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Sunday, February 5, 2017

NASHVILLE

   I suppose these days everyone has their favorite something: favorite football player, favorite pop singer, favorite pest control expert. My favorite things have always been people--at least, certain people--and that is why, if pressed, I would select Robert Altman as my favorite movie director and Nashville (1975) as my favorite film. Altman populated his motion pictures with so many people that a first-time viewer might assume that some of them were extraneous. But such things rarely exist in his movies, and they certainly do not exist in Nashville. Even a small child resting on his daddy's shoulders in a crowd scene after a country star has been assassinated at a political music festival exudes substance. I have noticed that many people confuse substance with explicit meaning. Naturally, I disagree.
   It is not my purpose here to confuse Altman's style with absurdist works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, mainly because I have always found Beckett to be obvious and boring. Neither does he come across as some pretentious polecat in the spirit of James Joyce, whose writings always struck me as being in need of a decoder ring. If Altman's directorial style does have a literary equivalent, it might be a blend of Eugene Ionesco and Philip Roth, but even that fanciful thought still misses the mark. The most clear explanation I can offer is that he caught all the minute details of human interaction and adhered them to the old adage that comedy is tragedy plus time. When Keenan Wynn's character, Mr. Green, receives the news that his wife Esther has passed away, Scott Glenn's military character rushes up to him to babble out some wonderful--i.e., meaningless--good news. As Mr. Green strains to absorb the unexpected loss of his wife, the camera stays on the two men, neither of whom is reading the cues of the other, leaving us to struggle with the reverse of the adage. Throughout much of the movie, tragedy is comedy minus time. 
   Most directors--even some good ones--would not have had the imagination to conceive such a scene. But even those who might have found it within their abilities would not have been able to follow it up by having Mr. Green vindictively chase down Shelley Duvall who, as L.A. Joan, was more interested in chatting with men in the local music business than with caring about her dying Aunt. 
   It is no coincidence that we never meet Aunt Esther.
   We also never meet Hal Phillip Walker, the disembodied voice who is campaigning for President of the United States on the Replacement Party ticket. His long-winded witticisms come at us throughout the movie via a sound system atop an old campaign van winding its way through the city. Walker believes the National Anthem is a stupid song, that all the lawyers should be thrown out of Congress, and that churches should lose their tax-exempt status. He also believes that Christmas smells like oranges. In short, his message is one of populism. Released between Watergate and the American Bicentennial, Nashville summed up precisely where our country existed at that time.
   But such a statement fails to do justice to Altman's film, or to Joan Tewkesbury's screenplay, or to the brilliance of the casting and the performances the director allowed to flow from such heavyweights as Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, or any of the twenty-plus other actors prominently featured in this film. In this movie (which Altman called a musical, what with more than one hour of the total running time being devoted to mostly unappealing countrypolitan drivel, much of it written by the actors themselves, with the rest penned by Nashville stalwart Richard Baskin), we encounter people who are so beaten down by the lives they consciously created for themselves that they are largely unaffected by the public execution of the country star for whom they have all clamored, Barbara Jean, played to perfection by Ronnie Blakley. To quell any emotional response the crowd might express, or to seize an opportunistic moment, Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who has been looking for a break since the festival began, takes the microphone and howls out a Gospel version of the only really human song in the film, Keith Carradine's "It Don't Worry Me." The audience eats it up. After all, they came to be entertained. 
   Five years after this movie came out, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon to death. Some reporter called Altman and asked if he felt any responsibility for Chapman's actions. Altman, whose actual reaction can only be imagined, told the story that he answered back, "Do you feel any responsibility for not learning the lessons of Nashville?"

   

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