If all Robert Altman did with his 1975 film Nashville was capture a specific snapshot of a city and its signature music in a specific cultural and political moment, that would be enough to insure the film a lasting place as an important document of American art.
The fact that the film is a masterpiece is a cherry on top.
Now available on a beautiful new Blu-ray as part of the “Paramount Presents” collection, Robert Altman’s Nashville is a sprawling ensemble picture that avoids any easy classification, being, by turns, an incredibly funny drama, a deeply tragic comedy, a slice-of-life mood-piece with no discernible narrative (or interest in one), and a rigidly-constructed puzzle box sliding into shape until the final, devastating, piece is slammed into place.
Playing out over the course of what should have been a few unremarkable days, Nashville follows a dozen different intersecting lives at varying levels of success in the local music and political scenes.
Let’s see, where to begin? Well, there’s Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a venerable star of the Nashville scene who stomps around in a pint-sized Nudie suit like a pompadoured Napoleon. And there’s Del Reese (Ned Beatty) a local mover-and-shaker who’s making in-roads into the Nashville political scene for “Replacement Party” candidate for president Hal Philip Walker, who’s represented by John Triplette (Michael Murphy) who can barely be bothered to hide his disdain for this town, its people, and its music. Reese is married to Linnea (Lily Tomlin) who records gospel music with a choir in the same recording studio as Hamilton.
And then there are the other stars entering the scene, including beloved, fragile, local girl made good Barbara Jean, (Ronee Blakley) accompanied by her manager-husband Barnett (Allen Garfield) and a host of mysterious medical problems, and a rivalry with other country-singing belle Connie White (Karen Black). Touching down at the same town is Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) and a musical trio composed of married couple Bill (Allan F. Nicholls) and Mary, (Cristina Raines) and confirmed bachelor Tom (Keith Carradine) who once in town immediately ditches his bandmates to instead make hay with the local unattached women (and the attached women as well).
And then (goddamn there are a lot of people in this movie) there are the oddballs on the fringes of the industry. There’s a shockingly clueless reporter who seems like she can’t possibly actually work for the BBC, Opal (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie); and there’s disheveled dreamer Winifred (Barbara Harris) who’s determined to break into the music industry even as she’s being outright hunted by her older, ill-tempered husband (Bert Remsen). Also seeking an in into the music business is airport waitress Sueleen, (Gwen Welles) whose absolute confidence in her destined success is matched only by her abject lack of talent, despite the efforts of her friend and co-worker Wade (Robert DoQui, who was in all three Robocop movies! Good for you, Robert!) to bring her to reason.
And then (fuck there’s a lot of people in this movie) there are those characters who are completely outside the societal and professional circles but who nonetheless move through the same world. There’s an intense looking young man in an Army uniform who seems fixated on Barbara Jean (played by Scott Glenn, who was apparently never young). And there’s polite, reserved loner Kenny (David Hayward) renting a room in the home of Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) who has flown his niece Martha (Shelley Duvall) into town to visit with her sick aunt, his wife, only for Martha to ditch him at every opportunity to instead shack up with every male singer she can find. And wandering through the background for the duration of the film is an unnamed, silent figure with no destination or purpose known only as “Tricycle Man” (Jeff Goldblum [yes, that one]).
That may seem like a lot to keep track of. And it is, you are correct in your estimation, well done you. Even writing it out like that, I still missed a few characters and left out some pertinent details of how various characters are related.
Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury toss you into the deep end, trusting that you will surrender yourself to the world they’ve built and eventually acclimate to the myriad characters and their existing and evolving relationships to each other. Altman shoots many sequences in long, wide shots, allowing familiar faces to wander through the background and foreground unnoticed by whoever the ostensible focus of the shot might be.
Nashville teaches you how to watch it as you are watching it. Your eyes quickly learn how to recognize a character you know even when they are lost in the midst of huge crowds. Your ears adjust to Altman’s trademark overlapping, semi-improvised dialogue until you know that what matters is not picking up each and every word being said but the emotional temperature of a given scene and how each individual character’s internal tides are shifting. “Don’t worry about missing anything,” the film promises. “It’s impossible to get it all.”
That may be the central thesis of Nashville: No one can ever truly know and understand the moment and place they find themselves. Each character is a prisoner of their own worldview, their own perspective, and trapped answering to their own wants and their own needs, each one proceeding blind to the ways that their lives are inextricably bound, and answerable, to equally blind strangers.
The person who should have the best grip on what’s going is of course, us, the audience. We are theoretically seeing the full story in a way that no one else can, with the closest thing to a complete understanding. And yet, when it counts, we are as clueless and lost as daffy nincompoop Opal, chasing after celebrities with her tape recorder and missing every important thing that anyone tries to tell her.
Even us, with our God’s eye view of the proceedings, are left unable to explain or understand the things we have seen. Characters we thought we had pegged as fools prove themselves capable, while characters we thought to be above reproach make choices of astonishing poor judgement. And the film climaxes with a shocking act of violence that defies all logic or reason. Even having seen every moment leading up to the violence, we are denied any insight into why it occurred, or what the final result of that violence turned out to be. We’re left holding scraps of time and pieces of moments, trying to fit them together into something that resembles a coherent story. And we fail.
Because Altman and Tewkesbury train you to be able to pick out individual faces in the crowd, it only serves to underline how many faces in the crowd we don’t know. Every face there has its own story, and each life has its own trajectory. In being so expansive and all-inconclusive, Nashville highlights how limited its viewpoint is. In trying to tell so many stories, it reminds you of how many stories you are missing, how incomplete your understanding of any moment in history might be.
Altman is a filmmaker that I can run hot and cold on. When someone had that long of a career, with so many highs, so many lows, and so many odd experiments, there’s going to be stuff that really works and stuff that falls flat. Nashville feels like a moment where his style and interests congealed with the exact right subject matter at the exact right time and delivered something truly definitive.
That said, I wish the film had made better space for its few black characters, who invariably are the ensemble members that get left behind as last among equals. There’s an early scene where Brown gets heckled out a bar by another black patron that’s fascinating and ugly and is also, regrettably, the last scene where Brown figures in as a character in his own right rather than just a black man occupying space around and behind more prominent white people.
But, again, that disbalance reaffirms what Altman and his collaborators seem to be getting at. In the aftermath of one berserk decade and midway through another one fraught with danger, paranoia, and a general aura of doom, Nashville promises that you will never fully understand the times you’re living in. You will never foresee the quirks of fate that might provide either a boon or a deathblow, depending on where you happen to be standing.
Maybe all we can do is just hope for the best and sing our hearts out.