Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville!

It's challenging, when writing about Nashville, to avoid simply listing the seemingly endless parade of great scenes, characters, performances and moments that make the film one of the greatest and most entertaining of all time. Director Robert Altman, tongue firmly in cheek, gives us an early invitation to regard his sprawling vision of the country music scene and America circa 1975 as a sort of cinematic greatest hits record. From the K-Tel-inspired opening credits that serve as a commercial for the movie we're about to see, trumpeting the film's cavalcade of stars presented "through the magic of stereophonic sound and living-color picture right before your very eyes without commercial interruption,"Nashville wears its multilayered narrative (the various threads bringing together 24 principal characters) like a badge of honor. If it was merely an extended cinematic stunt, it would still be very entertaining, but what lingers after the film and expands upon each viewing is not its scale but its intimacy - Altman doesn't build his film out of grandiose statements, but instead carefully, precisely exposes the emotional truth of every single moment we observe, never hitting a false note. While many have tried to attach an overriding thesis statement to the film, to do so inevitably reduces the film's achievement as a rich and eclectic survey of human experience; seeing it in 35mm for the first time at the Brattle a few weeks ago, I realized how few films are as joyously alive.

Wim Wenders once wrote that Nashville is "about noise," and noise - indeed, various forms of communication - is one of the connective threads of the film. Nashville's many dramas play out in overlapping conversations in nightclubs, overheard telephone calls, dialogue carried over the intercoms of recording studios, and communication recorded (albums, newscasts, political diatribes played over loudspeakers) and distributed for mass consumption. Performance, both musical and political, is the dominant form of communication - the movie builds to a campaign rally for Hal Phillip Walker, who is heard but never seen. Walker's platform, which is based less on specific policy than on a general distrust of institutions and a promise to returned to imagined good old days, is not far removed from the populist tunes of the unctuous Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who we meet as he's recording the Bicentennial-themed rabble-rouser "200 Years" (I always chuckle at the throwaway line "I saw action in Algiers"). Recent American history hangs heavy over Nashville (the scenes at the Grand Old Opry were filmed the day of Nixon's resignation), but aside from a a few carefully chosen references to Vietnam, the recession and the Kennedys, Altman avoids the kind of literal commentary he pokes fun at with Opal from the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin). A flaky reporter with dubious credentials, Opal wanders through the film pontificating about the symbolism of busyards, patronizingly telling a group of black musicians that "I know all about the problems in the south" and desperately trying to meet anyone famous. Opal, and many of the characters in the film - groupie L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall), or limo driver Norman (David Arkin), or sweet, talentless aspiring singer Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) - want to be somebody or at least be near somebody. It's this culture where everybody is a fan, Altman suggests, that has blurred the lines between celebrity and politics both on- and offstage.

This alone would be enough of a subject to carry a feature, but Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (whose contributions to the film's form are underestimated) make room for relationships, sex, family, race, religion, love and death, subtly tying them together with the film's soundtrack, which articulates the beliefs the characters cling to and which drive them through the story. Altman's camera drifts from one story to another, seemingly omnipresent, but never, with few exceptions, taking the God's-eye perspective that Altman devotee P.T. Anderson employs in Magnolia. Our perspective remains squarely on the ground level, as Altman guides through the city, giving us room to make our own discoveries (it was only on this viewing, through a barely-audible line, that I realized Haven is a racist). Altman's approach is loose-limbed enough to make room for a character like Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), who rides his three-wheeler, never talks, performs magic tricks and exists mostly as an absurdist punctuation mark. Gradually, however, as in the scene where Haven's brassy manager and (maybe) lover Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) chokes back tears as she reminisces about working for JFK and RFK, we realize that Altman has been subtly leading us towards this moment all along.

When Altman does use more overt juxtapositions, the effect is earned and often startling. For instance, I found upon this viewing that I hated Tom (Keith Carradine), the pretty-boy folk singer who uses his good looks and feigned sensitivity to seduce and destroy countless women, and I was disappointed in gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin) for going to bed with him. Then Altman cut to the painful scene of Sueleen, coerced into stripping at a fundraiser for Walker in exchange for the promise of a chance to perform; as Sueleen is humiliated by a roomful of leering men (including Linnea's husband Delbert (Ned Beatty)), I understood how a piece of shit like Tom could represent an escape from Linnea (Tomlin is brilliant in the near-wordless post-coital scene, showing us that, for once, a woman has taken more from Tom than he's taken from her). It can be difficult to determine, due to Altman's famous improvisatory methods, whether a contrast like this was in the script from the start or if it was discovered in editing. But there are moments throughout the film that suggest Altman is more purposeful than he cares to admit - in the heartbreakingly quiet moment when Joan's uncle Mr. Green finds out that his wife has died as a happier scene plays out in the background, in the way (as Pauline Kael pointed out in her famous rave) that Haven's "For the Sake of the Children" illustrates Linnea's unspoken feelings and, most deftly, when fragile singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) collapes on an airport tarmac in a chilling bit of foreshadowing.

If Nashville has no narrative center, than Barbara Jean is certainly its heart. Recently released from a burn ward (we don't learn the cause) and prone to fainting and hysteria, Barbara Jean is the biggest talent in the movie - with a voice that moves audiences to tears, she's the star that everyone in the movie wants to be. Sadly, Barbara Jean wants to be Barbara Jean too - emotionally stunted from years onstage, told what to do at every moment by her controlling, emotionally abusive husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), Barbara Jean could slip away at any moment. When she loses herself, during a concert, in a rambling monologue about her childhood as the audience starts to boo (and as portions of the Brattle audience, sadly, laughed derisively), we can see how her self-perception and self-mythologizing have become tragically blurred. Even Barbara Jean, perhaps more than anyone else in the film, is captive to her beautiful and impossible ideals she is meant to embody.

The film's famous ending unites Barbara Jean with two characters who are just as lost - flighty aspiring singer Albequerque (Barbara Harris) and quiet drifter Kenny (David Hayward). The reasons for Kenny's actions are ambiguous (it occured to me this time that Kenny may not have planned to go to the Parthenon at all); what Altman is concerned with is the aftermath. What a surprise to discover that the seemingly insecure Haven has the courage of his convictions, or that Tom is one of the first to offer help. And when Albequerque takes the stage, revealing unexpected talent, we can see how the spotlight has been passed as she pacifies the confused masses. The implications of Nashville's ending, which finds a crowd immediately disregarding the violence they've just witnessed as they're distracted by a song, are extremely disturbing. But even as Altman has no illusions about human weaknesses, he's also humane and even sympathetic to our flaws. The film's final shot, which tilts up towards the God's-eye view Altman has avoided and finds only a gray sky, concedes that, while there's nothing to see about there, maybe we do all have to believe in something, and a song is just as good as anything else.