director Robert Altman
You know, I like me my Robert Altman. Namely Thieves Like Us (1974) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), though the latter has been some years since I’ve seen it. I also recall liking The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) at the time that I saw them, but again, it’s been a long while. But I’d never seen Nashville, which I think many consider his best film. And as part of my rigor for the movie-going year of 2014, I decided to watch it finally.
And I don’t think I really liked it.
Though it’s slowly growing on me.
The film became a template of sorts for Altman, this decentralized, sprawling cross-section of a time and place and the people therein. With no main character, each actor is given a role and freedom and plays throughout, crossing over scenes, overlapping dialogues, giving glimpses at a big picture while giving room for each individual story and character. It’s always struck me as the kind of film that is a lot of fun to participate in but maybe not so much to watch. And maybe I am more jaded that I saw versions of this in films like Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter (1994), Kansas City (1996) and finally in A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
In the beginning of Nashville, I saw this same style playing out and I didn’t see it being any more successful or appealing. An example of this is the character, Opal, played by Geraldine Chaplin. She’s everywhere in the film as a connective device, not a main character, nor a deep one. One made more for comic relief in her inane interviewing questions and shallow interpretations of everything. I found her tedious and annoying. Which could be said for the stray entrances of a number of other characters.
Some are serious, some are purely comic, some get to do both. It just feels sloppy. I know that the intended aesthetic and style is haphazard, or at least is meant to feel that way. It just oddly feels contrived as well to me. It’s all a bunch of actors playing characters, obviously playing characters, not real.
Ironically, the film’s greatest power for me was in its capturing of a moment and a place. The Nashville of 1975 does get a lot of physical screen time, the people in the crowds, the fashions, the atmosphere. And secondly the music. The music is quite good.
The film, beyond being a progenitor of Altman’s later works, also feels like it’s infused in aspects of Christopher Guest’s films, particularly perhaps, A Mighty Wind (2003) and vaguely even in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), these films that deal with music and musicians, but have crafted their own music and characters, partially in parody partially in homage.
But it’s one of the other weird problems I had with Nashville. The film omits all real musicians of the time and place. Altman sort of laughed about it, suggesting that they all just wanted coverage or financial motive. The fact is that this is an outsider’s take on that Nashville. As much of a time and place capture of Nashville in the mid-1970’s, it’s also a complete concoction. If you are indeed capturing a time and place like this, it’s almost absurd to omit the true players who are not at all insignificant. It seems to want to capture the zeitgeist and hit the right chords in its own inventions about the time and place. And so in that way it kind of shortchanges its “verity”, if you will, in its power to capture that.
And yet, it also succeeds, I suppose. The more I sit with it, the more certain scenes and moments linger, fester, find a place within me.
I guess the big upshot about it is that I didn’t at all love Nashville and it’s made me re-think these other ensemble-style films, what makes them work or makes them not work. At least for me. I guess as well that I can see parts of what make Nashville such a significant film in other ways. I’m not discrediting it. I’m just saying that I didn’t care for it. It will probably continue to work on me. But I will say that it’s the first of these significant films that I’m watching this year that I have never before seen that I didn’t really like. And that was a surprise.