#27 — Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
What does it say about the difference between European cinema, I wonder, that there’s such a pronounced fundamental difference between the two directors, roughly contemporaries, from each respective region that are best suited to having their names transformed into adjectives by having the suffix -esque pasted onto the end? Federico Fellini was a master of heightened unreality that existed at the intersection of fever dreams and the untethered fantasies spin to life by earthly passion. Robert Altman was the polar opposite, placing his most characteristic work in a distinct, recognizable world that obeyed all the same shaky rules as its real counterpart well beyond the stretching shadows of the movie set. Even when the material was fiercely satiric, Altman was committed to the messiness of truth, his famed utilization of overlapping dialogue only the most apparent manifestation of this quality. The chief element that both directors had in common was an astounding capability to create whole societies and condense them into single films, allowing them to drop their cameras in the midst of the bustle and spin with muscular grace to take it all in.
Nashville is arguably the Altman film that is most Altmanesque. Set in the eponymous city, the film is a daunting tangle of entertainment and politics, celebrity and those that exist in the scorched path of the biggest stars. A group of country and gospel musicians at different levels of fame are convening in Nashville, in part because of a benefit concert being organized for an upstart presidential candidate. By most counts, there are about two dozen significant characters in the film, played by the likes of Henry Gibson, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Lily Tomlin and Barbara Harris. Part of the bracing, thrilling challenges of the film is keeping track of all of the moving parts, although being able to cleanly trace all of the lines of narrative is far from the point. Instead, the massive complication is what Altman is most interested in conveying. Joan Tewkesbury is credited with the screenplay (she also wrote Thieves Like Us, one of two films Altman directed the prior year), but the happy disregard of clarity in favor of buckshot verisimilitude is pure Altman.
Just because Altman has a deliberately rough-hewn approach doesn’t mean that the film is scattershot, however. Nashville is masterfully composed, and it makes prescient points about the toxic mixture of entertainment and civics that have only become more pointed and pertinent over the years. Altman also shows tremendous, uncommon patience, allowing live music performances to basically play out in their entirety. Sometimes it just provides fascinating flavor, but it also sets up an incredible passage late in the film when the singer-songwriter portrayed by Carradine performs the song “I’m Easy” in a club, and Altman uses the tender attention of his camera to illustrate how all the different women in his orbit think the song is about them. It’s a perfect distillation of the sway a simple song can have over the emotions of the listener, the ways in which associations are bred through the sonic alchemy of melody and poetic words. Despite the copious amounts of music in it, Nashville is far more clearly about flawed people than the songs they sing and love. In that sequence, though, Altman allows that music can provide moments of solace, even if they’re fleeting. The briefest taste of grace can be monumental in a cold world. That’s just one more hard truth that’s strikingly Altmanesque.