A Critics' Duet on 'Nashville'

From the 'Voice' archives: Remembering Robert Altman through the words of Voice critics past

Andrew: I think Altman and his script-writer Joan Tewkesbury try to have it both ways with the condescending characters played by Michael Murphy and Geraldine Chaplin. On the one hand, these two characters give us a lot of information, a lot of exposition. They keep the plot moving. On the other hand, they're presented as cruel, brutal, supercilious outsiders, and so they become easy targets for the audience. Geraldine Chaplin's snobbish snoop is the most irritating character in the whole movie (though I think that Shelley Duvall's L.A. Joan runs a very close second, and gives country music groupies a bad name besides). Michael Murphy's political PR man is something else again. He plays very much the same kind of role he played in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As much as any member of Altman's stock company, Murphy represents the malignant system. Still, I can't help wondering if there isn't a little bit of Altman in Murphy, a little of the same sharpness and cruel candor. It strikes me also that so many Altman movies end with a kind of ritualized death, not a Peckinpah slaughter, but a very selective sacrifice. Think about it—A Cold Day in the Park, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and now Nashville. It is certainly a pattern, and I suspect that it is more a religious pattern than a political pattern.

Molly: True, they are often innocents, idealists, and—here—a neurasthenic, exotically feminine country music princess (incarnated rather than "played" by Ronee Blakley, herself a singer), a white-clad Ophelia whose psychic disorder is expressed in those odd, uncoordinated hand gestures. The idea of ritualistic tragedy is explicitly fostered in the setting of the last scene, a plaster of Paris temple that has given Nashville the epithet of the "Athens of the South." There is the tragedy, and then the catharsis, as life, in the form of song, resumes. Then there is the huge shot of the American flag, imposing a political conclusion that overloads the ending, and seems unsubstantiated. Even seeing the film a second time, and realizing how carefully the 'assassination' has been prepared for in parallel cutting and dialogue and images of violence, it still does not seem inevitable, at least not on the level of national sociopathology. The assassinations that we have lived through are both too specific and too elusive to be appropriated in the nightmare vision of any one artist.

But the fatalism does seem apposite on the individual, or religious level. As Blakley—whose character is loosely based on the real-life country singer, Loretta Lynn—sings a song of lost innocence (and, did you notice, the sun that shines on her is actually blocked momentarily by a cloud?) we feel not so much that America was a paradise, now corrupted, but that each of us must experience his own personal loss of innocence, as we "outgrow" the roots, the family, the "folk heritage" that spawned us.

As to the cruelty, yes, it's there, but it's constantly held in check by compassion and a kind of awe, an awe which confers dignity. And the best scenes combine all these elements: Haven Hamilton's barbecue party; and the scene in which Keith Carradine sings "I'm Easy" and consummates an affair with Lily Tomlin's voluptuously sane and moving Nashville matron over the heads of the listeners in a café, among whom are three of his former bedmates.

Andrew: Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine are the real heart of the picture, the oddest of the odd couples that make it take off; she, all soul, he all heel, but somehow with the right chemistry to make his song-seduction, "I'm Easy," work with the same flirtatious frenzy as Marlene Dietrich's "I'm Falling in Love Again." Tomlin and Carradine are marvelous, of course, and multi-faceted as characters. It's Carradine who makes the one anti-Vietnam crack, and Tomlin who mentions Easy Rider, but just when you think you have them typed, they uncover another layer of feeling. I liked Cristina Raines as Mary, the odd girl out in several triangles, but cool and loving at the same time. She and Tomlin help counterpoint Carradine in the "I'm Easy" scene, and turn a smoky café into an arena of yearning sexuality.

A few points in passing: since this is Nashville rather than Memphis, the blacks don't figure prominently, but Robert Doqui as the streetwise Detroiter named Wade and Timothy Brown as the church-bred Southern country singer set up an interesting and potentially explosive contrast between two types of black adjustment to a white world, one surly and unyielding, the other relaxed and resigned. The old cutaway cliché of montage in the musical actually works to Altman's advantage in Nashville since most of his characters are either performing or attending performances. It gets a bit strange after a while. There are very few real extras. Altman has created his own world and called it Nashville. In California Split, Elliott Gould and George Segal were surrounded by nobodies. In Nashville every nobody is a potential somebody. Altman even drags in Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as the real-life celebrities we know as Elliott Gould and Julie Christie. But Karen Black is simply stunning—not as Karen Black, but as the bitchy country singer Connie White. And all around the movie people are the authentic country music people, and a bit of authentic country, and Altman seemingly suggesting that we are all in one form of showbiz or another, and that it all ends badly, but not without the hope of regeneration. A very visceral movie, and it works, and I can't figure out why anyone ever thought it could be in trouble.

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