Film & TV

Nashville, the Great American Movie, Returns

Karen Black in Nashville (Paramount Pictures)
Robert Altman’s folk wisdom redeems film culture.

Nashville (1975), the greatest American movie of the sound era, is back in a return engagement to remind Millennial Americans what defines them. Comedy, drama, musical, documentary, it is “everything” as the generation of low expectations like to say. They have not experienced a contemporary movie of comparable simplicity and magnitude.

Ostensibly a political movie, set in the country-music capital, where an election campaign manager (Michael Murphy) organizes a pre-bicentennial fundraiser, Nashville shows the everyday politics that affect the lives of two dozen major characters. We get to know each of them intimately because this is also an epic spectacle of the eccentric personalities roaming loose within this nation’s porous borders.

Coming right behind the anniversary of 9/11, Film Forum’s presentation of Nashville connects with the post-Sixties assassinations cynicism that Altman tracked. The film’s looming bicentennial celebrations inspire as much cautious patriotism as the aftermath of American shock and awe.

Altman’s panorama — always revealing the individual within the community — is extraordinarily open to every human possibility. This richness surpasses liberal cynicism (the conclusion mistakenly picked up by Altman acolyte Paul Thomas Anderson in each of such poor Altman copycat films as Magnolia and There Will Be Blood). Nashville’s great good humor stands in contrast to the contemporary fear about whether or not our democracy can continue to exist.

Works of popular art are rarely so pertinent as to make viewers rethink their own lives. Seen today, Nashville fills in the intellectual, spiritual, and political chasm caused by Hollywood’s juvenile Millennial escapism.

The movie is full of climaxes and highlights (at least half of them musical performances that express the performers’ personal issues and reflect wider social concerns) but two of Altman’s gambits stand out: There’s the opening song, “200 Years,” by country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) that surmises “we must be doing something right / to last 200 years” and, even more remarkable, a voice-over commentary heard continuously throughout the film by unseen presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker; he represents an independent ticket called the Replacement Party and his pronouncements blast from a campaign van’s loudspeaker.

The Replacement Party oratory is so incisive and expressive that its genius is still impressive almost 50 years later as a précis of political thought and public address.

*Congress is composed of 535 individuals. 285 are lawyers. And you wonder what is wrong with Congress.

*It is the very nature of government to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Congress is run by lawyers. Did you ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he?

*Now, I know something about money. Anybody who grew up without it, knows a lot about money. I know something of what money can do and what it can’t because I didn’t have any until I was 27.

*When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that’s politics,

*All of us are deeply involved in politics whether we know it or not.

Walker’s folksy wisdom is evergreen. It comes from the satirical populism of writer Thomas Hal Phillips, whom Altman hired to provide authentic political jargon. “I attacked the whole business of Washington,” he told critic Jan Stuart. But Nashville’s script, conceived by Joan Tewksbury, is a quirky celebration.

Characters in every situation go beyond today’s limited identity politics — whether we’re seeing Gibson’s proto-politico egotism, Ronee Blakley’s isolated celebrity, Keith Carradine’s rapacious loneliness, Lily Tomlin’s broken marriage, Geraldine Chaplin’s intrusive outsider, Robert DoQui’s skeptical outsider, and such showbiz candidates as the calculating professional played by Karen Black, and Gwen Welles’s and Barbara Harris’s eager amateurs

In 1975, every critics organization awarded Nashville Best Film (even over Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), whereas today’s equivalent critics only rubber-stamp political novelties. Film culture has lost Altman’s generous, humane perspective.

This Seventies masterwork constantly refers back to how Americans regard their heritage and carry it forward or — for an era that is steadily fragmenting — how they lose it. Altman’s expansive, open-hearted embrace urges moviegoers to make America great again.

 

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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