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The crowning achievement of America's most truly "independent" filmmaker. (God bless Robert Altman)
on January 16, 2014
It's been some months since I've had good reason to use my Blu Ray player, but if there's an occasion that would move me to fire up the machine, it's the release of Altman's singular masterpiece in a high-def format. From the outset, I must caution fans of the movie--especially those who, like me, are already sitting on the double VHS version and the subsequent DVD edition--not to over-elevate expectations. This latest edition strikes me as occasionally grainy and overly dark, especially for the interior shots, and the sound doesn't seem as open and crisp as Altman's more recent "Gosford Park," which I recently had occasion to re-screen. In fact, the present edition is making me all too aware of some "dated" qualities about "Nashville" that may require me to reconsider my conviction, ever since its release, that "Nashville" eclipses even "Citizen Kane" as American cinema's crowning achievement. But, first, the case for "Nashville" (freshly written in 2014):
It was the summer of 1975, and the buzz was all about two films: "Jaws" and "Nashville." The former was an entertaining afternoon at the movies; the latter, which delivered disappointing numbers at the box office, was an experience that left me shaken for days after. I returned to "live" in this cinematic Nashville two additional times within the first two weeks of the film's opening in Boston. Each time was more instructive, revealing critical details of the film that I had missed and teaching me more about the ethos of the disco-crazed / country-western American culture of the 1970s.
Today's younger audiences are unlikely to recognize themselves in Altman's 1975 microcosmic criticism of life. In fact, the characters' dialog and and dress are likely to strike many of today's viewers as almost "cartoonish." But as the former owner of several light-colored leisure suits with flared pants legs, I can attest that the film is dead accurate in its portrayal of the era, its style and tastes. Nashville was the new "Hollywood" of America, with hundreds of wannabe recording stars coming to this Mecca every day--and just as many leaving disillusioned. Music had completely severed its ties to the "Great American Songbook" of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers. Frank Sinatra had gone into retirement and simply stopped making records (before coming back after a wise decision to focus exclusively on "live" concerts). But for most fans of the America's new popular music, there was no longer a separation between the professional composer and the performer. Everyone was a potential composer-performer, with reductive or prosaic tunes like "Little Green Apples" and "Gentle on My Mind" becoming the new chartbusters while shows like "Hee Haw," "Glen Campbell Hour," and "Sonny and Cher" were the prime-time favorites of America's television viewers.
Younger viewers of the film simply must try not to get hung up on the "period piece" aspects of the film and be open to the film's undeniable resonance with today's "Nashville mentality"--a culture with many "proud Tea-Party" Americans; Fox News "addicts," Glenn Beck/Ted Nugent followers; "hillbilly-themed" shows on cable TV; a fixation on cars and guns; a right-wing suspicion of, and political bias against, "the government." And, as if further proof were needed of the "rightness" of Altman's vision, country music (a multi-billion dollar industry) is now so prevalent in virtually ALL popular music that we scarcely take note of it. A pessimist might observe that as a society we've moved too deep in Plato's allegorical "cave" (configured like a modern day movie theater) to see the light of day. Altman's camera, however, will suggest otherwise in the film's suddenly calm and quiet, reflective yet "prospective," final shot (the most memorable example of Altman's long takes with an uninterrupted moving camera).
Almost 40 years later, Altman's vision has not simply "proven out," but it remains equally relevant to our own lives and future. The stunning ending of "Nashville" at the New World's Parthenon (an exact replica were it made of marble instead of cement) must still provoke the viewer to question the meaning--of being an American; of celebrity worship and the American Dream; of attachment to ephemeral machines like the automobile; of the "democratization" of music-making; of our ephemeral attachments to celebrities and inattention to causes like the plight of the poor; of the narcissism that is the basis of adulterous "relationships"; of a populace that hears less than the deaf children of Lily Tomlin's character and that lacks, above all, self-reflection much less "vision."
[Warning: This paragraph contains a "spoiler"]: Altman's film is, in sum, a criticism of the unexamined life, a stinging slap in the face of those who base their likes and dislikes, or their very identity, on slogans and bumperstickers, on status and power, on abundant rather than "sufficient" wealth, on superficial pleasures and the "denial of death." Kenny, the loner with the violin case who is intermittently shown enjoying his personal adventure away from his mother in tinsel town, does not come to the political rally at the Parthenon to assassinate the country music diva, Barbara Jean, the country queen so unforgettably played by Ronee Blakey. His shooting of her is an impulsive act, motivated by a Freudian desire to destroy the maternal Oedipal ties that have thwarted his growth. Ironically, he may be the most thoughtful, introspective character in the entire film.
But there are no villains. The poignant final tilt shot of a camera moving from the mayhem on stage up to the American flag and from there to the unobstructed skies is a poignant reminder of the genuine freedom that, though elusive, is still there for the people of the United States of America, despite the narrow-minded self-interest and the thoughtless pettiness that prevent us from realizing the dream of a harmonious melting pot in which each individual is equally respected for his potential but also for his unique character and contribution.
Robert Altman was, at his best, a "critic" and a "visionary," and he was also a gifted but radically independent filmmaker who refused to be guided by either money or celebrity. If he was underrappreciated by movie-goers despite his prolific legacy, it's because he refused "to tell stories" or to entrust his message to a familiar "star." Rather, he used the medium to provide us with all of the material needed to create stories thaat would otherwise be too big and urgent to fit into the usual formulaic scripts use by honored, more famous and wealthy, contemporaries like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola. All of them, worthy "story-tellers." By contrast, Altman was a "maker see." He shows us Nashville's actual "life"--not a frozen, documentary-like a tabloid imitation--but a dynamic, vital, unfolding moment in time that connects with our own. Yet ultimately he leaves it to the viewer to put these rich and fruitful, provocative and "meaning-full," pieces together until, along with a narrative that makes sense, we experience an "epiphany" about our own place in the stories within Altman's brilliant images and scenes.
The foregoing is merely a beginning attempt at an introduction to Robert Altman and, more importantly, a guide through "Nashville." The film references three major areas of American experience--the political, religious, and entertainment worlds. It includes the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, the military and the anti-social. Humor abounds in the film, yet Altman seems to have sympathy for all of his 20+ characters. No one can watch the film without taking away an indelible moment, whether it be Geraldine Chaplin's meditation on rusty old cars in an auto graveyard or Ronee Blakey's deeply affecting performance of the country song-waltz "Dues" (uncredited in the present Blu Ray packaging), just prior to her break-down on stage. And for some of us the film has become so completely lodged in consciousness that it seems to replay itself practically every day of our lives.
If I had to settle on one film in my collection, it would still be "Nashville," which has a further and deeper-reaching resonance, at least for this viewer, than any other film of any nationality. At the same time, nothing can replace the experience of viewing it in a large theater in 1975--not even a print superior to the present one. Curiously, the makers have included the ordinary DVD version that preceded this Blu Ray edition, for a total of 3 discs. The Blu Ray is less grainy than the DVD version and the sound is clearer (always a consideration because of Altman's frequent use of multiple, overlapping dialog). Although the film should be seen in its original ratio, I can't help myself: I keep zooming to a ratio that fills my screen, the better to see my favorite moments and characters. (Why Ronee Blakey didn't become a huge star after a stunning performance captured by Altman's enrapt, steady camera still eludes me.) Perhaps I finally have sufficient reason to look into one of those 50"-60" mammoth TV sets with 5:1 surround sound. That's probably what the residents of "Nashville" would do. (Mindful of the possible offense to the citizens of Nashvile that was registered by film reviewers like Rex Reed, I use quote marks to clarify that my comments are of Altman's cinematic "representation," or "interpretation" of Nashville and not of the proud city itself.)
Days, and now decades, after viewing this film, other spectators have dismissed it as "confusing," "weird," "patronizing" more often than they've agreed with me about the film's power, universal imaginative vision, and permanent hold. But I'll continue to defend the movie, which even now leaves chills and conflicting but very real emotions about life in America in the 21st century. Most importantly, it's movie-making at its extemporaneous, least-contrived, most candid and honest best. Even as Hollywood continues to grind out the same cookie-cutter scripts with a twist or two (I'm just as happy not to have met "The Fockers," and only Robin Williams' performance in Altman's "Pop-Eye" helps make up for the offensive "Patch Adams"), "Nashville" is a reminder of one of cinema's most shining moments. It's also a challenge to any young talent who is not overcome by the smell of money to think like this deceptively gentle and soft-spoken, seemingly casual man who was also a radical, courageous filmmaker, a creative artist not afraid to "hold up the mirror" to the world as he saw it. In spite of a few bombs (e.g. "Pret-a-Porter," a sophomoric, overstated attempt to satirize the world of fashion), Altman was the medium's Shakespeare, realizing the potential of film not merely to entertain but to enable us, above all, "to see." God bless Robert Altman.
CODA: As a musician, I'm especially attentive to film scores. Welles' "Citizen Kane" and, above all, Hitchock's "Vertigo" would not register such profound impacts upon the viewer without the scores provided by Bernard Herrmann. "Nashville," on the other hand, is a film without a traditional score, so true to its times that it relies solely upon "source music," or the characters themselves to provide the film's score. The music comes from both musicians and non-musician characters in the film, gradually rising to the level of a collective chorus being sung by the people themselves. It expresses their heartaches and dreams, their disappointments and yearnings, their fears and the lies they tell themselves in order to cope. And the music is as accessible as it is omnipresent, so contagious and insistent that we find ourselves sharing in its ownership, like Henry Gibson's character becoming caught up in the melodic strains that urge us, as a community of good Americans, simply, to "Keep A-Goin'."
Yet Altman's challenge to the viewer is not to allow these intoxicating strains to cloud judgment concerning complex problems that simply can't be solved by the lyrics of a country song or any other form of avoidance and denial:
"It don't worry me; / It don't worry me.
"You may say that I ain't free, / But it don't worry me."
Spectators who have been fully engaged by the film's chronology (a visit of only 3 days, which heightens the film's immediacy) are, at least initially, likely to join the people of Nashville in their song, carried along by the musical strains without a thought to the words. The lyrics of this "choral finale," sung at the replica of the Greek Parthenon, would seem to fit perfectly in a modernist poem like T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" or the widely-taught "The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock," in which the monologist offers a mock-heroic challenge--"Let us go ... to an overwhelming question... Let us make a visit...Oh, do not ask what is it." Prufrock just as quickly backs down, dodging "all" questions, lamenting that "the mermaids will not sing to me." The people of Nashville at least "Keep A'Goin'" but with little thought to their destination. As spectators, we're left to ask the tough questions even as we leave the film with the fading strains of music still ringing in our minds. The present edition includes legendary film critic Pauline Kael's insightful review of "Nashville," which she entitles "America Singing." Enduring art--whether jazz, poetry, or film--is like music, or a melody that never wears out its welcome and never ceases to invite our participation. In that respect, "Nashville" rises to the level of timeless lyric art.