For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is to film what language immersion programs are to foreign language instruction. It envelops you and drags you into the middle of countless main characters and their broken or triumphant lives. Altman constructs an entire community full of characters, and does so in such a masterful way that often we the viewers have no conscious awareness of whether the conversation we’re watching is a colorful aside or integral to one of the main narratives. The style can feel alternately daunting or completely effortless, but at no point does Altman abandon his viewer to confusion. Instead he continues to fold the narrative threads of his myriad characters into one another until they all intersect.
This style works brilliantly with the subject of “Nashville.” This country music capital draws the famous crooners of yesterday, who wish to relive their glory years, the star struck dreamers, who are desperate to make a name for themselves in the world of country music, as well as the lawyers, businessmen, and politicians, who take advantage of both sides. In many ways, only Altman can make enough space for all of the people who play a part in Nashville’s world.
In order to convey the tone and feeling of Nashville’s culture, Altman uses sprawling, rambling scenes that show us the characters in apparently mundane actions and conversations. Here’s a perfect example, which takes place in an airport diner.
We meet Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), as she looks for any possible chance to avoid her job and share one of the two songs she’s written, we see her boss Wade (Robert DuQui), a magical drifter (Jeff Goldblum), an old fellow in search of a sundae (Keenan Wynn), and we even see Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), a local lawyer for one of the old country stars. All of the characters are given similar weight, it’s not until later that we recognize some as punctuating moments in others narratives.
Occasionally Altman will almost allow his characters to subversively define Nashville and America of the 1970s. One of the funnier characters is Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a young woman reporter from the BBC, who is enamored with the States and the Nashville music scene. As she looks for an angle she wanders through a salvage yard and talks to her microphone.
Her description of the cars could just as easily describe the unsuccessful masses, who sought fortune and glory on the streets of Nashville, but Altman won’t make it that easy or fake. Instead of making any real poignant statement, the reporter discovers she’s not alone amongst the wreckage and launches back into her spiel.
“Nashville” also gives us glimpses into the excesses of those successful few. Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), a folk rocker who is throwing off the confines of his singing trio, indulges in women. In this scene, we see four women, Opal, Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), LA Joan (Shelley Duvall), and Mary (Cristina Raines), all whom Tom has slept with, and all believe his dedication is for them. (Sound starts in 9 seconds.)
Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese is awesome. Her character is the mother of two deaf children and wife to a powerful lawyer. She is at the same time composed and strong, but even she is not immune to the power of the music business that surrounds her. A singer of gospel music herself, Linnea is easily swayed into Tom’s arms. Lily Tomlin gives perhaps one of the most well-rounded and soulful performances in “Nashville.”
Nashville also takes advantage of the weak and naïve. Sueleen gets booked to sing, or so she thinks. Instead it turns out that her gig is more adult themed than she previously thought.
When John Triplette (Michael Murphy) dangles a more prestigious singing opportunity in front of her, Sueleen quickly returns to the striptease. She is down to her birthday suit in no time and the men, who only moments before booed her singing, now howl with delight. This is the mid 70s, and it is only too easy and socially acceptable to openly take advantage of women. This is the hard knock world of Nashville and it may not be fair, but even Sueleen accepts it. (Sound starts at 20 seconds.)
Wade is far more upset by the striptease than Sueleen, and tries to reason with her. She is more excited about the possibility of singing at a major show. Sueleen seems almost unfazed by her forced nudity and the unwanted and awkward advance of Del Reese. She is blinded by her own unachievable dreams.
All throughout “Nashville” there is the drone of the political machine. The fictional presidential candidate of Hal Phillip Walker is the face of this machine, even though we never actually see him. His campaign promotes an outsiders view of government and Washington, and he speaks to populist sentiments. I know that political climes are cyclical, but with the recent rise of the (New) Tea Party, It is a decidedly contemporary message.
Now that the rally is in place, all of our various characters converge on this one event.
Each is searching for something or someone different, but they all know that it will be at the rally. It is this natural progression of narrative that makes “Nashville” and its final conclusion so amazing. Never do we as viewers feel that we being lead forcibly down a specific path. Instead we are allowed to wander over a large social landscape, and yet in almost serendipitous fashion we end up right where we need to be. The outcomes all feel right, even if they aren’t happy.
Ultimately “Nashville” is a beautiful, sprawling, effortless film that is well worth its two and half hours. If you haven’t seen it, immerse yourself in it soon.
Next #58 “The Gold Rush” (1925)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)