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. Continue reading