[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: Robert Altman's Nashville is one of those rare films that feels more timely, more relevant, the more time goes by. When Altman filmed this multi-character study, set during a few days in the United States' country music capital, the nation was in the midst of preparations for America's bicentennial, a celebration of the country's heritage and culture. It was 1975. It had been twelve years since John F. Kennedy was shot and seven years since Robert Kennedy was shot, and both events still loomed large, over the country and over Altman's film. Richard Nixon had just resigned, too, further shattering whatever naïve hopes about politics might still have been lingering anywhere. The film opens, after a breathless parody of TV hucksterism, with a roving campaign van advertising for fictional presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Throughout the film, this campaign emits a steady stream of populist rhetoric, mixing genuine political reforms (taxing churches, eliminating farm subsidies) with outright absurdities (kicking all the lawyers out of Congress, rewriting the National Anthem to something "people can understand"). Altman follows this introduction with Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) singing the kind of über-patriotic tune that Walker might have in mind, an unthinking ode to American virtue: "we must be doing something right / to last 200 years."
What could be a better way to start a film that chronicles the values and ideas of America, both as it really is and as its people like to imagine it? And what could be a better place to start our conversation about this sprawling, iconic movie? Nashville is often thought of as a musical, a showcase for all the country songs and the singers who appear as characters, and it's also thought of as one of Altman's typical network narratives, where the stories of a large cast of characters interlock and intersect across a few days in a single location. Both of those descriptions are true. But Nashville is also a profoundly political movie, a movie haunted by the ghosts of then-recent political assassinations. Its resonances have only grown more potent and pronounced as the years have passed. It depicts the manipulations of image that go on in both entertainment and politics, and the ways in which supposedly populist candidates marshal power by appealing broadly to "the people" and copping anti-government attitudes.
The ironical political commentary at the film's core has thus only become more and more prescient and insightful in the three decades since Nashville's release. For Altman, his vision of America was always tangled up with media, entertainment and political grandstanding, concepts that for him are as American as apple pie. Altman's actual bicentennial film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, is similarly all about the mythmaking and exploitation of entertainment that are at the root of all power in American culture. In the modern era, surrounded by infotainment and political campaigns that are increasingly remote from reality, Altman's satire seems truer than ever. The film is something of a time capsule, a portrait of the national mood at a particular time and place, but Nashville arguably says as much about our country today as it does about America in the '70s.
Jason Bellamy: That's an interesting argument. "Prescient" might indeed be a word to apply to Nashville, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's "timely." Quite the opposite, actually. Nashville is indeed a "time capsule, a portrait of the national mood at a particular time and place." That's perfectly stated. To suggest it is timely is to suggest this fictionalized world resembles our own, and I don't think it does. It just points in this direction, hints at what's next. I don't want to send us on too distant a tangent here, but America today is worried about threats from outside, not threats from within. We are an increasingly cynical culture and an increasingly divided one, despite all the ways that technology has lumped us together. I mean, who sings the anthem that "we must be doing something right" anymore, even at those times when it's true? Who ignores the political rhetoric of the Hal Phillip Walkers anymore, letting it drift through the ether? Who seeks to find fame with talent anymore? Who struggles to find a stage to be heard anymore? Nashville absolutely captures some of the emotion and tenor of its time. But the emotions and tenor of these times? I don't see it.
There's a quaintness to Nashville that I have a hard time applying to America 35 years later. There's an earnestness to these characters that reminds me of simpler times. It seems to me that right now America is at war with itself. We begin this conversation in the aftermath of Scott Brown's historically significant win in Massachusetts, which looks as if it will deny the key first-term objective of a president whose monumental election came only a year before. The repeated message of the past few years seems to be that America doesn't know what it wants to become, it only wants to stop being what it is. If there is this kind of tension running through Nashville, I admit that I fail to detect it.
EH: See, for me, the dominant strain running through Nashville is exactly what you refer to in regards to today's political climate: this conflict between idealism and cynicism, between the earnest hopes of these characters and their increasing resignation to the sad realities they have to settle for. I don't want to make too much of these parallels between this 35-year-old film and a future it couldn't possibly have predicted, but I guess what I'm saying is that Altman's political satire is hardly "quaint," by any means.
Indeed, I see our modern society in numerous moments and threads running through the film. There's the inconsistency and shallowness of political engagement, ranging from the tireless cheerleading of Walker's young campaigners (who at one point even paste campaign stickers on two cars that have just crashed into each other) to the disaffection of folk singer Tom (Keith Carradine), who doesn't "vote for nobody for president." There's the Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn) who wanders through the film with haunted eyes, confronted with disinterest and disdain at every turn. There's the naked cynicism of Walker's campaign manager Triplette (Michael Murphy), whose manipulation and two-faced dealings are a stark contrast to the supposed idealism and populism of Walker's campaign and the fresh-faced youths he surrounds himself with.
At the heart of the film's political message is disillusionment and the destruction of ideals: The film's icon of innocence and smiling purity, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), is literally destroyed, and many of the other characters encounter metaphorical destructions in various guises. The would-be star Sueleen (Gwen Welles) comes face to face with the depressing end result of her doomed do-anything quest for fame; she sacrifices her integrity and in her blank expression during the final scene, she realizes that it was for naught. Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) loses his wife and realizes that no one seems to care or even notice. Far from being reminded of "simpler times," I see this as a very cynical film, a film about corruption in its multitude of forms. It's filled with distasteful characters, from Barbara Jean's sleazy husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), who only cares about making money off of her career, even at the expense of her health, to the BBC documentarian Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a blatant starfucker who will do anything to be close to the top, and who gets perhaps the best of many hilarious tossed-off lines when she tells Tom's limo driver that she doesn't "gossip with servants." That's without even mentioning the ways in which so many characters—Tom, Opal, casually trampy beanpole L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall)—treat sexuality as a game to get what they want.
Arguably, only Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) really achieves her dream of a spotlight of her own, although that moment, the film's finale, can best be described as a perfect example of "careful what you wish for." Is this really earnestness and a lack of cynicism? Is this a portrait of a society less divided than our own, or a portrait of a society that upholds a threadbare illusion of unity and patriotism while beneath the surface it's every bit as fragmented, self-absorbed and conflicted as our own?
JB: "Every bit as fragmented"? I don't think so. But I see your point. Perhaps the key difference for me is that I detect an almost universal anger in American society today that I don't see in Nashville. Hal Phillip Walker rants against everything, and yet the world around him is deaf to his anger. Indeed, even his campaigners seem indifferent to his messages. They just want to put on a good show. This is in stark contrast to what we saw in the last presidential election, for example, in which there were varying levels of "issue" comprehension among Americans but there was no shortage of passion or political identification. Sure, Scott Glenn's Vietnam vet "wanders through the film with haunted eyes," but do we really get any indication that he's haunted by his wartime experiences? Or do we just assume that all men in uniform are the same? Opal makes that assumption, and the film uses it as yet another example of her foreign ignorance, the way she treats America like it's Disneyland, so that a solider in uniform is as much a mascot as a teenager in a Mickey Mouse costume. And sure, Tom, the long-haired, free-loving folk singer, says he can't vote for anyone and shows disdain for Glenn's soldier. But do you detect any actual fervor in those comments, or are they just signs of a man who has bought into his own image? Heck, even Barbara Jean's assassin doesn't seem particularly upset about anything. He's just mentally defective, eventually snapping at the sight of the American flag as if he'd spotted the Queen of Hearts in The Manchurian Candidate. As Manny Farber observed, these are "single note stereotypes."
I don't want to give the impression that these characters aren't interesting. And I agree that this is a cynical film that is about corruption, in many ways. But Nashville still seems quaint to me, and, despite the unrelenting din of Hal Phillip Walker's testimonials, I'm not sure this film is as explicitly political as we've made it sound to this point. If all the songs in Nashville were performed on behalf of Walker's campaign, as endorsements of his proposals for change, why, yes, then this would feel timely. Under that structure, the assassination of Barbara Jean would be the buzzkill (akin to Scott Brown's election?) exposing the naïveté of moments like 2009's inauguration concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—an event just over a year old that already seems quaint in its hopefulness for change and its belief that change was imminent. But Barbara Jean doesn't sing on behalf of Walker. She's completely ignorant of him and his politics. Today that would be impossible. In fact, today many artists seem as desperate to align themselves with politicians as politicians are eager to align themselves with artists. So, yes, Nashville's depiction of self-absorption is certainly applicable to modern America. And Opal's attention-span-challenged way of dealing with people is a perfect illustration of the Twitterverse, where even at 140 characters people do a whole lot more talking than listening, in my observation. But I think that's where the timeliness mostly ends.
EH: Fair enough. As I said, I don't want to overstress this point, and you're right that Nashville doesn't map exactly onto our current political situation, by any means. I never meant to suggest that it did; only that its themes and ideas remain resonant beyond their immediate "time capsule" context. What's especially resonant in the film is the underlying uneasiness about American values and what it means to be American. You suggested that Haven Hamilton's opening song—"we must be doing something right/ to last 200 years"—delivers a naïve sentiment that would be unimaginable today (outside of Fox News, no?). I would submit that not only was it also naïve in 1975, but that Haven is aware of the song's naïveté, that he has his own internal doubts and insecurities about what he's singing. Throughout that opening sequence, as the credits roll along the bottom of the screen, Altman's camera patiently zooms in and out, mostly honing in on Haven's face, capturing the uneasy expression in his eyes as he sings this patriotic ballad. His eyes shift from side to side, reflecting a note of nervousness beneath the song's triumphant chorus, as though he's fully aware of how absurd and vacant these words will seem to many people who don't share this rosy view of America's innate goodness. More than that, there's a hint of fear in his face, as though he's not quite so sure that America is in such good shape after all. By subtly undercutting the lyrics in this way, Altman turns Haven's refrain from a forceful statement of American supremacy into a hesitant question: We must be doing something right, right?
Haven's song, like so many others in the film, is intended as a cover-up, a gloss on more complicated ideas that no one wants to deal with or think about. Later in the film, Haven sings a rousing anthem called "Keep A' Goin," an ode to ignorance that advises people to deal with adversity by simply moving on, never stopping to think, as though all problems can be overcome by ignoring them: a message that might've been the theme song of the Bush years. Tellingly, Haven says it's the song that made him a star; people love blind optimism. One dominant trope of the music in Nashville is that so few of these songs really mean what they say; there's an ironic disconnect between reality and the fictions of music. In song after song, these characters dodge their true feelings and the true state of the world, offering up platitudes, not only about politics, but about romance, race and family values as well. (Haven's ode to maintaining a marriage "for the sake of the children" is especially hilarious in light of his own apparent separation/divorce from his wife and public affair with another woman.)
The finale is probably the best example of all, as Albuquerque begins passionately singing "It Don't Worry Me" at precisely the moment when, in fact, everyone should be worried, should be shaken by what has just happened. An American icon was just assassinated, but it don't worry you? The audience should be fiercely protesting this banality in the face of tragedy. Instead, the song soothes the crowd's uneasy mood, restoring tranquility and willful ignorance; by the time the film ends, everyone's smiling again, swaying in time to the music, singing along. They're not worried. But it's not the moment of communal celebration that it might appear to be; it's a moment of collective forgetting, of this massed crowd choosing happiness over consciousness, putting on blinders rather than acknowledging the corruption and violence pervading their society. Entertainment, like Haven's politically regressive oeuvre, is a balm, a way of keeping people docile and unquestioning.
JB: Now we're on the same page. At least mostly. I don't see the same depth in Haven's opening recording studio scene. I take that more or less on face value. We've got a guy who sings country music, which tends to be patriotic, and so he sings a patriotic song. I don't detect a lot of thought or angst about the material. Haven strikes me as a professional making his living. A country music artist probably wouldn't get very far tearing down America, just as it's hard for a country music artist to get very far without wearing a cowboy hat—unless, of course, he makes up for it with an Elvis-like jumpsuit and a serious pair of sideburns. No question, Haven is obsessed with his image. Even his reaction to Barbara Jean's assassination is image-based. "This isn't Dallas!" he protests. "It's Nashville!" He's less concerned with the shooting of country music's biggest star, the women whose return from supposed treatment at a burn center he used as an opportunity for a photo-op, than he is with the damage to Nashville's reputation. If the illusion of Nashville dies, Haven's status as an icon will die with it.