Robert Altman was one of the most prophetic filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century and continued to make respectable films until his passing in 2006. Critics claim his 1975 work Nashville to be his masterpiece and the statements are more than justifiable. In a film that weaves between a nonlinear experimental film and a astute political satire, Nashville becomes something tragically real yet absurdly impossible. As a viewer I was uncertain whether to take the film as a blatant social criticism or a preemptive parody of the political thrillers that would soon follow Nashville, most notably the works of Oliver Stone. This hybridity of narrative makes the film incredibly enjoyable and makes the lengthy viewing seem rather brief, given that dispersed focus of plots and constant flow of hilariously tragic characters that result. Nashville is its own film, by an auteur whose main concern is creating a seemingly illogical film that still has a very cohesive underlying statement, one that is quite cynical, yet seems to be proving truer as American politics evolve into the 21st century.
Given the rather sporadic nature of the narrative, I am going to approach my discussion of the plot through the various vignettes within the film, as Nashville is more about the characters as they relate involuntarily relate to a political movement much larger than themselves. Altman makes it very clear that the film is about the actors and their characters given that the films opening credits are done in the fashion of a concert commercial. It is made clear that this is a film about actors playing characters, one that just happen to be tied to political ideologies, whether by their own decision or not. The political party discussed directly in the film is that of the Replacement Party, which proposes bizarre changes to politics. This party throughout the film is led by the unseen voice of Hal Phillip Walker, whose image is obviously so important that he cannot afford to be seen interacting with the rather remedial characters that exist in Nashville. In fact, the only semblance of an individual from the Replacement Party comes through John Triplette (Michael Murphy) who is obviously using this job as a stepping stone to his own political future. Triplette has been assigned to create a fundraising event involving prominent Nashville musicians and understands both the delicacy of the situation and the necessity of it being a very broad night of music. His first acquisition for the event is the Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) a staunchly patriotic, sequin suit donning country star whose fading image is obvious to everyone but himself, particularly when he dismisses Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) the overzealous and misguided BBC reporter whom he believes to be sabotaging his recording session. Opal simply desires to get a real image of Nashville, which in her mind is as faded as the garbage dumps she frequents. Triplette also garners the help of a young musical folk trio that are constantly breaking up and reuniting without logic and seem rather lost as musicians in the god fearing and flag waving musical styling of the rest of the city. The trio's most troubled member is Tom (Keith Carradine) whose womanizing tragically leads to his downfall, particularly as he takes advantage of a Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) a depressed housewife whose only joy appears to come from taking care of her two deaf children. This depression also stems from her disconnect with her husband Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), a real southern boy who is more concerned with advancing the image of his fading starlet Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) whose recent unexplained accident has left her mentally unstable and physically drained. It is Barbara Jean, in fact, who proves the most important character in the film as she ultimately becomes the victim of an implied political assassination. I have only mentioned a handful of characters, which fails to represent the entirety of the films twenty plus interacting major characters. The characters all react to the assassination of Barbara Jean in various ways, however, each individuals actions are obviously for personal advancement and not a single one of the characters shows a genuine concern for the dying starlet. It is terribly cynical but rather reflective of Robert Altman's worldview, particularly as it relates to politics.
Robert Altman's films posit a notion of futility as it relates to political movements and attempts to form grassroots revolutions. He delivers this most effectively in his mini-series Tanner '88 which features Nashville star Michael Murphy playing democratic candidate Jack Tanner, a "for real' political candidate who is genuinely concerned with changing the corruption in American politics. However, in the cynical cutthroat world of politics, Tanner is doomed from the start and is undermined not only by news media and other candidates, but by his own campaign team, who, like Murphy's character in Nashville, have their own ulterior motives. In the end Tanner is left disillusioned about politics and realizes that people will only vote for the person they "like the most," which rarely has anything to do with politics. Similarly, in Nashville, Altman creates a world in which politics are won by who you know, not what you know. Hal Phillip Walker's image relies on his political ties, thus explaining Triplette's concern with accruing not only staunchly conservative characters like Hamilton, but allowing for their image to be mixed with someone like Elliot Gould, who makes a cameo in the film at a mixer for the Replacement Party. This particular scene is brilliant because neither Hamilton nor Gould recognizes the other, yet they are at the same party, performing their believed duty to a political candidate. It is precisely this act of performance, which Altman criticizes throughout the film, everything is done with imagery as an underlying concern. For example, the films opening scenes involve Hamilton singing an obnoxiously patriotic song about the bicentennial celebration in the United States. His performance is rather uninspired, yet he decides to criticize his hippy looking pianist for its terrible quality, as though the guys look will be reflected on the entirely audio. Similarly, the Grand Ole Opery night shown is both riddled with ridiculous uses of advertising as well as a token performance by a black singer, which borders on minstrelsy, both to assure revenue for the dying musical venue as well as a new more politically acceptable image. The brilliance in these images is that Altman is attaching them to the overarching issue of political actions claiming that they are nothing but a performance and those involved concern themselves with images and not ideas. It may seem cynical, but it is proving rather pertinent in our previous political elections, and particularly so in our upcoming primaries as well. The next time you watch a debate, keep this film in mind.
I am particularly fond of Robert Altman and this is right up there with The Long Goodbye and Tanner '88 as one of my favorite films by the director. I cannot emphasize how necessary owning a copy of this film is, although I would also strongly encourage you to share it with your friends, as it is a brilliant and continually pertinent film.