Witness Robert Altman’s masterpiece, Nashville. On one level it is a hysterical skewering of a type of cloistered regionalism and the eccentric oddities that it produces. But on another level it’s a satirical exegesis about America as a whole and never more serious as when it’s pulling your leg.
The movie packs the stories of two-dozen characters in Nashville, Tennessee just prior to a 1976 presidential primary. Given its setting pretty much every tale revolves around music and the industry of making it to some degree.
It starts with an inspired introduction modeled over those greatest-hits-style television advertisements so common in the era. That it works well to not only consolidate the lengthy cast list but also sear the painful marriage of music and marketing that tends to cheapen one at the expense of the other.
The scenes throughout Nashville are set at concerts, in bars and clubs where music is the central focus. Or the action occurs at get-togethers – both planned and unplanned – of the people whose lives are permeated by music. Throughout the entire drama the recorded voice of an upstart candidate, Hal Philip Walker, constantly intrudes
Altman’s masterstroke was in realizing both the music industry and politics are infatuated with the idea of creating the sensation of connections on a large scale – the idea that the song or the message is one that the listener feels is sincere and meaningful regardless of whether there is any substance to it at all.
Like most of the director’s ensemble pieces it’s a sprawling mishmash of storylines and events that are crisscrossed with happenstance and sheer unbridled coincidence. Altman’s approach draws much from his apprenticeship working with a film production company in Kansas City.
Instead of the formal stylings of Hollywood productions his films draw heavily from his work on documentaries, employee training films, industrial and educational films and advertisements.
It’s a sort of trained realism where the lack of polish is on purpose and intended to bring a degree of verisimilitude to the film. Still, his control of the storyline is fantastically rigid, there’s never a point in the film where it’s going somewhere he doesn’t wish it to go. In that sense, it’s as far from ‘cinematic realism’ as you can get.
But let’s start with the funny. The most brutal thing about the satire in Nashville is that it’s entirely plausible. As a southerner there are whole scenes of the film that are intimately familiar as well as horribly bizarre when seen through the perspective of the film.
It is this matter-of-fact approach to the increasingly absurd world of the film which is part of what makes the thing so side splittingly funny. You find you have to laugh or you’re likely to start crying, or freeze up terrified – one of the two.
One of the best examples of this is how the BBC correspondent Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) observes the most basic minutiae of the sheer absurdity going on around her and completely missing the point at every turn. She’s the straight man for the whole of Nashville and the film is all the more hysterical for it.
There have been suggestions that she is Altman’s surrogate in the film – emphasizing his stance as an outsider but I don’t buy it. If anyone he’s the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldbloom) winding his way through the action playing his little magic tricks for his own amusement and a moment of wonderment from the occasional observer.
It’s a completely unnecessary little touch but understandable given the ego it would take to pull off this sprawling conceit.
What the film is really concerned with is a sublime introspection of connections – the tenuous and fragile ways we try and fail to understand the people around us. The relationship between the soldier, Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) and Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) who are thrown together by chance in the hospital bear this out perfectly.
Both are so focused on their personal drama they’ve become unable to sympathize with the plight of those around them. Altman is very deft here in not judging the two men for this but showing the tragedy of their inability to commiserate with each other – one of the few possible means for each to ease their suffering.
When Green reaches out to speak to Kelly in the chapel about the condition of his dying wife the young man cannot focus because he’s so intent on the object of his adoration, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley).
And when Kelly reaches his epiphany about Jean he tries to share it with Green whose just been told his wife has passed during the night. The older man stares into space in mute agony while the soldier gushes over his revelation. I grew up watching Keenan Wynn as a character actor in dozen of films but I never really understood his skill as an actor until this scene.
Similarly, Lily Tomlin’s performance as Linnea Reese is nothing less than a complete tour de force and it works because she makes the paradox of these connections seem so clear and effortless.
Reese strives to concentrate on her family and those around her and is the only character in the film that regularly succeeds at creating this tenuous bridge of understanding between herself and those around her. Yet she is successful because she’s become so good at subsuming herself in lieu of the other part of the equation.
The scene where Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) sings “I’m Easy” in the club brings this home with astonishing power. A practiced Lothario, all of his past conquests in the room feel as if he’s singing the song to them but for Reese, it’s a revelation that someone else would reach out to her across that divide instead of her making the effort.
And Tomlin’s expression during the scene makes it fantastically clear. It’s a brave and fearless performance that she shows isn’t a fluke in the next scene when her brief affair with the singer reaches its inevitable conclusion.
For Nashville, this incident is a lynchpin for the film. Music, in many ways, can be a shortcut to achieving that furtive sensation of connection between people. A means by which we can express something innate and primal and at least feel someone else understands what we mean.
Music speaks to the sublime by its very nature and, in the hands of an artist, can create a fantastic sense of empathy and understanding. Somehow the song can encapsulate our feelings to a degree of perfection that words and gesticulations only hint at.
The paradox is that the power of the song transmits nothing of the singer. As much as the song appeals to some inner chord it doesn’t mean the person performing it has any conception of what their skills have wrought. In fact, they might be just as confused about how to go about connection with their fellow beings as those they perform for.
The first scene drives this home with a vengeance. Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton – the country music star who is the toast of Nashville – sings one of his sickly sentimental ballads that’s drenched in cheap patriotism. Most likely it is guaranteed to be a hit because it plays to the lowest common denominator and has the star power of a big name singing it.
Yet, he’s closed in an isolated box in the studio recording it, completely cut off from his audience and even the technicians and musicians working with him. He’s emperor of this domain but it’s a tiny kingdom. The goal is to make a product that gives the illusion of a sincere connection no matter how artificial – and he’s a master at doing that.
The cheap platitudes constantly uttered by the never-seen Hal Philip Walker are no different than those sung by Haven Hamilton and they both are appealing to the same audience. The campaign want’s Hamilton to sing because they want all the adoring fans that showed up at the Grand Ole Opry show to head to the polls and vote for the candidate.
The backdrop of the election adds an inescapable level of analogy to the nation as a whole. The scurrilous bastards Hunter Thompson warned us about four year prior have come to take what’s theirs. The fact that Nixon publicly immolated himself in the years between did nothing to get rid of the dry rot and Altman knows it.
“All of my films deal with the same thing: striving, socially and culturally, to stay alive,” he once stated. “And once any system succeeds, it becomes its own worst enemy.”
In a certain degree, the character of Barbara Jean is almost a stand in for the country – or, at least, the ’75 version of the American dream. The true believers still look up to her in awe and admiration but she’s become a befuddled and lost waif bounced about by greedy hacks and greasy managers.
Altman reinforces this with the constant juxtaposition of Barbara Jean with the American flag, particularly in the final scene. It’s not by accident that she is the target of the assassin’s bullet and not the politician whose presence is inescapable despite the fact he’s never seen.
The continuing confusion of the characters in the film have clearly led to this final act and Altman clearly knows where he is heading no matter how loose and scattered the film seems upon first glance. The entire end sequence plays out like a grand inevitable funeral from the hearses to the outraged Mr. Green leaving his own wife’s burial in order to drag his niece back to attend.
The Nashville library is, as the film points out, a replica of the Parthenon – one of the great works of ancient Greece. Despite the foibles of the various players and the demise of the loose latticework that held them all together the cycle begins anew as another singer picks up the microphone.
There is a cold cynicism in Altman’s worldview but also a strange sense of hope. At heart the man was an idealist and the ideal of the democracy is a hell of a lot tougher than the puffed up buffoons who tend to proclaim its virtues. It’s this sense of community that he seems to be offering as the real source of our ability to understand each other on the most basic level.
So while the hangers on and hucksters and phonies walk away the minute their meal ticket is gone, the audience stays and someone else picks up the microphone and takes her place. Even the staunchest of the old guard, Hamilton, askew and shorn of his well-practiced image finally makes a sincere appeal for something better.
“This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville!” he pleads. “They can't do this to us here in Nashville! Let's show them what we're made of. Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!”
And, sure enough, someone does. The edifice of the democracy still stands, the community still holds together and the process begins all over again.
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty, David Arkin, Jeff Goldbum, Scott Glen, Shelly Duvall, Lilly Tomlin, Geraldine Chaplin, Henry Gibson, Keenan Wynn