Robert Altman’s Nashville was my favorite movie when I was a college student. I saw it time after time and dragged many friends to it as well. So when my daughter, a film school student, brought it home on the recommendation of one of her teachers, I was curious to see what my reaction at middle age would be.
At the age of 19 I was very much a political animal, and I was also an aspiring dramatist. So, not surprisingly, my favorite politicians were ones that offered dramatic verve and complexity and my favorite playwrights were those who addressed politics and ideas—Shaw, Brecht, and Stoppard. For my part, I was working on a verse tragedy about Alexander Dubcek and a slaptstick comedy about Isabel Peron (this was before I’d ever heard of the asinine Lloyd-Weber hit Evita, I should stress).
In other words, Nashville was made for me. In 1975, when it came out, I’d just lived through a lot of history. A disastrous war pursued by a president who was a truly great man in nearly everything else he’d accomplished had been ended disastrously by another president whose paranoia and megalomania had come dangerously close to destroying American democracy. At Duke University, my friends on the right didn’t seem to understand what had been wrong with the war and with Watergate, while many of my friends on the left seemed to have lost their minds to totalitarian Marxist delusion. Others were simply apathetic. North Carolina had recently sent a right-wing racist demagogue to the Senate. Things did not look good.
In his film, Altman captured post-Vietnam loss of direction, angst, and apathy in as masterful a fashion as Shaw had captured Edwardian cluelessness in the face of the Great War in Heartbreak House. By using the country music industry of Nashville, Tennessee as his mise en scène, he chose a slice of America stereotypically identified as the counter-counter culture, that part of the population and the country that sought to reaffirm that America never had and never could do wrong. By focusing on celebrities, stars, and Grand Ole Opry wannabees, while throwing in a self-absorbed BBC reporter as well as a mysterious populist presidential candidate, he showed how little focused Americans were on the huge problems facing their country, and how easily they were swayed and fooled by charlatans and fakes.
Nashville’s screenplay follows a dozen story strands and a couple dozen characters as they make their way through a week that culminates in a political rally-cum-country music concert at Nashville’s nearly full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens. When I was young, it seemed like the perfect technique for this film of political discombobulation. The final scene, when the crowd at the Parthenon, having just witnessed the assassination of country music idol Barbara Jean, joins in singing “It Don’t Worry Me,” while camera turns its gaze to heaven, seemed to be a call to action against the malaise of the post-Vietnam generation.
Thirty-three years later, it’s still an impressive film, but it seems a lot thinner than it did then. The message could not be more appropriate for the society I now live in today, but at the age of 52 message is not enough. I still like the multiple story technique, but now I see its problems. No character gets developed deeply and many of their actions are insufficiently justified. We don’t really understand why Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), a sincerely religious gospel singer and devoted mother of two deaf children, decides to betray her admittedly inconsiderate husband for a one-night fling with rock star Tom Frank (Keith Caradine). We haven’t a clue why Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward) shoots Barbara Jean. What does she mean to him? When I first saw the film, I assumed that he’d really been stalking Hal Phillip Walker, the presidential candidate, but now I just don’t know.
A glaring political error that bothered me some then stands out now as an improbability that nearly ruins the film’s premise. Walker is running a third-party campaign, yet we’re told that he has won three primaries and is in Tennessee to win a forth. He can’t be a primary candidate and a third-party candidate at the same time. Altman can perhaps be excused for not understanding the ridiculous way in which his country chooses his presidents, but you would think that someone on the set would have told him that he needed to revise the script so that Walker was running either as a Democrat or a Republican.
Nashville, which was hailed when it came out as a groundbreaking, daring, innovative American film, looks three decades later very much like a product of its time. It may still pack a wallop for politically-concerned teenagers and film students, but I need more depth of character and of narrative to move me, emotionally and politically, today.
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