So, it’s the Fourth of July and I have been on a sort of mental binge, trying to figure out which films appeal to the holiday spirit. In the case of this most colorful of holidays, my mental compass points inexorably toward Steven Spielberg’s Jaws while the patriot in my aims toward Michael Curtiz classic Yankee Doodle Dandy. I find that a good number of meatball patriots have gravitated toward Mel Gibson’s The Patriot while at the same time I find distress in the fact that many people these days choose to give their day to Roland Emmerich’s dull-witted Independence Day, a movie that, for me, is really like gorging on a tub of frosting. It’s sweet, confectionery, but instantly forgettable and of no nutritional value what-so-ever.
My favorite classic of the Fourth of July is a movie that doesn’t appeal to many today because its structure is so erratic, its outcomes are too grim and its individual stories often feel incomplete. If you know Robert Altman’s work then this shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Nashville is one of those time capsule movies, a movie that extols the virtues and values (or lack thereof) of the current moment in American history. It was released in 1975 at the end of a long and difficult period, exactly 42 days after the official end of the Vietnam War and less than a year after Watergate – the Grand Old Opry scene was filmed on the day that Nixon resigned. It is not a comedy in a traditional sense, nor is a drama in any familiar sense. The characters cross one another like busy patrons in an airport terminal. Some we don’t know that well, and others we know all too well, but all of which we wish we knew better. Any character in this movie could have had his or her own movie.
What appeals to me is Robert Altman’s style. He often said that he didn’t direct so much as he presided over accidents. He was a director who was famous for traffic control amid a multitude of actors, a talent he put to good use in MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Popeye, The Player, Short Cuts, Cookie’s Fortune, Gosford Park and the underrated A Prairie Home Companion. Nashville is my favorite because it encapsulates all of the elements that made Altman a maverick filmmaker. While other directors run down a checklist for their plot and their characters, Altman tears down the fences and allows his actors to roam free, to expand their characters beyond simplistic formulas. He doesn’t rely on heavy plotting but puts his films in the hands of the characters and lets them their own story. He was generous with his actors, often allowing them to improvise and in Nashville, which is predominantly a musical; he even let his actors write their own songs.
The main hub of the story takes place in Nashville in the middle of a major political campaign for an unseen political candidate named Hal P. Walker who is running on a fringe party and announces his candidacy by driving around in a van with loudspeakers. That’s only the framework that leads to the finale. What we see along the way are a gallery of characters who are interlocked within personal and professional relationships, between sad histories, poor life decisions, reconciliations, arguments, donnybrooks and a lot of great music. There are parents, children, brothers, sisters, lovers, co-workers, old friends, ex-friends and total strangers. We meet a lot of different kinds of people, some who act honorably, some who act despicably, and some who hurt others, some who work on other’s behalf and some who only come to around when the chips are down.
I remember years ago when Roger Ebert wrote his essay about Nashville he kicked it off by asking a question that I don’t think has an answer: What is Nashville about? Since then I have tried to answer that question but I find that it is impossible to answer in one sentence. You have to take each character and nail down what their story is about but you cannot nail it down as a whole. We meet a lot of people in this film and many who stay on our minds.
We meet Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), a Loretta Lynn-type who is the virginal sweetheart of Nashville and returns to the city like a homecoming queen but is heavily burdened by a series of health problems (this woman is a paragon of bad luck). When she is alone in a hospital room with her bullying husband (Allan Garfield) we understand where her nervous breakdown came from. She sings songs with titles like “Tape deck in his Tractor” and “My Idaho Home”, songs about her country home where she was raised by her mama and daddy. But when she breaks into a song called “Dues”, about her desire to break out of her marriage, we sense that some of her personal problems have wandered into her repertoire. We also sense that her over-bearing husband isn’t her only problem because just out of her line of sight, she is stalked by a PFC (Scott Glenn) for reasons that we don’t expect.
We also meet Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a smarmy country singer and opportunist who is fond of Nudie Suits and takes on political aspirations when Walker’s political organizer mentions that he should run for Governor. Hamilton sings songs like the self-satisfied “For the Sake of the Children”, a song about a man breaking the news to his mistress that he can’t leave his wife and kids, and “200 Years” a flag-waving far-right number about America that sound like patriotic masturbation. But but then he has the song “Keep A-Goin’”, a song who’s meaning only really becomes clear in the film’s final scene.
Then there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a nutty woman who claims to be a BBC reporter even though we never see a film crew. She talks a lot of nonsense and uses the excuse that she is making a documentary about Nashville in order to get close to famous people even though she never shows anyone any sort of credentials. She has two scenes late in the film that make us question her sanity. One takes place in an automobile junkyard where she talks to herself, lamenting about the rusting metals hulks being tossed away and forgotten like some sort of automotive holocaust (she compares the rust to dried blood). The other scene takes place in a school bus storage lot where she tries describe it as the stuff of children’s nightmares.
There’s Linnea (Lily Tomlin), a gospel singer raising two deaf children and is in the middle of a crumbling marriage to Delbert (Ned Beatty), a lawyer working on Hal Walker’s campaign. She begins receiving phone calls from a singer named Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) a self-absorbed womanizer who has taken an interest in her. She initially hangs up on him but eventually accepts an invitation to go to a club to hear him sing. That leads to the film’s most beautiful moment as several of Tom’s past conquests sit in the audience listening to him sing “I’m Easy” (a song about a man who is absolutely thunderstruck by the woman in his life). Each woman smiles, thinking the song was written about her, but then the camera settles on Tomlin in the back of the room as she slowly realizes that the song is for her.
There’s Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), Haven’s tough mistress, who drinks heavily and has a stage presence that is seemingly inspired by Minnie Pearl. But that illusion is broken the more we get to know her. Her outward happiness begins to crumble as she confesses her love for Jack and Bobby Kennedy and the hard work she did on their behalf. When she reveals loving memories about the boys, we see a woman who is still shaken by their tragic deaths.
There’s Sueleen (Gwen Welles), an attractive waitress who wants to be a country singer but works harder at trying to be a sex symbol (she is forever stuffing her brassiere). She is a lousy singer but no one will tell her the truth and when she humiliates herself by doing a striptease, a co-worker (Robert DoQui) finally rises up and tells her that she has no talent whatsoever. The problem is the she doesn’t know where to draw the line. We assume that after her humiliation that she will come to her senses but we’re wrong.
There’s Winifred (Barbara Harris), a daffy blonde who wants to be a singer and songwriter. She spends the entire film running from her loud-mouthed husband Star (Bert Remsen) and we don’t assume that she will ever succeed at anything until she is given a chance in the end. She takes the microphone at a crucial moment and really shines.
Functioning around these characters are smaller roles that don’t seem, at first, to have any real significance. Like Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) who’s wife is dying in a hospital. Or Connie White (Karen Black), a Tammy Wynette-type who seems poised to steal Barbara Jean’s spotlight. Or Norman (David Arkin), Tom’s driver who is handed Tom’s guitar and immediately begins playing a baseline that his employer later steals for “I’m Easy”. Or PFC Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) who appears to be stalking Barbara Jean, even to the point of spending the night by her bedside while she sleeps but who’s intentions turn out to be completely honorable. He eventually clashes with Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward), a loner who is renting a room from Mr. Green and seems like a nice enough guy until it dawns on us that his machinations bears a strange resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald.
There is a major political undercurrent all throughout this film, mostly negative. This movie was being made while the Watergate scandal was wrapping up (the scene at the Grand Old Opry was film on the day that Richard Nixon resigned). Politics in the American mindset, as well as in this movie, are all about paranoia and distrust. The major political figure in Nashville functions as a sort of Greek chorus in the form of a van with loudspeakers that shouts support for the candidacy of a certain Hal P. Walker, whose political rally gives the film it’s climax. We never see Walker but his truck shouts some oddly sound reasoning about why he should be the next president. He supports something called The Replacement Party, the kind of fringe party that supports political dissidents like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan and Jesse Ventura. But oddly enough, as I began thinking back on the film, I thought of Jimmy Carter, a man who stood for many of the things that Walker’s unseen speaker talks about. Although a Democrat, he favored a more personal approach to government, one that did not rely on back-slapping or on listening to advisers but only from what comes from the heart and the head and God above. That kind of radical ideal doesn’t work in our government (consider that he wasn’t asked back for a second term) and, in a way, it sets up the film’s final act. An assassination plot is in the works and it provides not only the film’s great climax but brings out several of the character’s true natures. Consider how Hamilton reacts even though he has been grazed by a bullet or how Winifred takes the microphone and brings calm to the chaos. I love it when a director has the confidence to take his character in a logical but unexpected direction.
Altman has always been generous with his characters by giving them extra dimensions. Most movie characters are written in a three step process 1.) The character. 2.) Their job and 3.) The conflict. The best movie characters are given a fourth element, a dimension that makes them stand out, makes them interesting, gives them elements of their personalities that allow them to do more than just march through tired old plot requirements. Robert Altman spent his career developing characters like that. With Nashville, he strings together a story that is equal parts comedy, musical, melodrama, human interest story, soap opera and political parable.
Yet with all the film’s multiple elements, Nashville is first and foremost a musical. This is the way Robert Altman describes it and indeed the film makes many stops for its musical numbers – nearly an hour’s worth. The actors sing their own songs (Altman allowed them to write them too) and while many are not great singers they are able to sell their performances with assured greatness. The best, by a mile, is Keith Carradine who sings the Oscar winning “I’m Easy” with moving tenderness, a song about a man utterly stricken by the woman he loves. It plays well against a character that seems to have no use for those kinds of sentiments. I also liked Haven Hamilton’s “200 Years”, an sickeningly patriotic bicentennial ballad that could have played on the B-Side of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. I liked “The Heart of a Good Woman”, a sweet little love song that Haven’s son Bud sings to Opal until her attention is swept up by the presence of Elliott Gould; I was struck by the amazing talent of Karen Black (I had no idea she could sing) as her Connie White takes the place of superstar Barbara Jean and out-performs her by a country mile with “”I Don’t Know If I Found It in You”.
What is amazing about the musical performances is that Altman allows them to continue for four, five, six, seven minutes. It puts you in mind of how little interest is paid to the music in most movies today even in musicals. Most of today’s directors cut or abbreviate their musical numbers down to two or three minutes for fear that the audience will grow restless. But the performers in this movie are allowed to sing their entire song, all the way through. Especially the final number when Winifred sings “You might say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.” That lyric is repeated over and over until it becomes a rallying cry. Nashville is full of moments like that. It contains the kinds of characters and storytelling structure that is all but gone from today’s filmmaking. Hollywood wouldn’t have the nerve to make a film this jumbled, this deep or this poetic.