Cinema of Cynicism

In a 29-film series, Oak Street Cinema puts Hollywood's most complicated decade, the Seventies, onscreen


If you share my addiction to Altman's movies, the Oak Street Cinema's series will answer your craving, while expanding it. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) brims with unexpected beauties: lyrical but deathly snowfalls, startling closeups (an egg, the iris of an eye), and above all the performances of the two stars. Until this film I found Julie Christie dull, a handsome hockey captain without emotional reserves. Warren Beatty was always graceful, yet he was often bland. But Altman got both of them to act, in ways we hadn't seen; they're not just relying on their marvelous faces.

As a rugged turn-of-the-century madam, fond of her opium, Christie displays a rueful sensitivity--which makes it seem possible that Beatty (an arrogant, naive gambler) could fall in love with her. As outlaws they seem partly like offspring of the Sixties, but they embody the ambitions of the Seventies: They want their illegalities to succeed. Despite the harshness of the Northwestern mining town where they meet and scheme, Altman surrounds them with a magical aura: They appear as spell casters out of a myth--a very American myth of the frontier and of profit and loss. Especially loss.

Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter
Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter

Nashville is probably Altman's greatest film (I think McCabe, Thieves Like Us, the underrated Kansas City, and Short Cuts are close seconds). First shown in 1975 but set in 1976, the Bicentennial and the year of the next election, Nashville radiates a post-Watergate sensibility: Nothing honest or worthwhile can be expected from politicians. A presidential candidate understands that he and his positions should be folksy and basically apolitical: "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" he asks. With its huge cast--which includes many Altmanesque aspirants and losers--the movie is both a satire and a celebration of this country, as the director said. He also referred to it as War and Peace with country music.

In a period when there weren't many imaginative parts for actresses, this picture teems with them. Ronee Blakley is a C&W star who looks happy only when she sings, yet performing doesn't save her from a crackup; Barbara Harris is a flake with laddered pantyhose who turns out to be amazingly resourceful; Lily Tomlin is a pensive homemaker and gospel singer seduced by a stud guitarist; Shelley Duvall is a relentless groupie; Gwen Welles is a waitress with a dreadful voice who yearns for stardom; and Geraldine Chaplin is an infuriating no-talent TV reporter. It seems astounding that they should all appear in the same movie.

The range of feelings among questing or desperate characters is thrilling, sometimes hilarious, potentially violent, always unstable; Kurt Vonnegut was right to call the film "an inventory of America." In the midst of gunshots and music, screams and songs, Nashville seems very much like home.


"Out of the Seventies" runs through August 23 at Oak Street Cinema; (612) 331-3134.

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