Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nashville











NASHVILLE               A                    
USA  (159 mi)  1975  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman

The price of bread may worry some, but it don’t worry me
Tax relief may never come, but it don’t worry me
Economy’s depressed not me,
My spirit’s high as it can be
And you may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me
It don’t worry me, it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me

They say this train don’t give out rides, well it don’t worry me
All the world is taking sides, but it don’t worry me
In my empire life is sweet, just ask any bum  you meet
And life may be a one way street, but it don’t worry me
It don’t worry me,  it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me

It don’t worry me, it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me. 
It don’t worry me,  it don’t worry me,
You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me


One thing Altman railed against throughout his lifetime was phonies, probably because in Hollywood he had to deal with so many of them, where this theme resurfaces in any number of variations in his movies where a character is not who or what they appear to be, such as McCabe in  McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), or they’re cynically exploiting their false mythology, such as Buffalo Bill, who sees himself as a bogus entertainer willing to exploit his famous name for fame and fortune in BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON (1976).  But in this film, Altman takes aim at celebrity worship, where you’re not anybody unless you’re somebody, where the general consensus seems to be, why should we listen to anyone unless they’re famous?  Of course, the problem being, famous people often find it hard to tell the difference between their own legend and who they really are, like Ronee Blakely as a down home Loretta Lynn style country singer Barbara Jean, caught up in her own myth, perpetuated by her self-interested, overcontrolling husband and manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) who literally pulls the strings like a puppeteer, where she can’t tell the difference between what’s real, and what’s not.  The cynical message being broadcast throughout the entire film is an unseen political candidate running for office on the Replacement Party, where a car drives around town using a bullhorn to announce his platform is little more than - - not those guys - - railing against the status quo at every turn while never really revealing what he’s running for, except an early 17th century concept, sort of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part Two platform, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” claiming that’s why government doesn’t work.  Oh, and he wants to change the national anthem.  This film is one of the great ensemble masterpieces, where it has 24 main characters, an hour of musical numbers, and multiple storylines interwoven into a fractured narrative about life in Music City, the country music capitol of America, where the underbelly is just as exposed as a coterie of stars.        

NASHVILLE came at an interesting time in history, following two major scandals, having only recently pulled out of Vietnam, and Watergate was exposing the imperial secrets of the Presidency, where Nixon had just resigned (in fact, the scenes in the Grand Ole Opry were shot on the day Nixon resigned), and furthermore, hardly anyone had heard of an oddly ambitious Southern governor named Jimmy Carter.  Somehow Altman tapped into a very serious and traumatizing time in America with a show-stopping piece of Americana that is a blisteringly hilarious satire, where often you can't tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t, including the performers, as it’s all an illusion.  In effect Altman has created a disaster film about the American Dream that may draw upon Hitchcock’s themes of fear and complacency in The Birds (1963), where despite the plethora of musical numbers, safe, family oriented, and unthreatening by all accounts, the American public is hiding behind a security net of fantasy escapism, where like Hitchcock, both use surprising, somewhat apocalyptic acts of nature to strike back at foolish humans who continue to believe they are exempt from life’s tragedies.  Central to this theme is the use of the song “It Don’t Worry Me,” which brings the final curtain down at the end, which is essentially a song of openly acknowledged ignorance, “The price of bread may worry some/It don’t worry me” or “Economy’s depressed, not me,” coming from a Southern town that doesn’t wish to have anything to do with the rest of the country’s problems, a blissfull ignorance that actually reflects the same state of mind as Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) in Hitchcock’s film, the local expert ornithologist who swears birds would never attack humans and that people have nothing to worry about.  It’s an interesting parallel that suggests both directors working at the top of their game tapped into similar themes a decade apart, where The Birds release preceded President Kennedy’s assassination by 6 or 7 months, with his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X all assassinated before the decade of the 60’s was over, while Altman’s release of this film preceded the election of President Jimmy Carter just a little over a year later, initially dismissed as a regional candidate, followed by the energy crisis, record levels of rising inflation, and the Iranian hostage crisis, America’s first taste of international terrorism.  In both instances, these prescient films were followed by a lingering social malaise of untold proportions.    

A Nashvillian looks at Nashville / The Dissolve, Noel Murray, former Nashville resident and current film and culture critic, from The Dissolve:

The movie Nashville isn’t trying to be docu-realistic when it comes to Nashville itself. This is something a lot of actual Nashville residents—in the music industry especially—didn’t get back in 1975. (My friend Jim Ridley examined the whole local kerfuffle over Nashville in this well-researched 1995 Scene article.) It’s something a lot of big-city music and film critics didn’t get at the time, either. Nashville follows an eclectic, loosely related mob of superstars, wannabes, fans, and hangers-on over the course of five days, watching how country-music royalty like Haven Hamilton (played by Henry Gibson) and cred-seeking young folk-rockers like Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) enjoy and exploit the privileges of fame. The film builds to a galvanizing act of violence, which leads to a surprisingly noble reaction from Haven, and a unifying performance of one of Tom’s songs. Prior to that, though, Nashville roams freely through a Southern mini-metropolis that’s much sillier than the real one.

As a result, the movie’s version of country music, while tuneful, is intentionally cartoonish. Which means that as part of coastal critics’ apparently eternal need to protect defenseless middle-Americans from mean-spirited showbiz types like Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, and Robert Altman, some tastemakers grumbled about Nashville, claiming Altman was making fun of hicks and disrespecting a grand tradition of American folk music. Reviewing the soundtrack, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau complained that the actors weren’t even authentic country singers, writing, “If the music makes the movie, as more than one film critic has surmised, then the movie is a lie. Another possibility: the critics are fibbing a little to cover their ignorance.”

That particular take on Nashville is based on the misperception that Robert Altman set out to make a movie about country music. That was more the goal of producer Jerry Weintraub, who saw in this project a hit soundtrack album waiting to happen. Altman, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to make a grand statement about celebrity, politics, the deep-rooted conservatism of the South, and a nation on the cusp of its bicentennial. Knowing nothing about Nashville, he sent screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury on a couple of scouting trips, which she came back from loaded down with anecdotes about a medium-sized city with a small-town vibe, where she kept running into the same people whether she was visiting a recording studio, a racetrack, a church, or a bar.

Because Altman liked to improvise, with input from his cast (who in Nashville also wrote some of their own songs), Tewkesbury often doesn’t get enough credit for her contributions to Nashville. But she was the one who helped devise a structure with two dozen major characters wandering into and out of each other’s storylines—even if it’s just to stand mute in the back of a shot, barely noticeable. And it was Tewkesbury who established the recurring moral dilemma these characters face, which she pinpoints on the Criterion Blu-ray when she talks about the scene in Nashville where a terrible singer (played by Gwen Welles) gets duped into performing a striptease at a political fundraiser. “I can fix this so I won’t have to take off all my clothes,” says Tewkesbury, describing what every character in Nashville thinks as they make compromises with their careers, ideals, and personal relationships.

Make no mistake, though: Nashville is Altman’s movie more than anyone’s. He had a capable team helping him achieve a revolutionary sound mix—with every character miked-up and woven into the soundtrack—and helping him cut hours of material into a fluidly paced film that sometimes ping-pongs rapidly between scenes, and sometimes stays still to take in a musical performance. But it’s always Altman pulling the strings, constructing a world so teeming that it seems to spill off the edges of the screen. (One of the movie’s best tricks is playing key songs like “It Don’t Worry Me” in the background well before they’re performed in the film, so they already seem like massive hits that everyone knows.) Though Altman and Tewkesbury based some of the major Nashville players on Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Charley Pride, and others, they weren’t intending to satirize or celebrate country music. The songs—sometimes funny, sometimes sweet—express the characters’ feelings, and their view of the world, irrespective of the location.

Altman’s film acknowledges a period of diminished faith in government while tapping into the populist fervor of country music, actually equating the two, comparing the hypocrisy of politics with the sleaze and dishonesty of the entertainment business.  Yet somehow, when looking back over Altman’s career, while no two films are alike, they all convey similar themes, ideas, story, or style, and point back at one another, as if part of a continuing conversation.  Altman enlarges the world of expanding characters depicted in California Split (1974), adding many more characters, each with their own individual narrative.  Much more than his earlier films, Altman strove for something larger, where the film would become a grand cultural statement, encompassing many attitudes and points of view, or in Altman’s words, “a metaphor for America,” while screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury adds her view, “All you need to do is add yourself as the twenty-fifth character and know that whatever you think about the film is right, even if you think the film is wrong.”  In this way, simply by the expanding and open ended film process, yet clearly set in a specific time and place, Altman intentionally adds the viewer into the conversation, even after repeated viewings where one’s view may shift or change through the years.  As an experiment of integrating multiple narratives into a cohesive whole, Altman has refined what he began in Brewster McCloud (1970), where fragmented pieces of mid 70’s American culture are reflected in the various characters, where each is vulnerable and hurt in some way, often seen as flawed and even foolish, but there’s also an underlying ugliness or moral stain in their own behavior, often conniving, hurting, or bringing harm to others, yet somehow, rationalized within their own collective conscience, this is acceptable behavior.  While there are moments of stunning emotional force, they are undercut by Altman’s direction and his continually shifting editing scheme, such as the moment Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) during a routine hospital visit learns that his beloved wife has died, where his grief is quickly interrupted by a joltingly intrusive conversation from an upbeat soldier visiting another patient, who offhandedly remarks “You give my best to your wife” as Mr. Green literally crumbles before our eyes.  But rather than hold the shot for emotional effect, Altman quickly edits to another scene, keeping the audience at a distance, where the viewer remains an impartial observer witnessing various events as they unfold over the course of five days.

Despite the revolving door of quirky characters, in NASHVILLE they all seem to be on some kind of personal quest or journey, perhaps to get away from something while pursuing their dreams, like Barbara Harris as Winifred, seen abandoning her husband early on during a freeway pile-up of people all driving into the city of Nashville, transforming herself into Albuquerque, her chosen stage name, as she aspires to become a country western star, joining the legions of others all following the same yellow brick road to fame and fortune.  Part of the curiosity comes from characters asking others what they are doing in town, suggesting people are arriving for some major event, creating a sense of anticipation for the intersecting paths of a political campaign and a music festival.  Part of a running joke throughout is how quickly people in this town describe themselves as apolitical, disinterested in politics, or even declaring they don’t vote, confirming a tone of abject disinterest, yet all display undaunted enthusiasm for gaining a foot in the music business.  Somehow their fates are intertwined.  Political alienation is symptomatic of deeper, often unexplored issues, yet the political reality is passivity breeds manipulation, as the space you vacated leaves a spot open for ill-fated winds of empty rhetoric and hot air to blow while searching for a foothold in the political landscape.  Disinterest allows the ambitions of others to set the terms of their own politicized agenda, while you sit by and passively allow them to do it.  Similarly, the paying customers of these musical legends exude their own loss of identity, transferring all the power to the performer, often fawning over celebrities, where they are easily duped into becoming ardent believers, like submissive cult followers.  These competing interests of music and politics comprise the moral dilemma of many of the characters, especially the established musical stars, who don’t wish to be affiliated with any political party, but aren’t against a little back-roomed arm twisting if they think they can gain an advantage over their rival competitors.  What brings them together is both sides want attention, popularity, which in their eyes breeds success, as that is the nature of the business.  Again, the viewer remains an impartial observer sitting outside the events, so may render judgment on the ethical boundaries crossed in pursuit of both goals, especially how easily people allow themselves to be duped and fooled.  With so many different characters with personal agendas, what catches the viewer’s eye may be altogether different in subsequent viewings, which is part of the hidden beauty of the film, as it evolves as we do.  

Shot in only 45 days on a $2 million dollar budget, which was considered small, where each of the two dozen lead characters drew similar salaries somewhere between $750 to $1000/week, the film was originally conceived as a possible TV mini-series, where Altman shot a great deal of footage, viewing two hours of rushes every day, with the director at one point considering releasing the film in two parts, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue, before finally settling on a more conventional format.  But the film is anything but conventional, something like a sprawling epic trainwreck about to happen with plenty of detours along the way.  When the film was previewed in Boston by Paramount, the audience stood for several minutes both cheering and booing.  Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay moves from one giant set piece to the next, a multi-car freeway pileup, recording sessions, night club performances, The Grand Ole Opry, an amateur night that becomes a strip show, to a gathering in front of the Parthenon (1,280 × 853 pixels) in Centennial Park.  Altman received a huge boost from the lavish praise received from film critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, calling it a masterpiece before it was even finished after seeing an early cut of the movie, describing Altman “as identifiable as a paragraph by Mailer when he’s really racing.  ‘Nashville’ is simply ‘the ultimate Altman movie’ we’ve been waiting for… It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over,” actually comparing Altman’s methods to James Joyce in Ulysses.  In The New York Times, Vincent Canby protested: “If one can review a film on the basis of an approximately three-hour rough cut, why not review it on the basis of a five-hour rough cut?  A ten-hour one?  On the basis of a screenplay?  The original material if first printed as a book?”  While they used the script primarily as a guide, as the movie was shot almost entirely in sequence, the film is largely improvised by the actors, who spent a great amount of their time in character, each one individually mike’d for sound, where the use of multiple cameras prevented the actors from knowing precisely when they were on camera.  Each actor was required to write and perform their own songs for the movie, where Altman’s talent was juggling all the various storylines of the two dozen characters, creating clarity out of chaos.  

According to Altman:

I felt we were doing something that had the potential of being terrific. I had complete artistic freedom in this; I had nobody — nobody — saying you had to do this or do that....We had the framework, which was the city of Nashville, and I had the music as the through line. Then, you’ve got to understand that at that time everybody was politically charged — one way or another. So when they found out we were free to express these...attitudes, everybody became very creative.

Opening with the blaring noise of an advertisement for the film itself, where the announcer promises to proceed “without commercial interruption,” what follows is one continual commercial advertisement from a political campaign van driving through the streets spouting cliché’d political banalities that pass for wisdom, where Altman has a habit of celebrating the same interests and themes that he also subjects to ridicule.  A freeway multiple car pile-up leaves traffic at a standstill as Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an alleged BBC Reporter, walks through the carnage of cars spouting platitudes into her pocket tape recorder about violence in America, as she arrives in town to do a story on Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton, Henry Gibson from television’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1970 – 73), a part originally intended for Robert Duvall, but his salary demands were too high.  Hamilton is recording an ode to our national heritage, “We must be doin’ somethin’ right to last 200 years,” but he’s amusingly interrupted by Opal’s invasion of the privacy of his studio, where she’s quickly escorted out into another studio where Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) is cutting a record with a black gospel choir, where Opal rambles on into her recorder about “darkest Africa with its naked, frenzied bodies.”  Across town at the airport, fans are welcoming back the return of the reigning queen of country music, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely, a backup singer for Hoyt Axton, who met with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton in preparation for the role originally intended for Susan Anspach), who’s been recovering from an injury and near-nervous breakdown, where her swoon causes a near panic, expecially from her nervously manipulating manager and husband Barnett (Allen Garfield). 

We follow the continued near misses of a folk trio, Bill and Mary (Allan Nichols and Cristina Raines) who keep missing Tom (Keith Carradine), who is sleeping with Mary while secretly attempting to pursue a solo career.  Tom also calls Linnea at home, hoping for a hotel tryst, where we learn she’s married to Delbert (Ned Beatty) while raising two deaf children.  Lily Tomlin’s role could  based on actress Louise Fletcher who was the child of deaf parents.  Ironically, Louise Fletcher won the Best Actress Award that same year for her role in a film that won all the major categories at the Academy Awards, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S BEST(1975).  Rising country star Connie White (Karen Black) takes advantage of Barbara Jean’s absence and fills in for her at the Grand Ole Opry.  While this music world is bustling with behind-the-scenes activities, with characters continually crossing paths, political advance man John Triplette (Michael Murphy) meets with Delbert to line up contacts, celebrities, pocketbooks, and entertainers for both a fund-raising smoker and an outdoor political rally at the Parthenon.  While there are more stars and secondary characters galore, with a beautiful interweaving of various interests and personalities, the three characters that really stand out are Lily Tomlin, also a regular on Laugh-In performing in her first film, whose grace and eloquence couldn’t be more surprising, whether singing in the choir, having a delightful sign language conversation with her kids, or sitting alone in a club actually listening to a song, turning that into one of the profound moments of the movie, where she may actually be the heart and soul of the film.  Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal is appallingly insensitive, yet she gets the majority of the laughs for her fawning celebrity worship, utter daffiness, and infinite rudeness, where she’s seen wandering aimlessly through vacant junkyards or a giant parking lot filled with yellow school busses spouting stream-of-conscience jibberish wherever she goes, where after stepping all over everyone to get close to anyone resembling a celebrity, she rejects even talking to the driver for Bill, Mary, and Tom, claiming, “I make it a policy never to speak to the servants.”  Finally, this film belongs to Barbara Harris, who makes the most of an underwritten part, yet she is probably the most hopeful and optimistic character in a film that is otherwise filled with people who might be described as unhappy, pathetic, devious, manipulative, miserable, or even delusional, where she takes the baton at the end and leads the crowd in a surprisingly soulful rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me,” Barbara Harris - It Don't Worry Me - YouTube (Film finale, 5:02), becoming a transcendent moment, where her rousing performance resurrects a shocked and stupefied audience, becoming the film’s driving force, an emblematic theme song that could easily become the Replacement Party’s choice for the replacement national anthem.      


After November 22, 1963 [the date of President Kennedy's assassination] and all the other days of infamy, I wouldn't have thought it possible that a film could have anything new or very interesting to say on assassination, but Nashville does, and the film's closing minutes with Barbara Harris finding herself, to her astonishment, onstage and singing, It Don't Worry Me are unforgettable and heartbreaking. Nashville, which seems so unstructured as it begins, reveals itself in this final sequence to have had a deep and very profound structure - but one of emotions, not ideas. This is a film about America. It deals with our myths, our hungers, our ambitions, and our sense of self. It knows how we talk and how we behave, and it doesn't flatter us but it does love us.

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