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 homing 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.
And yet when Haven pleads “Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!” I detect a genuine concern there that I find endearing. You mentioned before that “Keep A’ Goin” could have been the theme song of the Bush administration, and along those lines Haven’s reaction to Barbara Jean’s assassination is his My Pet Goat moment. I know critics of Bush often use that 9/11 episode of inaction to highlight his fraudulence as a leader, and I see that argument, but I’ve always had extreme sympathy for him in that moment. He’s so human there. So overwhelmed. He has heard the news that America has been attacked but can’t comprehend it. Can’t believe it. For Haven it’s much the same. Just as Bush revealed something of his character by just sitting there, assuming someone would figure it out for him, Haven’s plea for song suggests that underneath it all he might really believe some of what he’s selling. Sure, it’s a bit pathetic that singing is the best thing he can suggest, but I detect in his plea a naïve belief that it will help. And so maybe Haven isn’t entirely insincere after all. This film is often extremely critical of its characters, but it operates with the idea that many of them are acting with mostly good intentions most of the time. Do you agree?
EH: I do. Whatever else Haven is, he really does seem to believe in the values and ideas in his songs, even when his own life and the world around him contradict everything he’s saying. If underneath it all there’s some hint of doubt, as I read into that opening scene, his instinctual reaction when things fall apart is to embrace his Nashville values, to encourage everybody to “keep a’ goin” in the face of tragedy. It’s not that different from our post-9/11 leaders urging Americans to “go shopping.” Don’t stop, don’t think, restore the status quo as quickly as possible. In both cases, the intentions are (presumably) good, it’s just a lack of substance that prevents more meaningful leadership. You’re right that Altman is critical of these characters, but for the most part he’s critical of their ignorance and simplistic thinking rather than any malice or ill will. Hypocrisy too, maybe, with Haven as the prime exemplar, as image-conscious and self-centered as you describe. I love that moment when he adjusts the microphone stand down to his height and his eyes again do that shifty, nervous thing that betrays his discomfort with his small physical stature in relation to his huge celebrity stature.
Altman has a lot of fun skewering this shallow celebrity mindset. Connie White (Karen Black) is portrayed as a crass opportunist, Barbara Jean’s rival who’s more or less openly using the more famous singer’s meltdown as a chance to advance her own career. She tries to be warm and playful on stage, but she’s a bitch offstage—contrast her awkwardly playing hide-and-seek with a wooden beam in a cramped bar to her despicably icy behavior with Barnett, who’s at least doing his best to be professional with her and mask his distaste. She seems somehow vacant, an empty vessel full of ambition and little more. Her banter is forced, as though she has trouble maintaining a pleasant façade. When she interacts with a trio of young fans, she can’t do more than vapidly repeat clichés, like telling them they could grow up to be president, as though politics hadn’t already been debunked as an honorable or desirable ambition. It’s fitting, though, to the extent that Altman is drawing parallels between the thirst for political power and the thirst for fame; they are interrelated ambitions, both founded on a belief that talent by itself doesn’t rise to the top, that you also need a good campaign.
Altman further mocks the idolatry of celebrity with cameo appearances by Elliott Gould and Julie Christie, playing themselves. The country musicians are almost entirely ignorant of these Hollywood stars, but it hardly matters. They have no idea who Gould is, but can’t wait to meet him once they find out he’s a big actor. By the same token, Connie White thinks Haven is joking when he tells her Julie Christie is a famous actress; she doesn’t look like anything special, Connie says, so how can she be famous? These are people who think that fame conveys some kind of magical aura on a person, that the famous are intrinsically better than everyone else. Opal thinks the same way, as evidenced by that great scene where she’s listening to a song by Haven’s son Bud (Dave Peel), intently focusing on his soft singing until her attention is distracted by the arrival of Gould. Her concentration broken, she becomes nearly ecstatic, forgets about poor non-famous Bud entirely, and rushes over to hop around Gould like a hyperactive puppy. Opal might be British, but this kind of attitude, this obsession with fame and status and appearance, is one that Altman undoubtedly sees as distinctively American.
JB: What’s interesting about Opal is that she thinks of herself as a celebrity peer, even as she’s bowing down to them. She seems to think that by being around these stars she has somehow become one of them. She’s like someone you’d see performing interviews on the red carpet on Oscar night, expecting the stars to be just as excited to see her as she is to see them. She has sex with Tom, who clearly has no interest in her beyond getting himself off, but she treats their sexual encounter as if it’s a natural byproduct of the celebrity circle that she believes they both belong to. Because she has a microphone and because she works for the BBC, she doesn’t realize that she’s just a regular old groupie. Nothing more.
She’s also blind to the fact that Tom is deeply unhappy, and not just in a poetic, ballad-singer-job-requirement sort of way. In fairness, Opal doesn’t see enough of Tom that she should detect his unhappiness. But the point is that she can’t imagine that he could be unhappy, just like Connie can’t believe Julie Christie is famous because she doesn’t have the hairstyle of a beauty pageant contestant. Opal believes that the life of a celebrity must be unceasingly extraordinary, and yet she is blind to that fact the she’s part of the hype machine that has created that myth. In Opal’s mind, Elliott Gould must have a glamorous reason for being in Nashville, for example. This is a woman who tries to make a lot full of school buses exciting (“yellow dragons watching me with their hollow, vacant eyes”), yet she can’t spot her place in the celebrity machine. She can’t comprehend that she’s seeing these celebrities the way she wants to see them, because in enhancing their myths she enhances her own feelings of self-worth.
Nashville repeatedly shows that for all the attention we give to celebrities, and that celebrities give to themselves, the person beyond the hype is lost. Heck, the presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker never even shows himself. He’s faceless. Then there’s Tom, in love with a married woman and unable to let even her know how much. And of course there’s Barbara Jean. By the time she has her performance breakdown, there can be no doubt that her previous hospitalization must have been related to mental or emotional trauma, not a physical ailment. She’s a woman who is cracking, and while her husband certainly doesn’t look out for her best personal interests (more on him later, I hope), her fans don’t either. When she has a breakdown trying to perform, getting lost telling stories about her youth, the audience reacts not with sympathy for their beloved icon but with anger. Her job is to entertain them. That’s their reward for showing up at the airport, pretending to care about her well being when clearly they were just hoping to get close enough to catch a glimpse. Nashville demonstrates how we, the public, want to know everything we can about our celebrity heroes until we learn something that disappoints us. And then we hold them responsible.
EH: What I love about Altman’s approach to this subject is how thoroughly he strips away those illusions about celebrity, how completely he tears down the ideas about glamor and happiness and “extraordinary” lives—and not in a trashy behind-the-scenes tabloid way, either, but with a casual acknowledgement that celebrities are merely human. When Delbert (Ned Beatty) realizes that Elliott Gould is “somebody,” he falls all over himself apologizing for not treating him better; Del hadn’t actually been rude to Gould when he thought he was just some guy, but he hadn’t given him the red carpet treatment either. He’s apologizing for not treating Gould like a king, and Gould mumbles an embarrassed demurral: “I’m just like anybody else.” And that’s the point. That’s the point, also, of Barbara Jean’s breakdown, and of the scene where she sits in a darkened hospital room with Barnett, painting her toenails and getting angry at the radio when Connie comes on. It’s an intimate scene, stripped down, far away from the bustle of the Grand Ole Opry and the constant celebrity buzz that usually surrounds Barbara Jean even in the hospital. Instead, it’s simply a human moment, a moment of disconnection between a depressed wife and a callous husband, a moment of prosaic activity. When she’s not on stage—and often, even when she is—Barbara Jean is just like anybody else. That’s arguably what sets her apart from the other performers in the film, like Haven and Connie, who are constantly at least trying to maintain a persona.
The film is also very sharp in probing how celebrity is created and manufactured, how carefully the celebrity image is honed to present a certain impression. This applies especially to political celebrities. You say Walker is “faceless,” which is true, but his very anonymity allows him to present known faces and known names as surrogates, which is the whole idea behind the concert that Triplette’s putting together. At one point, someone looks at a poster of Connie bedecked with Walker slogans and cracks that Walker “looks just like Connie White!” It’s a funny comment on the way that famous faces become just so much fodder for marketing materials.
JB: It’s also another comment about how disinterested many Americans are about politics—the business end of it, as opposed to the theatrics. Speaking of that dichotomy, I suppose this is as good a time as any to loop back to discuss Barnett, Barbara Jean’s husband and manager. We’ve both been critical of him, but I wanted to spend a moment to argue in his defense. Because while it can safely be said that Barnett puts more effort into his role as manager than his role as husband, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he “only cares about making money off of [Barbara Jean’s] career, even at the expense of her health.” As professionally focused as he is and as cold as he can be to Barbara Jean in terms of what you might expect from a marriage, he’s actually quite protective of her. He’s simply protecting her career more than her sanity.
I know that sounds unforgivable, but what evidence do we have that their marriage is anything more than a business relationship? When do we see Barbara Jean treat Barnett the way we’d expect a wife to treat a husband? Instead, she’s a child, and he’s in the role of the stage-managing parent. It isn’t pretty, and Barnett certainly isn’t to be admired for his callousness, but I think the Barnett-Barbara Jean relationship isn’t there to illustrate his corruption but to point out the corruption of the celebrity system—a game in which even mental illness must be ignored if one hopes to stay on top. If we see the marriage of Barnett and Barbara Jean as a manager-client relationship, his dogged efforts to keep her performing are, in a strange way, acts of caring. His job is to protect her career, and he sees her celebrity as the most important thing worth protecting—for her as much as him. The tragedy, as we’ve mentioned before, is that Barbara Jean has no one close to her who cares about the woman beyond the celebrity.
What’s most distasteful about Barnett, to me, isn’t his condescending treatment of Barbara Jean, which is somewhat offset by his overall concern. It’s the way he’s constantly huffing and puffing about the demands placed on him as manager. Like Opal, he wants to make himself seem as important as the celebrities around him. And like almost everyone in this film, he deems the suffering of others to be an inconvenience for him.
EH: Yes, if there’s a dominant trait shared by many of these characters, it’s definitely selfishness. The film is structured by different stories interlocking, by the characters crossing paths in a single city, but despite that there are very few moments of genuine empathy between two people. Wade (Robert DoQui) comforting and advising Sueleen after her disastrous humiliation as a stripper is perhaps the most prominent example. He’s honest and direct with her, knowing that she’s on a path towards inevitable ruin. He clearly cares about her and doesn’t want to see her get hurt, so he has the courage to tell her a possibly hurtful truth that she nevertheless needs to hear. That kind of human warmth and selflessness is so rare in this film that it’s startling when two characters actually connect beyond a superficial level. For the most part, these people are utterly wrapped up in themselves: even the soldier, one of the more sympathetic characters, is so excited about going to see Barbara Jean sing that he completely overlooks the grief of Mr. Green, with whom he’d formed a bit of companionship previously.
People often sum up the “network narrative” approach to storytelling as being about multiple characters coming together, crossing paths, their separate lives intersecting. The idea is that our lives are connected to the lives of others, that we’re not alone; that’s certainly one point of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, probably the best homage to Altman’s ensemble pieces. But in Nashville, most of these characters never intersect with others in any meaningful way. Even in crowds, they’re always alone. The extent of the interactions between separate stories within the film is thus limited to a walk-on part in the background or a brief moment of superficial conversation. As often as these characters show up in the same places—and within the same frame—they seldom go further than simply existing in the same physical space.
One intersection that initially seems like it’s going to be deeper than that is the relationship between folk singer Tom and gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin), who’s married to Delbert and is raising two deaf children pretty much by herself, since Del seems frankly baffled by the complicated gestures of sign language. Throughout the film, Tom continually hounds Linnea by telephone, suggesting that they get together, and it’s obvious from his persistence that she’s not just another conquest like Opal or even his bandmate Mary (Christina Raines). Then Linnea goes to see him perform and he sings a song seemingly meant just for her—even though most of the other women in the bar assume it’s intended for them. But when Linnea leaves him after the sex, Tom makes a big show of calling another girlfriend before she’s even left, trying to hurt her. Linnea barely flinches; one gets the feeling that she wasn’t there for Tom so much as the excitement of being pursued and desired again.
There’s so much rich subtext flowing through these scenes, because even though this is a familiar story—the neglected wife, the ladies’ man who unexpectedly falls in love and doesn’t know how to deal with it—Altman doesn’t allow the characters to be mere clichés. Instead, Delbert isn’t a jerk so much as he is in over his head; he genuinely doesn’t get his wife’s connection to their kids, and feels lost whenever he tries to follow one of these “conversations” that take place half in sign language and half in garbled speech. There’s even something moving about the way Altman captures the confused, nervous expression on his face whenever he’s with his kids; it’s hard not to feel for this simple guy who doesn’t know how to talk to his own children, or his wife for that matter. Tom, for his part, tries to maintain the façade of his philandering ways, but it comes off as hollow since he can’t hide how much Linnea means to him. And Linnea, who seems so fragile and shy, turns out to be capable of hardness and forcefulness in leaving Tom; she basically uses him for a night of fun, a chance to feel wanted, but she never intends to make it more than that. The whole scenario is a very clever subversion of expectations about this kind of melodramatic subplot, suggesting a grand romance only to offer up more sexual exploitation and confused feelings.
JB: The scenes you point out are indeed very clever, but I suppose it’s time we get to this: I don’t find this to be a particularly stimulating film. More on that in a second. First, let me go back to the “I’m Easy” concert performance, because it is the first of several captivating scenes that close out the film. Tom’s supposed ode to Linnea is at once simple and complex, both straightforward and ambiguous. When he announces that he’s singing a song he wrote for someone in the audience, we know that several women will assume ownership of the dedication. Only the equally moronic Opal and L.A. Joan could think the song is for them after their one-night-stands, and of course they do, both of them barely trying to hide their smiles. Then there’s Mary, looking both scared and sad, maybe because she thinks the lyrics are for her and fears that her husband will read between the lines, or maybe because she’s so desperately in love with Tom and knows deep down that his heart lies elsewhere. And finally there’s Linnea, who Altman repeatedly finds in the back of the room, statue-still, hidden behind the heads of the crowd. Linnea hardly seems to breathe. Is she overwhelmed by her feelings for Tom or just his feelings for her? Is she imagining what her life might be like if she wasn’t a mother with so much responsibility? Is she simply in shock? It’s hard to say. A few scenes later, Linnea and Tom are in bed, and their relationship is intimate and tender but it’s hardly sexual, even though they’ve clearly just had sex. Linnea looks at him almost with a mother’s eyes. And what Tom sees in her we can’t begin to guess. Maybe he keeps advancing simply because she keeps retreating. Or maybe he really does feel “easy” in her presence. Regardless, it’s fitting that Linnea gets up to leave Tom’s bed right as his recording of “I’m Easy” stops playing in the background. For her, their relationship is a fantasy. It’s a love song—intense but fleeting.
I love those scenes. Tragic though it is, I love the moment between those scenes when Sueleen is forced to strip for applause and a chance to sing with her idol. I love the frenzy of the concert at the Parthenon, both before the assassin fires and afterward. But otherwise Nashville leaves me rather cold. In one of her most famous raves, Pauline Kael called it “an orgy for movie lovers—but an orgy without excess.” She wrote, “It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over; you take it with you.” Frankly, I don’t know what she’s talking about. Beyond its final act, or maybe I should say final third, because Nashville certainly doesn’t follow a typical dramatic arc, I find the film all too easy to ignore. Altman frequently captures his subjects in long shots that prevent us from looking too deeply into these characters, and his famous overlapping dialogue often seems more noisome than symphonic. His film is interesting to dissect, as we’ve already demonstrated, but I don’t find it especially rewarding. In fact, sometimes I get the distinct impression that it’s just wasting time.
EH: Well, the thing is: sometimes it is just wasting time. It’s often said about filmmakers, as high praise, that not a moment is wasted in their work, but I don’t think that really applies to Altman—or, indeed, to many other filmmakers I love, among them Jacques Rivette, John Cassavetes, BÈla Tarr, Maurice Pialat and Altman’s obvious influence, Howard Hawks. What these directors, so different in so many ways, have in common is a willingness to spend time watching something that doesn’t have an obvious “point,” something that simply is. I actually have a lot of admiration for directors who aren’t afraid to meander, to observe rather than dictate. Maybe I don’t quite share Kael’s enthusiasm for this film—it doesn’t overwhelm me as it obviously did her—but in contrast to you I find it an endlessly rewarding, stimulating film, a film that just keeps revealing more depths the more I watch and think about it. If Altman’s film is full of individual moments that might seem pointless or excessive in isolation, they cumulatively add up to something that’s rich and complex and multi-faceted, that has all sorts of things to say about politics, relationships, show business and America.
What characterizes Nashville for me is Altman’s keen sense of observation. It’s fitting that we keep returning to scenes, to individual moments, because the film is structured very episodically, as a series of pointillist details. Some of these details are fascinating, others maybe aren’t. There are scenes I find tiresome, like the parts of the picnic sequence that don’t involve Opal or Elliott Gould. There are, as I’d like to get to later, some musical numbers that I have problems with. There are moments that don’t really go anywhere, and I’m not sure I get the point of Jeff Goldblum’s near-silent biker. So it’s ironic that Kael claims the film is “without excess,” since excess might just be its defining characteristic. It’s flabby, it’s messy, it’s uneven. It sometimes could be accused of wasting time, or at least spending time on things that might not be strictly necessary.
I can see why that would be frustrating for some, but then that looseness kind of comes with the territory when you’re watching an Altman film. I appreciate his sensibility because he’s so open to letting his characters simply be themselves rather than forcing them into a plot; they all wind up where they’re supposed to be at the end, of course, but I think it’s to Altman’s credit that they seem to have wandered there of their own accord rather than being moved along by the demands of plot. His improvisatory approach leaves plenty of room for diversions, for small character insights, for the kinds of revealing, psychologically probing scenes we’ve been talking about all through this conversation. If the film is on occasion less than enthralling, it is at other points virtually overflowing with wit, passion and emotional complexity. At one point, Haven’s mistress Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), over the course of a lengthy conversation with a flustered Opal, nearly breaks down as she remembers the Kennedy brothers and the extreme disillusionment she felt in the wake of their assassinations. It’s the kind of masterful, layered moment (and there are many of them) that, for me, justifies the film’s meanderings.
JB: In principle, meandering is certainly justifiable. There’s something to be said for allowing the drama to breathe. In our conversation about Quentin Tarantino we discussed his habit of slowing the drama to an almost painful degree so as to heighten the impact of his film’s explosive moments. In Tarantino films, the payoff is usually a burst of action—the car chase in Death Proof or the exchange of bullets in the tavern sequence of Inglourious Basterds, to name just two. With Nashville, Altman operates much the same way, albeit with dramatic elements that are more subdued. The performance of “I’m Easy” is so profoundly moving precisely because it comes late in the movie and directly follows one among the handful of performances that isn’t particularly evocative of the film’s themes. When Tom starts playing his guitar, we settle in for Yet Another Song, only to be blown away by all that follows in that scene—far more “drama,” if you will, than during any other performance. A short while later, Altman lulls us to sleep again with Barbara Jean’s performance at the Parthenon, which brings a calm that’s then shattered by the assassin’s bullet. In that way, Nashville’s meandering is effective, and I wouldn’t begin to pretend otherwise.
But at the same time I’m flummoxed when some cinephiles praise a director’s “willingness to spend time watching something that doesn’t have an obvious ‘point,’” to borrow your phrase. Because, to play with the semantics a bit, what you’re praising is pointlessness, and how is that a good thing? I want to be clear that I’m not arguing with some fundamentalist’s love of plot and efficiency. I do appreciate films that are rather loose around the edges. I endorse the notion of filmmakers taking risks and of observing mundane acts as if they are profound (because often they can be). Every film doesn’t need a ticking time bomb providing a sense of urgency. Still, sometimes the praise for or defense of these entirely unnecessary and unproductive bits of filler—the Jeff Goldblum character is a particularly good example—seems misguided. To my ear, there’s frequently an anti-establishment ring to such arguments, a sense that Altman is sticking it to the (Hollywood) man by refusing to play by the “rules.” But there’s a contradiction in that. If there are no rules, or shouldn’t be, then Altman isn’t such a maverick after all. When a scene in Nashville stretches on beyond any usefulness, I don’t see anything particularly brave about that (which isn’t to imply that it’s cowardly), nor do I immediately assume that there is depth to be found in the emptiness. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that while some of Nashville’s meandering does have a cumulative effect that we might not feel in our immediate exposure to it, I’m suspicious whenever I feel like meaninglessness and even tedium is presented as worthwhile art. Maybe this is subjective, but I want a film filled with images selected by the director with a “why” in mind, not a “why not.”
EH: Those are some strong words there. I should be clear that, though not every scene or character in Nashville moves or interests me equally, I think Nashville as a whole is one of Altman’s masterworks. The lulls in the film, the supposedly wasted time you’re complaining about, represent moments when we’re allowed to settle into the rhythms of these characters’ lives: We watch Linnea conversing through sign language with her kids, or everyone going to their churches of choice for Sunday Mass, or Sueleen stuffing her bra while she rehearses, or Tom’s limo driver goofing around on a borrowed guitar. Are these scenes strictly necessary? Not really, not in the sense of adding significantly to the film’s themes or plot. If you were so inclined, you could probably cut all the scenes I just mentioned and the film’s “point” would remain unchanged. But its feel, its texture, would be altered—and for the worse, in my opinion.
The sprawl and supposed “waste” of Altman’s filmmaking is essential to the mood he creates. Daily life is sprawling, daily life is full of moments that don’t neatly tie together with everything else. It’s the richness of the detail in Altman’s films that sets them apart from those of other, more conventional directors. His refusal to play by the rules isn’t just a hollow rebellious stance, as you imply; it’s a deeply considered aesthetic choice that stems from his conviction that the mundane matters as much as things that might more obviously be deemed meaningful. I think it’s a big mistake to assume, from the looseness of Altman’s storytelling, that he has a “why not” approach, as though he doesn’t think about what’s in his films. That’s a pretty common assumption about Altman—most annoyingly put forward by Richard Schickel—and it’s frustrating because it’s so clearly remote from the experience of the films themselves. Altman’s films are densely detailed; his ensemble pieces, especially, are textural rather than narrative, with each brushstroke, no matter how seemingly incidental, contributing to the bigger picture.
Again and again, in throwaway details and brief scenes, Altman probes these characters, telling their stories as often as not beneath the surface, in the expressions on their faces, their subtle body language and gestures, and even the songs they sing. You earlier suggested that “Since You’ve Gone,” the song sung by Tom, Bill (Allan Nicholls) and Mary prior to “I’m Easy,” was simply “Yet Another Song,” but actually it’s yet another case of Altman using the film’s music to tell stories and explore the emotions of the characters. It’s a lost-love ballad, and Altman of course focuses on Mary, pointedly directing the words at Tom, who’s totally ignoring her. After a while, Altman even narrows the frame so that Mary’s oblivious husband Bill is cut out of the picture entirely, and the song’s lyrics about heartache are framed as Mary’s poignant, doomed attempt to communicate the extent of her love to Tom. It’s especially great when juxtaposed against the next scene, in which Tom more successfully sings his love to Linnea from across the room; Mary and Tom are standing right next to each other but seem to be in separate worlds, while Linnea and Tom are somehow linked from a distance. Maybe an even better example of the film’s attention to detail: Tom disdainfully throwing Mary’s sweater to her as she leaves the stage, the kind of gestural touch that works as an exclamation point to the sequence’s portrayal of shattered relationships. If you’re flummoxed by those who praise Altman’s wanderings, I’m even more flummoxed by those who don’t see that his laissez faire methods actually yield so much depth and complexity that it can’t possibly be accidental.
JB: But, see, “Since You’ve Gone” isn’t that deep or complex. The truth is, Mary looks at Tom only a few moments more than she looks at her husband Bill. Mostly she just stares off into the distance. And just when the scene starts to feel poignant, Altman pulls back and then cuts away, to Wade’s obnoxious singing in the back and to Opal being Opal. So what we’ve really got is a standard love ballad that we can easily attach to the love triangle we’re already aware of. Deep? Complex? Hardly. Mary is a singer owning her song. I see little in the way Altman presents this performance that suggests this song absolutely owns her, the way that the lyrics of “I’m Easy” seem to own Tom. Heck, Lloyd Dobler has more conviction when he holds a boombox over his head in Say Anything….
Having said that, it’s by no means “accidental” that Mary is singing about, of all things, a broken heart. But in that scene, like others, Altman thwarts our ability to connect. Earlier in the film, Lady Pearl’s heartfelt reminiscing over John F. Kennedy is one of the few times we’re allowed to look one of the characters in the eye. Usually, as during much of “Since You’ve Gone,” Altman captures characters from an angle or from a distance, cutting away at every opportunity, faithful to a fault to his code of chaos. The overlapping soundtracks add to the aloofness and the sense that the milieu is more important than anything that happens within it. In recent years many (but certainly not all) cinephiles have objected to the rapid-cut style of Paul Greengrass or to the 3-D experimentations of films like Avatar on the grounds that they are either gimmicky or assaultive or both. But Altman is playing much of the same game in Nashville, refusing to let us focus, implying that the noise of humanity is more interesting than any of the individual voices that create it. Paul Thomas Anderson is noted for making Altmanesque films, but his ensemble pictures like Boogie Nights and Magnolia are far more surgical.
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.
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 Barbra 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.
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