Sunday, December 30, 2012

Nashville (1975)

          At the risk of losing my bona fides as an aficionado of ’70s cinema, I’m going to commit an act of heresy by saying that Nashville leaves me cold. I’ve sat through all 159 endless minutes of Robert Altman’s most celebrated movie twice, and both times Nashville has struck me as an overstuffed misfire that unsuccessfully tries to blend gentle observations about the country-music industry with bluntly satirical political content. Altman has said he was originally approached to make a straightforward film about country music, and that he said yes only on the condition he could spice up the storyline, but I can’t help feeling like the movie would have been better served by someone with a deeper interest in the principal subject matter.
          Obviously, the fact that Nashville is one of the most acclaimed films of its era indicates that I hold a minority opinion, and it must be said that even the film’s greatest champions single out its idiosyncrasy as a virtue. Furthermore, there’s no question that the way that Altman takes his previous experiments with roaming cameras and thickly layered soundtracks into a new realm by presenting Nashville as a mosaic of loosely connected narratives represents a cinematic breakthrough of sorts. Taken solely as a filmic experiment, the picture is bold and memorable. But for me, Nashville simply doesn’t work as a viewing experience, and I have to believe that Altman wanted his film to captivate as well as fascinate.
          I have no problem with the fact that many of Altman’s principal characters are freaks whom he presents somewhat condescendingly, including disturbed country singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely); egotistical Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson); heartless womanizer Tom Frank (Keith Carradine); irritating British journalist Opal (Geraldine Chaplin); pathetic would-be songstress Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles); and so on. Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury balance the extreme characters with rational ones, such as cynical singer/adulteress Mary (Cristina Raines); long-suffering senior Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn); and sensitive singer/mom Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin). Furthermore, Nashville is mostly a story about showbiz, a milieu to which odd people gravitate and in which odd people thrive.
          I also freely acknowledge that Nashville has many vivid scenes: the humiliating sequence in which Sueleen is forced to strip before a room of cat-calling men whom she thought wanted to hear her sing; the incisive vignette of Carradine performing his Oscar-nominated song “I’m Easy” to an audience including several of his lovers, each of whom believes the tune is about her; and so on. Plus, the acting is almost across-the-board great, with nearly every performer thriving in Altman’s liberating, naturalistic workflow. And, of course, the sheer ambition of Nashville is impressive, because it features nearly 30 major roles and a complicated, patchwork storytelling style held together by recurring tropes like a political-campaign van that rolls through Nasvhille broadcasting straight-talk stump speeches.
          My issue with the movie has less to do with the execution, which is skillful, than the intention, which seems willful. It’s as if Altman dares viewers to follow him down the rabbit hole of meandering narrative, and then flips off those same viewers by confounding them with elements that don’t belong. The ending, in particular, has always struck me as contrived and unsatisfying. Anyway, I’m just a lone voice in the wilderness, and I’m happy to accept the possibility that Nashville is simply one of those interesting films I’m doomed never to appreciate. Because, believe me, watching it a third time in order to penetrate its mysteries is not on my agenda. (Readers, feel free to tell me why you dig Nasvhille, if indeed you do, since Id love to know what Im apparently missing.)

Nashville: FUNKY


Peter L. Winkler said...

I watched it once and didn't enjoy it, so you're not alone.

Bonnach said...

I haven't seen an Altman film I like yet. I'm not even going to give this one a shot. Nashville is my brother's favorite film.

Griff said...

in my opinion Robert Altman's films in general are VERY overrated, he may be the biggest case of emperor's clothes in movie history

Will Errickson said...


Anonymous said...

One of the things I liked about the movie was Ronee Blakely's vivid aperformance as the unstable country music star, which rumors have was based loosely on Loretta Lynn. I think Barbara Harris really shines here and I am always mystified why she didn't rise to super stardom status as she certainly has the talent and range.I also think it is a great commentary on our competitive American society done within the country music framework.

D said...

I think Nashville is one of the great movies of all time, perfectly capturing a moment in American sensibility. It has astonishing performances from the large cast and it manages to move me on an emotional level ( the Lily Tomlin strand) and intellectual level ( the Geraldine Chaplin strand) and the ironic one ( the great Barbara Harris strand) . I think they all come together beautifully. I saw it at least a dozen times when it first came out and because I loved it so much back then - I'm afraid of seeing it now. I might have been very naieve. :)

Movieman 65 said...

It's a film that is easy to admire,but hard to like.

Unknown said...

You need to brush up on your usage of "who" and "whom." I noticed a similar error in your review of "The Great Gatsby" but I assumed it was a typo.

In your phrase "men whom she thought wanted to hear her sing" the words "she thought" are an seen as filler words--that is, they are not essential to the sentence. Take out the words "she thought" and the phrase reads "men whom wanted to hear her sing," which is obviously incorrect. It's really not a big deal, because it's the only grammatical errors I have found, and as a retired English teacher, I'm always sensitive to spelling and grammatical errors.

On a positive note, I am really enjoying your reviews, having discovered your writing yesterday. You are a wonderful writer, and your reviews are comprehensive, authoritative, and very entertaining. As a bonus, I find that you and I agree a huge percentage of the time, although I do appreciate "Nashville" and consider it a great film.

I hope you will continue on and tackle another decade. You have me hooked.

Unknown said...

I had a typo myself, not having proofread as I should have. In the first sentence in my second paragraph, the word "an" should have been removed. We all do it!