Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)
Can you, the faithful reader of this weblog, indulge me for one brief moment of “meta” self-analysis? Look, writing a critique of a film or of anything else is never a deeply intuitive response, which is one reason why discussion about art should center on an exchange rather than a debate of ideas, conflicting or non. In roughly eight years of writing long film reviews in various forms, I’ve gotten no better at automatically articulating my instinctive responses to words, sounds, images. I have never controlled what I like and don’t like — I simply know the difference, and these lengthy dispatches consist of me trying my best to understand from what these responses are an outgrowth. The reason for the knee-jerk. You’re not reading the work of an expert witness, at least not an expert in regard to anything except my own feelings. With that in mind, the first confession I must make about Nashville — a pretty good film that eventually makes me unreasonably, cartoonishly angry as it hits its climax — is in regard to its director. Robert Altman remains an elusive and daunting subject for me. Of his major classics, I’ve seen but two, and so any testimony from me about his stylistic fixations and broader trends is necessarily flawed.
Nevertheless, you have to have read very little about Altman to gather the many ways in which Nashville is an apex of his signature methods. A sprawling, multi-character pastiche of the music and political scenery in the title city, it’s an ambitious, only vaguely narrative cumulative collection of overlapping dialogue and busyness. If you close your eyes for the duration of the film, you get the whole story. Politics come from a droning series of megaphone announcements from a hot, idealistic presidential candidate that drift in and out for all of the 2+ hours. The songs, which must be and are featured with great care and prominence, are superb, surprisingly enough nearly all written and performed by the film’s actors, all of them memorable, and all of them holding together an overflowing mess of a film.
What I mean by “signature methods”: Nashville is shot in what apparently is the typical Altman style of haphazard drifting between characters of only tenuous connection, that in this case being that all of them are lost in Tennessee, lives drowned out by the music. Trained in television, Altman takes a nonlinear, multi-camera approach and captures whatever he’s able… or at least that’s the way he would like it to seem. Many accounts given by screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury suggest more grand design is at work here than one might suspect, which in a sense is a greater tribute to the director than if some degree of chance truly drove the production.
But that would only be the case if Altman used the illusion of life properly, which he only does about half the time. Though it’s refreshing that there are no character introductions or expository material, the early portions of the movie are seriously marred by the evidently deliberate lack of discernible direction; things pick up in the second hour. The spontaneity does not seem so forced when momentum builds, and it isn’t necessarily “plot” that builds it so much as a growing involvement with individual characters and intrigue at the casual meshing of stories. In the center of the film, there are elements of reality as startling as those (unabashedly contrived) in Hal Ashby’s great efforts of the ’70s. Bizarrely enough, the less Nashville shies away from convention, the better it is. But the places in the film that are moving may owe a lot more than I’m assuming to the jigsaw cutting, the dirty and intentionally unposed photography. Certainly Altman finds something inherently moving in his use of slow camera movements, zooms and tracking shots as they unobtrusively document the fully engaged work of his actors. The slow zoom in on Ronee Blakley during her masterful, show-stopping performance of the beautiful “Dues” is therefore the emotional peak of the film, so much so that you sort of wish there’d been less to clutter its surroundings.
Having said that, Nashville‘s strange falling together of strands does possess a startling naturalism at times, and that’s in spite of the somewhat reductive characterization of the too-great number of thin and flat characters bogging us down. This feeling of witnessing something as a sort of roving, disconnected observer owes a lot to the great individual performances throughout the film. Blakley is superb as a frail superstar, Karen Black is Blakley’s less-gifted mirror image, Keith Carradine is completely believable as a douchebag central folk rocker juggling lovers and tugging deceptive heartstrings with the classic “I’m Easy,” Barbara Harris is tremendous as an amateur seeking attention, Ned Beatty is a horny-toad attorney, Lily Tomlin gives her most stunning ever performance as a gospel singer and tormented wife, and Gwen Welles nearly steals the film as a deeply untalented vocalist ripe to be taken advantage of. But as strong and capable as each actor is, none of their roles delves far beyond these brief summaries; there are no arcs, simply the way things are and the way they interact. For some, that holds appeal; for others, it’s a kitchen-sink treatment that prevents much emotional attachment. And can even a defender justify the needless presence of Geraldine Chaplin as the comic relief, a loudmouthed reporter? She simply doesn’t belong in the same movie as these other aching, enigmatic, vague but deeply suggestive performances, which coalesce and complement one another beautifully as the story, such as it is, progresses.
Nevertheless, the very momentum that initially saves the film is what finally kills it. In the last half-hour, Altman shoehorns the plot into the feature, and does so in the most painfully unsubtle manner imaginable. His convergence of cunt-ree music and presidential power probably — outside of its all-too-obvious message — is trying to drive toward the meeting of movies and reality at the close of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. Instead, it recalls nothing so much as Angela Lansbury’s over-the-top summary of her husband’s proposed catapult to power near the end of The Manchurian Candidate. In a film that so determinedly (and smugly) skirts the obvious, and does so skillfully enough to remain entertaining, it’s quite sickening to watch a metaphor driven forward in such a literal way (the lifeless bloody body carried away as if on its way to be nailed to a cross), all funneled through a dreadful “this is America in the ’70s” ham-handedness. I can’t help but think of Taxi Driver and its even more insipid misfit-gone-crazy plotline, but at least Taxi Driver was a lousy movie from start to finish and thus didn’t disappoint when its ending dropped one’s jaw with its “powerful” silliness.
What I’m getting at, I guess — with the understanding that it’s a personal bias to some extent — is that either the naturalism is something of a put-on or the awkwardly presented climax has no business being here. From a structural standpoint, a movie like Nashville strikes me as taking the easy way out. In a film with this much stuff in it, of course something is going to be sublime. The logic seems to be that the director and/or screenwriter hasn’t enough faith in a single story arc or central character, or even a specific situation, so they throw in thirty of them and expect the quantity itself to make an impression. So many films that break the two-hour mark really offend not because of their raw length but because of the overstuffing, the filler, the labored complexity. A hundred darts are thrown. Two or three of them hit the center of the board, but are the other ninety-seven taken out? Of course not, because then the movie would lose its sprawl, and the sprawl is the point. And on seeing this a second time, I understand that, but why then so forcefully or maybe lazily throw in the bravura final sequence? For the film to work for me, I suppose I’d want it to be either more focused on a few central characters or to eliminate this finale and suggest a slice-of-life documenting a State of Things in a time and place, rather than brushing up against this and attempting to make a grand statement of it.
So in the end, Nashville is a cheat, but its great moments remain genuine, even as they can be seen to exist wholly separately from the film’s overall purpose. Which makes it all the more confusing, but I suppose on the whole it’s simply a lot less than the sum of its parts: great individual scenes, a few wonderful performances, many stellar songs, a few good bits of social commentary, a few interesting stories to tell, brilliant sound design, and admirable ambition. But it adds up to something merely noteworthy, not something great. If it’s any consolation, though, I’m less sure about all this than I was the first time. Weeks later, Blakley’s voice and Tomlin’s face are still sticking with me, which says something.
[Expanded from a review initially posted in, uh, 2006? I think]