Altman's expansive tapestry Nashville extrapolates the macro from the micro
In the middle of a 1975 interview included on Criterion’s new release of Robert Altman’s Nashville, the director was asked by a capable interviewer which new filmmakers he found the most promising. His answer: “There’s a new guy named Martin Scorsese who is great, and Ingmar Bergman from Sweden.” He says this twice, completely deadpan, giving no indication that his response is wry. Altman himself wasn’t always the best interview subject as he was often laconic, with this response exemplifying the wit that became one of his trademarks.
Obviously by this point Bergman was well established as one of cinema’s most internationally renowned directors, a peer to whom Altman undoubtedly looked up. As the session proceeds it becomes clear that the interviewer is something of a cinephile (fawning over some of Altman’s smaller works like the fantastic Images and Brewster McCloud), a fact which gains Altman’s attention. After this he’s more forthcoming and lax, spouting insight left and right about what makes him tick and how he created the sprawling epic of Americana that Nashville turned out to be.
With his singular and innovative style, Altman is often categorized as one of cinema’s true auteurs, a label he patently rejected. In that same interview, Altman shrugs off the notion that this or any film is shepherded strictly from a directorial vision, discarding the then-popular “auteur theory” by praising the actors and writers as the primary creative forces in an inherently collaborative process. He’s clearly selling his wholly unique vision a bit short, but it’s this type of paternal instinct that led Lily Tomlin (presumably among others) to call him “big daddy” on the set. She divulges this, alongside cast members Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakely, and Nashville’s writer Joan Tewksbury in a new hour-long documentary on the making of the film included in Criterion’s outstanding release.
After a massive hit (M.A.S.H.) and a few commercial flops (Thieves Like Us, Brewster McCloud), Altman was finally given a reasonable budget ($1.9 million) and carte blanche by a studio to make a film the way he wanted, which means final cut approval. The result is this 1975 masterpiece, quite probably Altman’s best film, and one of the best films by an American in the ‘70s (or ever?).
It was a particularly fertile time for American filmmaking, the zeitgeist of which helped make Nashville possible. This cinematic heyday was known by many as the “New Hollywood” period, one that began roughly in the late ‘60s with Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate and continued successfully into the ‘70s with Lumet, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Altman (Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is often attributed with the end of this era due to its huge budget and commercial failure). Characteristic of this time is financially successful adult fare supported by the studio system, the kinds of films that are finding somewhat of a renaissance themselves: In 2012 alone, Argo, Lincoln, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Magic Mike, Zero Dark Thirty, and Flight all made close to or in excess of $100 million domestically.
What is there to say about Nashville nearly 40 years on that hasn’t already been said? The film is a microcosm of America set in one of its very specific milieus. Nashville the metropolis is of course most famous for its country music output, an industry which allowed Altman to extrapolate in broad terms on the ways in which the city is a symbol for the American dream and all of its attendant exhilarating highs and heartbreaking lows. In his singular way, Altman infers the macro from the micro, highlighting dialogue and scenarios that may at first seem tangential but which become primary once the film’s scope ingrains itself.
As in any Altman ensemble, no one character is a definitive lead, and in Nashville that is most gloriously the case. There’s Winifred (Barbara Harris), an industrious aspiring singer, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a naïve waitress-turned-aspiring singer, and “L.A. Jones”(Shelley Duvall), a hippie transplanted onto the scene, all fresh and looking to make a name for themselves, contrasted with Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) and Connie White (Karen Black), both successful country singers. Through each of their stories of fame or their search for it, they come into contact with locals like Linnea (Lily Tomlin), a church gospel singer, and her husband Del (Ned Beatty), a local organizer for the Hal Phillip Walker political campaign. Ostensibly disconnected subplots are interwoven through Opal (the unheralded genius Geraldine Chaplin), a faux BBC journalist whose ubiquitous presence serves as comedic narrative connectivity.
Politics and art collide in Altman’s dense tapestry, showing that part of American’s beguiling promise is the inevitability of commodification. Manifested through his unique shooting and sound design in which every cast member is mic-ready, Altman’s innovative techniques immerse the viewer into an expansive universe rather than a confined situation. This forced the often improvisational acting and dialogue (actors often wrote their own dialogue the day before shooting a scene) to be on point at all times.
The film was famously trashed by locals upon release, who no doubt saw the critically acclaimed result as a big city liberal’s satire of small town life and industry, but this glib interpretation mistakes Altman’s motives as churlish when in fact his affinity for the characters is evident throughout. It’s true that he may be satirizing the country’s political climate of the time (Hal Phillip Walker is absent throughout), but the film’s empathically planted in the tragedy and success of its characters and criticizes the ways in which paradigmatic elements adversely affect those people. If anything, Nashville is ultimately a populist work, and has been reevaluated as such in the decades since its debut.