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.