The moments you mentioned above—Linnea with her kids, Sueleen stuffing her bra, etc.—aren’t what I see as “lulls” in the film. Those are what draw me to Nashville, what gives the film its heart. Those are the moments when Altman allows us to connect. And let me be clear: there are lots of those moments. But there are just as many in which the visual and aural chaos imply not complexity but insignificance. In saying this, I don’t want to be as dismissive of Altman as Schickel is when he argues that “the greats all share intentionality, the need to direct our attention to something that was on their minds. They did not leave their people flopping around until something printable happened.” The first part I obviously sort of agree with. But the second part is pure poppycock, implying that improvisation—by directors or actors—is inherently flawed. What rubbish! “Intentionality,” after all, is practiced when a director decides to continue shooting or to stick with what’s in the can. It’s exhibited most powerfully in the editing room, when the film takes its final shape. Schickel’s takedown of Altman implies that improvisation is sin and that any true artist would rigidly adhere to a storyboard. That said, I can’t pretend that I find depth or complexity in Altman’s repeated refusal to specify.
EH: I just don’t believe that Altman’s attention to the overall “noise of humanity” negates the individuals within that cacophony. It’s true that Altman seldom sticks with any one person for an extended period of time, but instead allows the bits and pieces of character detail we see throughout the film to cumulatively build character and emotional nuance. And it’s true that the “Since You’ve Gone” sequence is not a narrowly focused expression of Mary’s feelings for Tom, nor is it as powerful as Tom’s performance of “I’m Easy,” which I’d agree is one of the film’s high points. Altman is not the type to do one thing at a time—he’s a true cinematic multitasker—so during the course of the scene he cuts away to comic snippets of Wade and Opal. But, for me, the meaning of the song, and its connection to Mary, comes through loud and clear, if only in that final moment when she turns to face Tom head-on and fixes him with a fiery stare. And throughout much of the rest of the song Altman is cutting between two-shots and three-shots, shuffling through various combinations of the love triangle’s three points, and also indulging in his characteristic probing zoom, so that several times during the song he starts with a medium shot and then homes in on a closeup of Mary, further enforcing the fact that this performance is primarily about her.
In Nashville and Altman’s other great “network” films, the ensemble cast and the continually shifting focus ensure that the film is more about the group than any one individual. But while you see this as a failing, I see it as a sign of Altman’s democratic sensibility, his commitment to telling everyone’s story rather than putting the emphasis on a conventional center. To use Opal’s dismissive phrase, Altman likes to gossip with the servants. Sometimes literally, as in Gosford Park. Altman’s aesthetic is a matter of constantly directing our attention to this or that moment or line; it’s why I see Schickel’s criticisms as so absurd. Far from never asserting his intentionality, Altman is constantly directing us to look, to listen, to pay attention in order to extract the tidbits of character and incident that are always popping up out of the seeming chaos of his busy scenes. For all the noise and bustle within his frames, Altman never lets us forget that the group he’s documenting is composed of individuals, each of them with their own histories, emotions and stories to tell. If he doesn’t tell, say, the story of Mary or of Sueleen as fully as he might have if he’d made a conventional feature film based around one of these characters, he still offers up enough nuance, enough subtext, that we can fill in the blanks ourselves. That, too, is part of his democratic spirit, his willingness to leave some room for the viewer to find his or her own path through this material.
JB: Gosh, it sure sounds good when you describe it. I just can’t say I feel it. Earlier I mentioned Boogie Nights, a film with one well-developed character (Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler), two sort-of developed characters (Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner and Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves) and everybody else. And yet I feel like I know those “everybody else” characters as well as I know anyone in Nashville. A good example might be Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, who spends most of Anderson’s film looking for his signature style. Is Buck any deeper or more complex than Haven Hamilton? I don’t think so. Is he more significantly tied to a conventional plot? Only slightly. And yet I connect with him, instantly and effortlessly. I can only presume that it’s because Anderson is willing to let Buck own his own shots from time to time, without any sort of distraction. And yet Anderson is certainly “multitasking” in Boogie Nights, too, is he not?
It seems to me that sometimes within Nashville the extreme “multitasking” isn’t the means to an end but is the end itself. Interestingly, I didn’t fully come to this conclusion until I watched Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion. It’s a terrific film, both as a stand-alone and as a tribute to Garrison Keillor’s beloved radio program, and yet for all the ways it nods back to Nashville, I found it comparatively uncluttered. Uncluttered, that is, except for the scenes between Tomlin and Meryl Streep as, respectively, Rhonda and Yolanda Johnson. Sitting backstage and chattering away, over the top of one another and over the sounds of the broadcast being piped back into their dressing room, it struck me that those scenes felt almost like a parody of Altman. That is, Tomlin and Streep were no longer acting within an Altman world but were very consciously “doing Altman,” if you understand my meaning. Those scenes felt unfortunately empty to me, and I can only conclude that there’s a link between that reaction and how I repeatedly feel underwhelmed by Nashville.
Maybe we’re in entirely subjective territory here. Maybe my ear feels the kind of dizziness that some people complained of experiencing when trying to watch Avatar in 3-D. Maybe I have too hard a time listening broadly to catch the specifics, just like some people watching 3-D can’t help but focus on specific blurry edges rather than taking in the panoramas. But while I agree with you that Altman’s approach ensures that Nashville “is more about the group than any one individual,” and while I recognize that it’s that approach that makes the film such a marvelous time capsule, I remain convinced that the chaos of his compositions sometimes slips into vacuity and gimmickry. Kael praised the film in part by saying that Altman had “evolved an organic style of moviemaking that tells a story without the clanking of plot,” and that’s true. Then again, the furious clanking of the multiple soundtracks is anything but organic.
EH: The big difference between Boogie Nights and Nashville (other than the fact that one is about porn) is, as you mention, the strong central character. Dirk Diggler’s dominance of the film makes it more of a conventional narrative—the hero with everyone else grouped around him—rather than the rambling looseness of Nashville, where there’s no true center. To me, that means that Haven Hamilton is more important, and more fleshed-out, in Nashville than Buck or any other non-Dirk character is in Boogie Nights. Anderson’s film tells Dirk’s story, and anyone else who appears is ancillary to that, while Altman is interested in checking in on everyone’s stories. For Altman, everyone’s the hero for as long as he or she is on screen. I don’t want to belabor my point, and I’m not trying to suggest that one aesthetic is superior to the other; they’re just different ways of thinking about narrative and character. I do like Boogie Nights, too, though I think it’s Anderson’s weakest film. But the two films have dramatically different approaches despite Altman’s influence on the younger director. Dirk’s epic quest for self-fulfillment is the usual (anti-)heroic narrative while Altman’s aesthetic is democratic and diffuse: it discourages treating any one character like his story is the only truly important one.
Your other comparison, to Altman’s great final film A Prairie Home Companion, is more apt, particularly in that both films express character and drama through music and performance. Which brings me to one point that I’ve been meaning to get to: At times during Nashville, I feel like certain musical performances are far better as expressions of character than as actually entertaining music. Sure, “I’m Easy” is a great song in addition to a particularly revealing one, but that’s not always true. I was especially bored to tears during much of the Grand Ole Opry sequence, because the songs sung by Connie White and Tommy Brown are just so painfully dull. The thing is, I’m pretty sure they’re dull by design, and part of the point is that Connie and Tommy are generic, boring performers. Altman encouraged the actors to write and perform their own music, music that expressed something about these characters, and they responded with songs that these middle-of-the-road second-stringers might really sing.
The dullness of Tommy’s song is especially thematically relevant, since he’s a black singer who is widely regarded as having sanitized and muted his image in order to fit in as part of a mostly white scene. He’s called out earlier as being “the whitest nigger in town,” and when we hear him sing we understand why Wade says that. Connie’s story is simpler: She’s a pale stand-in for Barbara Jean, a singer with real passion and heart, and Connie’s songs lack any of the energy or enthusiasm with which Barbara Jean sings. When Barbara Jean sings, one senses that she’s pouring everything of herself into the song, which is why when she loses it she slips so easily into rambling, confessional storytelling on stage. That could never happen to Connie, who seems to put nothing of herself into her music. All of which is to say that the very dullness of these songs adds to the portrayal of the characters who sing them, but the fact remains that for a long stretch of time there, while these people are performing, there’s nothing to do but admire Altman’s commitment to capturing their blankness, their lack of anything to say. Haven also sings awful songs, but at least they’re entertainingly, humorously awful, as when he fidgets like a perfectionist during the opening recording session, tweaking his terrible patriotic mess like it’s a masterpiece.
Now I also say this in full awareness that you could turn around and tell me you loved those songs. Taste is always especially subjective, and that’s why I hesitate to read too much into my numbed reaction to those tunes. But it does bring up another question regarding musicals, which are often thought of as living or dying on the strength of their songs. Is that necessarily the case? Can a film that’s heavily reliant on music use “bad” music in interesting ways, as I’d argue Nashville does?
JB: Clearly it can. I’d agree with you that many of the songs in Nashville are limp, and maybe that’s part of the reason why Altman is so willing to cut away from them. At the same time, though, he clearly hangs with some songs much longer than necessary. You said that in these moments there’s “nothing to do but admire Altman’s commitment to capturing [the songs’] blankness,” but I’d swap the word “endure” with “admire.” To jump back a topic, maybe that’s part of what puzzles me so much about the presentation of “Since You’ve Gone.” That’s a song that’s filled with emotion and ripe with the potential for depth. So, of all the songs in Nashville, why is that one of the few (the only?) songs that Altman doesn’t capture as it’s concluding? (His camera is elsewhere, on Opal, as the song comes to an end.) You made a cogent argument that Altman didn’t need to leave the camera on Mary or the performance overall because the meaning “comes through loud and clear” as-is. OK. Fair enough. But then why hang with Haven for so much of his two-song set at the Opry? Why hang with Barbara Jean through two songs before her meltdown in her abbreviated comeback performance? Why give Connie’s performances so much attention? Most of the time, as you’ve suggested, we can understand the meaning of these songs and how they relate to the characters by the end of the first chorus. So why repeatedly give us more than we need? “I’m Easy” isn’t just one of the more pleasing songs, it’s also one of the most complex performances—ever evolving, lacing together multiple characters. By contrast, “Keep A’ Goin’” doesn’t evolve. It just is.
Despite my objections to the way Altman’s presentation seems illogically off-balance—not enough of the performances I want to hear and too much of the ones I don’t—I don’t deny their overall effect. So the answer is that, yes, “bad” music can be used in “interesting” ways. But I don’t think we should be hesitant to call boring material boring. And I don’t think we should rush to assume that every moment is truly “by design,” or that every design is necessary or successful. When a song in Nashville fails to evolve from its first chorus to its third, the continuation of the song becomes needless repetition, turning Nashville into the guy wearing a belt and suspenders. The approach is defensibly “by design,” sure, but it’s not exactly impressive.