Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nashville

      Our lives have become dependent on the cult of technology. Rarely a day goes by when we aren't affected, influenced or entertained by the television, or a handheld device of some kind. Have you ever left the house, made it halfway to work before realizing you had forgotten your cell phone? A feeling of dread or panic overcoming you, even for just a moment: how can I make it through the day without my iPhone?

I guess it's just the natural progression of human life on this planet. The films of Robert Altman have always reminded me that once upon a time, people got along perfectly well before the advent of the internet and the smart phone. Nashville (1975), perhaps his true masterpiece, is a testament to basic human interaction. Not just in the way that we relate to one another, but also the way in which we deceive. 

Take for instance the classic car pileup scene. A near carnival-like atmosphere almost instantaneously erupts as dozens of motorists, trapped in their vehicles on the freeway behind the accident, turn the disadvantage into something resembling a county fair or a social mixer. People begin to carhop; an annoyingly shallow reporter from the BBC makes her rounds; a couple bickers and has a falling out; an ice cream vendor sets up shop; people actually talk to one another.

Shelley Duvall
I guarantee you that if Altman had filmed that same scene today (as a comment on American life after the turn of the Century) not only would everyone have stayed put in their air conditioned gas guzzlers, locking themselves in, but they would have immediately began to text the situation to someone, perhaps even the person sitting next to them.

All of the major characters (24 according to Wikipedia) suffer from some form of self-delusion, hypocrisy or phoniness (except perhaps Jeff Goldblum's motorcycle driving hippie-magician). That's not to say that Altman's film is a complete downer. It's actually quite funny without doing, saying or being about anything humorous. The film invokes its own form of irony as it rambles about from scene to scene, character to character, weaving in and out of a meticulously crafted, perfectly controlled and almost delirious narrative that only a mad genius could have concocted.

That madman was of course the irreverent director of MASH (1970) and The Long Goodbye (1973), two essential documents of '70s Cinema in which this master was virtually inventing his own unique style of storytelling via overlapping characters, music and dialog. With Nashville, he perfected it.

Ronee Blakley

In fact, Altman wouldn't produce another surefire masterwork until 1992's The Player and Short Cuts the year after. What really makes Nashville hum is how much feeling it manages to kindle without ever really developing any single character in a traditional sense. Altman uses characters the way van Gogh painted clouds or fields: each seemingly quick-fire stroke adding texture to the overall canvas.

We constantly learn something unexpected about these people as the film progresses. The names of characters in Altman's films aren't important, but by the end we feel like we know something intimate about them all. We also feel like perhaps we have learned something about ourselves in unison.

One of my favorite passages in the film concerns Keith Carradine, who plays a popular singer-songwriter attempting to break from the country/rock trio that made him famous (Carradine won an Oscar for the song he wrote and performs in the film). He's been sleeping with the sole female member of his group, much to the chagrin of the third member who is also her husband. So this recurring thread is not just about how people drift apart creatively and professionally, but also emotionally.

Carradine's character, a certified ladies man, only appears to have his mind on one thing while he's in town: a plain but saintly housewife played by Lily Tomlin whom he has also had an affair with in the past. We never learn more about their relationship, only that Tomlin's gospel singing character is married to a redneck lawyer (played brilliantly by Ned Beatty) with two deaf children. She continually dodges her young lover's calls to her home (especially at the dinner table) but her husband seems aware that something is going on. It's one of those unspoken truths, or the proverbial elephant in the room.


Finally, she accepts an invitation to hear Carradine perform at a small club. She sits in the back but he manages to pick her out of the crowd. He begins to play a new song for all his adoring fans (some of whom he has slept with throughout the course of the film and think that he is singing just for them). It becomes plainly clear that he only has eyes for one. It's his way of getting her to be with him one more time. You can cut the emotional tension in the room with a knife.

As she hurriedly gets out of his bed and begins to dress, Carradine casually picks up a phone (when phones still had cords) and makes a call to another would-be tryst waiting to happen, in full earshot of Tomlin. He's had her and now it's on to the next one. The sad thing is that there's an unspoken understanding between them. It's all in the look on her face, and the dignity she successfully exudes. It's a radiant piece of acting.

Equally radiant is a scene involving Geraldine Chaplin, as that annoyingly shallow BBC reporter, and Dave Peel as the lawyer son of the arrogant local Opry star (played by the great Henry Gibson). Chaplin and Peel are sitting alone at a party and for one brief moment, the flighty journalist seems to be making an actual attempt to connect with someone. With a genuine air, she asks him what his dreams are. He tells her he has always wanted to sing but his father wouldn't allow it.

In a truly touching moment, he begins to croon a sweet little song he has written himself, but her gaze begins to shift away from him ever so subtly as she quickly realizes actor Elliott Gould has arrived at the party. Oh, the dramatic irony. That's the genius of Nashville. And the genius of Altman.

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