Of the innumerable dazzling moments in Nashville, there’s one that particularly testifies to the film’s enduring stature as a somehow ageless American time capsule. Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) is a traveling country singer who almost immediately collapses upon reaching the airport in Nashville, and in front of gathering press; later on, her husband and manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield), is sitting by her side in the hospital, eating fried chicken and discussing with her how they should handle the politics of thanking Barbara Jean’s replacement for an upcoming show. Barbara Jean is professionally, perhaps also sexually, threatened by competition, and she insists that Barnett disregard a variety of social and professional obligations that he intends to see through whether or not she approves. But, this being a Robert Altman film, none of these subtexts are voiced directly, and lines that are seemingly inconsequential assert themselves on the rebound maybe 10 minutes after we’ve already moved on to another privileged moment in another set of characters’ lives. Considering this scene between Barbara Jean and Barnett a day later, you may wonder who’s emotionally abusing who, and the most likely, and interesting, answer would characterize the relationship as unhealthy though weirdly nourishing, and not entirely tangibly informed by the professional and personal realms they navigate.
In this scene, Altman tells you more in a few spare moments about the emotional texture of a showbiz couple than most actual biopics manage over the course of their entire running times, and the miracle of Nashville resides in just how many similarly evocative and empathetic scenes Altman and his amazing cast manage to forge over the course of 160 minutes. Over the years, the director frequently compared his methods of filmmaking to the painting of a large mural, with the actors he chose often functioning as both the paints of his work as well as its found objects, and that isn’t a case of an artist’s poetic hyperbole. Re-watching Nashville again is to be reminded of the sheer enormity of the film’s canvas, which offers a vision of America as a fabulously irreverent and destructive melting pot—a society spinning a farce of ever-expanding entitlement without any notion or expectation of its corresponding personal, political, and social costs.
Nashville doesn’t quite have the emotional fullness of later Altman films such as Short Cuts and The Company, as it was made at the height of its creator’s run of defiantly smart-ass epics. But people who criticize Nashville for its occasional glibness are mistaking empathy and theme for a default authorial tic. America was literally created by its irreverence, and later defined by it, and Altman understands his country and celebrates it while, at the same time, often mercilessly lampooning it. Nashville shows the tragedy of America to ultimately be one of a failure of self-consciousness, as the most heartbreaking moments show people’s delusions being casually obliterated by the truth of the grazing indifference of social life at large, as it’s actually lived.
The film is an untraditional musical that, like most musicals, offers a testament to the artistic transcendence that’s inherent in its very existence. We see glorious washed-up stars mixing with never-will-be’s, and then we see them take the stage to offer performances that often actively rise above the limitations of the platitudes they’re putting forth. Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) sings a song that, on the page, epitomizes the absurd ego of America, bragging that a country to last for 200 years must be doing something right; never minding that 200 years isn’t a squirt of piss in the context of civilizations that have been around for thousands. But Hamilton’s conviction, not to mention the surprisingly engaging depth of his voice, spins the kitsch into a beautiful, unintentionally ironic ode to hyperbole. And Altman never short cuts his characters’ transcendence; he doesn’t edit the musical numbers to pieces, allowing one to savor them and to take them in.
There’s also still quite a bit of mystery left within this transcendent film nearly 40 years after its release, as it’s one of only a few American pictures that suggest the medium’s capacity to operate as a truly vast, visual novel or, perhaps even more fittingly, to operate as a visual counterpart to a concept album, with its refrains, choruses, and through lines. Stunningly, it isn’t even Altman’s best film (that would be McCabe & Mrs. Miller), but Nashville is still the movie that best embodies everything that was so freeing and generous and deceptively casual about Altman’s art, and it’s the film that best represents him as a uniquely American artist. This is a film you could proudly show to a person from another country with the proviso: This is America, for better and worse. This is everything right and wrong that the experiment of this country has led to, and will probably lead to.
Created in 2K resolution from a 35 mm interpositive, this Criterion Collection presentation of Nashville offers a revelatory image that may inspire contemporary viewers to rethink their impression of Robert Altman’s aesthetic, which isn’t always noted for its visual bravura. The themes and the characters aren’t the only embodiments of the film’s grandness, as the image is breathtakingly wide and elaborately detailed. Take note of the scene in the bus yard, which boasts colors that subtly suggest the American flag in a great throwaway joke. This sort of nuance abounds in this edition, which also boasts terrific grain preservation and shows no signs, to these eyes, of awkward digital revisions. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround track is clear, immersive, and rich in new audible textures.
The "get" in this package is the 2013 documentary, produced for Criterion, that rounds up just about all of the Nashville veterans presently available, including actors Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakely, and Lily Tomlin, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, director Alan Rudolph, and Robert Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, for a terrific collection of interviews that discuss the staging of pivotal scenes with remarkable specificity. The audio commentary with Altman has obviously been ported over from other editions, and it’s fine, but the director tends to let the film play out uninterrupted. New fans of the film looking for the director’s input are better advised to check out the archive interviews that, taken together, offer a succinct portrait of how Altman’s presentation of his sensibilities to the press have evolved over the years (the short answer: You get to see a great American artist perfect his outward performance as a Great American Artist). Behind-the scenes footage, demos, and a terrific essay by Molly Haskell round out the package, though, if one is too carp, it would’ve been nice to see more critical perspectives provided, considering the hot debate that greeted the film’s release.
Love it, hate it, or love it and hate it, Nashville is one of the most revealing portraits of America ever made, and it’s never looked or sounded this good.