A City On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
by TYLER COATES
There's a trend in independent film in which every young self-described auteur sets out to put together an ambitious tapestry of a film made up of multiple narratives. There are the good ones (like PT Anderson's Magnolia, although Molly Lambert would disagree), and there are the bad ones (such as Paul Haggis' Crash, although your "socially-conscious" mother would disagree).
It's a distinctly American form — these themes often take place within the urban landscapes one can only find in the United States, which provide the excellent setting for a few handful of distinctive complex characters to crash (sorry!) into each other.
Robert Altman perfected this in Short Cuts, but he practically invented the genre with 1975's Nashville. Following twenty-four characters as they make their way through the capital of country music. It depicts a group of Americans (and one daffy British reporter) on the cusp of the bicentennial, in the shadows of Vietnam, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Altman's film is not a cinematic love letter to Nashville. The city is a madhouse, filled with kooks with the desire and the delusion that they will make it. There are the actual celebrities, too, fleeting in and out of honky-tonks and the Grand Ole Opry.
None of it is very romantic; the tagline to the film was, "The damndest thing you ever saw." Essentially, it's a Blue State examination of Red State America. The Nashville community hated it, and with good reason: they were reduced to bumbling lunatics and occasional musical talents.
The centerpiece of the film is Hal Phillip Walker, the faceless voice that drives through town delivering down-home political agendas over a loudspeaker. His "Replacement Party" platform predates the lunacy of Ross Perot's Reform Party twenty-some years later. Walker's voice delivers political zingers like, "When you pay more for an automobile than it cost for Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that's politics."
Walker's ideas are in direct opposition to the sentiment of the film's opening number, in which Haven Hamilton (played by Laugh-In cast member Henry Gibson) sings, "We must be doing something right to last two-hundred years." Hamilton, who so perfectly represents the self-righteousness of '70s-era country music (and is partially inspired by titans like Porter Wagoner), is easily swayed to join Walker's political machine as he looks out for his own agenda. After all, Nashville in 1975 is a time of ideological confusion and gray areas.
One of the underrated stars of the film is Ronee Blakeley. As Barbara Jean, Blakeley (who was herself a semi-accomplished folk singer and wrote the songs for her character) beats Sissy Spacek by nearly five years as the first actress to, basically, portray Loretta Lynn on screen.
She plays the familiar star character: tired, confused, pushed to contribute to a profession she doesn't particularly enjoy by her manager-husband. In the climactic scene of the film, she performs what is probably the most symbolic song in Nashville, the autobiographical "My Idaho Home."
As Altman pans across the lawn in front of the Parthenon, the impressive and stoic Greek sculpture oddly planted in the Tennessee capital, Barbara Jean sings about her parents' upbringing in rural Middle America. And then he focuses his lens on an American flag for several solid seconds, just in case you weren't paying attention.
There are plenty of other important characters in Nashville, including Lily Tomlin as a bored housewife, Barbara Harris as ambitious and imbecilic singer, Michael Murphy as a fish-out-of-water political consultant, and KeithCarradine (who won an Academy Award for his song "I'm Easy") as the misogynistic folk-singer. Much like it was impossible for Altman to squeeze his masterpiece under two hours, it's difficult for this writer to explain the entire film, with its intricate plots and characters, in less than eight-hundred words.
But what makes it such an important film, even by today's standards, is that it subtly changed the way films were made, as well as how they examined their subjects. And thirty years later, Americans are still riding a fence between the comforts of tradition and the concept of radical change. We're all the characters in Nashville, patiently waiting for Mr. Altman's direction.
Tyler Coates is the contributing editor to This Recording. He lives in Chicago and blogs here.