I’ve been thinking a lot about America recently. It’s kinda hard not to, even when you don’t live in the country. Living in Canada, America is our closest neighbour, and I suppose it’s hard to deny the similarities and differences between the two countries. However now the subject of America has taken a more personal aspect as my girlfriend/partner comes from there, and I’ve been more invested in its politics than ever before.
It’s safe to say looking at America from a distance, it no longer looks like the land of opportunity, and home of the free it has so often claimed to be. The country is broken, brought on by years of hurtful oppression, and a gross contempt for human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic has reached insurmountable numbers brought on by self-entitlement, and an ignorance of facts. And of course, the sheer audacity of this behaviour is 100% condoned and practiced by the idiot and chief elected making it all the worse.
America as a country feels like it’s burning to a degree it hasn’t seen before, and while I’m angry over what I’m seeing, I also feel sad. This is the place where my girlfriend was raised and where she came from, but I’m also sad because it is a place which feels like it’s in deep mourning and never lived up to its potential.
A few days ago, to acknowledge the passing of Independence Day here in Canada, my girlfriend decided to pick a movie to watch which in hindsight felt like the most fitting on such a day: Nashville. She had never seen it, yet knew it was one of my favourites, and one I always meant to get around to showing her.
Nashville is a freewheeling film with a life of its own that goes where it pleases, yet comes back again in the most surprising ways. It’s loose to a degree which creates little stories all embedded in a tapestry of atmosphere and feeling. One could not pinpoint a direct plot to the film, as it moves from one human being to the next, each one with a different story to tell, and a different life to live.
But more importantly Nashville feels like the quintessential American film to me. It examines people from different walks of life, sometimes they are famous, sometimes, they dream of fame, and sometimes they are common people dealing with life’s little problems. It all happens in the little universe known as Nashville, but in a broader scope, it is meant to be a representation of America.
Most of the people are linked to the music scene of Nashville and they are introduced to us in an opening scene at an airport, as they are anticipating the arrival of singing sensation Barbara Jean (Ronnee Blakely). We meet other musicians such as Keith Carradine’s self-obsessed, womanizing folk singer Tom Frank who distances himself from his band mates. There is also Henry Gibson’s patriotic singing Haven Hamilton, who moves throughout the film like a little country music Napoleon with his diva-like studio antics sporting a rhinestone jumpsuit. Juxtaposing from the celebrities, are the dreamers like Barbara Harris’ runaway wife Albuquerque who struggles to get anyone to listen to her singing and Gwenn Welles’ tragically untalented Sueleen Gay, who’s naive attempts at stardom get her into a compromised situation.
Balancing between the looks at fame and wanton ambition lies Geraldine Chaplin’s BBC reporter Opal. She says time and again that she is doing a documentary on Nashville, yet coming off as someone more infatuated with celebrity than wanting a concrete story, one might question her credentials. Perhaps she too is just a starry-eyed dreamer.
With all of the lively activity permeating throughout, there is also a tinge of sadness. Some of this goes unsaid, but Altman and his actors have a gift for conveying melancholy vignettes. None more so than seeing Keenan Wynn’s devoted husband Mr. Green, who’s wife is in the hospital, being told by a nurse that she has died. All through the film he has been trying to get his selfish niece Martha (Shelley Duvall) to come and see his wife saying how much it would mean to her, but Martha usually ditches her responsibilities to go off with boys. It’s a devastating scene which is done with a simple medium close-up of Wynn, while other excitement concerning Barbara Jean is happening in the background. It’s sad because up to that point, we feel Mr. Green is the only one in the world who cared for his wife, and now he is alone.
Loneliness is another feeling that permeates throughout such as Lily Tomlin’s gospel singer Linnea Reese, a devoted mother to two deaf children, but seen to be in a loveless marriage with her husband Del (Ned Beatty). She has a past with Carradine’s Tom who calls her up incessantly. She relents one night and goes to see him sing. They go to bed together, but unlike the other women Tom sleeps with, Linnea is more realistic and leaves him without any lovelorn infatuation in mind. She is more devoted to her children, while Tom, who clearly fears being alone calls up another woman almost immediately. Again not much is said in this scene, but Altman paints a short story of intimacy and longing, even if the moment remains fleeting.
But politics is also in the air in the film, burgeoning underneath like a bomb ready to go off. Throughout, we see a campaign van for Presidential hopeful Thomas Hal Phillips. Phillips is never seen, however we hear him voicing political rhetoric which blares through the van’s loud speakers. Accompanying this commentary is a smooth talking PR man John (Michael Murphy), who is there to convince some of the singing stars to appear at a campaign rally for Phillips. This culminates in the film’s final setpiece which ends with a shocking denoument of gunfire, one that elludes to a decade’s worth of political assassination.
This scene does not come out of nowhere, as it is somewhat hinted by a funny, yet tender monologue by Barbara Baxley, who plays Haven’s companion. She reminisces about the Kennedy brothers, who she had much affection for, and almost breaks down crying when she thinks about them. Considering this film came out only twelve years after JFK’s death, and seven after RFK’s, it’s safe to say it could still be considered recent history. Perhaps more on people’s minds was what happened only a year earlier with Nixon and Watergate. This was a country dealing with a fresh wound, while still reeling over old ones.
In this way, the gunshot and the group song lead by Harris’ Albuquerque (who finally gets to sing) becomes a catharsis. What we don’t realize before that point is the film is really about the grief and sadness shared by all Americans, and it lets us share those emotions together.
Nashville is the culmination of experimentation Altman first attempted with his breakout hit MASH. With that film, he created a cacophony of sound where the viewer was able to listen in to an actor’s dialogue almost as if they were seated right next to them. This created a wall of sound for his films, and one that seemed to sacrifice plot for atmosphere. It was here Altman was able to create his unique canvas of anti-establishment. His films moved against the grain, even when compared to the younger movie brats who were rising up in Hollywood at the same time such as Scorsese, Coppola, and Bogdanovich. Altman always went his own way, creating films that were inherently stylistically and structurally different than any other American film.
The success of MASH helped with Altman’s good will with studios and in a very short period he came out with classics of the era such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, and Thieves Like Us, each one feeling like a modern update on a specific genre of film. All of this hinted at something bigger, and that thing was Nashville.
The film boasts 24 main characters which makes the relatively small ensemble of MASH feel like chicken feed. Not to be discounted also are the songs, each one written by the actors who perform them with music arranged by composer Richard Baskin. These songs serve a purpose of creating the atmosphere of Nashville, but the overall feeling of the music is meant as catharsis. Watching the film again, the use of music brought on a weight of importance I had not felt before. Sometimes it gives us a sense of who these characters are, but it almost serves as a spiritual component, like one of healing. I was reminded of The Coen Brothers’ latest film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which uses grass roots music as a graceful way to accept death. Nashville is similar in its use. Music has a way to sway us into feeling good and in that way, we leave the film sad but with a song in our heart. Ultimately it’s hopeful, and perhaps America will survive this.
Nashville came out in 1975 and was a critical darling. It was nominated for best picture along with films which all could be argued were masterpieces: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Jaws. Today, Jaws is the film that has remained the most in the zeitgeist, with its universal popularity and overall appeal. While I admire all of the films on this list, I would argue Nashville is still the one that towers above them all. It is a film that works through atmosphere and feeling. It’s a satire, yet it’s sincere. It’s funny, silly, moving, and real. For me it’s the great American film in the same way Huckleberry Finn might be considered the great American novel. There is something inherently American about it, and it’s the best commentary on the country I have ever seen.