It took three or four sittings to watch Robert Altman’s Nashville, for no good reason. As I’m working my way through “The List” (which, I realize, I need to make accessible here somewhere as I check them off), sometimes a screening isn’t totally convenient, and though some might argue that it would be better not to watch a film at all than to watch it over four days, I say it’s better than nothing. It’s even possible that an Altman film is a better film to stretch out and divide than most others. They’re generally very segmented, with various “connective tissues” (Altman’s words) used to string together otherwise only thematically-related stories. Plus, I figure I’ve digested the film slower than I would have in one sitting, which could be an advantage.
From the opening credits, there is Altman’s trademark incessant dialog as the film self-consciously opens with an announcement for itself over the credits, even naming the director aloud. As an aside, I am always delighted at such things as this. The film was released in 1975, and you have in it a little technique of the sort that directors are using all the time these days and getting the credit for them. The more you watch stuff any earlier than the 90s, the more you see that these “new auteurs” are often glorified hacks. Even the great Kurosawa was credited with the first direct camera shot at the sun in 1950 in Rashomon. But watch Gustav Machatý’s 1933 film Ecstasy (Ekstase), and there it is, seventeen years earlier.
Anyway. Nashville is remarkable for having politically-charged subject matter but being quite apoliticial at heart. The film is more of a commentary on politics in the USA and its social effects. Like anyone with a proper interest in politics, Altman is more concerned with the welfare of the people that politics promises to protect and serve, rather than the fine points of political discourse. By injecting political ramblings into the film in the form of a campaign van with a recording on loudspeaker, Altman points out that even the sorts of promises Americans most want to hear from its prospective politicians are usually impersonal at heart and not much more than a broken record.
But of course, this film is really about the music, the musicians, and the aspiring musicians (that pretty much covers everyone and everything in the film). Toward the beginning, the film implies a contrast between the white and black styles of making music in Nashville. A white group is in a studio recording, and a black group is in another. Cuts between the two groups demand a comparison/contrast. The white musicians are led by Haven Hamilton, a domineering, middle-aged godfather of mid-70s Nashville. His contribution to the music consists in crooning in his own booth and telling everyone else how not to play. He has a fit and leaves the studio because an out-of-town hippie named “Frog” isn’t playing piano right. Meanwhile, a black choir full of gospel soul sings and dances in unison, with Lilly Tomlin taking part not only in the choral singing but in a brief solo. Her out-of-place-ness (and unfortunate vocal contribution) doesn’t phase the rest of the choir. Perhaps this is taking it a step too far, but the black choir’s music is a celebration of life, whereas the white choir’s lyric material had a strongly defensive tone to it, with a chorus of, “We must be doin’ somethin’ right to last 200 years.”
The BBC woman claiming to make a documentary of Nashville was arguably the most interesting character in the film. Not that the character herself was particularly profound, but her status as a true outsider and self-mocking stand-in for Robert Altman offered some fascinating scenes. She sees the people of Nashville exactly as they present themselves: a spectacle. She completely buys into the idea of their music as performance as she voyeuristically pries into every person, place, and thing she can set her sights on. She only loses interest when someone begins to open up in a vulnerable, honest way. Only the juicy and sensational are worth her reporting. Her constant commentary on everything she sees and hears may serve more as Altman’s preemptive strike at the critics of this film rather than as his own stand-in. Her wordy diatribes are inherently empty and pretentious, and though the film’s final tragedy doesn’t directly result from her reporting, there is an undeniable connection. She scoffs at anything that is less than attractive or successful, as shown when she is taken aback and rendered speechless when Lilly Tomlin’s character tells her that both of her children are deaf and therefore could not have a career in music.
Apparently 1970s Nashville didn’t smile upon Altman’s film or the music that it contained. It’s difficult for me to comment on this with anything like objectivity. I’ve experienced a lot of Tennessee, including Nashville, and the time gap separating the present day from the era of this film seems insignificant. Perhaps it’s because I’m “west coast,” but Altman’s Nashville and the one I’ve seen don’t seem very different. Not that Altman was going for a documentary, but he was surely attempting to capture the place and time realistically. When a people presents itself on a stage, you have little choice but to see them that way: on a stage, as Altman’s many wide shots of the performers on wide stages show. In this way, Altman’s eye is not a voyeuristic one – he didn’t have to find a hole in the door. His interest in such things continued to the very end of his career in A Prairie Home Companion, which took advantage of another group of musical performers who enjoyed the stage.
Altman had a gift for a detached camera that has a humanlike expression to it, like a person’s face. He moves and point the camera in a way similar to how a person communicates with a smirk or eyebrow. Because of his technique, it doesn’t feel like one is watching a mere documentary – especially one claiming to be neutral. Once again, a camera and a gift for editing can say much more than pages of dialog. But in case there was any question, the style and lyrics of the country songs say a lot. This is bound to offend both Southerners and fans of this genre, but there is a simplicity to these country songs that doesn’t translate well to a mass audience and commercialism. Bluegrass music (at least in the old days) was full of rural wisdom, and it said things in such a way that the listener actually was better for having heard it. Many songs on this soundtrack are full of blind pride, arrogant pretense, and stupid patriotism. We are who we are and we’re the best and God put us here to always be the best, is the idea. The subculture depicted in A Prairie Home Companion, ironically, is much closer to old-school southern wisdom and humor than the world of Nashville.