Wednesday, July 30, 2014

EW #9: Nashville (1975)

Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton in Robert Altman's masterpiece Nashville

Although this entry once again emphasizes the strong bias of the EW staff in favor of 1970s American cinema, Nashville, Robert Altman's 1975 epic about the music industry and American politics, is truly a masterpiece worthy of very high placement on any Top 100 Films List. For Altman himself and for 1970s Hollywood cinema writ large, it just doesn't get much better than Nashville. 

Nashville is one of my very favorite films, bar none -- it appears on my "Top 40 Films" list of last November and is one of only nine movies to place on my personal Top 40 and on EW's 100 Best Films list.*

Film critic Robin Wood identifies Nashville as essential Altman, stating that
Everything in Altman so far -- the good and the bad -- comes together in Nashville. Its great scenes -- Gwen Welles' enforced striptease, Ronee Blakley's onstage breakdown, everything involving Lily Tomlin -- are all centered on the characters' exposed vulnerability and realized with painful intensity. At the other extreme are the embarrassingly Cutie-pie uncredited guest appearances of Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as Themselves.
Unlike me, Wood is none too keen on these latter moments of meta-textual wit; for him, they disrupt or lessen Nashville's potential political impact. He concludes:
The film's total effect -- for all the marvelous local successes -- is to engulf the spectator in its movement of disintegration, making intellectual distance impossible. The ironic force of the ending, with the crowd confronting catastrophe by singing "It don't worry me," a communal refusal to think, is weakened not simply by the inability to offer any constructive alternative but by a perverse rejection of the possibility.**
Wood claims to feel "somewhat sick and depressed" at the end of Nashville, and that, I think, is a proper response (though I typically respond with schadenfreude-laced elation). The film's dead-on accurate portrayal of how American jingoism blinds us to the real machinations of capitalism should indeed disturb and, to some extent, sicken us.

However, I disagree with Wood that intellectual distanciation is rendered impossible by Nashville. In some ways, the film's very mythic/allegorical dimension, the way so many of its characters, while being very particular, feel like stand-ins for classic American types, encourages us to read the film symbolically and intellectually. Nashville's darkly ironic use of the American flag and that closing song surely provoke me to respond thinkingly to the film, to consider it as an eerily accurate mythic summation of the contradictions inherent to American character and culture.

This prominently placed American flag freights the final sequence of Nashville 
with mythic -- if deeply ironic -- layers of meaning.

No, I instead prefer Jonathan Rosenbaum's succinct assessment of Nashville from his book Essential Cinema:
In point of fact, the film celebrates as much as it ridicules -- often doing both the same time -- while giving both its brilliant cast and its audience too much elbowroom to allow for any overriding thesis.***
That's just it. If my post thus far makes Nashville sound like some sort of pedantic manifesto or overt "social statement," that is not an accurate portrait. Altman's great talent lies in creating films that feel "lived-in" and real. His heavy dependence upon his actors and his insistence that they improvise and go off-script keeps his work from ever feeling too artificial or "writerly."† So even if, in the broad strokes, Nashville resonates on political, mythic, and satirical levels, it nevertheless feels so real and alive and delightful in all its interactive particulars that it never feels heavy handed or false. If anything, its ability to draw the viewer in, to involve us in its wonderfully human textures, may be exactly what makes Wood feel so disturbed by the ending of it -- it is difficult, once one is immersed in such a believable, nuanced, and enjoyable onscreen world, to extricate oneself from the darker, more violent implications of that world's underlying logic.

As Rosenbaum puts it,
The difference between conventional methods and Altman's is one between directness and indirectness, actions and interactions -- the actors', the characters', the director's, the scriptwriter's, and our own. It is decidedly a group endeavor, and, as such, one that lives and breathes in an intangible no-man's-land between "thinking" and "playing" for the filmmakers, "thinking" and spontaneous "reacting" for the audience: the relative strengths of both values are held. ††
To sum up, Altman's films, and perhaps especially Nashville, are difficult to describe or assess in words; to see them is to experience something quite ethereal and magical and particular to the workings of (Altman's) cinema.

Yet I can say a few words about why Nashville is particularly essential viewing. Besides the fact that it is one of Alman's most assured and "unified" films (if that word is even appropriate when describing a filmmaker like Altman), Nashville is also an important historical film, one of a group -- including The Parallax View, All The President's Men, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, and The Deer Hunter -- that accurately characterize the vibe of post-1960s, post-Watergate America. Nashville's assassination plot and ironic use of anthemic-sounding music tie it formally to this group of films, while its downbeat, relaxed, even humorous tone make it stand out uniquely among this otherwise heavy menagerie.

Further, what Nashville achieves that few other Hollywood films of any era do is to stage an effective critique of the insidious and cruel nature of consumer capitalism. Every single musician or aspiring musician we see in the film has been co-opted and used in some way. Haven Hamilton is a pawn of the Nashville promotional scene and of local politics; Barbara Jean and Tommy Brown are token minorities who are used and then thrown aside; and poor Sueleen Gay is an aspiring singer whose very American dreams expose her to humiliations of the worst kind.

Aspiring musicians perform at a deafeningly loud racetrack, ignored by 
an indifferent crowd. Their plight reflects the fate of all the musicians we see in the film: 
the capitalist system lets them climb toward fame and fortune but gives them nothing in return, killing them metaphorically and (in some cases) literally. 

Indeed, one of Nashville's great strengths is its relentless exposure of the commodification and exploitation of women that lies at the heart of patriarchal (popular) culture. Although Wood argues that "Altman's identification with a female (never feminist) position is extremely problematic: it is limited almost exclusively to the notion of woman-as-victim, to sensations of pain, humiliation, and breakdown," I assert that this strategy is very effective and is aligned with the tradition of melodrama, which foregrounds and ennobles female suffering.††† For me, the heartbreaking scene in which Sueleen (Gwen Welles) does a striptease under duress is one of the most excruciating scenes in all American cinema -- as it should be. Far from exploitative, this scene, like most of the scenes involving the convalescing (recovering?) Barbara Jean, serve to highlight the ways in which the patriarchal entertainment industry -- which has clear ties to our patriarchal political leadership -- vampirically exploits women's bodies and talents in order to make more profit and further its oppressive ends. If everyone is exploited under capitalism, Nashville seems to say, women are exploited most of all, and suffer for it the most painfully.

Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean, one of the most moving and heartbreaking 
characters in Nashville

Finally, I take it as significant that the song the crowd sings together at the end -- "It Don't Worry Me" is actually a hit radio song composed (in the world of the film) by callow folk-rocker Tom Frank and heard in snippet form on his album and requested by fans at a pub before we finally hear it sung in full by all in the denouement. In other words, far from being a grassroots anthem, this song of "resistance" -- or is it compliance? -- that the crowd spontaneously sings is actually itself a commodity, a song marketed to them by the same Nashville music industry that set the stage for the film's climactic tragedy. The crowd is simply reproducing what the exploitative system has already sold to them. In this way the film interweaves the political and the pop-cultural, showing us that what counts as "culture" in America is a for-profit, totalizing network of systems -- fully encompassing party politics -- that only requires our docile participation in order to maintain its awful, exploitative momentum.  Nashville thus incisively exposes how supposedly "apolitical" performers and activities are anything but.

Yet there I go again, harping on Nashville's political themes, when I should be emphasizing how well-acted, cleverly constructed, witty, touching, and fun this film is to watch. There are many films I consider to be socially or politically important, but few that I return to nearly as often as Nashville for the sheer pleasure of it. I give this film my highest endorsement and urge all of my readers to check it out.

Arnold Schwartzenegger and Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.

Bonus Afterthought: Despite my deep appreciation for the Altman films I have seen -- about nine altogether, and a few of those so long ago I don't remember them well -- I have not seen a great many and am no expert on the director. Sure, nine films sounds like a respectable number, but Altman is prolific and that count does not include crucial entries like California Split (1974) and 3 Women (1977). Plus my memories of the seminal McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) are rusty at best.

Nevertheless I can point you toward a few of the other Altman features I have enjoyed most: Gosford Park (2001), Short Cuts (1993), and The Long Goodbye (1973).

A bit less ambitious but no less well-crafted than his mid-career epics, Gosford Park is a delightful treat that any moviegoer should enjoy. One of Altman's few films set outside the U.S. context -- in Great Britain -- this comedy of manners/whodunit will surely appeal to fans of the hit BBC series Downton Abbey, particularly since its screenplay was penned by Downton creator Julian Fellowes.

The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts are both exemplary L.A. films, the former a parodic riff on film noir, the latter another lengthy "tapestry" film of interweaving stories similar to Nashville. I have a hard time choosing which of these two films I like better -- they are tied for my second-favorite Altman film after Nashville. I recommend Goodbye to fans of film noir and offbeat comedy, but would probably have to consider Short Cuts more essential viewing if you have the time to invest in it -- at just over three hours, it is twenty-five minutes longer than Nashville.

* The nine films appearing on both lists are: The Wild Bunch [#83], 2001: A Space Odyssey [#25], Blade Runner [#81], Chinatown [#31], Double Indemnity [#40], Nashville [#9], Psycho [#5], Rules of the Game [#39], and Night of the Living Dead [#79].
** Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond, p. 36.
*** Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema, p. 92.
† The exception to this rule is Altman's debut feature, MASH, which, as Rosenbaum points out, is a relatively focused "thesis film" quite different from all of Altman's subsequent work (Essential Cinema pp. 81-2).
†† Rosenbaum, p. 81.
††† Wood, p. 38. For more on melodrama, see Linda Williams' "Melodrama Revised" and/or Kathleen Karlyn's Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers. 


  1. Thanks for this great take on Nashville. I'm overdue to rewatch it, and this will surely influence my reading of it. Also,3 Women is my favorite Altman, in a career full of masterpieces. You're in for a treat.

    1. I can't wait! It streams on Netflix, so . . .

      I also plan to re-watch THE PLAYER and MCCABE & MRS. MILLER soonish, as those are the ones I am hazy on.

  2. My only problem with NASHVILLE is how awful the music is. I've read here and there that the reason this film never caught on with country music fans is that it's politics are out of sync with rural conservatives. I don't buy it, not only because it's not just rural conservatives that like country music, but because the greatest country musicians of that time period (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, etc.) were anti-establishment. I think it's more likely that they just can't stand a movie called NASHVILLE, a three-hour rambling drama about country music, having not one good song in it.

    Also, I'm surprised you didn't mention how much GOSFORD PARK is related to THE RULES OF THE GAME, considering how much you love that film.

    1. Good points both -- I have no idea why I neglected to mention the Renoir film.

      I would also argue that there are at least a few good songs in NASHVILLE, though: Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy," the other folksy song his trio performs in the same scene, and everything sung by Ronee Blakley, the one truly great singer in the bunch.

      But yes, most of the songs are crap.