Robert Altman's Nashville is the Greatest American Movie Ever Made

Released in 1975 at the peak of his artistic powers and yet nearing the end of his all-too-brief commercial relevance, Nashville was the eighth film released by Robert Altman in nearly half as many years, any and all of which stand today as high marks of the American cinema renaissance of the 1970s. Altman enjoyed one of the greatest creative runs at the height of one of the greatest decades for commercial cinema in any country, before the Reaganite eighties appeared on the horizon and he crashed into the wall of a decade whose top-to-bottom conservatism held no place for his sharply satirical and messily human point of view. He is the great American filmmaker, and Nashville is his greatest film.

I

The assigning of Nashville’s artistic success to one individual serves not only to point out how singular of a vision it is, and how impossible it would be to imagine anyone else attempting let alone accomplishing it, but also serves as an ironic comment of sorts on the way the auteur theory tends to paint over the numerous contributions made by the scores of other talents who come together to make a film, especially a film as brilliant and as wide-ranging in physical and emotional scope as Nashville, truly a special and unique artistic accomplishment – and never have the importance and transformative capabilities of collaboration been more evident than in Altman’s particular working style, especially as it pertains to Nashville.

Robert Altman is one of a handful of directors who is constantly shuffled to the top of the deck of my favorite filmmakers. Over the course of his nearly forty-year career, he tackled all of our major genres (the war movie, the western, the musical, the comic book movie), turned them inside out and broke them open by inhabiting them with fully-realized human beings and allowing them to play out according to the rhythms of human behavior rather than plot mechanics or generic conventions [1]. His films, whether intimate slices-of-life (California Split), absurd comedies (Brewster McCloud), or inscrutable dream pieces (3 Women), were always governed by the characters at their center (and at times their periphery), all of whom, due to the nature of his intensely collaborative process with actors, were completely rounded and fleshed out - every performance, no matter how small, capable of carrying an entire film on its own. Coupled with his casual, non-invasive directorial presence, his films exist as brief visits into fully realized worlds, dripping with humanity and spilling over the edge of the frame, rather than shots and scenes hastily put together for the benefit of a camera. They are films that are lived in and experienced as much as watched.

Nashville is his masterpiece not only because it is his best film but also because it represents the culmination and purest distillation of his unique artistic voice. The casts would sometimes be bigger (A Wedding contains 48 featured characters), the overlapping soundtracks often more difficult to decipher (the first twenty minutes of McCabe and Mrs. Miller represent some of the muddiest sound ever recorded), and the loose plots much thinner (Short Cuts may be the greatest and most cinematic nothing-really-happens movie ever made) but Nashville is the one film that, were I forced to proffer an explanation of what made Altman such a vital and important filmmaker, I would offer in lieu of any long-winded and hastily-assembled explanation [2].

II

The word "greatest" is one that is thrown around often enough to have become completely meaningless, especially in a field so dependent on subjectivity of personal feeling as film criticism. It tends to act more as a means of starting conversation than of representing any real hope of determining what is indeed the best of anything or why that worth has been decided as existing. In this particular case, let’s just say that I’ve used it as an impetus to qualify my intense feelings for the film in question, and also to provide myself with an excuse to expound upon its merits long beyond the patience of even the most generous of potential readers.

Nashville is a movie that, in reflecting and so faithfully representing the intricacies of human life through the interactions of so sprawling a cast of characters, becomes so full of rich moments and character detail that we are overwhelmed by the breadth of its humanity. To place equal emphasis on all of its characters, no matter how important or insignificant, without any hint of moral judgement, no matter how innocent or vile some of them may seem, is to put all of humanity on the same level of importance. There are no leading roles in life. Each of us has her own rich and interesting story to tell, and Nashville is interested in all of them. The ensemble cast is perhaps the one element of Altman’s style that even those who have only the most cursory knowledge of his name can no doubt readily assign to him, and the human kaleidoscope that is its focus is as important to the thematic spine of Nashville as is it to any of his other ensembles, representing as it does the patchwork of lost and dreaming souls wandering through the city looking for some kind of validation, be it through fame, sex, emotional connection, political advancement, or violence. Some key moments:

The sad striptease of Sueleen Gay, mistaken by some critics as an act of extreme cruelty against her character by the director, when in fact it is a moment of supreme emotional honesty not only for the seamy light it sheds on the workings of the American political process but also in the way it is honest enough to Sueleen's character and her delusion that it plays out the way it truly would. When she discovers that her audience is driven by a lust for bare flesh rather than a desire to hear her mediocre singing, Sueleen agrees to proceed with the dance after being assured that if she does so, she will be able to share the stage with her idol, country star Barbara Jean. It is an extremely unpleasant scene to watch, as it amounts to little less than a public rape, and yet it also serves to enforce Sueleen's misplaced confidence in her own abilities. Rather than be played solely as a helpless victim of a male-dominated society, which she very much is, she is given the respect as a character to also be a human being self-interested enough to allow her trauma to bulwark her own internal narrative (and if you can watch that scene and not feel the consideration and hurt on behalf of her character, it probably says more about you as a viewer than about Altman as a filmmaker).

The way the camera watches Kenny, the would-be political assassin, as he listens to Barbara Jean sing “Dues,” we are struck by the raw intensity of his response to her performance – she is perhaps the only other person in the film with whom he feels any genuine connection - and this realization as well as the camera’s slow-zooming violation of that moment of intense emotional privacy make the betrayal that he feels at the end of the film when Barbara Jean sings under the Hal Phillip Walker banner all the more palpable, rendering the chanteuse’s death at his hands all the more tragically inevitable.

Most notably of all, look at the “I’m Easy” scene, in which Keith Carradine’s Tom, easily one of the biggest louts in the entire film, sings a song that no less than four women in the audience assume is about them, and pay particular attention to how each one of them reacts to it. Opal's awkward, bashful, yet genuine smile of recognition. L.A. Joan’s quietly boastful glances at the rest of the audience. The way that Mary can barely stand to listen as the man she pines for sings of a yearning that mocks in its earnestness the unanswered declarations of love that she repeated impotently to his sleeping form earlier; it’s so painful that she has to turn away, but she can’t completely react or escape lest she tip her hand to her husband, who suffers beside her in the knowledge that he’s already lost her. And then there’s Linnea, the choir-leading housewife who came to this club for a rendezvous with a rock star, ordered an apple juice in a wine glass so that she would look appropriately sophisticated, and then becomes floored as this guy, who couldn’t possibly like her as much as he claims to, reaches into the depths of her unfulfilled longing and shatters the frigid, unsatisfactory nature of her existence in barely over three minutes. Every conjugal orgasm she ever faked seems to summon its legitimately gratifying counterpart as the song winds down, and by the time we cut to the two lying naked and post-coital in Tom’s hotel room (as she teaches him the sign language her own husband refuses or is unable to learn even for the sake of communicating with his own sons), their physical coupling seems almost redundant.

It is the aggregation of these moments, and countless others, that lead to Nashville's cumulative emotional effect as a scrapbook of the human condition. If we had to choose one film to launch into space in order to explain to an alien life-form who we are as a species and how effective we can be at expressing that identity through cinema, this would be the one.

III

I have chosen the qualification “American” because it takes what is already an impossibly bold and hubristic claim and instills it with at least a touch of modesty, but also because Nashville is a film that is so perfectly in touch with the culture of the country in an acutely specific way – a way which makes it, in the end, completely universal.

Released a year before the American bicentennial, Nashville arrived at a very decisive period in American history, as we stood on the precipice of all the progress made throughout the tumultuous 60s and tried to decide whether or not to keep marching forward into a difficult yet progressive future or retreat slowly into the comfort of rigid, stifling conservatism. The re-election of Richard Nixon two years hence seemed to give the first indication of which path we ultimately would choose, and it was a cruel blow for as tirelessly independent and liberal a personality as Altman. The political and cultural betrayal that was Nixon's victory in 1974 put a fiery charge into Altman that is all too evident in Nashville, whose narrative thrust is the attempts of an advance man for a third party presidential candidate attempting to gather all of the most famous musicians within the city to perform at an upcoming political rally. It is a device that is strong enough to give the film a narrative and thematic unity yet thin enough for the focus to be on the behavior and interaction of the characters rather than any sort of plot. And it's the perfect platform from which to address the growing and destructive intermingling of celebrity and politics.

As a once-displaced Midwesterner who sought further fame and glory in Hollywood, Altman would have felt a certain kinship with the starry-eyed misfits who roam through the scenes of Nashville. The movie depicts the country music epicenter as a weigh station for the cultural diaspora of wandering dreamers flocking from their disappointing lives to the honkey tonks and bluegrass bars of Tennessee on their way to what is for them the certainty of fame, fortune, and fulfillment. There is perhaps nothing more American than our desire to transcend our own mediocrity by striving to live within, and then struggle our way out of, the shadows of our heroes. The great insight of Nashville is it's observation that our dreams and aspirations for a better life get caught up in our worship of celebrities rather than genuine political engagement. We look to our stars to give us salvation rather than the people that we vote into office to govern on our behalf, and that displaced energy and the resultant disinterested neglect of the political process is why we end up lazily electing a string of corrupt bureaucrats who continually maintain the status quo and assure our continual entrapment within the ideological mire that we are ever striving to pull ourselves out of. Entertainment and politics have become hopelessly intertwined in the American psyche, and the assassination of country star Barbara Jean at the film's climax, a transposition of the assassin's murderous feelings towards political candidate Hal David Walker, is the ultimate expression of this disastrous cultural mindset. It's easy to forget that the film was made at a time when the idea of assassinating of a pop culture figure was deemed by some involved in the production to be so outlandish and melodramatic as to be in poor taste (screenwriter Joan Tewksberry argued fervently against it) - four years later, when John Lennon was gunned down outside of the Dakota, it became despairingly clear that Altman, if not prescient, had been attuned to something brewing in the cultural air.

IV

We can, I hope, all agree (though its fiercest detractors would perhaps not) on the fact that Nashville is a movie – in that I mean to say that it is a series of still images that were recorded simultaneously at such a speed that when they are projected back at equal speed, they will give the illusion of movement and of events actually playing out on a screen before an audience that has gathered to watch them under the pretense that it is an illusion from which they will experience some form of response - anything from entertainment, to enragement or, in the best of cases, enlightenment. It would also stand to reason that it would be futile to argue against the fact that (V) in order for it to exist as a movie, under the above definition, it would indeed have to have been made, by which I mean that a group of people had to have gathered with the proper skill and equipment necessary to not only perform the events contained within the film as if they were real but also record them for posterity in order to provide any potential audience the illusion of same reality.   

More than any of his other films, Nashville was a movie in which the cast was let loose to exist in real time while the cameras strove to capture them, rather than tailor their movements and actions for the camera. In typical Altman fashion, the cast was given a script and then encouraged to develop their individual characters and deviate in anyway they saw fit. Some rewrote whole scenes, and some adhered strictly to the written words. Whatever their approach, they were called upon to live as their characters while the camera was rolling and trust that Altman's vision would sort out what was important and what fit from what didn't [3], thus giving them the complete freedom to try anything they wanted without the pressure to conform to a pre-determined vision. Altman asked Thomas Hal Phillips to create an entire presidential campaign, complete with buttons, banners, and speeches, with no direction other than that he was to be neither Republican nor Democrat. He hired local youths to portray campaign volunteers with express instructions to interrupt his film at any opportunity they could find. He briefed local media on the fictional candidate and then charged them with developing their own editorial commentary on his merits, whether for or against. The cumulative effect of this style is one of existing moments captured rather than artificial moments forced to exist. Rather than give his scenes any sort of directorial punctuation to heighten an emotional or intellectual point, Altman wants the viewer to experience them as they would an event in their own life, to bring to them whatever they will, to draw their own conclusions and to get out of them rewards that are proportional to the effort and attention put into them [4].

The cast also wrote and performed their own songs. Indeed, Nashville is a musical in the truest sense of the term, as the music is used either to advance the emotional story or to illuminate aspects of character. All the clunky back-story in the world would fail to live up to the complete understanding we get of Haven Hamilton based on his self-righteously corny and earnest catalog (and what's truly indicative of Altman's value as a filmmaker is the way that the characterization of Hamilton by Henry Gibson is able to both confirm and contradict that understanding). There is a level of performance to the musical numbers, even when the singing itself isn't all that good, that is unequaled in musical cinema and is a direct result of the actors' ownership of the compositions.

VI

I don’t expect anyone to agree with my assertion, though I expect some may. The nature of a piece of criticism is not to convince the reader that the author is correct, but to express a certain point of view in regard to a particular piece of art in a manner that inspires those who read said no-doubt-well-articulated point of view to reconsider their viewpoint on the work in question or to seek it out if they heretofore have not.

Criticism of any sort, at its best, should be a very personal thing, and as such it should always reveal something of the writer without forcing her into the center of attention in a way that detracts from the focus. And so while it would be needlessly distracting to go into unnecessary detail, suffice it to say that the first time I saw Nashville was on the heels of a particularly rough post-adolescent breakup, and something about its honest depiction of life's struggles struck a resonant, if fairly superficial, chord within my immature and pining heart. It was years later, within a period of my life darkened for much more complicated and adult reasons, that I revisited the film, and rather than merely latch onto its disparately longing characters as avatars for my own pain, I saw the infinite complexities of its composition, the nuance of its depiction of life. The film builds to a moment that perfectly encapsulates the human condition, as a crowd of stunned observers, who have just been made witness to sudden and inexplicable bloodshed, have no choice but to burst into song. As the throng maintains its unity to the echoing refrain of "It don't worry me" rather than dispersing in fearful confusion, we are struck both by the ineffectual nature of the act, distracting themselves from life's upheavals through collective song, but also their strength and resilience. It may be a cruel, indifferent world, we may all be hopeless and alone, but at least we're in it together.

It is a very extreme statement to say that a movie saved one's life, and so I will not offer that declaration, but I will say that Nashville accomplishes the great aim of any true artistic endeavor - it makes us feel as if we are not alone. That it is able to do so by unflinchingly reflecting our loneliness, insecurities, and failures as well as our triumphs is all the more miraculous.

VII

I fully reserve the right to change my mind as to what constitutes the Greatest American Movie Ever Made at any time as I see fit, but it should suffice to say that at this particular point in my life, for a variety of personal and aesthetic reasons that I hope I have made very clear, Nashville represents the high point of American cinematic output. 

It is telling not only of the richness of the film but my intense feelings for it that, after 3700 words, I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of its value and its importance to me. Rather than continue to fret over all of the beats and insights that I have left out, the characters who have gone completely unmentioned, I will instead use what feels like at once a completely overblown and yet wholly inadequate appraisal to stand as the ultimate assertion of the film's quality. I reserve the right to change my mind about it being my favorite film because I am uncomfortable making resolute statements when the nature of being a film lover and an active participant in the world is to constantly be open to new perspectives and points of view, yet since Nashville in its own way reflects just that, it is unlikely that it will be supplanted any time soon.

- cs

[1] What other director would begin a private eye movie with a ten-minute sequence in which our hero wanders through the grocery store looking for the right brand of cat food?

[2] This statement in no way constitutes permission for the reader to forgo the reading of the rest of this essay, no matter how eager she may be for such an excuse

[3] And indeed, Altman had quite the job doing just that, as he ended up with over sixteen hours of footage that he and editors Sidney Levin and Dennis M Hill ultimately whittled down to 159 minutes. There was so much footage that at one point Altman considered editing it into two different films, Nashville: Red and Nashville: Blue. There was also a plan, later shelved, to edit the extra footage into the television broadcast cut of the film. To my knowledge, none of this extra footage is publicly available.

[4] It is for this reason that a scene such as Sueleen's striptease can be taken so many different ways, even to the point of gross misinterpretation, by each viewer. No doubt Altman would rather the audience come to their own incorrect conclusion than to one which they felt was dictated by him.