Directed By: Robert Altman
Written By: Joan Tewkesbury
Starring: Ned Beatty, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Lily Tomlin
Robert Altman has an amazing ability to transfigure complicated, difficult to articulate concepts into very human terms. With MASH, Altman channelled that all encompassing dread of war and how it blunts the soul, into juvenile men and women using hijinx to keep their morale up. He took an un-replicable fear and materialised it through very normal people doing very normal things. He made something challenging understandable for us.
It’s the same brilliance that characterises Nashville. His 1976 Best Picture nominee attempts to render the attitudes of an entire era, offering a cross section of 1970’s America amidst confusion, hopefulness and disillusionment. Again, Altman manages to contain these ideas, without diluting their significance, in portraits of everyday people, some of who are successful and some not, living their lives as we imagine people like them would. Altman realises his ideas so fully, yet he seems to do it under our noses. It all feels so real, so relatable and authentic, that it never occurs to us how much he’s tackling. He doesn’t need to raise his voice or be condescending by spelling his thoughts out. Rather he explores the 1970’s American attitude with such an astute realism and naturalism that we instead live these feelings. Altman’s insights seem to arise in us of our own accord, without us having ever been pointed in a direction. We are never told anything, instead we experience it.
Altman navigates the town in the vein of cinema verite. He observes like a fly on the wall, his presence as a director muted as the characters unveil themselves through basic conversation and nuance. There’s overlapping dialogue, and often Altman will track one character, only to spontaneously switch to tracking another who has stumbled into frame. It has the air of voyeurism about it, looking in on a series of unknowing subjects who go about their lives freely
Through its first hour Nashville does seem to flounder. It’s a heavily populated film which potters from one face to another to no discernible drum beat. But once it takes shape, once we begin to know these people, the film refines into one of the most thoughtful, open-ended examinations of life that can be recalled. And there are a great many faces Nashville sifts through, 24 main faces in fact, nearly all belonging to the country and gospel music scene the city has become so famed for.
It would be impossible to provide a synopsis, but Altman, with Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay, centre largely on the artists that make up the industry. There’s a great deal of music in the film, over a third of it is musical performance, but the music serves as an evocation of mood and insight into each character’s mind without providing plot in the traditional sense that a musical does.
In the film we meet the successful and pompous (chiefly Keith Carradine’s sleazy chauvinist Tom, and Henry Gibson’s patriotic but arrogant Haven Hamilton); the successful and weary (primarily Nashville’s favourite daughter Barbara Jean, played by Ronee Blakely, who is quietly imploding) and the hopelessly hopeful aspirers who view Nashville’s bustling music scene as the final frontier of America’s “land of opportunity” promise (among them Gwen Welles’ unknowingly talentless waitress Sueleen Gay.)
There’s also crazed agents, nosey, hyperbole spewing reporters and civilians like the gentle but frail old man (Keenan Wynn, the most touching of all the characters), waiting optimistically for his ailing wife to pull through, and the Pfc. (Scott Glenn) who feels obligated to Barbara Jean.
The central most character among them all is one that is never seen on screen, the populist presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker, whose philosophies unnervingly ricochet down the streets with omnipotence via his blaring campaign van. The significance of the Walker character is twofold. Nashville was made in the direct light of the Watergate scandal, and Walker serves as a mysterious incarnation of disenchantment with the American way, declaring once in office he’ll oust the lawyers in congress and change the national anthem; he’s a zeitgeist come to life. He also serves as a critical plot device. It’s his gala which allows the characters to finally converge upon one another in one of cinema’s most simultaneously tragic and beautiful endings. The seemingly mild mannered John Triplette (Michael Murphy) along with oily local lawyer Del Reese (Ned Beatty), recruit performers for the rally throughout the film and are our dot connectors.
It’s at this gala that something extraordinary happens. You would be forgiven for thinking that Nashville appears structureless, that it has no end game, but the star studded rally is a moment of finality. What happens in this moment is something which ought to have been completely predictable, and indeed is, but such is the magic of the film that we were busy living with the characters through their personal struggles, that the bigger picture, which always loomed, somehow crept up on us as it did them.
That’s what Nashville does. It completely inhabits us. We live with its characters and see the world as they do, through their filters. How humanistic of Altman to be able to so clearly draw so many people, to become so intimate with them with such efficiency that we’re able to be enveloped in each of their stories. We come to understand them, and their ticks, for better or worse. We at one once pity the delusional Sueleen but we also understand why it is she so believes she’ll make it. We are at once appalled by the misogyny of Tom but we also see that creeping insecurity and neediness within him. We understand why Lily Tomlin’s mother of two deaf children permits herself an instant of weakness. And then, in the film’s final moments, each character is shaken from what it is that encloses them, and they wake up to apparent truths.
What the characters do with this truth I’m sure is a point of contention. For some, it may signal an awakening, a call to arms, a moment of unity in a tumultuous time. For others it may signal a resignation to apathy. I tend towards the former, but the reading is valid either way, because that’s the film’s great skill. It speaks to us all, in ways which allow each of us to take from it our own reading, and each reading is always powerful, always profound.