It’s always been curious to consider the legacy of the sprawling Nashville in the context of the entirety of Robert Altman’s career. The film has a comfortable place in the AFI top 100, and Altman is regarded as one of the great American directors. Nothing here to parody or controversy to reconcile with. This isn’t a film that has many iconic moments or lines; rather, it’s an undisputed masterpiece on American success and politics. Given the scope of his career, Robert Altman is one of my favorite directors. Yet, if someone has seen only one film from the Missouri born filmmaker, it’s the 1975 ensemble considering its reverence held by critics for nearly fifty years.
After focusing on melancholic, humanist stories about drifters and dreamers finding their place in America, Altman was given a bigger canvas yet not with an overwhelming amount to say. In the middle of a historic run in 70s, Nashville was coming after M*A*S*H (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974), and California Split (1974). It’s a comedy, satirical, musical, a quiet drama, and has a lovely sense of place though it feels like the culmination of everything Altman had been towards for the past five years. We focus on two dozen people or so involved in the country and gospel music businesses in Nashville, Tennessee, over a five-day period, leading up to a gala concert for a populist outsider running for president on the Replacement Party ticket.
Nashville doesn’t have a lead, but everyone here has a rich story to tell, even considering nobody has the main character entrance more so an existence. Like the BBC reporter, Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), gathering information on the current events in Nashville and being the connection that ties everyone together. As she mutters to herself, “I have to be more positive. No. More negative.” “Oh, Christ, no, that’s fascism,” she says as she’s just trying to figure out everyone else as much as herself. Nashville is written by Altman’s frequent collaborator Joan Tewkesbury, based on her experiences exploring Nashville (the opening car accident happened) after retooling a previous script focused on a country singer. Both Opal and Joan Tewkesbury were on a self guided tour through Nashville, which values the people they met as much as the place itself
I love the characters that have the same amount of importance as everyone else, though they feel like minor characters to themselves. Like Scott Glen’s Glenn Kelly, a Vietnam vet who arrives in Nashville to hear Barbara Jean (Karen Black) perform carries himself as a lonely drifter rather than a man of pride and honor. Or Lily Tomlin’s Linea Reese, a local gospel singer and a loving mom to her deaf children who can’t carry on the same career as their mom. Even if everyone doesn’t see or bump into each other, the film is so considered, and Altman is a superb director of actors, that there’s consistently that possibility that they can cross paths. Life in 1975 is messy yet purposeful, which is true long after the film concludes.
With the film’s politically motivated assassination conclusion always being how Altman imagined things to end, its confident decision to realize the documentary-like pace wrapping up with an act of violence makes this one of my favorite all-time endings. Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips) was written to sound like a never-ending rotation of buzzwords we want to hear from a politician, having him merely be a presence in the background rather than a fleshed-out character, allowing the film to resist overt political messaging. Winifred’s (Barbra Harris) concert is the culmination of everything, and she performs “It don’t worry me” with heartache and passion. We see why the hot ticket aspiration is a country singer.
Altman sees the shooter who attempted to assassinate Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) as not a dreamer but a loner. Nashville is brilliant enough to know life is made up of the surprise of moments like violence, not the act itself. The film is timeless and I consider this another one of Robert Altman’s masterpieces, a beautiful statement on America and human interactions
dir. Robert Altman
Screening at the Somerville Theatre on Tuesday, August 30 and Wednesday August 31 @7:15