Nashville, Robert Altman’s masterpiece, is not only the triumph of his long and distinguished career, but it stands proudly as one of cinema’s finest achievements; a film so rich, layered, and insightful that it might stand as a primer for understanding the American character. Having seen this film at least five times, I’m only now coming to terms with its brilliance, and even a snippet on late-night cable is enough to reinforce every suspicion I had about its timeless appeal. Many films claim to be the Great American Story, but only Nashville achieves that end through indirection and a defiantly non-narrative spirit. There is little doubt that the interlocking stories, musical numbers, and haunting finale are meant to expose, indict, examine, and reveal, but as these are human beings as we find them — not ready-made symbols of heavy-handed instruction (think of last year’s overrated Crash, for example) — one could easily miss the point entirely, which is perfectly acceptable from Altman’s point of view. After all, there are as many interpretations of Nashville as there are viewers (and reviewers), and while some discussions might be more rewarding than others, the film is structured in such a fashion as to avoid strict, dichotomous thinking. Any filmmaker that refuses to provide a clear motivation for the film’s most notable act, for example, is one who believes wholeheartedly that the best cinema is that which forces us to pursue truth, even if the questions are more readily available (and vital) than the answers.
Quite literally, Nashville is a snapshot of America at a particular time and place; where all of us are so consumed by the lust for fame and “our due” that we’ve lost the ability to discern genuine talent and accomplishment from mere effort (and desire). Most of the celebrities we meet on our journey are second-rate at best, and only longevity grants them a continued presence in the spotlight. Show after show, bit after bit, we witness appalling mediocrity; some voices so off-key and ear-splitting that we wonder how they fill a single seat. But they are survivors, and because their names ring with familiarity, no one has the courage to say what many are no doubt thinking — that these people need to give up on their dreams and return to washing dishes and waiting tables. But as they’ve gone so long with applause ringing in their ears, it would be shocking effrontery to call them out at this late date. The years where they’ve gone undetected have produced a self-satisfaction that bleeds quite easily into entitlement, where even a chorus of boos would be attributed to an abnormally hostile crowd (or even a conspiracy of sorts) rather than having any genuine connection to the performance. Take Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), for example, the grand-daddy of the Nashville scene; a man so secure with his position that he’s untroubled by his short stature and embarrassingly obvious hairpiece. His gaudy attire also speaks to his status as a man having little trouble with ego. And take his most revealing scene: the party at his estate (or as he puts it, dripping with phony populism, his “humble home”). Attempting to deal with the obnoxiously starstruck BBC reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), he lectures her with quiet condescension, as well as reminding her of his place in the social pecking order. Haven corrects her for fawning so childishly in front of “a star” (we think he’s referring to a nearby Elliot Gould), but only after being reminded of guest Gould’s presence does he correct himself — “two stars.” It’s a small moment, likely improvised, but by adding two short words, we are brought inside his mammoth self-importance as definitively as anything ever could.
As expected, throwaway lines make this picture a blissful experience, as we listen intently for revelations that the characters themselves may not realize have been unfurled. Here, the most unsung individual is driver Wade Cooley (Robert DoQui), a man who, given his position, sees behind the illusions, but as he isn’t on-stage talent, goes largely ignored. Still, he’s the only one who tells deluded wannabe Sueleen that she can’t sing a lick. She won’t listen, of course, which is even more infuriating after her humiliating experience at the fundraiser for unseen presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker, where she reluctantly does a striptease because she’s assessed by the crowd as having nothing else to offer (and they’re right). He also stumbles drunkenly into a performance by Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown), a black man singing truly awful tunes that, for all the dignity they allow him, might as well be minstrels. Wade hurls insults from his table, and as he’s being escorted from the building, shouts, “That’s the whitest black man I’ve ever seen.” We’ve seen nothing up to this point that would point to Tommy’s mistreatment at the hands of his white constituents, but then we remember the gathering at the race track, where Haven — amidst noise and confusion so as not to be obvious (Altman never drives anything home so much as tucks it under our skin where it will fester and boil long after the film is over) — hands Tommy a slice of watermelon. The gesture is likely benign, but much more pointed than if any number of characters had called him a nigger.
The central figure in this parade of performances is Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a neurotic mess of a woman who is so child-like as to be confused for an idiot-savant. She’s managed to the hilt by her unfeeling husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), a man who’d rather have an easily manipulated China doll than a wife, which makes him less a heel than all-too-typical of a large segment of the male persuasion. She’s the top talent and most beloved star in Nashville, and in many ways the most authentic, as she clearly believes in what she’s singing. In fact, she identifies so closely with her music that she can’t live normally when not before idolizing fans. Needless to say, she breaks down several times in the course of the film, which is just fine for those seeking to replace her at the top of the charts. Her most jealous rival, Connie White (Karen Black), establishes her loathing in another scene of subtle power, when Barnett brings her a gift from Barbara Jean, who is resting in the hospital. With the table abuzz with gossip and excitement, Connie ignores the handout without being obvious about the intent. This scene is once again stolen by Haven, who, having met Julie Christie (playing herself, like Gould), says of her, “Why she’s won an Academy Award….I don’t know for what….” Again, Haven has no real idea who this woman is, but once he knows that she’s been confirmed as a star, she possesses a level of importance that would otherwise go unnoticed. In Haven’s world, one’s resume is all the information he’ll ever need; it’s a worldview where an over-hyped statuette is more powerful than a lifetime of good works. In his mind, her fame is the ultimate “good work”.
And yet, with all the fine performances and revealing interactions — from Ned Beatty, Scott Glenn, Keenan Wynn, Shelley Duvall, Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, and Michael Murphy, among others — they are but pieces in a larger, more substantive work. As well-defined as all of them are (Altman is practically alone in being able to define a full-blooded character with a single line, or even simple body language), they do not merely bounce off each other without purpose, simply for our casual amusement. Instead, Altman seeks to portray powerlessness as a concept, if not the central element of our lives. Sure, he includes alienation from the political process as part of this vision (why else have a presidential candidate who speaks of nothing in the affirmative, but only what he opposes, as in the Replacement Party?), but even more harrowing is the notion that we are so detached from our identities that we haven’t a clue how to proceed unless spoon-fed cues by an ever-complicit media culture. As such, we have become artificial, inhuman creatures lacking spontaneity and the very essence of our alleged “free will.” It’s the old story of how we’ll do ourselves harm just to feel alive; and even then we’re not sure where we stand.
Passivity, then, defines us throughout of dizzying spin about the globe, and as committed observers, we’d rather not be left with the messy process of interpretation. We crave order, predictability, and the absolute, hence our affinity for spiritual salves for the wounds that confuse us. Only an utterly baffled, scared-shitless beast such as man would have to leave the bounds of reality to invent stories for his existence, rather than being satisfied with the observable. Sure, this speaks to the narrative fixation that seems built into our very DNA, but the evolving brain has ensured that at some point, we would have the tools to separate the fictional from the decidedly real. Instead, we’ve chosen to ignore hundreds of thousands of years of innovation, advancement, and investigation and in many ways, live according to precepts, rules, and tales that differ little from the fables of the ancient world. The natural world — observable through the scientific method and rigorous standards of evidence — has been used to be sure, but only as a tool to be shelved when faced with the comforting tones of superstition. We’re very happy to exploit the vast body of knowledge that has been simultaneously opposed throughout its growth process for assorted comforts, but once we feel that we’re beyond its influence, we once again retreat to the mindlessness of traditional remedies. Despite calls to the contrary, then, passivity and powerlessness are not products of faith, but are rather faith itself, and mankind ceases to be noble at the precise moment it surrenders its sovereignty to the unknowable.
What on earth does this have to do with Nashville? Everything, of course, as nearly everyone we meet — especially the pained assassin we come to know quite well at the film’s conclusion — is a true believer in the religious sense of the word. In defiance of all logic, evidence, and pure reason, they pursue what they are patently unfit to accomplish because they have come to believe the big lie that surrounds us from cradle to grave: that we can impact the world through guts, determination, and sheer grit. The world assures us that we have value, but at no point do we have anything tangible to prove that this is so. The more we subscribe to this illusion, the harder the fall when we fail to discover that in fact, we are mere pawns in a game that can have us replaced without anyone being the wiser. More than that, there are no guarantees save death. Consider the loner assassin in this light: forget that clues are left dangling that he might have mother issues, or is perhaps impotent. These are red herrings Altman is more than happy to give us, considering that he knows upon completion of his crime, we’ll likely ask, “why?” No answer would be sufficient, of course, but given that he eyes the wind-swept American flag mere seconds before pulling the trigger — and during the completion of a song that speaks to a particularly vile form of the American myth, that of small town innocence — we can conclude that the murder is committed because the assassin has failed to reach the heights promised by that tri-color symbol of the limitless. And by taking Barbara Jean’s life, he is not only forever attaching his own identity to hers (much in the way that Mark David Chapman would with John Lennon), but “killing” the very idea that America can live up to its bargain. Barbara Jean is the mythical incarnate — even she can no longer distinguish between her lyrics and her real life — and for that, she must be blasted out of existence as a way to bring the lot of us back to a grounded reality.
But Altman being Altman, the seemingly senseless act of violence does not in fact recharge the American spirit and get us to see things clearly for the first time. Instead, the terrifically untalented Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is led to the stage (only after Haven lets us know that, “this isn’t Dallas, this is Nashville,” once again solidifying his — and our — notion that the killing of a president is no different than the killing of an entertainer) to calm the crowd with the song “It Don’t Worry Me.” What an appropriate selection, after all, for if the lyrics “You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me” don’t define the American experience, what on earth ever could? We crave security, not freedom, and as with all of history, recent events prove conclusively that when faced with this false choice, we happily grant it reality and choose to sacrifice liberty for the promise of stability. “It don’t worry us” because we never cared to begin with, and when it comes down to it, being held accountable for genuine, unencumbered freedom is too terrifying to contemplate. We want to be led, to be defined, and if need be, rocked to sleep with mindless entertainment by folks we need to believe are just like us. It’s how we want our leaders to be, after all, for what is a surer sign of defeat than a candidate’s demonstration of superiority? You’re smarter, more attractive, in possession of a greater wit? Then you have no place in the American system, friend. And even if we cannot be these things, never, ever prove to us that they are not attainable. We might in fact be the hollow men, but that’s how we want it. And over thirty years after Nashville gave us the post mortem, we’re still picking at the decayed flesh of our own corpse, hoping that eventually, we’ll find that long ago promised silver lining.