When it comes to eerily prescient, Robert Altman's Nashville has a couple of doozies. None other than the New York Times implied that the film was the inspiration for the assassination of John Lennon, and if you remember Ross Perot at all, the fictional presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker seems produced out of a time machine. All things being equal, neither of these are more than footnotes to Altman's classic tour de force. One of the best American films of the golden age of American cinema from one of the greatest American directors, Nashville is one of those movies that suffers from just about universal acclaim--well, except for some overly sensitive country musicians, who think the "satire" of their art is "too harsh."
While nowadays, Nashville may come across as dated, especially when you see the moon unit costumes that Shelly Duvall wears, it's actually a film that serves best as a superb time capsule of a place, a moment--not just of Tennessee and country music, but of a time period when Hollywood was allowing some incredibly talented filmmakers the money and access to pretty much do whatever they wanted. Robert Altman had already pulled off one of the first of the decades great films when Mash forced its way out of a tumultuous production, and he'd begun operating at a herculean pace since. Then, in 1975, out came Nashville--a film with 24 distinct characters, a hushed tones plot loose enough to incorporate them all, a script that allowed and forced improvisation and, of course, songs written and recorded live by the actors themselves.
There's no way in hell that it should even be watchable.
Instead, it's a masterpiece of both ensemble film making and editing-as-film-construction. Every character is fully realized, down to their ugliest and most beautiful--whether it's Henry Gibson as the proudly arrogant superstar, or Lily Tomlin's heartrending gospel-singing mother or a womanizing Keith Carradine who's almost dripping in sexual heat. Even from a purely physical standpoint, none of the actors look like they've ever looked before, nor would they ever look like this again. On top of that, they can, all of them, fucking sing--hell, Carradine won a justly deserved Oscar for his "I'm Easy." (Although it must be said that part of the reason "I'm Easy" is so well remembered is in no small part due to the performance of Lily Tomlin, who could've probably cracked the glass on the front of the camera if she'd wanted too.)
The film opens with a somewhat torturous patriotic song by Henry Gibson, a man dressed like a cross between Evel Kenievil and Liberace--but before you notice his outfit, one needs a few minutes to take in his sideburns--they stretch down his face so far that they're probably a sentient being. From there, Altman begins introducing his characters--Gibson's long-suffering business manager son, a terrible young BBC reporter born with a charmless, cackling laugh in place of any self-awareness or class. As the camera follows these two into another recording studio, Lily Tomlin is found leading an all-black gospel choir, and the movie progresses this way throughout--people crossing over into rooms, a political agitprop van traveling the city, Jeff Goldblum in huge glasses, until finally, almost forty-five minutes into the film, all the characters have been given a bit of time to make their presence known. There's a thru-line leading to the film's climactic political fundraiser, but it's more of a chronological study of the city and its denizens than anything else--there won't be a final insert of anyone saying "and that's why I invited Ned Beatty to the party, because he's my cousin!" Carradine might run into everybody, he might not--Jeff Goldbum might be more than a carnival magician on a stupid motorcycle, but whether he is, the film doesn't say. It doesn't need to either--unlike other films with a kaleidoscopic viewpoint, Nashville isn't about inter-connecting relationships, any more than it is about anything in particular. It's just a city, full of interesting people at interesting moments, on their way towards a tragedy. Some of them, like Scott Glenn's near-silent Army vet, will be more affected by the climax of the film than others. Some of them, like Lily Tomlin, will reach their emotional crux a full half hour before the close of the film. It's not about "bringing them full circle." Nashville isn't a machine of plot, but it's a film cloaked in the texture of real life--the individuals that might make for the most important moments of a person's life are just meaningless bumper cars obstructing the paths of others who know them in the vaguest terms possible. Near the end of the film, when a distraught husband tries to make clear to his niece that her aunt has passed away, she slips away into the arms of another strange man, one of many that have found in her a willing companion in her short visit to Tennessee. It's these kinds of intersections that make up an entire film, an entire story--women and men, not desperate for love, but desperate to fulfill their own desires.
When Nashville reaches it's close, a film that is already overstuffed with brilliant performances tops even those, with a brutal, confusing death, and a crowd of people lost in their desires to grieve, while at the same time in staunch refusal to succumb to anything, to anybody, that wants to weaken them. It is there that Barbara Harris is to be found--ravenous, practically frothing at the mouth, and near lost to her own fantasies (it's easy to imagine she hasn't eaten anything, or slept, since early in the film when she runs from her truck-driving husband.) Through the accidents of circumstance and tragedy, she ends up with a microphone in her hand, and after a wrenching few moments of confusion, closes the film with a uproarious take on Keith Carradine's "It Don't Worry Me." It's an almost physical rebuke to the prospect of surrender, and it's one of, if not the, strongest moments in an altogether perfect film. It's also Robert Altman making clear the mission statement that would carry him throughout his life and career--that regardless of circumstance, funding or an ignoring public, his concern is his art, and nothing will stand in his way for long.
-Tucker Stone, 2008
Next time in Great Directors: A really bad film by Robert Altman, which, in a total shocker, isn't The Company or the one with Tara Reid and Kate Hudson.