Friday, July 07, 2006


About a year ago, I wrote a piece cracking on Robert Altman, basically saying that he's done good films, but never great ones. A few months ago, I saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which is definitely a great film, and yesterday I rewatched Nashville, which I would now also rank as a great film, one that improved quite a bit on the rewatching.

The reason I first watched Nashville was because I'd heard it was a major influence on Magnolia, and that affected the way I viewed it. Magnolia is definitely Altmanesque in structure, but it has a lot more connection between the stories. It's one story split into nine different characters, while this is a whole bunch of stories that have some overlaps. In that respect, it's more like Morrison's Seven Soldiers, each character inhabits their own little universe, there's some crossover, and there is an overarching plot, but on the whole, most of the stories begin and end without being profoundly affected by what's going on elsewhere.

Some of the pieces here are complete stories, you could extract the stuff with Barbara Jean and make a 45 minute movie about her illness and murder. Others are just fragments, the guy with the violin case does a bunch of stuff, then ends up shooting Barbara Jean, but we don't get a sense of his motivation from what actually happens to him. Rather, his final action becomes a blank slate that we can ascribe motive to based on what happened elsewhere in the film.

I love the opening credits of the film, with a cranked up announcer shouting about the cast of "Robert Altman's Nashville." I love the meta touch, we're made aware that it's a film we're watching, this is basically a trailer within the movie. From there, we get the fantastic scene of Haven Hamilton performing "200 Years," a song that's very catchy. I love the juxtaposition of his folksy image, as evidenced by the song and his stage banter later, and his diva-ish personality.

This scene also introduces my favorite character from the film, Opal from the BBC. She's always hilarious, in her total lack of regard for the people around her and her absurd, over the top voiceovers. Every scene she's in is brilliant, but my favorites are the Elliot Gould scene, the voiceover about the cars and her dismissing Norman as a servant. The most emotional scene involving her character is when she's talking about knowing Tom "biblically," oblivious of Mary's relationship with him.

The subsequent scene, in which Tom plays "I'm Easy," and we see four different women looking at him, thinking he's singing just to them, is my favorite in the film. I think musical performance can be one of the most powerful devices to convey emotion in a film, and just watching a character listen to a song can tell us everything we need to know about their emotional state. It's a favorite David Lynch device, witness "Questions in a World of Blue" in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or the whole Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Dr.

The "I'm Easy" scene is a perfect example of what the film's structure does in allowing us to experience the diegesis from multiple perspectives. We've hung out with Opal, Linnea, Mary and L.A. Joan, and they're all likable characters, so their happiness at watching Tom perform becomes pain for the viewer, because we're aware of what kind of guy Tom is. This is backed up by the song, which is Tom basically saying that he's got no problem with sleeping around.

The film does a good job of showing Tom's simultaneous attractiveness and bastardness. He puts so much effort into sleeping with Linnea, then once she says she's got to leave for the night, he's on the phone to someone else. So, this is a guy for whom the conquest is the important thing, when Linnea doesn't want him, he desperately wants her, but once she's not giving him anything, he's moving on while she's still in the room.

One of the most effective setpieces in the film is the car crash sequence, which does a good job of drawing the characters together. Visually, it's very cool, and it provides a lot of the very real moments that Altman excels at capturing. Altman's greatest strength is his ability to give you the feeling that everyone in the film is a real person and he just happened to wander into their lives with a camera. This is what threw me at first, because Magnolia is a film so utterly stylized, using all the tricks of filmmaking to immerse you in a characters' emotional world. Altman is much more of an observer, and that's very refreshing. I'm so sick of transparent three act Hollywood films at this point, it's great to see a film that builds a world and explores it. All the characters have arcs, but they don't feel contrived, they feel like just ordinary events that would happen to people over the course of time.

One of the surprising things about the film is the way that even though most of the characters don't find any closure, there is a definitive sense of resolution and satisfaction at the ending. The murder has a high level of ambiguity, the sequence of shots, with Kenny first looking at Barbara Jean, then at the flag, then shooting her indicates that killing Barbara Jean is an attack on traditional American values. When John is trying to convince Bill and Mary to appear on the TV broadcast he tells them that their new music will stand out against all the old fashioned Nashville stuff. So, their disillusioned 60s generation will replace the old generation, which is represented by Barbara Jean. That fits with a lot of the other stuff in the film, notably L.A. Joan never even seeing her aunt before she dies. The older generation is dying out, Barbara Jean herself is already being bumped out by Connie White, as is Haven. This also fits in with the fact that it's a fundraiser for the Replacement Party.

One of the most amazing moments of the film is when Albequerqe gets on the mic, finally having a chance to sing, and we find out that, unlike her parallel character, Suelynn, Albequerqe can actually sing. I love the way the song builds, the choir joining in and then the crowd, all saying "It Don't Worry Me." The song is fantastic and it gives a really powerful feeling of closure to the end of the film.

This is a film full of interesting stuff, it feels like being dropped into a world and given free license to wander around. There's hilarious bits, like Opal, and quietly sad moments, like the man losing his wife, but it all works together as one whole. And, it works equally well as a collection of small pieces. I'm not sure if I'd call this or McCabe his best film, but Nashville is the most distinctly Altman film in his catalogue. This is a film where even the end credits are great, due to a really rocking version of "It Don't Worry Me." So, watch the film and stick around for the credits, it's a great experience.

Related Posts
Short Cuts (6/10/2005)
70s Cinema, Box Office Economics and Auteur Filmmaking (6/21/2005)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (5/11/2006)

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