Sunday 8 April 2007

Nashville (1975) Robert Altman

I can't name another movie that displays its credit sequence in the form of a K-Tel album compilation, then after a brief political speech broadcast out of the loudspeakers of a campaign truck segues straight into Henry Gibson singing a country folk song. I love Henry Gibson's work and it seems that he never plays anywhere near the same character twice. I first knew him as a neo-Nazi leader in The Blues Brothers, then a psycho doctor in The 'Burbs, then in films as diverse as The Last Remake of Beau Geste, The Long Goodbye and Innerspace. Here he's Haven Hamilton, bad natured Nashville recording star, and he's only one of many major names to watch out for.

In fact while the only Oscar the film won went to, of all people, Keith Carradine, there was talk at the time of all five nominees in a single category being from the same film: this one for Best Supporting Actress. In the end there were only two, Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley, both in their debut films, as a gospel singer and a respectively. For the Golden Globes though, there were four and all lost.

I think the film warrants more than one viewing. It breathes Americana and could be watched just on a cultural level: everyone is either involved in a political machine, the music industry or nothing worth talking about. Some of them are part of all three. You can tell who is who from their vehicles, whether it be the flower adorned VW Beetles, the huge American cast iron cars or Jeff Goldblum's spectacular motor trike.

Everything else demonstrably American is here too, as depicted perfectly in a highway pileup. While waiting for it to be cleared, people carry on with their political speechmaking, take advantage of the occasion to sell turtle stools, or sit back and grant interviews, sign autographs, you name it. The only person not American is a BBC reporter called Opal, Geraldine Chaplin's character, and she's the only one freaking out. Sure enough, it's not long before we get to confederate flags, bad spelling, fake breasts, bar fights, guns, drugs, NASCAR, the Kennedys and everything and everyone else iconic you can think of.

There's also a serious deluge of both talent and dialogue, so much that it's nigh on impossible to keep up with either. Everywhere you look there's somebody you know, like Shelley Duvall, Ned Beatty or Keenan Wynn half of which are people we don't even know the names of but have seen many times before. They all flow together like they're all being carried along an inexorable stream, so that whatever catches our eye disappears again only to catch our eye again further on. There are plots here, quite a few of them, but they all blur together, though that blur adds up somehow to a coherent whole.

Maybe it's because all the little stories keep overlapping, with characters weaving in and out of of one and into the next in every imaginable direction. Maybe by the third or fourth viewing I'd be able to focus on details. Right now I'm rivetted but it plays like listening to the radio with the station changing every ten seconds. It doesn't help when it's obvious that many characters are loosely based on real people (Tommy Brown is Charley Pride, Barbara Jean is Loretta Lynn and Haven Hamilton is presumably Porter Waggoner or some such), but then real people like Elliott Gould, Julie Christie and Vassar Clements pop in as themselves.

Some of the focal points are never even seen, like Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker whose van is everywhere and whose political broadcasts are omnipresent, or Keenan Wynn's terminally ill wife, though he's always either in the hospital or talking about her. Others don't speak, like Jeff Goldblum's character who is completely out of place yet who never shows the slightest knowledge of the fact, just turning up everywhere like a little cog in the machine.
At the end of the day, it's the truest non-documentary I think I've ever seen, all the way down to the tiny details, like country music audiences who always wait until halfway through the first line of a song before applauding en masse. I never could understand that and it isn't explained here but it's there for us to experience just like in real life. Oh, and the real country and western crowd hated it with a passion, precisely because it's so true. Talk about opening closets!

There are also so many layered ironies at the end that not only do a whole slew of little plots get wrapped up together, but the whole thing wraps up nicely along with it. Half the people I see reviewing this love it to death and the other half don't get it at all. I have a feeling I'm going to be a lot closer to the former than the latter but it's going to need further viewings. One time through this certainly isn't enough.

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