Written by Joan Tewkesbury
Directed by Robert Altman
At the Cannes preview screening of Apocalypse Now in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola infamously declared, “Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.” Watching Robert Altman’s 1975 opus Nashville, perhaps the best film in a career full of exceptional work, one gets the feeling that it isn’t really about America; it is America. With its eclectic cast of individuals from all walks of life (typical for Altman), its sprawling narrative of disjointed personal and professional connections (ditto), and its setting of a distinctly American city around the time of our nation’s bicentennial, Nashville comes across as more than a fictional depiction of characters embodying certain nationalistic traits; it truly feels like the film is America in a nutshell. In the words of Keith Carradine, it’s an “extraordinary accomplishment.”
Now, with The Criterion Collection release of the film on a 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo, there is the chance to delve deeper into this film built on layer upon layer of finely tuned moments, moods, and music. Interviews with, and an audio commentary by, the late, great Altman are accompanied by a new documentary on the making of the film featuring stars Ronee Blakley, Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls, and Lily Tomlin, as well as screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, assistant director Alan Rudolph, and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman. Behind-the-scenes footage and a demo of Carradine performing songs from the movie round out this outstanding release.
Nashville contains everything that made Robert Altman the unique visionary that he was: the long takes with the ever-mobile camera, slow zooms with an unobtrusive detachment, overlapping dialogue recorded from an innovative multi-track system, and scenes of realistic and improvisatory behavior as if spontaneously caught unawares. It’s arguably the most complete compendium of his technique and talent. It’s also a showcase for a diverse assortment of performers. Altman regulars like Murphy and Shelley Duvall mix and mingle with newcomers like Blakley and Jeff Goldblum in this mosaic that boasts 24 primary characters. (Altman would more than double this amount a few years later with A Wedding and its featured players.) It’s to the credit of Altman and screenwriter Tewkesbury that these various threads manage to be woven together without major narrative knots or disagreeable loose ends. While most characters drift in and out of the picture, many without backstory or motivation, only discovered as the film progresses, by the end of the film a sense of satisfactory completion is nonetheless established, if not quite fully reconciled.
Among the performances, Tomlin is outstanding here in her first film role, and moments such as Blakley’s excruciating breakdown as Barbara Jean allow particular individuals to stand out from the crowd. (Both women would be nominated for Oscars.) However, from the amusingly self-conscious opening, where the cast is recited as if on a late-night record commercial, to the most memorable traffic jam this side of Jean-Luc Godard, Nashville is unmistakably an ensemble piece. Featuring ambitious and naive wannabes and pompously hallowed stars, the film is remarkable in the way it follows these contrasting characters, relying on their personal appeal more than their overt narrative function. Nashville was, as venerated critic Molly Haskell writes in her excellent essay accompanying the disc, a “crowning glory of a journey toward greater and greater freedom from conventional narrative cinema…”
As expected with a film set in Nashville, at the heart of the movie is music, specifically country-Western (with traces of folk, bluegrass, gospel, and rock). According to Altman, this “musical” contains nearly a full hour of songs, with some actors and actresses writing their own compositions; Carradine’s “I’m Easy” would receive the film’s sole Academy Award. Second to the music, and in many ways influenced by it, it’s the locale that emerges as a particular and peculiar place; rhinestones, cowboy boots, and fringed jackets adorn the film. While Altman and others interviewed acknowledge the animosity real Nashville residents felt when the film came out, they tend to downplay any sort of intentionally satirical tone the film may have had. This isn’t very convincing, though. A considerable amount of the film’s humor is undeniably at the expense of specific regional traits: their ideology, dialogue, costumes, the music. Nashville is as much a comedy as anything else, but it must be admitted who we’re laughing at. There are times, however, when local affection shines through and characters such as Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton using this native pride as an act of defiance in the face of the film’s concluding violence: “This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville! They can’t do this to us here in Nashville! Let’s show them what we’re made of. Come on, everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!”
Beyond this is where Nashville comes to signify and depict a wider sense of patriotic fervor. At once reflecting events from the decade previous while foreshadowing our current culture, it is this act of violence that serves as a dramatic and tragic catalyst for Nashville’s final moments. No stranger to political and social commentary, Altman nods to tumultuous times in the past and hints at those still to come; on this disc, he twice recalls when a Washington Post reporter asked if he felt responsible for John Lennon’s assassination. In the 71-minute documentary, Rudolph also ruminates on the political nature of the film and what he sees as the “pious patriotism” of some of its characters, particularly Haven, one of the established superstars of the film’s fictional music scene. It’s he who sings the nationalistic tune, “200 Years”; Rudolph criticizes this as a “skewed look at America” (he suggests it could be the anthem for today’s Tea Party movement). In the 2000 interview, Altman declares his intentions with this panoramic film as being to “reflect American sensibilities and politics.” Mission accomplished.
The documentaries and interviews do a good deal to illuminate the making of Nashville and Altman speaks insightfully on his ideas about this picture in particular and his wider views on filmmaking in general. Not a believer in the auteur theory, he gives considerable credit to his collaborators, something he’s always been known for and something that obviously kept the same people coming back to work with him time and time again. Occasionally, he’s overly generous in his recognition, suggesting in the 1975 interview that his films are 98 percent the writer and 2 percent him (though he adds, “my 2 percent is really big.”). He also tantalizingly mentions some extra footage that was apparently at the time planned for a television showing of Nashville. Altman’s comments, especially in this interview, are astute and provocative: “I consider myself an artist,” he says. “And by that I’m not a politician”; at one point, he also declares, in what must be seen by many as cinematic blasphemy, “I never liked John Ford.”
Others involved in the film provide fresh information as part of the 2013 documentary. Tewkesbury especially relates valuable material about her writing, starting with her visit to Nashville where she recorded her adventures, essentially living out the role of Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal in the film. She points out that Nashville is built in a circle, and that this contributed to the larger choreography of the film’s structure, where you have characters moving in and out of certain locations and back again. The film is an “event that moves through space,” she says.
The 1970s were a good decade for Robert Altman, with M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, and The Long Goodbye made before Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, 3 Women, and A Wedding. That Nashville emerges as arguably the key film during this period is a testament to its greatness. (Some may contend that M*A*S*H remains Altman’s most popular movie. Perhaps. But in many cases, this fondness is at least partially based on the television show, which Altman had nothing to do with and did not care for.) Quirky, unique, and technically and artistically fascinating, Nashville is also endlessly watchable. Despite all the personal drama and its traumatic conclusion, it’s ultimately an affirming film. Barbara Harris, whose character, Albuquerque, finally gets her much struggled for moment in the spotlight at the end, offers this piece of closing advice: “If we don’t live peaceful, there’s gonna be nothin’ left in our graves except Clorox bottles and plastic fly swatters with red dots on ’em.” An inspiring message if ever there was one.