Robert Altman's Nashville: trenchant satire of the music industry, or gentle slice of Americana? Rambling, meandering story of two dozen loosely connected people, or insightful examination of the tapestry of life? Extremely long movie that's funny and inspired, or extremely long movie that's insufferable?
The answer is yes, all of the above. To watch the movie without any advance preparation is probably a doomed mission, as the film doesn't do many of the things that we generally expect our movies to do. But if you know what you're in for, you may find it as engrossing and affecting as its many admirers do.
The praise: The only Oscar it won was for Best Original Song, but it was nominated for four others: Best Picture, Best Director, and two Best Supporting Actresses (Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley). In the New York Times, critic Vincent Canby called it "the movie sensation that all other American movies this year will be measured against." Roger Ebert wrote, "Sure, it's only a movie. But after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser." The American Film Institute ranked it #59 on its 2007 list of the 100 best American movies ever made.
The context: Robert Altman had a knack for captivating critics and befuddling audiences. His style allowed for huge ensemble casts and naturalistic, heavily improvised dialogue, with characters often speaking over each other. That happens all the time in real-life groups, of course, but rarely in movies, and it means you have to pay attention if you want to follow the action.
Ah, but then there's this: There often isn't much action in an Altman film, at least not in the traditional sense. The stories are often open-ended, with some plot threads unresolved. Critics lauded most of his pictures, while audiences -- unprepared for what to expect -- often wondered, "What's the big deal?"™
The highest-grossing film of Altman's career, MASH (1970), made $81 million -- an enormous $385 million at today's ticket prices -- and launched the director (who had gotten his start directing TV shows and industrial short films) into a decade of tremendous activity. MASH was followed by Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974), and California Split (1974): seven films in four years, all of them praised by critics.
Yet Altman, who died in 2006 (A Prairie Home Companion was his last film) never came close to matching MASH's level of popular success. The second-highest-grossing film of his career was Popeye (1980), whose $50 million take would be $136 million in 2010 dollars -- and, what's more, that film is generally remembered now as a disastrous flop. (It actually turned a profit.)
Nashville, released in 1975, caused Vincent Canby to declare, "It should salvage Mr. Altman's reputation in Hollywood as a director who makes movies only for the critics." This didn't exactly turn out to be prophetic. While Nashville was less of a turn-off to wide audiences than, say, Images had been, it still only made $10 million ($36 million at today's ticket prices).
It is safe to say, however, that Altman didn't care. He knew his movies defied many conventions, and he knew they required concentration to be appreciated. He routinely worked to make sure his films were rated R simply so they wouldn't be seen by children, who he knew wouldn't have the patience for them. The fact that many adults didn't have the patience either was of little concern.
Nashville, which has plenty to say about politics, was filmed in the summer of 1974, when a lot of Americans also had plenty to say about politics. The Watergate scandal -- the only American scandal to have "-gate" as its suffix without being annoying -- had been on everyone's minds since mid-1972; the longer it dragged on, the more outraged and disillusioned people became. Roger Ebert reports that Nashville's Grand Old Opry sequence was filmed on Aug. 8, 1974 -- the very day that Nixon resigned.
By the time Nashville was released, in June 1975, it had come to reflect America's new cynicism and mistrust of political leaders. The only presidential resignation in the country's 200-year history was still as fresh as a slap in the face. The long, divisive war in Vietnam had only recently come to its unsatisfying conclusion. The U.S. economy was lousy, with high unemployment and inflation. To turn on the radio was to hear Captain & Tennille and The Carpenters, with the early stirrings of disco beginning to emerge. In short, 1975 was a terrible time.
Yet people remained patriotic. Watergate symbolized the failure of corrupt men, not of America itself. Indeed, the fact that the country had not crumbled altogether in the face of a disgraced president, a bad economy, and an unpopular war -- things which have certainly toppled other nations -- was seen as proof that America was still fundamentally sound. The country's bicentennial celebrations were only a year away. For all its problems, the United States was still beloved by most of its citizens, including the Missouri-raised Altman. The first song in the film declares, "We must be doing something right to last 200 years," and it's only being slightly ironic.
Though it has politics at its center, Nashville is also about things like the nature of success and celebrity in America; the role of women in modern society; and the changing face of that most American of musical genres, country-and-western. In all these areas, Altman reflected the current mood so well that Nashville is something of a time capsule. If someone wanted to re-create the mid-1970s -- and I cannot imagine why they would -- Nashville would be a good reference point.
The movie: The setting is Nashville (duh) during the run-up to the presidential primaries. A man named Hal Phillip Walker, representing the Replacement Party ("New roots for the nation"), is holding a rally here in a few days, and his operatives are in town to get support from local entertainers and businessmen. It is hoped that some of Nashville's prominent country singers will lend their voices to the Hal Phillip Walker cause.
The film has some two dozen significant characters but no "lead." When new characters are introduced, often the only way of knowing right away that they're going to be important is if you recognize the actor. We see them cross paths and interact with one another, engaged in chit-chat that is often mundane and everyday.
What it influenced: Tim Robbins starred in Altman's The Player in 1992, and his own directorial debut, Bob Roberts, from the same year, seems to draw inspiration from Nashville. He would imitate the Altman style later, in 1999, with Cradle Will Rock.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has frequently cited Altman as an influence, and he dedicated his most recent film, There Will Be Blood, to his memory. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love all have some Altman in their moods, their styles, and their characters.
When someone describes a film as "Altmanesque," they usually mean it has a large ensemble cast and many intersecting stories, and they're almost always referring to Nashville. It was here that Altman established the style that came to define him. Using the term loosely, "Altmanesque" applies to last year's political comedy In the Loop, the Oscar-winning racism drama Crash, and Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, to name just a few.
What to look for: Altman's intent here is make you feel like you've lived with these characters for a couple hours, like an omniscient and impartial observer. The only way that will work is if you pay attention. There is a plot, but it's minimal; even when something momentous happens there isn't much fanfare. Altman wants to present real life, with its untidy plots and unresolved concerns. People talk over each other a lot. You won't always be able to make out every single word of dialogue, but you'll get the gist of what's being said.
Ebert writes: "The buried message may be that life doesn't proceed in a linear fashion to the neat ending of a story. It's messy and we bump up against others, and we're all in this together." That's as good a summary as I've found. We're all threads in the fabric of life, woven together on the loom of humanity, worn as a shirt by the universe. Or something.
You may also expect that this is a musical -- not the "people bursting into song as they walk down the street" kind, but the kind where there's lots and lots of singing. Many of the characters are performers, and we see them in their element quite a bit. Altman was proud of the fact that the film has something like an hour of music in it, and that the actors and musicians performed live for the cameras (rather than recording it beforehand and lip-synching, which is the normal practice). This gives it an authentic feel and adds to the film's "fly on the wall" aesthetic.
Even if country music is not your thing -- and goodness knows I will not blame you if it isn't -- don't succumb to the temptation to fast-forward through the songs. You may find that their lyrics, though not officially connected to the plot lines, do reflect on them. The songs are affectionately in the true Nashville style and are not intended as parodies.
Pay attention to the women in the film, and the many different ways they strive to make a difference in their little worlds. One of them performs what must be the saddest striptease in movie history (and I've seen a lot of really sad stripteases). One has talent but no place to show it until a tragedy occurs and she gets her big chance. Lily Tomlin, who was nominated for an Oscar, is terrific as the mother of two deaf children and the bored wife of Ned Beatty. Watch her especially, just because she's so good.
The subject of assassination comes up, first through a monologue given by Barbara Baxley about her character's affection for John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and subsequently for other reasons. Note that in 1975, while many American political figures had been killed in public, the assassination of an entertainer was still mostly unheard of. What does the film say about fame and success? And is there really any difference between being a celebrity and being a politician?
What's the big deal: Upon being informed that Nashville seeks to imitate real life, complete with unresolved subplots and a lack of major action, the skeptic might say, "I go to the movies to escape from real life, not to see it duplicated." The skeptic makes a valid point. Often the movies we enjoy remind us of real life -- they're set in real places, with characters who resemble people we know -- but with the dull and frustrating parts cut out, leaving only the neatly summarized action and the satisfactorily resolved problems. In other words, most of the movies we watch help us cope with real life by presenting an idealized version of it.
But there is value in a movie like Nashville. Though on the surface it is often mundane and ordinary, it paints a marvelous portrait of two dozen intriguing characters, none with more than about 20 minutes of screen time, yet each one sharply drawn. "Real life" sounds like a turn off -- but don't forget, real life is often pretty neat, too. Real life is where our friends, families, and lovers are. If you can let yourself be drawn into the world of Nashville, you may find yourself liking and relating to its inhabitants not as if they were characters in a movie but as if they were people you know. Most movies intentionally avoid duplicating real life and thus don't make that kind of connection.
Further reading: As mentioned, Nashville doesn't have a whole lot of plot. Nonetheless, to avoid having what plot there is spoiled for you, don't read these until after you've seen it.
Vincent Canby's review of the film in The New York Times is representative of the critical response to it.
At Salon, Ray Sawhill wrote a terrific appraisal of the film upon its 25th anniversary. If I thought I could get away with it, I would have simply plagiarized the whole thing here.
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Eric D. Snider (website), like Nashville and Watergate, is a product of the mid-1970s.