August 28, 2010

#59: Nashville

"You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me."

Robert Altman's sprawling country-music epic Nashville is the only film of his to reach the AFI's Top 100, but in an astounding filmography that includes The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park, his 1975 ode to America still shines above the others. I'd seen this once before and gave it three stars on my Netflix queue, and for who I am now and where I am in my life, I'm not sure that's the wrong rating ... but give it a couple years and that could change.

Company: just me again, after several unsuccessful attempts to get a group together for this one. Some more populist titles are on their way.

Cuisine: reduced fat crunchy Jif -- the only peanut butter worth eating.

We open on what appears to be a commercial for the album/film of Nashville, narrated with fervor, announcing the stars and giving snippets of the music to come. And then: a recording studio, where an aging country star is attempting to record a bicentennial anthem ("we must be doing somethin' right to last two hundred years") with little cooperation from the pianist. The isolation of the star singer and his Pipps in this shot suggests to me an exclusivity about the genre, that the elite have laid claim to it. On his stormy way out of the studio, he spits, "You get your hair cut. You don't belong in Nashville."

Why make a movie about country music if the stakes aren't high? And when were they higher in this country when we had totally fallen away from who we were, who we'd idealized, nearing our 200th birthday?

Meanwhile, an unseen presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker is creating a faction, spreading his message by creating a barracade on a major freeway and blasting his words for all those piled up to hear. In typical Altman fashion, the film doesn't follow one character but many, and doesn't follow one story, but many stories that all lead to the same end (in this case, a major concert for Walker at Nashville's Parthenon). This scene is fascinating in the way it jump cuts to each car, letting us in on intimate conversations here and there and yet still managing to show the chaos of the pile up. Here we also meet Opal (a hysterical Geraldine Chaplin), a "journalist" from the BBC attempting to gather information and interviews for a documentary about the city and the music. She's never seen with any film crew and never gives credentials, but stands as a very clear outsider, unwelcomed but finally weaseling her way in. I especially loved her monologues into her tape recorder in a junkyard and a school bus station.

Altman's style is to create a film that's less plot and more portrait. There are little sub-plots (pictured above, Lily Tomlin as Linnea, a gospel singer and mother of two deaf children fending off infidelity), and it can be frustrating as a viewer to attempt to piece those sub-plots together to create a whole, because honestly, there isn't one. You wouldn't call it a mood piece (although maybe you would), but somehow it manages to make a coherent whole from little story-lets. It does occasionally mean I lose interest, but that's not to say I don't think it's a worthy form.

There may not have been a movie this truly American on my list since Yankee Doodle Dandy, which might have a hard time being surpassed in its patriotism (although they're fighting for England, The African Queen comes in a distant second). But I found it interesting that so many movies on the list thus far (Nashville, Dandy, Network, Tootsie, etc.) have dealt so specifically with the intersection of entertainment and the media. Maybe it's ethnocentric of me to think that America has the firmest worldwide grip on the media, but our obsession with celebrity is certainly unquestionable. We love our stars, and more, we love to see what happens behind closed doors. I recently saw an amazing production of Othello, the ultimate secret story, and found that an audience is never more enthralled when they're hearing something they shouldn't be hearing.

It seems like Altman is making a very specific point about country musicians. Apparently, many in Nashville were offended by the movie when it premiered, believing it was mocking their talent and sincerity. Shots like the one above show musicians playing on deaf ears at a race track, which could be interpreted as silly and pathetic, but I think the underlying tone of the film is one of naive optimism. They play because they love it. At one point, one musician beseeches the young children in her audience to "study real hard, because any one of you boys could grow to be president."

One of the main draws of the film is the excellent performances by many of the actors. They all did their own singing (never dubbed, I think) and many of them wrote their own songs as a form of character study. Barbara Jean (Oscar nominee Ronee Blakely) is the emotional center of the film, a fragile flower and beloved singer (well, beloved once she finally shuts up and sings). Acting aside, I really believed each word these singers crooned. Keith Carradine's rendition of "I'm Easy," sung to four different women at once, won him an Oscar for Best Song, but for me, the most heartwrenching song comes from a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-type trio (Bill, Mary and Tom), sung in the midst of their breakup. (The song itself begins around 1:28 in this video.)

You can say what you want about Altman, but one thing's for sure: he's always surprising me.

The final scene at the Parthenon is a worthy ending for the film, one I had nearly forgotten, and one I won't spoil for you, dear reader. But what stays with me is the final song, "It Don't Worry Me," playing on and on over the credits, as though America won't give up no matter what happens. You may say that we ain't free, but it don't worry me.

Roger Ebert famously said that he somehow felt more alive and wiser after having seen Nashville. I can see and hear that to be true, but I think it might take me a couple more viewings to really articulate what he means by that. Until then: more blogging! Next up: the lovely little Little Fellow in 1925's The Gold Rush.

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