and celebrity culture. It was long, it was different, it was Important (with its famous sound design use of overlapping dialogue). It was suitably decorated with Oscar nominations and suitably denied most of the wins. Pauline Kael wrote a review for The New Yorker that was nearly as famous as the movie. It was emblem, fleeting icon, and prize in its time of what we've come to call Blue America. But over the years since it has become something else, or easier to see it for what it is.

In fact, watching it recently in a double feature with Goodfellas, I was impressed by how gentle and good-hearted Nashville is at its most bedrock levels. It represents a sensibility that can still be shocked by political assassination or the humiliation of a deluded singer with no talent. Altman's background in television serves him well with a light touch, punctuating his burbling, unfolding stream of scenes (largely shot in sequence) with deft setups, foreshadowing, rhyming themes, and comic set pieces. It's a banquet, basically. His huge cast of some two-dozen-odd enable him to isolate and match and mix unique elements. So, for example, we have the unnamed "tricycle man" (Jeff Goldblum), a hipster doofus in a floppy hat tooling around on a wacky motorcycle, playing various magic tricks, almost purely a visual element.

But the movie is a musical as much as anything and I'm sorry to say the music has worn least well about Nashville. It usually has enough charm to not slow things down much but is often about willfully misunderstanding country music. So we never miss the point, there's even one scene with a throwaway act in the background warbling, "Well, if makin' love were margarine / Then she is the high-priced spread." Ba da boom. The contempt is constant but even worse is when Nashville ham-handedly salutes a few figures, such as Vassar Clements, with the condescending air they are rare gems in an appalling wasteland. That Blue America thing again, I guess.

Yet the one part of Nashville I never tire of is the Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) thread, which is deeply musical and also where Altman lucked into something his movie needed more of: someone who not only understood the music, but was and is a pretty good songwriter and performer in her own right. I love the scene of her public breakdown not least because the first two songs she is able to get through ("Tapedeck in His Tractor" and "Dues") are so great. For that matter, so is the breakdown. It is riveting and poignant. Blakley pulls it off tentatively but completely for an amazing scene start to finish.

Another important and nicely worked out scene is nearly as musical, with Keith Carradine's performance of "I'm Easy," playing Tom Frank the womanizer. It's skin-crawling time as the gentle '70s country-rock song unspools and at least three women in the audience have reason to believe it involves them personally. Frank is an interesting element in the mix, a sourpuss rock 'n' roll guy whose music is anything but sourpuss rock 'n' roll (think Jackson Browne), an empty vessel of a human being, soulless, pathological, reprehensible, occasionally pitiable. "I'm Easy" is the perfect song for him. (On the matter of soulless, Karen Black as Connie White is the female analogue here.)

Nashville is a kaleidoscope ride, with flaws and bumps but a reassuring force to the narrative stream, so dense with detail that much is to be gained from multiple viewings, and it goes down easy, always with a friendly hello and smile. I love the way Altman and Tewkesbury make places and rituals the focal nodes of their large-scale structure. First there are the scenes at the airport, where many characters are simply coming and going on their business with others who have gathered to greet Barbara Jean's arrival. That is followed by a massive freeway pile-up. On Saturday night all the characters go out. On Sunday morning they all go to church—which characters go to which churches makes it one of my favorite sequences in the whole thing. (Once again Blakley steals the show, in a hospital chapel, singing "He Walks With Me." Goose bumps!)

That's the way it goes, lurching about, herding its cast through their rituals, and building to one of those Altman endings of great disaster, in this case an assassination, which may or may not have something important to say but certainly feels climactic. The key lyrical theme is rolled out big: "You may say that I ain't free / But it don't bother me." In recent viewings the political element—the campaign of Hal Phillip Walker, a third-party "Replacement Party" candidate for president, conducted via ubiquitous van with loudspeakers droning things like, "When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that's politics"—has more and more taken center stage for me. The random stupidity and undertone of malevolence in these blandishments feel chillingly prescient, although they are often funny. "You ever ask a lawyer the time of day?" the voice intones, making the case for eliminating all lawyers from the U.S. Congress. "He told you how to make a watch, didn't he?"

And more, with Nashville there is always more: Keenan Wynn's face, the galling stupidity of Opal from the BBC, Sueleen Gay's zen-like lack of self-awareness, Frog in the background constantly, Michael Murphy's smarm, Shelley Duvall as L.A. Joan ("she's from California," the constant refrain), Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), pompous buffoon, and Linnea (Lily Tomlin), perhaps the single most interesting character here of all, a gospel singer, a devoted mother, an adultress. And more. See it, see it again, and then see it again.

Which reminds me of the editing, and the earlier, longer versions, and the lost footage. I'd rather forget that, but on the bright side, I do think the editing is a high point in Nashville, sorting out the many characters, keeping them distinct, and making all their stories more or less coherent as it plows relentlessly on.

Top 10 of 1975
1. Nashville
2. Love and Death
3. Barry Lyndon
4. Picnic at Hanging Rock
5. Swept Away
6. Welfare
7. Dog Day Afternoon
8. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
9. The Passenger
10. The Mirror

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