Jan 12, 2012

An Education: Nashville

Dir: Robert Altman

Why is it on the syllabus?
Because Robert Altman is one of the cornerstones, one of the major forces in American cinema, and one of the people who brought a daring independent sensibility to major studio films. He also pioneered a way of working, with a roving camera, naturalistic performances and multi-tracked dialogue that not only allowed him to brilliantly marshal huge casts, but also continues to influence filmmakers to this day. Nashville is continually mentioned as one of his most uncompromising and best films.

What did I learn?
That you CAN fit ten hours worth of material into a 159 minute film. I've found Altman hit (Short Cuts, Three Women) and miss (Popeye, Dr T and the Women, Cookie's Fortune), but when he's on song, it really is a joy. Nashville may be the best I've seen from his extensive filmography, it is an astonishing technical achievement, but more importantly it's riveting throughout, engaging us in an incredible patchwork of moments; snapshots from the lives of 24 different people.

There are many things to love about Nashville, but perhaps the thing that makes it truly great is the simple fact that I would quite happily watch a film about all 24 of its major characters. I'd love to spend two hours with Shelley Duvall's LA Joan, whose outgoing exterior seems to mask a real sadness and loneliness. It would be fascinating to spend an extended time exploring the home life of Delbert (Ned Beatty), Linnea (Lily Tomlin) and their two deaf kids; to see the story behind and before Mr Green's (Keenan Wynn) trips to see his beloved wife in the hospital; to find out more about the relationship between Wade (Robert DoQui) and terrible country singer Sueleen (Gwen Welles); to discover the origins of the rivalry between Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) and Connie White (Karen Black) and so, so much more. There's so much here I almost wish Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury had turned it into a TV series.

The structure of the film is intriguing. It begins in tiny, mosaic like pieces, with Altman capturing multitudes of characters, each engaged in their own little moments in a single place, be it an airport as Barbara Jean touches down, the traffic snarl created by a major car accident or people milling around at the hospital, for the first 45 minutes or so the film barely sits still, and develops an on the fly feel as it freewheels along, dipping into people's lives, sometimes only for a sentence or two at a time. As little as you actually see and hear of each story, these snatched moments of time feel real and intimate, and that's why Nashville ends up being so affecting, and often very funny.

As the characters become more established the film begins to pick a few to turn a sharper focus on, while never losing sight of anyone. Chunks of story become longer, and characters begin to cross over in bigger and more meaningful ways. Country stars, aspiring singers, fans, housewives and politicians all cross paths and purposes, leading to some ambitiously staged scenes that inform several stories at once. One good example is in a club where Keith Carradine, as a member of a pop-country trio who has been avoiding his bandmates all week (despite also carrying on an affair with the female singer (Cristina Raines)) who is married to his other bandmate (Alan Nicholls), performs a song from the solo album he's working on, and at least four women in the audience (Duvall, Raines, Tomlin and a BBC journalist played by Geraldine Chaplin) think he wrote it for them. This scene plays out almost as a large scale version of the record booth scene in Before Sunrise, with each woman receiving the song silently, but with clearly different emotions, only one of them aware of any of the others. It's a complex piece of drama, playing out five stories subtly over the length of one three minute pop song.

Of course, complexity, both at a narrative and a technical level, is Nashville's stock in trade. The editing is extraordinary. Picture editing is one thing, a clearly massive job brilliantly done by Dennis Hill and Sidney Levin, but the sound editing and mixing is the film's make or break masterpiece. So much of Nashville hinges on snatches of conversation, on what we hear front and centre, on what we barely hear. Music maybe the film's main preoccupation, but the soundtrack is much more textured and complex than that; even during the numbers we'll often hear other characters, whether offscreen or in the background. This is the major component of the brilliantly textured world Altman has built here, and sound editor William A Sawyer deserves as much praise as anybody for this film.

The thing is, pretty much everybody deserves praise. Of the actors only Geraldine Chaplin disappoints (her journalist is the flightiest of creatures, and I don't believe the BBC would broadcast her airy fairy shit in a month of Sundays), but even she has wonderful moments, as when,listening to the businessman son of country star Haven Hamilton sing the only song he's ever written, she jumps up in excitement when she spots Elliot Gould. The rest of the performances are exemplary, from Shelley Duvall (at this stage Altman's muse) as the girl who is so desperate not to just be Martha, to Gwen Welles' funny and moving turn as the self-deluding Sueleen and from Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton; a man as fake as his terrible wig, to Keith Carradine's nakedly, proudly bastardly Tom, who phones another girlfriend before Lily Tomlin's Linnea has even left his hotel room. Singling people out seems almost unfair though, because right down to the smallest roles, like Scott Glenn's recent 'Nam vet, the performances are exemplary.

Many of the actors also have to sing, and most of those also had a hand in writing their material. Here it's a bit more of a mixed bag, most of the songs are great; I'd never heard them before, but they felt and sounded like established country hits, but some of the singers aren't so good, even when they're supposed to be. Henry Gibson (who you'll recognise, by the way, from Magnolia) and Karen Black both suffer vocally in comparison to some of the other singers in the film, notably Ronee Blakley and Raines, Carradine and Nicholls as the trio. However, Altman and his camera, and the audiences in the film, are so swept in the music and the particular atmosphere of Nashville that you can't help but get carried along.

Nashville is 159 minutes long, but I could quite easily have sat through another two hours, so rich are the world and the characters and so dazzling is the way that Altman juggles them all and finds the right tone with every scene. This is a brilliant and beguiling film.

Educate yourself: Unfortunately Nashville has never been released on UK DVD, and is deleted in the US. BLU RAY PLEASE!!

Next Lesson: The Searchers

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