Edited and Updated 2016
Robert Altman, among his many talents, was first and foremost the American master of nervous, human comedy. His films all have that special wink-and-a-nod approach to drama, that bittersweet, knowing approach to humor. MASH is usually considered his foremost and best comedy, but he expanded his horizons and explored the limits of gallows humor in his other more somber films as well. Even his quietest, most somber affair, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, reveals dry humor as early as its opening scene. Presenting a vision of a decrepit Pacific Northwest town all but destroyed by big business, the film’s hero, who we expect to save the day, rides in to town slowly, hunched over, and equally weathered with age. It’s an image shot through with bitter irony and acidic wit, one which gives us a Western town with no desert and a Western hero riding in but here looking mundane and even sickly.
Nashville, however, is perhaps his grand comic opus, and it too wastes no time revealing its caustic humor. Early on, we’re introduced to Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a longtime hero of America’s country-western music scene, performing a song written for the bicentennial with lyrics so hokey it’s impossible to take seriously. But he, and America, does. The lyrics belie a crushing self-seriousness to the grandiose performance that explicitly remind of the performative nature of this jingoistic conception of the American spirit.
Elsewhere, the country music scene plays into the film in complicated and unexpected ways. A famous scene with the film’s aspiring young female country star, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), features her riding the bar circuit only to find out at one performance that her audience is not interested in her voice but instead in her body unadorned. Her attempts to rise through the music scene result in society’s using and abusing of her. Altman contrasts here and elsewhere the hopeful dreams of a young woman to become famously American with the bitter realities of how America treats women. The performance of music here becomes symbolic of the staged performance of American society at the time, and we see here the American Dream colliding in tension with the devastation and inequality at the core of American society and the dream coming out behind.
These are merely two of Nashville’s wide cast of deeply felt, anguished human characters who reveal themselves a cross-section of a nation at the eve of its bicentennial, playing out its past as it tries to find itself in the present. Nashville’s narrative isn’t easy to describe – it has nearly two-dozen major characters, with the film playing out as an ensemble piece. I could describe a populist third-party candidate rapidly taking the nation by storm or a BBC reporter making a documentary about the country music scene of Nashville, or a struggling folk rock trio beset by personal struggles, or any number of figures. All are in Nashville while preparations are made for an upcoming political rally doubling as a country music festival, and all become involved in some way.
Nashville’s greatest strength is its characters – there are so many, it’s an astounding feat that Altman is able to develop them all as three-dimensional individuals all worthy of some sympathy. As is usual for the director though, he aims for landscapes rather than individuals – he uses wide-shots to capture people as they exist socially, as part of a larger fabric. As these people come to meet one another, they are often affected by others they haven’t yet met, even when they don’t know it. The film’s most powerful scene, when Tom (Keith Carradine), one member of the folk trio, sings what would become the film’s hit-song “I’m Easy” to a crowded bar, captures this as well as any other scene Altman ever gave us. Four women in the audience look on, and without any dialogue, we see they each believe the song is about his love for them. But, even when Altman does resort to close-up on a particular figure, he always leaves room for his moving camera to see another woman off to the side or to the background, reminding us of their lack of individuality to Tom’s stoic singer.
The threads all come together at the end, in a scene which reveals that they fit together, as all Americans do, in only the most anguished of ways. As he should, Altman returns to the only thing that could bring the film’s characters, and perhaps America, together: the music. Famously, in the middle of her performance Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakeley), the crown jewel of the Nashville music scene, is shot by a Vietnam veteran wounded in combat and angry at his country for using him and forgetting him. Throughout the film we see him preparing to return the violence committed by America upon him to its original sender, juxtaposed with the glitz and glamour of the preparations for the concert designed to lift America’s spirits in increasingly difficult times. Here, after the stage hands carry Jean off the stage, Hamilton takes the stage in a desperate attempt to divert the audience’s attention, the only way he knows how: singing something grandstanding and patriotic. But here the context is entirely different; it’s an obvious attempt to cover up the bitter, crippled core of American society. The audience watches in confusion, many unable to physically move and seemingly devoid of life; some join in with little passion, fighting off what they had just witnessed with a last-ditch attempt to retain the performance of American freedom, liberty, and brotherhood.
The scene is the culmination of all that came before it, and it’s also the film’s most complicated. On one hand, there’s genuine affection here for America’s ability to overcome in the face of tension. But this affection is undercut by the American community’s inability to seriously consider the tension around them, the feeling of perturbed worry that permeates everything from the mournful blue sky, to the gruesome red of blood, to the pale, ghostly white faces in the crowd. There’s an awareness here however, in the faces of the audience and the quiet loneliness of the stage, where Haven Hamilton sings to an audience of many and none, that they do in fact realize the tension they find around themselves. They simply can’t admit it to themselves, for the lie of community is what keeps them together.
If this scene brings the threads of American society together, it also reveals that their coming together is an act of constant unraveling and superficial attempts to mend what wounds much deeper than anyone is prepared to handle. The film is scathing in its indictment of pop-culture and politics and the smug grandstanding and American artifice it entails. But it also understands the genuine goodness of people trying to survive another day, people who turn to pop-culture for a sense of community they don’t have, and who act smugly or artificially nice because they’re broken down hollow shells with human faces struggling to come to terms with a nation’s past and present. What makes Altman’s films so special, never more-so true than in Nashville, is that he doesn’t see any gap between genuine warmth and a cold-hearted chill. They’re always intertwined, and they, like Americans, don’t know what to do with each other.
Nashville, then, is a deeply tormented movie because it is about deeply tormented people. Within, Altman stretches the bounds of “comedy” by turning America’s smugness back on itself and then turning it into tragedy. In turn, we are reminded that this film isn’t a mockery of country music, nor of the political game that continually plays out around it. Altman could mock his characters with the best of them – his previous film, The Long Goodbye, was a two hour mock-stravanganza of film noir in the caustic minor key with a thoroughly unlikable central character. But he also knows the eternal tragedy of human existence, of daily living, and he could see it in little, feeling, brittle moments as much as great big narrative silver platters. This is why his films favor mood, often that of a malaise, and aim to capture small character moments found in the unstated emptiness of a longing eye or a quavering facial expression, rather than large narrative arcs where people learn to be better people. He was never interested in people learning, but always in people living and in just plain getting through it all. He didn’t emphasize specific conflicts that were introduced and concluded because, to him, the conflict was unending life itself. If he pokes fun at life, and if he’s caustic about it while doing so, it’s because finding community in laughing at ourselves may be the only thing left to do. After all, he, like his subjects, is part of the grand ol’ American tapestry of despair and hopelessness. And try as he might, he’s a victim as well.
Which is why, in the final scene of the film, we get broken individuals seeking solace in fragmented community. Here, and throughout, Nashville captures everything, from the legitimate populism instilling pride in America to the broken, battered individuals hidden underneath, that threaded the blanket of bicentennial fervor and anxiety. Indeed, it captures, perhaps better than any other film in a decade touted as the greatest decade of American film, what it means to be part of an imagined community feverishly stitching itself together out of disparate parts that are also themselves coming unstitched by the breath. Captured by Altman’s ever-roving camera, Nashville suggests, frankly and unapologetically, that their collective fiction of togetherness may not be able to bear the weight of the walls they put up between each other to keep their vulnerabilities from over-flowing onto each other’s laps.