Film, Went There



One time in high school, when we were just starting to dabble in filmmaking (with our parents’ camcorders, naturally), my friends and I decided to undertake an experiment. Rather than shoot a “story” with “scenes,” we would simply set up five cameras in a circle and film a “party.” Each of us would come up with a character beforehand, then enter the party one by one and interact with each other’s personae. The idea was to create something spontaneous and naturalistic, cutting between cameras freely to capture the most sparkling moments. It was going to be great.

Then, of course, we played the tapes back, and realized that the entire thing was muddled, incoherent, and would take for-fucking-ever to edit into something watchable. We filed those tapes away and never watched them again.

All of which is why I shake my head when people accuse Robert Altman’s films of being shaggy and unfocused. Altman’s signature technique was not far removed from my troupe’s experiment: sprawling casts consisting of dozens of actors, each of whom is given their own microphone and free rein to improvise. The difference, of course, is that Altman knew what he was doing. In NASHVILLE, arguably his masterwork, Altman stacked the cast with an intimidating roster of thespians (including Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, and many, many others), each of whom could hold their own in a scene. The story, while mostly composed of vignettes, never loses track of its central axis. And while it’s tough to tell how much of her original work ultimately made it to the final cut, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury remained constantly on set as a sort of coach for the cast. It seems like chaos, but it’s actually tightly controlled.

NASHVILLE is the latest entry in the Coolidge’s CINEMA JUKEBOX series, and with good reason. Like fellow improv-maestro Christopher Guest, Altman tasked his ensemble with writing their own songs. This rankled some of the titular town’s citizens at the time, who felt Altman should have enlisted some of the ample local talent, but the result is a remarkably solid tribute to the scope of country music, circa mid seventies. The songs range from ironically satirical (Gibson’s ludicrously patriotic “200 Years”) to the genuinely moving (Carradine’s “It Don’t Worry Me” and “I’m Easy,” the latter of which netted him a Golden Globe and an Oscar), and the final scene is a poignant testament to the power of music in the face of adversity. Like the rest of the movie, the soundtrack is a balancing act, but it’s pulled off with bravado.

NASHVILLE (1975) dir. Robert Altman

Part of the ongoing series: CINEMA JUKEBOX

Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard St.
Brookline, MA 02446

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License(unless otherwise indicated) © 2019