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 I’d love to know what I’m apparently missing.)