Sunday, September 11, 2011

NASHVILLE 1975

Nashville's unique title sequence recalls a popular style of 70s TV commercial for Greatest Hits record collections
70s K-Tel Record Commercial
A perhaps apocryphal story goes that Fox Television's insanely funny sitcom, Arrested Development was not more popular in the ratings and ultimately canceled because its rapid-fire jokes and almost subliminal sight-gags required viewers to actually pay attention. Whether true or not, it's a theory hard to dismiss when applied to the career of Robert Altman (a director a little over-represented on this blog, I know, but it's his fault, not mine. He was just too damned good). In a career as varied and immune to meeting expectations as Altman's, I don't think it's coincidence that his most straightforward, structurally conventional films—M*A*S*H, The Player, Popeye—have been his biggest hits, while his most intriguingly imaginative works have been critic's darlings but largely ignored by the populace at large.

Altman's fondness for multiple storyline, character-based films with large ensemble casts and overlapping dialog just demanded a level of audience engagement that was rapidly going out of style with American moviegoers. (2001's Gosford Park, which fit the above criteria, was a huge success for Altman. An occurrence attributable to the fact that by then the 76 year-old director and his trademark style had grown as cozily familiar and commodified as Hitchcock's.) 

In 1975, American movie audiences- smarting from Watergate, inflation, the oil crisis, and the Vietnam War - showed its first signs of wearying of Hollywood's "auteur" era and its films that strove to be art. The blockbuster success of Jaws (released the same summer as Nashville) unceremoniously put an end to America's brief love affair with "difficult" films that challenged and/or affronted them. Speaking with their boxoffice dollars, the country made it known that it was in the mood to be reassured and comforted at the movies again. Whether it be with imaginative retreads of familiar genres of the past (Star Wars, Rocky) or remakes of past successes (A Star is Born, King Kong), America was just sick and tired of being asked to think and pay close attention at the movies all the time.
Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean
Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton
Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese
Keith Carradine as Tom Frank
Karen Black as Connie White
Nashville, Robert Altman's kaleidoscopic vision of America as reflected through the interconnected stories of 24 characters over the course of 5 days in America's country music capital, was filmed in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned from the Presidency, and was released in 1975, one year before the U.S. Bicentennial—which also happened to be an election year.  

With one foot planted in an era of scandal and disillusionment and the other poised on what could be the threshold of a renewed optimism and nationalistic stock-taking, Nashville (unquestionably one of the most timely films ever made) rather ambitiously set about giving the country an eyeful of itself. No one was expecting a red, white, & blue love letter from cinema's most acerbically cynical liberal, but Nashville's equating of politics with the phony, image-conscious flimflammery of show biz (the familist, piety-spouting, grassroots show biz of country music, at that) was a cautionary "Not so fast, America" hand raised to the nation's looming steamroller of ego-bolstering, rah rah, Bicentennial back-slapping.
A constant visual and aural presence throughout Nashville is the campaign for fictional Presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker
The traffic jam that opens the film and the political rally that closes it are the only sequences that gather all the main characters of the film together in one site.
BBC journalist, Opal (Geraldine Chaplin)- " I need something like this for my documentary! I need it!
It's so...American! Those cars smashing into each other and all those mangled corpses...!"

In 1975, Opal's glaring incompetence and unsuitability for journalism was obvious. Today, she would probably be a member of a Los Angeles morning TV news broadcast, or a top reporter for TMZ.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Nashville may not be THE view of America, but it's most certainly A view of America, and like it or not, it's a vision that proves itself more prescient and relevant with each passing year. The first and best of Altman's films to use the multiple-plot format he would later employ in A Wedding, H.E.A.L.T.H., Short Cuts, Pret-a-Porter, and Gosford Park, Nashville is staggering in its deft handling of the myriad shifts in tone and changes in focus required of this genre. I can't think of another director capable of balancing such disparate elements in a free-flow mélange of comedy, drama, tragedy, and social satire.
Some of the more affecting story threads:
The monumentally untalented Suleen Gay (Gwen Welles) would most ceratinly be a contestant on "Nashville Star" or "American Idol" today. In an early draft of the Nashville sceenplay, it was Suleen who would die at the end of the film (suicide).
Linnea (Tomlin in her Oscar-nominated film debut), the only Caucasian in an African-American gospel choir, sharing a family moment with her husband Delbert (Ned Beatty) and their two deaf children (Donna Denton and James Dan Calvert).
Runaway bride Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) and loner Kenny (David Hayward) commiserate on the road.

PERFORMANCES:
Of all the terrific performances in Nashville, Karen Black as Country Western queen (and  Barbara Jean rival) Connie White is my favorite. The goody-goody, over-coiffed prom queen look of so many country stars of the era —and typical of every female performer on The Lawrence Welk Show— has always seemed too calculatedly homespun to me, so I love that screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury envisions Connie White... all cotton candy hair and sweet as sugar smiles...as a steely, professional phony with a rapier-sharp competitive streak. Although her role is one of the briefest, the ever-resourceful Karen Black does some wonderful things with the smallest moments. She's hilarious but never less than spot-on authentic in every move she makes (check out how she avoids acknowledging the gift Barbara Jean's husband tries to give her). Watching her is like taking an actor's master class in bringing a character to life.
Connie White sizes up visiting movie star, Julie Christie (playing herself).
Connie, disbelieving Haven's assertion that Christie's actually a famous Oscar-winning star-  "She can't even comb her hair!"
A characteristically bitchy Connie White remark improvised by Karen Black.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
The music in Nashville is so good and plentiful that it's a pity a full, complete soundtrack album has never been released. You don't have to be a fan of country music to enjoy the witty and sometimes surprisingly beautiful songs that play wall-to-wall throughout the film (many of which were composed and performed by the film's cast). In fact, so much of country music seems knowingly self-parodying that it's hard to tell the songs that are gently poking fun at the genre (like the self-serving moralizing of Haven Hamilton's "For the Sake of the Children") from the ones that sound like they could be the genuine article (Barbara Jean's rousing [but technologically dated] "Tapedeck in his Tractor").
Troubled married duo, Mary (Cristina Raines) and Bill (Allan Nicholls) perform "Since You've Gone." a superb song composed by actor Gary Busey that never made it onto the Nashville soundtrack album.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
When it comes to a film like Nashville, there can never be too much of a good thing. I can barely stand to dwell on the fact that some 16 hours of footage was originally shot and whittled down to 159 minutes. My only hope is that some company will make good on the long-promised DVD that will feature deleted scenes and omitted songs.

Opal, the easily-distracted BBC journalist.

In a filmed sequence that didn't make it into the final cut, it was revealed that Opal is a fraud and was only posing as a journalist.
What I find fascinating about Nashville is that no matter to what degree the passage of time  dates the fashions, furnishings, cars, and music, everything else about the film is disconcertingly up-to-date and of the moment.
I think it speaks well of the brilliance of everyone's work involved that you can extract any single character or situation and find a contemporary correlative. When I look at Nashville, it surprises me how much Altman's intimate style and respect for what is extraordinary in the ordinary person,  anticipates today's fascination with reality TV. Similarly, the lure of pop stardom (Sueleen and Albuquerque) and the very American desire to re-invent oneself (Shelley Duvall's airheaded changeling, L.A. Joan, nee Martha) find their modern parallel in image-based celebrities like Lady Gaga and assembly-line superstar factories like "American Idol."

Without question, the most dispiriting evidence of Nashville's ahead-of-its-time/up-to-the-minute grasp of cultural zeitgeist is in its foreshadowing of an era where the line between celebrity and politics becomes inextricably blurred.  A time when the senselessness of assassination (a heinous but somehow socially assimilated atrocity due to its exclusive connection to political, religious, or ideological motives) spills over to include any public figure (John Lennon, tragically) so long as it serves to propell the assassin to worldwide notoriety. As we keep learning from TV and the Internet, each of us Americans has a God-given right to be famous. At any cost.
Haven- "This isn't Dallas! This is Nashville!"
As the political rally erupts in tragic violence, a wounded Haven Hamilton loses his toupee and his composure.
Nashville is a movie held in very high regard, yet it's one of those classic films that rarely airs on television. Which is odd, seeing how Altman's layered use of sound is tailor-made for today's advanced sound systems, and his eye for detail and full, busy frame compositions are perfect for all those super-sized  HDTVs. I sure would hate to think that this great film is so seldom screened because it just demands too much of our attention.


AUTOGRAPH FILES: I got these autographs from Tim (Keith Carradine) and Mary (Cristina Raines) back in 1979 when I was working at a Honda dealership in Los Angeles (hence the grease-stained paper given to Raines).

Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. You've made me want to watch it again. Karen Black is my favourite in this, too.

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  2. Thanks very much for leaving a comment!
    I get around to re-watching this film at least once a year,a nd it still feels fresh. And as for Karen Black...oh my, but I miss her in movies!

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  3. great stuff, just finished it yesterday. it bears watching again... and again!

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    1. My sentiments exactly! So much going on it's hard to catch it all in just a couple of viewings.

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  4. “Nashville” is definitely one of THE films, and now that I have seen (and heard!) this extraordinary work of cinema for myself, I must say that it certainly lives up to its reputation. Perhaps the movie doesn’t screen frequently on television due to its epic duration, although that doesn’t prevent “Gone With the Wind” and “The Godfather” movies from appearing constantly on the small screen. But you know what? I rate "Nashville" above both "Gone With the Wind" and "The Godfather" trilogy. A more pressing question is "Why isn't this revived more often at the cinema?"

    It's my belief that "Nashville" would suffer terribly on the small screen. So much is happening all at once before the camera, and as for the sound, nothing compares to the audio you get from a theatrical presentation. It sounded like I was at a real live music gig. It was wonderful to hear the songs as they were performed live for the cameras, rather than being pre-recorded and dubbed over the visual. In this sense, one could classify "Nashville" as a legitimate concert musical, the country answer to the rock of "Woodstock" and the soul of "Wattstax".

    Isn't the Connie White character a piece of work? Karen Black has two of my favourite lines in this film. One of them is the ad-lib about Julie Christie's hair. Firstly, it says a lot about Connie White and her own superficiality that she could never even conceive of a star looking (shock, horror!) like a "regular person" when not in front of the cameras. Secondly, it underscores something that I've believed for sometime now: a lot of people in "show business" are so self-absorbed, so caught up in the pursuit of being famous, they wouldn't recognise even the most highly-regarded of their peers (granted, Julie Christie made her name as a thespian rather than a chanteuse and originates from the other side of the Atlantic, but the fact remains that both are still in "show business"--you'd think that Connie would have at least stumbled across the name "Julie Christie" at some point). In a strange sort of way, Connie's disparaging remarks and immediate dismissal of JC, based simply on the observation that "She can't even comb her hair!" and the fact that Connie doesn't recognise her, therefore she can't be a somebody, makes Connie an even bigger phony than Opal, the bogus BBC reporter. At least Opal would, in her own mind, know that she is a fraud. Connie is just flat-out delusional.

    The second great line that Karen Black has in this film is the one where she tells the young children at her show that anyone of them could grow up to be the President--I knew exactly what she was going to say just a moment before she said it, and I voiced my disgust accordingly the moment right after she said it. It's such a cliche, and it's exactly the sort of thing that Connie White would say. It is also, of course, flagrantly untrue, and once again points to the chasm that separates Connie White from reality. She is the epitome of the delusional celebrity who is oblivious to her own shallowness and ignorance.

    Maybe if Sueleen Gay, played by Gwen Welles, had Connie's voice, she too could make a living as an obnoxious celebrity, but Sueleen is all kinds of pathetic. We all laugh at Sueleen when she prepares herself before her mirror and later proves that she's totally unable to hold a note, but when she winds up doing the humiliating gig before an all-male audience late in the movie, it's as if they should've been throwing peanuts at her.

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    1. So glad you finally got to see the film! It really is amazing and it seems you really got into it. It's very satisfying and it only gets better with time. There are many great characters but Connie White is my favorite. As you point out, her phoniness embodies virtually everything we hold near and dear in show biz.

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  5. Ken: it WAS stated (not explicitly, but in a type of sideways, "blink and you'll miss it" fashion) in the film that Opal was a fraud. When she states what the initials "BBC" mean, Opal says "British Broadcasting Company". In fact, "BBC" stands for "British Broadcasting Corporation". Admittedly, this one whizzed by me--either I didn't quite hear what Opal said or I didn't think much of it. There are numerous other hints that point to Opal being just another one of the phonies that are ubiquitous in "Nashville". For one thing, have you ever noticed that despite crossing the Atlantic on assignment for one of the biggest broadcasting corporations in the world, Opal NEVER has a camera person handy? Still, even if her press credentials were legitimate, Opal would still be a shallow individual. I mean, how bad would you feel if you were Bud Hamilton, trying to impress Opal with a song, and you were shown up by ELLIOTT GOULD IN WOODSTOCK GARB?

    That just didn't seem right, not right at all.

    I haven't even mentioned the scenes between Keith Carradine and Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson's role as Haven Hamilton, and who could forget Jeff Goldblum as Tricycle Man? That little display of magic that he pulls at the diner in the early part of the movie was a mere precursor to the illusions and trickery of the show business and political varieties that would follow (and I'm not sure that "show business" and "politics" aren't one and the same--does one even exist without the other these days?).


    Ken, you said:

    "Nashville may not be THE view of America, but it's most certainly A view of America..."

    Agreed: the brief scene where H.P. Walker campaigners take advantage of an automobile smash, caused by a jaywalking Albuquerque, to plant political stickers on both vehicles, as the two drivers quarrel with each other? That IS America.

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    1. As Altman mentions on the DVD commentary, the scene he deleted was one that made Opal's fraudulence more explicit. Keeping in tune with the rest of the film, he preferred leaving in the subtle clues that gave her away to those who were paying close attention. There's a terrific book "The Nashville Chronicles" by Jan Stuart that goes into a lot of this stuff.
      her character has always been one of the most reviled in the film, but I've actually met people like her, so she's not as contrived as some people seem to think.
      You point out what I like so much about the film; there are so many small things happening all the time that you can watch it repeatedly and still get new information.
      Glad you got to see it in a theater as well. The best experience for a film like this. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  6. I do indeed know of "The Nashville Chronicles" and have been receiving, via e-mail, various factoids from a fellow film buff. I must look out for it sometime.

    I can't believe that people don't buy into Opal! Who hasn't met, or at least been in the same room with, somebody who was just like her?

    One of the best things about experiencing a movie like "Nashville" in the cinema is that you get priceless immediate feedback as the what the audience in general considers the most hilarious moments.

    Far and away--it wasn't even close--the funniest scenes according to the democracy of the Astor Theatre patrons were the scene with Opal at the car wreckers and the bit shortly thereafter where Opal waxes poetic about the yellow buses.

    Opal's also terribly condescending; she has what I call that whole "patronising liberal" thing going on; the way she talks to the "black people" in the back of the van during the huge automobile pile-up points to a sort of "white person's guilt", and her later soliloquy about "the white children" and "the black children" in the aforementioned yellow buses scene--Opal really does go quite overboard, but yes, the Opals of the world DO exist!

    I noticed the dates on the autographs are a few months apart. After Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines, you must have been thinking up odds about who was going to show up next!

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    1. Yes, seeing a film like this is really fun with an audience just because of the reactions. And indeed, opal's cluelessness always get the most laughs. I think Geraldine Chaplin did a great job. Compare it with Kim Basinger's variation of the uninformed interviewer in Altman's "Pret-a-Porter" and you really get an appreciation for what Chaplin does. Nice to know "Nashville" still has things to say to young viewers.

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  7. I must confess, when I saw clips from "Pret-a-Porter/Ready to Wear", I stayed well away from it. That was a long time ago, though. But even thinking about it nowadays, I'd be hesitant to approach "RTW". One of the clips that I saw featured Kim Basinger's character, and I just found her really unfunny. You sum it up the type of character neatly as the "uninformed interviewer", but when it comes to the fashion industry, what is there to be "informed" about? What I mean is, people who attend fashion shows do so just "to be seen". As a vapid business that thrives on phonies like no other and wears it insipidness on its sleeve, even the "uninformed interviewer" at a fashion event would come across as a know-it-all.

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  8. Ha! Re: the fashion industry...I couldn't agree more!

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