Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Ear to the Ground: The Criterion Collection Release of Robert Altman's Nashville

When he died in 2006, Robert Altman was one of the most prolific and idiosyncratic of contemporary American directors. Always with an ear to the ground, he didn't follow fashionable trends, or cater expediently to public taste. Instead, he was gallantly intuitive in an open quest for authentic engagement, the quality of which was often revelatory. Most movies over time – good and bad – fit comfortably into genres with recognizable rules that defined them as genre pictures, so we could easily distinguish a film noir from a screwball comedy. But Altman defied those categorizations by delving into exactly what makes a genre tick. He did this by stripping away a movie's pedigree without losing the flavour of the genre itself. Whether he was doing a combat satire (M*A*S*H), a western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), a detective story (The Long Goodbye), a murder mystery (Gosford Park), or stage drama (Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), Altman keenly re-defined our idea of what makes a genre picture by treating moviegoers, as critic Paul Coates once wrote about Jean-Luc Godard, as critics rather than consumers.

To be that critic, confusion and uncertainty often came with the territory. For one thing, his films were almost always densely textured, with the kind of overlapping dialogue and multi-track sound that required you to lean forward as if you were listening to an old blues recording filled with static and surface noise. His movies also kept your eyes busy, the images playing like fluid reveries in your imagination. The performances seemed to come from somewhere in the frame where you weren't looking, or at least, from where you weren't used to looking. Instead of performing on script, the actors appeared to be in the process of discovering who they were as characters – their marquee value as a movie-stars didn't guarantee their dominance in the story. Sometimes a performer you hardly recognized, or maybe didn't know at all, might pop out in the kind of memorable scene that (in most movies) would only be reserved for the biggest stars. As for the plots of his pictures, Altman's movies grew from between the lines of the written story. An elliptical style of storytelling emerged, opening up territory without the benefit of a safety net. Which is why his daring could be just as reckless as it was boldly original – he made almost as many bad movies (A Wedding, Quintet) as he did great ones.

director Robert Altman
In many ways, Robert Altman's movies (especially in the Seventies) served as something of a cultural barometer. In Altman's case, they took the temperature of a young country in waiting, one that was still coming to terms with itself, with its promises made and its promises broken, while anticipating just where that idea of America might be heading in the years to come. His epic 1975 musical Nashville (just released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray DVD in a sparkling new remastered print), coming as it did during the American Bicentennial celebration, spoke candidly to a nation caught in a lingering hangover over the end of the Sixties.With an awareness of the litany of assassinations, particularly JFK's murder in Dallas in 1963, a lingering war in Southeast Asia, and Watergate, Nashville's prescience about the future of the country is almost sobering in its clarity. What begins as a story about a number of aspiring artists and veteran stars gathering in the country-music capitol to find success becomes intertwined with a political campaign launched by a populist outsider seeking to offer New Roots for the Nation. But the picture becomes something much larger by the end. What we may not have fully absorbed in 1975 was the way Altman anticipated how politics and entertainment would soon become indistinguishable from each other: how a former B-movie actor, Ronald Reagan, who offered his own New Roots for the Nation in the guise of Morning in America would find himself elected President, and a pop star from the Sixties, John Lennon, who, with his band from Liverpool, England, helped create the counter-culture, would be murdered one month after the election.

Nashville borrows its structure from the familiar terrain of Grand Hotel (1932), a movie where a large group of spiritually lost and disfigured strangers gather in the post-WW1 years in a place where, as one resident puts it, "People come and go [and] nothing ever happens." The original 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, Menschen im Hotel, that inspired the picture, gives us much more of the political malaise that brought on this ennui. A blogger who goes under the name of Caroline wrote perceptively about this on the website Beauty is a Sleeping CatMenschen im Hotel "isn't only about ageing," she argues, "the loss of success and fraud, but it also shows the aftermath of WW1. The war has left its mark on the people, their faces and their souls and changed the society forever." The film Grand Hotel, however, is only about ageing and the loss of success. The characters are also played by the cream of rising Hollywood stardom and elegance including John Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo (who despite wishing to be alone couldn't be close to hermetic in a cast this huge). Grand Hotel might examine despair and moral transgressions, but it ignores the political realities that brought them on. The landmark film instead helped create the template for the future of the Hollywood star system. Nashville goes the other way. It features a number of non-stars playing people struggling with success while the political backdrop of the nation is heightened rather than ignored.

The opening scene in the picture provides a clue to where Nashville is heading when we're treated to a whirlwind commercial that is selling us – in the form of a TV ad – a greatest hits album featuring all the songs we're about to hear in the movie. Besides calling up and satirizing all those K-Tel and Ronco television commercials that offered discounted albums of greatest hits that weren't available in stores, the opening scene is also reminiscent of the National Lampoon Radio Dinner album released in 1972. On that comedy record, the creators of National Lampoon, an American humour magazine (a spinoff of Harvard Lampoon, which ran from 1970 to 1998), take on the icons and myths of the Sixties. In “Those Fabulous Sixties,” we hear the voice of Bob Dylan selling us a package of all the protest songs of the past decade. Besides using every cliché of the decade as a means to sell us – as consumer goods – the songs that defined the era, we realize that the songs themselves have now become commodities (we hear snippets from each of the tunes that is so brief that we barely acknowledge what they are). In Nashville, Altman creates a similar kind of ad, but he's selling us songs we haven't even heard yet from a movie that's about to begin. Besides satirizing the way Hollywood turns epic pictures with an epic cast into an event, Altman is setting us up for how the country will soon come to accept anything that is promoted with style without recognition of its content, or whether or not we wish to consume it – and that includes politics.

Altman also deviously ups the ante on the 'greatest hits' style of casting from Grand Hotel, too, by introducing us to even more characters, twenty-four of whom are drawn together around a political rally for Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker (the one individual we never see but only hear through the external loudspeaker on his campaign car).The cadences in Walker's voice, as he solicits support for his candidacy by promising to change the words to the national anthem, tax churches and fire lawyers from Congress, resemble the homespun whimsy of Will Rogers. His claims recall the populist outsiders out of the American past, but they also foreshadow the future candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992. Perot ran for the Independent Party and (like Walker in Nashville) came to denounce Congress, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington when he said, "This city has become a town filled with sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don't ever accomplish anything." Of course, Perot himself was all sound bites; but then again, sound bites were all we'd ever get from politicians in years to come.

The huge cast of characters include country superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a cross between Porter Wagoner with his striking Nudie and Johnny Horton, who is recording a patriotic song ("200 Years") to commemorate the Bicentennial, while an Englishwoman named Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), who claims to be doing a documentary on Nashville for the BBC, chatters endlessly in a parody of public broadcasting hyperbole. In a neighbouring studio, the white gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) leads a black choir; she's married to Del (Ned Beatty), Haven Hamilton's lawyer, who is trying to set up a rally for Walker for his campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy). Meanwhile one of the most popular country singers in Nashville, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a beautifully sensitive and fragile performer with shadings of both Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, has arrived at the airport with her manager/husband, Barnett (Allen Garfield). She is welcomed by Haven, his partner Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), who still seems in shock over the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Pfc Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), who is a fan with both a historical and devotional attachment to the artist, and Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Mary (Cristina Raines) and Tom (Keith Carradine) of the popular folk trio Bill, Mary & Tom. Also arriving at the airport is Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), there to pick up his niece, Martha (Shelly Duvall), a teenage groupie who has come to visit her sick aunt but prefers the company of the stars that are quickly gathering. In the airport restaurant, the black cook Wade (Robert Doqui) looks out for waitress Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a singer who is eager for stardom yet can't carry a tune, just as he fires contempt at African American country singer Tommy Brown (Timmy Brown), for being an "Oreo" cookie – black on the outside, but white on the inside. (He is clearly inspired by Charley Pride.) Later on, after a car pile-up on the highway, Winifred (Barbara Harris), an ambitious singer waiting for her moment, seizes a moment to escape her husband, Star (Bert Remsen), after he refuses to take her to the Grand Ole Opry. Also on the highway and driven from his overheated car is Kenny (David Hayward), a soft-spoken young man with a violin case, who suggests a musician (and is mistaken for one) but is really a loner on a mission, one that provides the picture's climax.

There are other characters in this exhilarating jamboree, such as Karen Black as country star Connie White, who with her coiffed blonde hair becomes a dead ringer for Lynn Anderson; Richard Baskin, who was the film's music supervisor and wrote many of the songs performed in the picture, and who has a cameo as the long-haired piano player, Frog; and Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, who appear in brief cameos playing themselves. But Altman uses his cast as a community in motion continually creating intersections throughout the story. The idea of a community that metaphorically serves as a reflection of the nation also runs deeper when you start thinking about why Altman chose Nashville. In her New Yorker review, Pauline Kael nailed it when she wrote of the city Nashville as "the Hollywood of the C&W recording industry, the center of fundamentalist music and pop success." But she goes even further in describing the significance of country music itself, a music she says is "about the longing for roots that don't exist." She talks about how the country sound "is a twang with longing in it; the ballads are about poor people with no hope." The absence of that hope can't be separated from the fact that Nashville is in the South, a part of the country that was conquered in the Civil War. "[T]he songs tell you that although you've failed and you've lived a terrible, degrading life, there's a place to come home to, and that's where you belong," Kael continued. Which is why one of Hal Philip Walker's diatribes that opens the movie can lead so smoothly into one of Haven Hamilton's songs: they both speak to that sense of belonging. When Walker tells us that when we pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his voyage to America, he speaks to the recession that's gripping the country in the mid-Seventies. But when Haven Hamilton begins to sing right after that "we must be doing something right to last two hundred years," he looks to the American past in order to make sense of the present.

Ronee Blakley and Henry Gibson
The past is always the present in Nashville, whether it's in the way Lady Pearl can't forget "the Kennedy boys," or in how Barbara Jean in the middle of a performance brings up stories from her family past that remind her of the roots she feels she's lost. But Altman isn't making a statement about America as many other film-makers in that era did; instead, he's captured what critic Molly Haskell describes in the Criterion booklet as "the full complexity of America, rich with contradictions, rife with neurosis, and convulsed by the celebrity madness of ambition and envy." Precisely because he doesn't seek to make a topical statement, Altman could also anticipate things no one thought possible – as in the assassination of a pop star. In 1966, Bob Dylan had already gone electric and faced angry and betrayed folk fans. That same year, John Lennon was facing record burnings and angry mobs with The Beatles after telling a reporter that his band had become more popular than Jesus Christ. Despite the disillusionment stirred in both cases, however, nobody thought a pop star could draw murderous rage: that was saved for politicians. But the Sixties proved that there were performers who had become political in the sense that they made the social world personal and vice-versa. They had created phantom utopian countries that provided for others the freedom to have an equal voice and to have a stake in the music they loved. But with that love also comes the kind of obsession that fuels alienated assassins who target political idealists. In a culture, as Altman saw it, where celebrity and politics were inseparable, a pop star could just as easily become a target of an anonymous killer. So, in Nashville, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury was asked to turn Barbara Jean's fate into a murder. Through that tragedy, Altman illustrated how an entertainer whose ability to connect strongly with her audience through the personal roots examined in her music could also become the target of violence from an impersonal loner with no sense of his own roots.

But not everyone was satisfied with the conclusion. Greil Marcus wrote critically at the time in the Village Voice that it was "an ending whose meaning no one could possibly escape." When John Lennon was shot to death five years after the release of Nashville, Altman was even asked by The Washington Post whether he felt responsible for his death. Rejecting the claim that his film had inspired Lennon's killer, or given him permission to murder the ex-Beatle, Altman denied any responsibility. Furthermore, he told the reporter that maybe people should have heeded his warning. Yet Nashville isn't designed as any kind of warning, or even a put-down of celebrity obsession. Since Altman enjoys his characters, and loves seeing where they'll take the story, he doesn't sacrifice anyone to make a dramatic or political point. Rather, Nashville is a bracingly comic examination of what happens to a country when people no longer wish to be citizens, but stars or groupies instead, and how that dynamic would soon become the political capital driving the nation. The two songs that bookend the picture provide the shift in political perspective. If Haven's opening number looks triumphantly to the American past, the concluding tune after the murder, "It Don't Worry Me," a song that's equally political, peers ahead with uncertainty to the years when Americans generated shock absorbers so that hardship wouldn't disturb them any longer. Nashville is a work of timeless imagination and it has a savvy that never loses its power to entertain, all the while making us aware of the perils of celebrity entertainment.

(The Criterion Blu-ray Edition of Nashville contains both the regular and Blu-ray version of the picture. There is also an informative and fascinating new documentary featuring many of the film's stars, including Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley, Michael Murphy, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury,and Altman's widow, Kathryn Reed Altman. Besides some behind-the-scenes footage, there is also a demo of Carradine performing songs from the film, the trailer and audio commentary by Altman throughout the picture.)

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism 

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