Monday, November 23, 2015

We Must Be Doing Something Right to Last Two Hundred Years

I'd prefer to avoid being repetitive. However, I wish to express again the marvel of seeing a film projected in 35mm in a theater; and, rediscovering a movie that I've already seen on DVD at home several times. It's like time travel. It's like experiencing the same thing audiences did when the film was first released.

When I was nineteen Mike Clark's Movie Madness Video and More in Portland, OR was like being Charlie in the Chocolate Factory for me. It offered the chance to see anything I wanted or could think of. Now there are subsequent generations who have the internet for the equivalent of what for me were the VHS archives. I still enjoy home video. But, after seeing something like some of Altman's work from the Seventies on film, larger than life, it almost makes me want to throw my TV in the trash.

Before Prêt-à-Porter (1994, Robert Altman), Short Cuts (1993, Altman), and The Player (1992, Altman), there was Nashville (1975, Altman). Nashville is the Altman template. Nashville has a prestigious notoriety that caused me to see it on DVD many years ago. I wasn't a fan. It felt bloated, boring, and initially caused me to file Altman's status as possibly the emperor not wearing any clothes. But after returning to Altman's work, I found different aspects of his talent rewarding. Talents I began to realize were featured in Nashville.

As part of a mini-Altman retrospective here in Austin, a couple of days ago I again found myself spending Saturday afternoon alone in a dark theater surrounded by strangers. Quickly, once immersed in Nashville's panoramic, rich, colorful, aurally-assaulting portrait frame, I regretted how it'd taken so long for me to give this film my full attention. The 35mm print was clean, and provided the scale with which I was able to truly engage with the film. It's like the whole vocabulary of shot selection took on a new strength.

The opening credit sequence blasts a radio station DJ voiceover hurrying through a list of cast members as he advertises a greatest hits album that features them while illustrations bombard us front and center, their names scrolling up one side of the screen and the titles of their hit songs scrolling down the other, all to some twangy good ole country and western music. Sidenote: I can't think of any other instant in my life that I've not only tolerated country music, but enjoyed it.

The Altman template I'm talking about uses his large ensemble cast, intertwining plot threads, a satirical focus on some niche aspects of American culture, improvisational dialogue, and typically a limited temporal range, in general. But where Nashville stands apart is the music. There are so many performances, done by the cast, and featured extant.

The opening scene is with Henry Gibson as HAVEN HAMILTON in a recording studio working on his patriotic anthem (which has always managed to stay stuck in my head) with the chorus, "We must be doing something right to last two hundred years." Geographically, the ensemble aren't always in the same place, with the exception of the Airport scene at the beginning and the concert at the Parthenon that ends Nashville. And while many of the ensemble recur popping up with varying degrees of screen-time, Haven Hamilton feels like the lead to me, if for no other reason that he seems to be the biggest star in Nashville and wield the most clout.

Nashville's structure follows its locations. The primary locations, in order, are:

  • Airport
  • Freeway pile-up
  • Hospital
  • Haven's cabin picnic
  • Opryland concert
  • Church
  • Race car track
  • Parthenon concert

Between all of these there are smaller concerts, night clubs, and like, the boarding house that the Keenan Wynn character runs and the Lily Tomlin character's home.

And the glue that bonds these set pieces together is a technique of mosaic conversation jumping. Often intimate, these nuanced moments are accompanied sometimes by fragments, varying from comedic to odd, but always captivating. These characters all feature in a symbiotic relationship to each other. Altman doesn't play favorites and that is one of his most accomplished feats in Nashville--he's concerned with both those who made it as stars and those who didn't. Fame and stardom is the draw in Nashville, and Haven, CONNIE WHITE (Karen Black), BARBARA JEAN (Ronny Blakey), and BILL, MARY, AND TOM reside at the top, while at the bottom are the parasites that constantly seek them out.

The stars obviously need the parasites. But with OPAL, the BBC journalist (Geraldine Chaplin) as the most desperate, L.A. JOAN (Shelley Duvall), ALBUQUERQUE (Barbara Harris), and SUELEEN GAY (Gwen Welles) a pattern begins to emerge that tends to show how much sex as the currency of the female characters buys them in Nashville. Never one for on the nose depictions, Altman keeps these intricacies graded, with for example, Albuquerque appearing the most desperate and the only one of these women specifically motivated by being a star herself, while not using sex to her own ends. Albuquerque's opposite is Sueleen, who uses her sexuality for what she hopes will be fame until in the heartbreaking surreal scene where she performs at the nightclub and gets booed off and coerced into stripping nude. (It's not easy for me to buy her complicity in that moment.) And to add further insult, when the Ned Beatty character drives her home and propositions her, she sadly amounts to nothing more than a sex object.

But I shouldn't get too analytical here. I mean Opal and L.A. Joan appear as though they have no regrets about all of their different sexual partners and having a good time. They're just drawn to the scene. But another big thread that's set up early and takes time to play out is Tom's (Keith Carradine) pursuit of gospel singer LINNEA (Lily Tomlin). There's that moment when he keeps calling her house when you realize this guy who at first sounds like a harassing pervert stranger is Tom from folk group Bill, Mary, and Tom--and yet further, that Linnea wants him too. This leads to his performance of "I'm Easy," where he dedicates the song to a special lady, and there are singles on Opal, L.A. Joan, and Linnea, each sure he's talking about them.

Next to fame, and sex, there's power. Nashville makes so much more sense than the first time I saw it, as then a random series of vignettes. The opening Hal Phillip Walker campaign voice of God van that keeps appearing is connected with Michael Murphy's character, whom we find out is trying to sign all of the big music stars to perform at a political rally. Everybody needs something from somebody.

Keenan Wynn's (Damn I can't even begin to describe how much of a fan of Ed Wynn and his son Kennan Wynn I am) character generates so much pathos is because he's mixed up in this frenzy and is the only person not eager to worship the Nashville stars, but to get his niece--L.A. Joan--to go along with him to visit his sick wife, her aunt. The aunt dies while L.A. Joan's out cruising the scene, and the last scene of Nashville shows the Keenan Wynn character's desperate search for his niece. And this rounds out for me, just about everything that could have been put in Nashville. And now, I don't feel like it's bloated or boring, but the amazing portrait I'd long ago heard it hyped as.

So along with the satire on fame, sex, politics, there's race (I haven't gone into the Charley Pride parody), and several bursts of comedy. The freeway wreck is silly funny and great. The Elliot Gould as himself cameo is a lot of fun (wow, what a cool shirt). The line BARNETT (Allen Garfield) shouts at his wife Barbara Jean, as her manager, "Don't tell me how to run your life. I think I been doing a pretty good job of it," cracked me up and was spontaneous. Tom trying to score dope, requesting "speckled birds, L.A. turnarounds, uppers?" was neat. And Haven's wife's obsession with the Kennedys is very funny in an awesome, odd way.

Like Brewster McCloud (1970, Altman) before, Nashville's cinematography is never dull--roving long lens work, wide angle authentic location time capsules, and requisite slow zooms give the film its character. Nashville is Altman's perfect mix.


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