National Stage

More Songs About Buildings and Food: Robert Altman's Nashville.

Nashville

Oak Street Cinema,

Friday through Sunday

NASHVILLE WAS, HAS been, and still is an event movie. Launched in 1975 with great anticipation just as director Robert Altman was enjoying his widest popularity, this epic/mosaic satire isn't a museum piece today so much as a sign of what American movies could do if they wanted. It took some risks--and they remain risky, because Altman invites the sort of random improvisation that goes beyond the tolerance of most other directors (and some viewers). The film's occasional missteps have been evident for 20 years, but Nashville still makes a robust critique of our weakest links as a culture and a nation.

In the early '70s, the best American movies were writer-director indulgences with odd, often downbeat moods--like Francis Coppola's The Conversation, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (written by Robert Towne). But Nashville (playing at Oak Street this weekend in a rare widescreen print) was a boaster at this sideshow, proposing to be even odder than the rest. Indeed, it mixed music, politics, and post-Watergate cynicism with echoes of pre-war populism, and without apology or hand-holding.

Such edgier movies were made possible by a frayed studio system that hadn't yet found its future: Julie Andrews musicals were out, and no one had managed to tap "the youth market" as profitably as Easy Rider (1969). The studios were being bought by conglomerates, and for a tiny moment there was something like anarchy in the producers' cottages. Money was approved for unlikely projects: that is, Robert Altman-type movies. The glory and tragedy of Nashville, though, is that it would be Altman's last statement that was both solid and entertaining--which may be another way of saying that a certain killer shark was about to clamp down hard on the industry. In fact, while the acclaimed Nashville made a decent $10 million, Spielberg's Jaws earned more than 10 times that, transforming Hollywood in the process. (The other top-grossers of 1975 were The Towering Inferno, Benji, Young Frankenstein, and The Godfather, Part II--the latter representing another last gasp for the studio art-film.)

Unaware of economic trends, Altman did what he wanted, symbolically striking his primary note in Nashville with a credit sequence in the form of a TV ad for a "Best of Country" double-album. This rude greeting just about guarantees a viewer's alienation, framing a feature in which 24 characters wander into and out of each other's lives within a very short time, never reaching conventional revelations or conclusions (even though one of them is assassinated). Altman's overlapping, multi-tracked magnum opus dared to allow the audience to decide what had been going on and why. For example, he was especially fond of showing one person on-screen while two others had a separate conversation off-screen.

The thread that stitches this tapestry together is a political advance man (Michael Murphy) who enlists country-music stars to support his candidate. This guy's slick insistence on the charming emptiness of his unseen boss speaks volumes about a period that had seen too many changes in politics already: shining lights gunned down, Nixon elected, TV as a campaign podium, Watergate and all it stood for. As a nod toward the actual "new South" strategies of the period, the fictional Hal Philip Walker seems cornier than Jimmy Carter and saner than Ross Perot, but pretty close to both.

Yet what happens? The musicians don't care for guv'mint, and by extension the fans don't either. When the closing tragedy strikes, they're distracted by a singalong: "You may say that I ain't free/But it don't worry me." This is wicked misanthropy made more so by Altman's willful underestimation of country music: While the public was warming to both Dolly Parton and the Eagles, he presents weak voices singing exaggeratedly banal lyrics. Suffice to say that Altman passed on his chance to ride a market trend.

In turn, audiences who'd been primed for something special didn't fully warm to Nashville. The sting of Watergate and Nixon and Vietnam's folly and the gas and meat shortages was strongest in that summer of '75, and in some places viewers actually booed the ending. But Altman still had a valid scapegoat--a sheeplike nation that allowed its distrust to be salved with entertainment rather than better ideas or better leaders. Against this indictment, the movie created some worthy characters who shine with American virtue and insight: Lily Tomlin's housewife/gospel singer, who treasures her deaf children; Gwen Welles's well-meaning but musically hopeless Sueleen, trapped in a striptease job; and Barbara Baxley's grande dame of music, Lady Pearl, who holds strong liberal views and gets convincingly teary-eyed when talking of "the Kennedy boys." As even the darkest satires contain a glimmer of what they actually support, these women suggest a beating heart not only within the music, but the country itself.

 
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