Friday Editor’s Pick: Nashville (1975)

by on December 8, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Dec 16 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


Yet another delight in Reverse Shot editors Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert’s “See It Big!” series.


Altman discusses the production:


Altman also reflects upon the film on its 25th anniversary with NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Listen here.


Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

Robert Altman’s Nashville is the movie sensation that all other American movies this year will be measured against. It’s a film that a lot of other directors will wish they’d had the brilliance to make and that dozens of other performers will wish they’d had the great good fortune to be in. A panoramic film with dozens of characters, set against the country-and-western music industry in Nashville. It’s a satire, a comedy, a melodrama, a musical. Its music is terrifically important—funny, moving, and almost nonstop. It’s what a Tennessee granddaddy might call a real toe-tapper of a picture.


Everything works, to make Nashville the most original, provocative, high-spirited film Mr. Altman has yet given us.

Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

A landmark American film, Altman’s breathtakingly assured C&W epic has perhaps exerted an even greater influence on non-Hollywood cinema. Certainly its disdain for the tidy niceties of conventional narrative (it merely follows the mostly none-too-consequential fortunes of 24 musicians, managers, politicians, promoters and punters variously involved in, or connected to, a weekend music festival in Nashville, Tennessee) makes for an unusually illuminating perspective in terms of character, mood and moral insight. But the impressionistic vignettes, coupled with the expert use of overlapping dialogue, also build slowly but surely to create a coherent and persuasive portrait of a society that has somewhere along the way carelessly abandoned its original ideals and turned instead to the false gods of fame, fortune, easy sentiment, self-congratulation and political expediency. If, as some claim, the final assassination attempt is a rather weak attempt at gathering up the many loose ends, that invalidates neither Nashville’s vision of a world where appearances count for more than substance, nor the originality and imagination with which it expresses that vision. A masterpiece.



Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris have a discussion for The Village Voice:

Molly: I think that the power and the theme of the film lie in the fact that while some characters are more “major” than others, they are all subordinated to the music itself. It’s like a river, running through the film, running through their life. They contribute to it, are united for a time, lose out, die out, but the music, as the last scene suggests, continues. It diminishes them, as death itself diminishes us, and ennobles them. And it’s the people who live and breathe country music who are finally less ridiculous, less hollow, than the “sophisticates” who condescend to them: Michael Murphy’s advance man and Geraldine Chaplin as the bleeding heart BBC reporter.


Andrew: Altman has created his own world and called it Nashville. In California Split, Elliott Gould and George Segal were surrounded by nobodies. In Nashville every nobody is a potential somebody. Altman even drags in Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as the real-life celebrities we know as Elliott Gould and Julie Christie. But Karen Black is simply stunning—not as Karen Black, but as the bitchy country singer Connie White. And all around the movie people are the authentic country music people, and a bit of authentic country, and Altman seemingly suggesting that we are all in one form of showbiz or another, and that it all ends badly, but not without the hope of regeneration. A very visceral movie, and it works, and I can’t figure out why anyone ever thought it could be in trouble.



The House Next Door also has a back-and-forth – between Ed Howard and naysayer Jason Bellamy – here’s Howard:

Robert Altman’s Nashville is one of those rare films that feels more timely, more relevant, the more time goes by. When Altman filmed this multi-character study, set during a few days in the United States’ country music capital, the nation was in the midst of preparations for America’s bicentennial, a celebration of the country’s heritage and culture. It was 1975. It had been twelve years since John F. Kennedy was shot and seven years since Robert Kennedy was shot, and both events still loomed large, over the country and over Altman’s film. Richard Nixon had just resigned, too, further shattering whatever naïve hopes about politics might still have been lingering anywhere. The film opens, after a breathless parody of TV hucksterism, with a roving campaign van advertising for fictional presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Throughout the film, this campaign emits a steady stream of populist rhetoric, mixing genuine political reforms (taxing churches, eliminating farm subsidies) with outright absurdities (kicking all the lawyers out of Congress, rewriting the National Anthem to something “people can understand”). Altman follows this introduction with Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) singing the kind of über-patriotic tune that Walker might have in mind, an unthinking ode to American virtue: “we must be doing something right / to last 200 years.”

What I love about Altman’s approach to this subject is how thoroughly he strips away those illusions about celebrity, how completely he tears down the ideas about glamor and happiness and “extraordinary” lives—and not in a trashy behind-the-scenes tabloid way, either, but with a casual acknowledgement that celebrities are merely human. The film is also very sharp in probing how celebrity is created and manufactured, how carefully the celebrity image is honed to present a certain impression.



Leah Churner for Reverse Shot:

Nashville is a comedy about society revealing itself through architecture, a loosely plotted sightseeing tour in panoramic long shots. We see the Ryman building buried in the distance in the opening shot, and that’s the last time it appears. It’s like the fleeting reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass office building in Jacques Tati’s vision of Sixties Paris, Playtime. We see the contemporary city, not the mythic one: bored session musicians, fez-topped Shriners in the bandstands at Opryland, a picnic at a NASCAR rally. But Altman knows that architecture has an aural as well as a visual dimension, and Nashville is as much about soundscape as anything else.


Nashville was Altman’s most ambitious project. A commercial disappointment, it precipitated a slump in his career (echoing, to a milder extent, Tati’s trouble with Playtime). But time has been kind to Nashville, kinder than it was to the Opryland theme park, which shut down in 1997 due to persistent flooding. (The Grand Ole Opry is still in operation, though it too was half underwater as of early last month.) Robert Altman’s Nashville endures because it is habitable. What the critic and novelist Gilbert Auder wrote about Jacques Tati’s epic also goes for Altman’s: Nashville “is not merely set in a city, it itself is a city, a proliferation of perspectives, a multifarious mesh of signs, a semiotic utopia. The spectator cannot hope to comprehend its complete topography in a single viewing and ends by browsing rather than reading the imagery.”



Ray Sawhill for Salon:

Recording and communication devices — wires, phones, intercoms, cameras, mikes, speakers — seem to be everywhere; so does the machinery of publicity and fame. We watch the city recording itself, playing itself back to itself and marketing that image to itself. We eavesdrop on the culture’s conversation with itself. We’re watching people decide how they want to see themselves and how they want to sell themselves. Altman treats Nashville as a provincial New York or Hollywood, as one of the places where the culture manufactures its image of itself (this is Nashville in the early stages of getting slick and L.A.-ified). Altman shows us the image, and what goes into creating and sustaining it. He cuts between public functions and private domestic scenes; he shoots in studios and theaters, from onstage and from behind control booths. We gather that this is a culture that believes that its self-image accounts, or ought to account, for everything. And its image of itself is cheerful, upbeat, carefree: “It don’t worry me,” people sing.


Altman brings us into the space between the culture and its image of itself. We see the determination that goes into containing oneself in the pop image of just-folks. We see the jumpy creature within, and we see how Nashville’s self-image becomes a straitjacket. The songs that the characters sing, sell and buy are about roots and homesickness, and make a great show of being about “real” people and “real” problems. But they’re completely formulaic. The real energy goes into the marketing. There’s a consensus reality that has been created of simple shapes, bright colors and sweetened sentiments. A lot of the humor in “Nashville” comes from seeing how much heightening and industry go into producing this music that has such claims to relaxed authenticity.


Yet the film is jubilant and festive; a freeway pileup turns into an impromptu picnic. The people are grotesques and caricatures of themselves, but they’re also — even the most flagrant losers among them — wily self-starters. (This seems truer and more accurate — to this Middle American, at least — than does the Raymond Carver view of ordinary Americans as stunted dead-enders.) The film feels like both a piece of drama and a painting with a time element.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

I find a yellow legal sheet marking the page: my notes for a class I taught on the film. “What is this story about?” I wrote. The film may be great because you can’t really answer that question.


It is a musical. It tells interlocking stories of love and sex, of hearts broken and mended. And it is a wicked satire of American smarminess (“Welcome to Nashville and to my lovely home,” a country star gushes to Elliott Gould). But more than anything else, it is a tender poem to the wounded and the sad. The most unforgettable characters in the movie are the best ones: Lily Tomlin’s housewife, who loves her deaf sons. The lonely soldier who stands guard over the country singer his mother saved from a fire. The old man grieving for his wife, who has just died. Barbara Harris’ runaway wife, who rises to the occasion when she is handed the microphone after a shooting. And even that smarmy country singer (Henry Gibson), who when the chips are down acts in the right way. Kael writes: “Who watching the pious Haven Hamilton sing the evangelical `Keep a’ Goin,’ his eyes flashing with a paranoid gleam as he keeps the audience under surveillance, would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?”


The buried message may be that life doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion to the neat ending of a story. It’s messy and we bump up against others, and we’re all in this together. That’s the message I get at the end of “Nashville,” and it has never failed to move me.



Dennis Cozzalio for the blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule:

Altman’s movie stands for me, 35 years past its premiere date, as the perfect prism through which to reflect upon this country’s greatness, its follies, its stubbornness, the tension between the patriotic, pluralistic impulses of its politics and the religious certitude woven into its structure and attitudes, and, of course, the exuberance and celebratory nature of political and artistic freedom, which, as the movie recognizes, can be celebrated while observing the ways in which those freedoms are also hampered and restricted within a society ostensibly built around their unfettered expression. As a love letter to America’s potential for both glory and disaster (and the myriad meandering possibilities in between) Nashville seemed to some too bitter a pill to swallow at the time, perhaps too ambivalent in its passions or cutting in its satirical observations. It was a film ostensibly built around the efforts to whip up support for a populist Replacement Party candidate by the name of Hal Phillip Walker—who is heard on the soundtrack bellowing his Perot-esque outrage and Libertarian-style political remedies over the loudspeaker of a van roaming in between the cracks of the movie’s main events. But Nashville, appropriately enough, is centered on a community—famously of 24 characters, unprecedented at the time, but really a whole community of artists and businessmen and its self-consciousness that extended far beyond the specificity of those characters— all living their lives and making tenuous connections that they may not even be aware of. Their social interactions, their religious practices, their desires and the first stirring embers of those desires, their selfishness and their odd, unexpected generosity, and the narcissism and entitlement embodied and displayed in the civic and regional pride and hopes of retaining one roots while reaching for the highest firmament of fame—these are all elements at play at any given time as these 24 characters buzz in, about and through the outlines of the situations that the movie sets up.


Nashville is alive to me in ways that few movies are— it seems fully engaged with all aspects of the humanity it chooses to document, unconcerned with dangling loose ends– it sometimes actively encourages them. Yet it is as fully satisfying a grand entertainment as it seems possible to imagine in its social questioning, in its representation of a time capsule of Nashville– that is, American– society and the indulgences and glories of the country music of the time, and in its presience, the way it reverberates and comments on the foibles and strengths of the American character that still concern us in the 21st century. With Nashville Robert Altman didn’t set out to make the Great American Movie—if he had, he probably would have missed by a mile, like most do whose goals are so grandiose. But he got there just the same.


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