By Lou Harry

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000


I 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.

"Genius" 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 1970.

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 judgments.

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 Starry Night."

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 wiser."

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.").

But 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.

Even 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.

A 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.

Need a plot wrap-up? That's not easy.

Twenty-four 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.)

All 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 here.

Perhaps 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 film.

Yet 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.

Are 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?

What's 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.

Another 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.

Never 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.

I'm not sure he's capable of pulling that off.

But I'm glad he managed it once.