That said, I’m curious what Altman thinks he’s getting out of some of these extended, limitedly illuminating performances. In the case of the performances at the Opry, frankly, I think he’s in love with the setting and the ability to give us a rare performer’s-eye-view from the iconic stage. But that puzzles me, too, because despite its trappings I assume you’ll agree with me that Nashville isn’t actually about Nashville. It’s about America. Nashville merely provides Altman with a colorful milieu. This film is no more about its location than Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is about India. (If Nashville were just about Nashville, its criticisms could all too easily be dismissed by the masses.) But it seems to me that sometimes Altman convinces himself—for a scene, a song or a shot—that his film is about Nashville, too. Maybe that would explain why he hangs with some lackluster songs for so long. Maybe he really thinks he’s telling us something about country music. What do you think?
EH: What is he telling us, then? That country music sucks? I don’t think Altman ever really intended to say anything about country music. Altman is just using the country music capital as a convenient microcosm of America as a whole. Still, you’re right that there are stretches of this film—notably the interminable Opry sequence—where it seems like Altman’s trying to deliver a pseudo-documentary on country music. I think he’s just trying to convey this milieu and maybe goes overboard. These scenes, where we watch, if not whole, unedited performances, then at least very lengthy ones with periodic cutaways, are the ones where I’d agree with your criticism that some scenes stretch out longer than necessary. Altman is good at infusing subtext, emotion and depth into musical performances—“I’m Easy,” “Since You’ve Gone,” Sueleen’s terrible croaking and lame attempts to be sexy, Lindsay Lohan’s multilayered performance in A Prairie Home Companion, even all the hilarious Harry Nilsson musical numbers in Popeye—but at other times you’re right that these songs have basically one point (Haven’s a hypocrite, Connie’s shallow, Tommy’s whitewashed) and the point comes across long before the songs are over. It says something, too, that as we’ve gone through this conversation, “I’m Easy” and “Since You’ve Gone”—hell, even “200 Years,” annoying as it is—have repeatedly gotten stuck in my head, but I barely even remember a lot of the other numbers.
That said, I’d rank Barbara Jean’s songs at her comeback show among the better ones in the film; there’s no comparison between that great scene and the dragging Connie performances. The lyrics in these songs reflect a longing for a comfy childhood and lost love, themes that obviously resonate with a woman who is adrift and unhappy in her current life, but more than that these songs are opportunities for Barbara Jean to pour herself into her music. She is one of the few characters in this film who purely enjoys singing (Albuquerque is another), and her performances are consequently both joyous and devastating. She howls about heartache and nostalgia with a wide, genuine smile, taking pleasure in the art of performance even as the lyrics reflect an inner pain. That’s why I wouldn’t agree with you when you lump Barbara Jean’s songs in with the less satisfying performances from the film. I love the genuineness of Barbara Jean during those songs. The obvious catharsis she gets out of performing only makes her emotional collapse (and, later, her death) all the more poignant. It’s like watching a bird fall out of the sky: One moment she’s gracefully soaring along, singing beautifully, and the next she’s plummeting, her voice silenced, the music stumbling to a confused halt behind her ramblings. It’s heartbreaking. And it wouldn’t be nearly as heartbreaking if Altman hadn’t so patiently watched her perform two full songs beforehand.
JB: I agree with exactly half of what you say about Barbara Jean. Your descriptions of her love of performing and the tragedy of her assassination (“like watching a bird fall out of the sky”) are right on the money. However, in general I think you’re overstating the degree to which the lyrics in her songs resonate with Barbara Jean. When it comes to “My Idaho Home,” a song dripping with love and nostalgia for parents now gone, yes, absolutely we seem to be getting a glimpse of Barbara Jean’s soul. But with almost every other song, I don’t see the connection. When she sings “It hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down” or “When I feel my life vanishing like waves upon the sand,” I realize that a connection can be drawn to her own suffering, but I don’t feel that connection in her performance. I don’t get a sense that these words have true autobiographical meaning for Barbara Jean. In fact, if anything, I think that might be the point. Early on, Barbara Jean is singing these songs that perfectly line up with her life but she’s totally unaware of the symmetry. All she’s connecting with is her love of performing, her love of country music. Remember, Barbara Jean and Sueleen have something in common: a childlike naïveté about the world around them. Thus, Barbara Jean’s initial performances certainly show how much she loves country music and singing (no argument there), but beyond that I don’t think she’s singing about her life any more than Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand were singing about their own lives in “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
Now, let me be clear, I’m not invalidating these performances on the grounds that Barbara Jean doesn’t identify with the lyrics the way that Tom does with “I’m Easy.” I’m simply arguing that they work differently than I think you described above. Likewise, just to finish the thought, her performances are different than those of Haven, who also isn’t quite singing from the heart but seems aware of the hypocrisy of his lyrics (at least offstage). Barbara Jean is mostly unaware of how sad her life really is, which is part of what makes her such a tragic figure. She’s like the puppy that has been repeatedly mistreated but still seeks the affection of its master.
This is exciting for me, because in describing how those earlier songs work (the ones other than “My Idaho Home” or her brief performance at church), I’m actually talking myself into liking them. The coin just dropped. But initially what I was going to say is that the reason Barbara Jean’s early performances strike me as unnecessarily long and somewhat empty is because they reminded me of my youth, when a week-long stay at my grandparents’ house meant nightly inundations with Nashville Now and the Grand Ole Opry. That is, it felt like I was watching a performer perform. It felt like watching a pure concert rather than watching a drama. I was seeing a singer who loved the songs but not really their meanings. I think there’s still some truth to that. On the other hand, if I look at those early songs with the idea that Barbara Jean’s lack of personal identification with the lyrics is further evidence of her miserable existence, maybe there’s more depth to those performances than I had previously realized.
EH: My interpretation of those scenes isn’t that different from your own, actually. I purposefully didn’t stress Barbara Jean’s identification with the lyrics in her songs, because I agree that she doesn’t fuse with these songs to the extent that Tom or even Haven do with theirs. And that’s OK. The lyrics are evocative of Barbara Jean’s past and her situation, but for me, like you, her performances are much more about her love of singing and entertaining, with any autobiographical subtext as a distant undercurrent. I think this is indicative of something that Altman does very well: namely, the layering of multiple meanings and ideas within moments that look simple from afar. So while it would be easy to conclude, on cursory inspection, that Barbara Jean’s songs are simply musical showcases, that there’s nothing else there, in fact there’s a complicated interplay going on between the lyrics, the performer’s life, and her emotional engagement (or lack of engagement, as the case may be) with what she’s singing. Whether or not Barbara Jean is conscious of the parallels between her songs and her own experiences, these songs resonate very deeply with her troubled life. As Barbara Jean sings, there’s this tension between the wide, heartfelt smile on her face—evidence of her love of song, which at least for a time can overcome her general misery—and the aching emotions expressed by the lyrics. This tension is then intensified by Barbara Jean’s breakdown, as her joy in singing evaporates into confused anecdotes about the past.
Our exchange about Barbara Jean, and your discovery of unexpected depths in her songs, is to me a perfect encapsulation of how this film works. This scene, so direct on the surface, opens up the more one thinks about it and examines it: it’s rich in emotional and thematic subtext. Nashville is a very dense film, and though its density is part of what turns you off about it—contributing to the sense that we never really get too close to any of these characters for very long—the density of Altman’s filmmaking is also integral to the effects he’s after. If Nashville sometimes flirts with a cacophony of competing voices, this cacophony can be unpacked, its depths can be explored. There are few directors as detail-oriented as Altman, whether he’s pointing out the clutter of objects (including gaudy religious icons) on Sueleen’s dresser as she practices shaking her torso, or making a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it satirical jab about racism when, in a tossed-off dialogue-free scene, he has Haven sarcastically offer Tommy Brown a watermelon, with the subservient Tommy purposefully ignoring the racist jibe and asking for something else instead. The subtle shadings of meaning layered into Barbara Jean’s songs are a more potent example of the same tendency: uncovering what’s buried beneath the surface. You’ve complained repeatedly about Altman wasting time, and there are scenes in Nashville where I’d somewhat agree, but the flipside of that is Altman’s insistence on packing his movie with resonant bits and pieces, with jokes, lines and images that might seem ephemeral, but in fact create complex webs of meaning and characterization within his dense crowds.
JB: Believe it or not, we’re on the same page about a lot of things. I agree that the cacophony can be unpacked. I agree that the film “opens up the more one thinks about it and examines it.” Where I disagree is that what I’m objecting to is density. Because I think what I’m objecting to is a lack of density. Is there more richness to Nashville than can be noticed on the surface? Yes. But that doesn’t automatically make what’s under the surface “deep.” In this way we touch a bit on some of my objections to David Lynch, whose films are sometimes so indistinct that their meanings are authored more by the viewer than the artist. As with Lynch, we could compliment Nashville on those grounds, for not being didactic, for engaging the audience, but it seems to me we could also say that watching Nashville is a bit like watching clouds drift across the sky. If I look at a cloud and see rich emotional and dramatic subtext, is that a credit to the cloud or to me? I’m oversimplifying here, obviously, because Nashville isn’t as ambiguous as that, but I do think ambiguity is often overly praised.
I am aware that critics of nonlinear storylines (not that Nashville has one) will sometimes make the lazy objection that the story wouldn’t be interesting if told linearly. This is as absurd as saying a mystery wouldn’t be interesting if we always knew the answer or saying that a magic trick wouldn’t be interesting if we could see beyond the smoke and mirrors. So I want to be clear that I’m not making a similar complaint. I’m not trying to damn Nashville by saying it would be even less impressive if Altman’s approach had been more straightforward. No, what I’m saying is that even though I admit I have discovered a little more in Nashville each time I’ve watched it, and through this discussion, I have never been awed by what I’ve found. It is deeper than it first appears, but I don’t find it deep. It’s a challenge to decode, but I don’t find it challenging. I don’t loathe this film, by any means. In stretches I find it heartbreaking and in others fascinating. I wouldn’t go as far as Manny Farber, who called Nashville “pretentiously convoluted” and accused it of “sensation mongering,” but I don’t think it justifies its proud obfuscation, and that’s a significant obstacle. There are fans of this film who hear harmony in the overlapping voices. Alas, for me, too much of Nashville has always been painfully off key.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.