refuse to call Robert Altman a genius, although I'd
argue that his film Nashville is the
best American movie of the past 25 years.
filmmakers—and I'm thinking here of such difficult-to-argue-with
names as Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin—have
all had their share of misfires. But no taken-seriously
director comes near rivaling the dud list that Altman
has racked up since scoring big with M*A*S*H in
Even if you excuse
such questionable calls as Popeye, Fool
for Love and Brewster McCloud,
Altman's dubious resume still includes A Perfect
Couple, O.C. and Stiggs,
Health, Come Back to the Five and
Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Buffalo Bill and
the Indians, Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear) and
Beyond Therapy. And if Jeannot Szwarc (the
hack behind Jaws 2, Supergirl
and Santa Claus) and legendary film
fuck-up Ed Wood put their empty heads together, they'd
have trouble coming up with anything as unwatchable
as Altman's Quintet.
Factor in how badly
they've all done at the box office—and the fact
that Altman has had star-power like Paul Newman and
Julia Roberts at his disposal—and you've got
what looks like a career of, at best, questionable
That isn't to say
that, prior to or since Nashville, Altman
wasn't capable of creating something worthwhile. It's
just that the torrential volume of crap makes the
achievement more remarkable. It's as if the guy who
paints dogs playing poker suddenly turned out "The
But I've come to praise
Altman, not to bury him, because this year marks the
quarter-century anniversary of Nashville.
Attention, therefore, should be paid.
In its time, there
was plenty of attention lavished on Nashville.
Pauline Kael—in a preemptive New Yorker review
that ran three and a half weeks before the film's
release—called it "the funniest epic vision
of America ever to reach the screen." If Kael
gushed, Roger Ebert offered a critical tongue kiss,
sputtering, "After I saw it, I felt more alive.
I felt I understood more about people. I felt somehow
It wasn't just the
film critics, though. Also chiming in were the literary
likes of Kurt Vonnegut ("I have often hoped that
the arts could be wonderfully useful in times of trouble.
I have seen few examples of that. Nashville,
however, fulfills my dream.") and E. L. Doctorow
("It is the first time I have seen a film that
is at the same time an act of prophecy.").
while plenty of column inches on the merits of Nashville
were printed at the time, it is now virtually forgotten,
like its lesser Altman cousins (with the exception
of M*A*S*H and The Player).
In the past few weeks, I've asked about a dozen under-30
movie lovers if they'd ever seen Nashville.
Not only had they not seen it—they hadn't even
heard of it. Scorsese's Taxi Driver?
Sure. Coppola's The Godfather? Of course.
But Altman's masterpiece? Blank stares.
those who saw the film on its initial release are
unlikely to have seen it since. It rarely makes a
TV appearance. You'd have to visit a better video
store to find it (and, once there, search diligently
to see if the help has filed it under Comedy, Musical
or Drama). Its profile may rise a bit thanks to anniversary
stories such as this one, plus the release of Jan
Stuart's play-by-play, making-of book The Nashville
Chronicles (Simon and Schuster, due out
in November). But without revival houses willing to
put it up on the big screen, Nashville
probably won't win many new converts this time around.
shame, because the film holds up (although it plays
much better on the big screen than "formatted
to fit" your TV screen). And now that it's been
liberated from such here-and-now concerns as whether
its songs accurately echo the Nashville sound, which
character corresponds to what real-life cowboy-hatted
star and if Pauline Kael needs a valium, the film
actually looks better and resonates deeper than it
did in 1975.
a plot wrap-up? That's not easy.
characters—a cross-section of musicians and
those in their orbits—collide through a couple
of days in the title town. Among them are a big-haired
star (Ronee Blakley) prone to fainting spells; a womanizing
member of a folk-rock trio (Keith Carradine); an advance
man (Michael Murphy) for a Third Party political candidate;
and, well, it goes on an on, tangent on tangent until
you don't know—or care—where the center
lies. (Given the similarity in structure to Ragtime,
it's no surprise that Doctorow was a fan.)
the elements that have become clichés of Altman's
films—multiple character arcs, overlapping dialogue,
off-kilter credit sequences (this one spoken by a
fast-talking TV pitchperson), self-conscious zooms,
throwaway details and unsolved mysteries—are
here, but somehow the trivialization and randomness
that plagues many of his other films never arises
Joan Tewkesbury, who gets screenplay credit and laid
the groundwork for the film's main characters and
scenes, deserves as much credit as Altman. As well
documented in The Nashville Chronicles,
she made the initial forays into the country music
capital, and there's an obvious direct relationship
between what she experienced on those trips and key
scenes and characters that wound up in the finished
the thread that ties the film together—the attempt
to gather talent for a political rally in support
of Third Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker—was
introduced later in the process by Altman, with the
help of political speechwriter Thomas Hal Phillips.
Clouding authorship further is the fact that the cast
was encouraged not only to improvise full lives for
their characters (often the actors didn't know who
the cameras were focused on), but also to write their
own songs. This led to a rich, eclectic soundtrack
that the real-life Nashville folks hated, but that
gave the film a verisimilitude impossible with a score
created by one composer.
we supposed to admire or laugh at the hokey homilies
of Ronee Blakley's "My Idaho Home"? Is Henry
Gibson's "Keep-a-Goin'" mocking strap-on-the-blinders/full-speed-ahead
naiveté or is it celebrating something important
and admirable in the American spirit?
true and beautiful about the film is that it never
firmly lodges itself under one heading. Think Nashville
is a parody? Listen closer to some of the songs. Drama?
Then why are you laughing so loudly? As soon as you
believe you have a character pegged, he or she does
something unexpected—not in the tacked-on, the-focus-group-wanted-it-this-way
methodology of today's Hollywood crowd-pleasures—but
in ways that enrich the characters without violating
them. Lily Tomlin's Linnea Reese is the sensitive
mother of two deaf children who sings in the church
choir. So what's she doing warming up to womanizing
Keith Carradine's Tom Frank? Henry Gibson's horribly-toupeed
Haven Hamilton appears to be just a power-mad jerk.
But when bullets are fired (this is a 70's film about
America, of course there has to be a gun involved),
Hamilton summons up spirit and courage that holds
the crowd together. In a barely-post-Watergate political
film, credit must be given for avoiding painting with
a palate limited to black and white.
plus is that the film avoids making the characters
mutually exclusive—the bane of cross-section-of-humanity
ensemble films. There's more than one aspiring singer
with little talent here; for instance, a couple of
paunchy husbands and more than one stoic loner. And
they are played by actors willing to bury themselves
in their roles. Not only do such little knowns as
Ronee Blakley, Gwen Welles and David Peel give performances
that ring disturbingly true, but even familiar faces
prove revelatory. Ned Beatty, Karen Black and Barbara
Baxley are particularly strong in very different ways,
as is Henry Gibson (I would love to have seen the
faces of potential producers when Altman told them
he wanted to cast the guy known primarily from Laugh-In—as
a country music king). The Nashville Chronicles
describes difficulties between Altman and both Barbara
Harris (playing a wannabe singer) and Allen Garfield
(as a star's bullying manager/husband). But both give
career-anchoring performances that generously fit
snugly with the ensemble.
have so many diverse talents blended so effortlessly.
No surprise that there was talk of releasing two separate
Nashvilles—each focusing on a dozen characters
but covering the same time period. It would have been
interesting—as would an aborted plan for a 1990s
sequel—but that would have requested Altman
lightning to strike twice.
not sure he's capable of pulling that off.
I'm glad he managed it once.