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NASHVILLE the Beautiful: How Robert Altman Dissected a Divided America in the Country Music Capital

In 1975, Robert Altman debuted the crown jewel of his career: a gutsy, broad-scale cinematic portrait of a divided America set within the Country Music Capital of the World. Today, it might just be the greatest American film of all time.

"No, no strangers at all..."

So are the plain yet pointed words of Barbara Baxley’s territorial Lady Pearl, spoken with a wry and wary sense of warning early on in Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville. In the decades since its debut, Altman's magnum opus has maintained an acclaimed reputation as a loose, freewheeling document of seventies-era country music culture and the cornucopia of characters who comprise this panoramic time capsule.

Set in Tennessee's titular "Country Music Capital of the World," Altman's seminal film is a slyly penetrating study of American disillusion that takes the sprawling shape of a rapturous cinematic revue, crowded with human beings of various backgrounds, beliefs, and eccentricities. Altman utilized his prize 24-member ensemble, filled with lots of familiar and unconventional faces but no spotlight-stealing stars, to sketch a mesmerizing human canvas of real, erratic life among Nashville’s insiders and interlopers, capturing the personal and professional crises and everyday mundanities that such lives often entail. Nashville thrives on its scattered characters, many of whom appear unwittingly absurd on the surface when introduced to us, like the butt of a joke they are unaware is being played on them — that is until the moment when Altman allows them to become suddenly and remarkably flesh-and-blood in our eyes, privileging us a condensed glimpse at their anguish, vulnerability, and mettle. By concentrating on the unsystematic comings and goings of these people and stoking the improvisational instincts of his actors to construct moments of true, character-shaping spontaneity, Altman rejected any semblance of a tight and traditional narrative and shaped a genuine cinematic rarity in the process: a film that is truly a living, breathing entity. Altman's masterpiece has spawned countless imitations from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson (in Boogie Nights and Magnolia), John Sayles (in Sunshine State), and even Altman himself (in Short Cuts, Gosford Park, and A Prairie Home Companion), who all sought to conjure even an ounce of the vitality that Nashville and its many inhabitants seem to so effortlessly radiate.

There has always been something far more substantial at work within Nashville, an acerbity to its chaotic proceedings that firmly aligns it with Altman’s other famously trenchant exercises in multi-character portraiture, but also a sobering tough-mindedness that manages not only to differentiate it from some of Altman’s more frivolous entries in the same genre but put it in timely dialogue with the era that spawned it. "When one considers the films that could be said to speak to the zeitgeist of the seventies, Nashville holds an unassailable spot at the top of the list," writes Jan Stuart in her extensive, behind-the-scenes book The Nashville Chronicles. An electric current of highly-charged sociopolitical tension pulses through Nashville, a byproduct of the mounting cynicism and high-level bureaucratic con artistry of a shattered, seventies-era America still mourning and recovering from the savage, strong-armed political turmoil of the sixties. It is this same deep-rooted, far-reaching national strain, this joint desolation, that pushes Nashville's characters together and then just as quickly tears them apart, only making Altman's film more multidimensional, insightful, and stunningly prophetic than initially believed.

The tension is right there in the subliminal words of Lady Pearl, a hostess figure within the tight-knit country music circle and the closest confidante to Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), the self-styled "Mr. Nashville." Haven is a superstar of the Grand Ole Opry, a man small in size but large in stature. When Pearl remarks, "No, no strangers at all," she is in the process of shooing away a meddling BBC reporter named Opal, played with delirious daffiness by Geraldine Chaplin. Opal has just wandered into a recording studio, without any clearance, to request an interview with Haven, who is in the process of recording a cornball number entitled "200 Years," in commemoration of the upcoming Bicentennial. Even in this seemingly slight interaction, there is a glancing but increasingly undeniable ugliness gnawing away at Nashville, a hardened arrogance that is vaguely hinted at in Pearl’s swift dismissal, but is clarified with greater hubris shortly after when Haven curtly upbraids a long-haired, slippery-fingered piano player named "Frog" (Richard Baskin, the film's musical supervisor) with the following renunciation: "You get your hair cut. You don’t belong in Nashville."

Who does belong in Nashville?

This is the becomes the lingering, ever-present question of Altman's film, one made all the more unanswerable by the diversity of types that have accumulated within, and thus come to represent, this community. Maybe Nashville once belonged to old-timers like Haven and Pearl, still clinging to the time-honored traditions handed down to them by the pioneering mothers and fathers who built this city, but how then to explain or categorize the range of people who arrive from near and far to become a part of this scene, those individuals who come to Nashville on a mission and are either greeted with open arms or turned away at the gates of the Opry? It is this imbalance that allows Nashville to function as a critique of a thriving yet troubled community whose supposed efforts at inclusiveness disguise a basic exclusivity from which it has been predicated on, an industry that projects a polished and all-too familiar image of a free and welcoming society while at the same time turning a blind or disdainful eye to the broadening of its own swelling populace. Altman presents the Opry-attending, Bicentennial-celebrating Nashville community as a clear-cut microcosm of larger American life, a USA-in-miniature that is just one of the many communities in a compartmentalized country being rapidly disrupted and divided, a cultural bubble being burst against its will.

Everything about Nashville, from its liberally open-ended scenes to Altman’s indulgently soft-focused camera, seems intent on immersing us as fully as possible among the myriad inhabitants of this insulated world. Although invaluably scripted by Joan Tewkesbury and heavily based upon her experiences journeying through the city as a solo, eagle-eyed wanderer, Nashville’s script functions as more of a reference guide from which Altman frequently deviates, only relying on it as an outline for the key events that comprise the five days over which the film takes place, all leading up to a culminating sequence at the Nashville Parthenon during a political rally for an invisible presidential candidate. It is the film's gloriously, self-consciously untraditional narrative, comprised more of scenarios (such as the highway pileup that draws together and further delineates all of the film’s major characters early on) rather than a fixed and firm plot, that allows Altman to take such inventive and unprecedented liberties with his own relaxed and organic filmmaking approach, especially when it comes to his sui generis conveyance of character.

Altman and cinematographer Paul Lohmann, whose work on Nashville would mark the second of only three collaborations with the director, are sparse with their close-ups, preferring instead to keep the actors at bay by cutting off their dialogue and panning the camera away from them during some of their “biggest” and most revealing moments; their characters, in turn, experience events, discover new feelings, and undergo sea-changes that we can clearly intuit in one scene and yet only imagine in the next. These choices, furthered shaped by Dennis M. Hill and Sidney Levin’s leisurely and astutely-timed editing, should have, by all means, seriously impaired the film. Instead, they actually suggest a rich and interesting life for all of these characters that exists just beyond the edges of the frame. Altman managed to meet the intimidatingly tall order of keeping nearly all of his major players in rotation by allowing each to have his or her momentary spotlight while also keeping these actors present throughout the film’s duration. The director allows certain actors who are not the focus of a given scene to dwell on the periphery of a shot, at times capturing them in briefly overheard conversation with one another while dawdling in the background. Despite this constant and impartial deployment of his ensemble members, Altman quickly establishes one character as the closest thing to a centralized figure within Nashville, a sort of prismatic human centerpiece whom Altman’s camera fixates on and whom the film’s other inhabitants project their dreams and desires upon, a sanctified woman who carries the weight of Nashville’s ideologies and aspirations upon a pair of fragile shoulders shrouded in white lace.

As played with shining, elegant unknowability by Ronee Blakley, Barbara Jean is the reigning Queen of Country Music and the deteriorating deity at the center of Altman’s overarching tapestry, drifting in and out of the film with a haunting, hypnotic ghostliness. With her fresh face, tasteful white gowns, perfectly-coiffed brown bouffant, and husky, mountain-bred voice, Barbara Jean bears an uncanny likeness to the real-life country music superstar Loretta Lynn. Like Lynn, Barbara Jean is the beloved songbird of Nashville, one who is also, like Lynn, prone to debilitating mental and physical health setbacks. Lynn's rough marital history is also vaguely paralleled, as Barbara Jean's oafish husband/manager controls her with a Svengali-like grip that continually renders her helpless and hazy, to an actually unhealthy degree.

At Nashville's outset, Barbara Jean is greeted with pomp and circumstance upon returning home from a mysterious stay in a burn unit, only to collapse before she can finish her speech. Later on, over the course of an extraordinarily exhaustive outdoor concert scene, Barbara Jean is unable to continue her packed performance without breaking into disquietingly happy ramblings about distant childhood memories, an incident recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with Lynn's own well-documented history of public breakdowns. Indeed, the Lynn comparison is by now notorious, having drawn the long-lasting ire of both the country music community, who deemed the character a gaudy caricature, and Lynn herself, who once replied to a reporter's inquiry about whether she would ever watch Nashville with the remark, "I'd rather see Bambi…"

However, Lynn is only the bare bones of Altman's eloquently symbolic conception of Barbara Jean, whose tragic dissolution contributes a great deal to the director's larger, anarchic designs, as well as the regionally-specific atmosphere which he seeks to recreate. There is no given name or diagnosis to whatever is afflicting Barbara Jean, only the spooky coincidence that being in Nashville seems to be ailing her beyond any secure or sustained care. In this light, Barbara Jean is ultimately less a scathing imitation of Lynn than a sad reflection of the wider Nashville industry and its soul-sapping star system. What could be more indicative of conservative America's darkly debilitating views on female celebrity than a talented and beautiful woman whose inability to please her husband, her fans, and her community is literally destroying her, hindering her from upholding the communal traditions of All-American wholesomeness that she was entrusted to emulate? Barbara Jean is the promise and foundering of Nashville incarnate, an angelic emblem of the instability of tradition amid the clashes and changes of wholly uncertain times.

Altman depicts the other people of Nashville as living amidst a constant discord between the natives and the newcomers, the famous and the forsaken, those content within their social standing and those only seeking ascension, the ones dying to get into this world and the ones dying to get out. In his original review, “The Homecoming of Barbara Jean,” Hollis Alpert offers what manages to be both an irksomely ill-defined and yet strangely illuminating summation of Altman’s film, when he describes the "the general scheme" of Nashville as "nothing less nor more than a portrait of America, at a particular moment, in a certain place." What Alpert’s brief but stimulating statement only begins to imply is that Nashville functions as more than just a setting for the zany comings and goings of Altman’s characteristically vivid motley crew.

Altman's Nashville, like the infernal New York of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the sun-baked Los Angeles valleys of Polanski’s Chinatown, or even the slick corporate chaos of Altman’s Hollywood in The Player, becomes more than a mere setting, even more than just a filmic context. Nashville is a force, the atmospheric backdrop that drives the action of the film, controlling and compelling the lives of these individuals, enabling their decisions, hindering their growth, and shaping their identities. It is a lifestyle, one that many characters take great pains to adopt, embody, and latch on to throughout the course of the film. Whatever their particular elements and idiosyncrasies, Altman’s characters are all united under the large, encompassing umbrella of Nashville, which begs the chicken-or-egg question of whether or not a city, a state, or even a country is the reflection of its citizens, or vice versa?

Altman suggests talent and its more superficial cousin—fame—as the ultimate measure of one’s status within Nashville. The Nashville elite is comprised of the talent themselves (i.e. Barbara Jean, Haven, as well as the Peter, Paul and Mary-like folk trio Billy, Mary, and Tom, and Timothy Brown's Tommy Brown, the Opry’s seemingly lone black singer, among others) and those in close proximity to them (i.e. Lady Pearl, Ned Beatty’s music lawyer Delbert Reese, Allen Garfield's hotheaded Barnett, Barbara Jean’s consort-cum-keeper, etc.). On the other end of the spectrum, the bottom dwellers of Nashville are generally talentless access-seekers: Chaplin's sycophantic Opal, as well as David Arkin’s pitifully obsequious celebrity chauffeur Norman, Gwen Welles’ tone-deaf and sympathetically slow waitress Sueleen, and Barbara Harris' dizzy, unkempt runaway wife Albuquerque, née "Winifred," an aspiring and possibly unstable singer whose first shot at the mic during a raceway concert is immediately drowned out by the blare of the vehicles.

These characters are human electrons, careening into and encroaching on one another, challenging their positions, shifting their dynamics, and affecting one another's fates. It is to Altman’s credit that the fine distinctions of each character work to complicate our perceptions of these individuals, with a specific emphasis on the roles they occupy and the rungs of the ladder they are settled on. A scene at Lady Pearl’s club, in which Tommy Brown is lambasted by Robert DoQui’s Wade, Sueleen’s protective black co-worker, as "the whitest n****r in town," is not just telling of the racial dynamics of Nashville but is further indicative of the tension between Tommy’s two conflicting and potentially limiting identities as a black man singing a genre of music most commonly associated with white men. He may be a well-liked and well-respected member of the country-western upper crust, but, unfortunately, as Altman seems to propose, Tommy can only rise so far in Nashville without appearing subservient in the eyes of his harshest critics.

There's also "L.A. Joan," née Martha, a bewigged, scantily-clad groupie played by Altman regular Shelley Duvall who uses her visit to an ailing aunt as a means to ingratiate herself amongst the Nashville elite, continually wandering away from her doleful, elderly uncle during their visits to the hospital in order to trail Barbara Jean. Like Barbara Harris' Albuquerque, "L.A. Joan" serves as an alternate identity to whoever Martha was before she entered the picture; their changes in name cast each of them as cultural émigrés, allowing them both to gain relatively deeper access into this insulated community.

Nashville presents a world unto itself, a community that might as well exist under a dome for all of its blithely sheltered obliviousness. Altman, who used the onslaught of celebrity cameos in The Player to evoke a sense of star-sighting familiarity, employs the same device here to instead evoke an unfamiliarity within Nashville, which remains ignorantly detached from communities other than its own. The weird but witty walk-ons from Altman alums Elliott Gould and Julie Christie are like fourth wall-breaking reminders to the audience of the world that exists outside of this, one where Barbara Jean or Haven Hamilton are likely mere curios. Altman best exemplifies just how cut off Nashville is from the mainstream in Christie's blink of a cameo, as Barbara Jean’s chief rival Connie White (a gracefully bitchy Karen Black) expresses complete and comical incomprehension of Christie, as she passes through a Nashville club. "She can’t even comb her hair!" cackles the lusciously-locked Connie, in reply to Haven’s assertions that Christie, with her disheveled ringlets, is actually an Oscar-winning star for, as Haven puts it, "one of those pictures, I don’t know which one."

However, never is the cultural disconnect felt more crucially than in the recurring campaign of the Replacement Party's off-screen presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. The campaign opens the film as a van gloomily glides down the streets of Nashville, blaring Walker's ambiguous political professions, i.e. "When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that's politics." Even though he is never seen, Walker remains a constant presence within Nashville as the disembodied voice of a likely political puppet that no one in Nashville seems to really be listening to. When characters briefly mention Walker, it is never in relation to his actual politics, even though it is his rally for which Haven and Barbara Jean, among other industry luminaries, have been recruited to perform.

The absence of any direct addresses or coherent commentary, at least from the mouths of the film’s (visible) characters, is a statement in and of itself and not, as some critics claim, an indifferent gliding over of deeper complexities. The very lack of a single political perspective is the point of the piece, which seeks to highlight the utterly deficient interest in government that came to characterize the decade, a dearth of concern that is the inevitable byproduct of the trauma of the sixties. Altman rejects radical parody or overt analysis to instead evoke a glum and soulless political essence through mood and milieu. It's clear in the way that the bevy of teenage girls canvassing for Walker continually interrupt newscasts throughout the film, looking less like staunch supporters than giggly, time-stalling fangirls. Or the way that the “Walker for President” van keeps driving by the edges of a frame, drifting down empty streets as its speakers blast Walker’s plainspoken, psuedo-political babble.

Nashville signifies a nation still reeling from the melees and massacres that pervaded the latter end of the sixties, numbing any and all political involvement and leaving the survivors with the sorrowful remembrances of the hope and promise that once seemed so attainable not too long ago. The film not only reflects the careless, corrupted politicking of the present, but also occasionally eulogizes the past, as evidenced in the liquor-lubricated ramblings of Lady Pearl, who repeatedly voices her eternal, soggy-eyed devotion to John F. Kennedy, an allusion that will eventually connect him to another outwardly immaculate figure of hope and promise in Nashville who also meets a bleak and violent end.

But, because this is Altman, the repercussions of the sixties are not as entirely funereal or somber as a different film or director might portray them. Instead, Nashville suggests a dramatic shifting in the ways in which Americans lived, particularly within a community as fiercely protective of its long-standing traditions as Nashville. There is a transparent disparity between a character like Haven, sporting his rhinestone-covered suits and a coiffure as perfectly-shaped as Barbara Jean’s, and Keith Carradine’s shaggy, sexy, heavy-lidded folk singer Tom, with his long locks and full beard. Haven warbles "For the Sake of the Children," a boilerplate breakup ditty about ending an extramarital affair to keep the family together, to a passively appreciate Opry audience. Tom, meanwhile, croons “Take my hand and pull me down / I won’t put up any fight / Because I’m easy" as a poignantly carnal plea across a crowded club, past a gaggle of aroused onlookers, and straight to Lily Tomlin’s longing housewife Linnea in Nashville's best scene.

Haven maintains an exceedingly private relationship with Pearl, a partner whom we never see him engage with romantically, while Tom beds nearly every woman he comes across, including Mary, the intensely enigmatic wife of the married duo that comprises his musical trio. Although they never come into direct contact with one another, it is clear that Haven and Tom — the former clinging to conventional, Old South values that the other barely realizes still exist — are emblematic of, respectively, a culture with an impending expiration date and a countering one all but ready to take its place.

In Altman's eyes, American traditions, industries, communities, and individuals all fade away at one point or another, an idea he contended with throughout his career, right down to his swan song, 2006's A Prairie Home Companion. In many ways, it's like a muted, melancholic, and belated follow-up to Nashville, in which the performers and personnel of the real-life Midwestern radio institution of the title jovially mourn its final broadcast. In Companion, Meryl Streep’s wistful songstress and her spry sister (played by Tomlin, returning for one last go-round on Altman's colorful carousel) sing a warm duet called "My Minnesota Home," an ode of fond, homesick remembrance and a touching callback to Nashville’s "My Idaho Home," the gorgeously homegrown ballad performed with robust soulfulness by Blakley's Barbara Jean during the film's conclusion. The two mirroring songs, both sentimental recalls of a time predating their performances and a history largely disconnected from current circumstances, seek to illuminate a past no longer present, and thus cast a foreboding shadow over the state of their communities, each already in flux.

(Spoilers follow from here on out.) The harrowing assassination of Barbara Jean that occurs in the film’s final moments feels at once like a random act of savagery, a ritualistic slaughter, and a dreadful inevitability that simply comes with the country, another instance of history repeating itself: same weapon, different victim. "This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville! They can’t do this to us in Nashville!" a wounded Haven tries to reassure his audience, making explicit reference to the city in which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy in broad daylight and chillingly turned the tide of American political life for good. Even as blood quite visibly oozes from Haven's arm, he refuses to believe that such a violation could occur so close to his home, that such a treasured member of his community could be so suddenly and mercilessly eliminated. The murder of Barbara Jean—Nashville's lifeblood, its beacon of barely-realized hope—casts her less as a victim of circumstance than as a victim of her own community's failure to protect her and her own country's casual corruption and oblivious enabling. A group of men carry Barbara Jean off-stage, her white dress turned crimson. The horror of the sequence is only exacerbated by the panicked, chilling interjections of a carrier, possibly Barnett, who cries, “I can’t stop that blood, man!" For a moment, it seems as if Nashville, and Nashville, could not possibly go on.

But then Barbara Harris starts to sing. In what is probably one of the most breathtakingly unexpected moments in American cinema, a disturbed Haven hands the mic over to Barbara Harris' Albuquerque, imploring her to sing to this soured and frightened audience. With shaky indecision, Albuquerque begins a stilted rendition of Bill, Mary, and Tom’s anthemic "It Don’t Worry Me" without any accompaniment. The crowd, both onstage and off, transitions from distracted unawareness and staggering mystification into rapt and rousing submission as a gospel choir joins in, followed by a band and then the spectators themselves. "You may say that I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me," they chant along with Albuquerque, her voice quickly gaining confidence, imperfect but urgent, unsteady but soaring.

The same undulating American flag that hung behind Barbara Jean only moments ago ripples in the wind, as we cut to the scattered, singing faces of the children in the bandstand before focusing back on the Parthenon, where Altman’s wild troupe is strewn about the stage. The camera pans out and tilt up, lifting higher and higher, over the temple and into a spacious, cloud-covered sky. It's the most electrifying sequence in a film of rare cumulative power, from one of this country's most successfully risk-tasking visionaries.

Altman really could see everything and everyone, and never more so than in Nashville, in which he boldly marched across unproven, grand-scale cinematic terrain, where, to borrow a phrase from two of his most illustrious collaborators, "life," and those who live it, "are many things, at once." Albuquerque's impromptu performance is both a self-serving retrieval of a tragically open spotlight, as well as, and perhaps more pivotally, a heroically unifying act that, in the truest "American" sense of the phrase, goes on with the show. Altman allows Nashville—as an industry, an institution, a community, and an ideal—to live on, perhaps only stalling the inevitable, if only for a song.



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