Throughout the first half of the 70s, Robert Altman had steadily been working towards the grandest possible version of his cinematic vision. He finally got his opportunity with Joan Tewskesbury’s screenplay for Nashville, a sprawling vision of the city in the midst of a political campaign and a country and western music festival. The sheer scale of the film is still staggering, since even Altman had never worked with such a broad canvas, or at such an epic register, making for a masterpiece that feels comparable to Intolerance and Gone With the Wind in the sheer extent of its ambition, even if its political outlook is very different to those two films. Nashville also plays like a New Hollywood take on the city symphonies of the silent era, fusing the city so thoroughly with its musical scene that, once seen, it’s impossible to dissociate it from the performances that percolate across Altman’s tapestry.
Nashville also clarifies that Altman’s ideal subject matter was the media event, paving the way for a series of films, from A Wedding to Health to Pret-a-Porter to A Prairie Home Companion, in which he would situate his camera in the cross-currents of a public event as it was being broadcast to and by multiple interested parties. The media event would also be the ideal canvas for the artistic goal that Altman formulated over the early 70s – namely, to conceive of a film that was devoid of character and narrative in the regular sense, and was instead driven by internal dynamism, rhythm and momentum. In effect, this would be a film driven by collective cognition, and ensemble action, rather than by the individualism that tended to dictate character and action in both classical and new Hollywood productions. The biggest challenge of a film like this was how to “end” it, since conclusions often depend precisely upon the narrative and character that Altman was trying to eschew. In Nashville, he found his perfect third act, segueing all the figures in the film into a near-continuous musical performance, before ending with a tableau that enacted precisely the tension between individuality and collectivity that his style was trying to question and to transform.
In other words, Nashville comes as close to music as possible, even if it also couldn’t be anything other than a film, and barely feels conceivable even as a screenplay. Whereas the ensemble sweep of some of Altman’s earlier films occasionally seemed a little contrived, the final version of Nashville genuinely feels as if it has been cut from days, weeks and months of footage, so naturally and organically does it insert us into the situations that Altman’s camera participates in. As with so many of his previous films, this all revolves around a vision of Americana as pageantry, along with a restless fixation with the American flag, and all the ways it can be remediated, that often recalls Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, while also anticipating Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. Yet what makes Nashville so memorable is the way in which it lights upon country music, in particular, as a point of demotic convergence, and as the medium best suited to both enact and to question the patriotic fervor that was brimming as the United States Bicentennial drew ever more near.
While there’s a vast swathe of musical performances in Nashville – folk, rock, gospel, hymns – they all partake in country music to some degree. Gospel and religious music, in particular, is dovetailed with country music in oblique and unexpected ways, as Altman presents country music as America’s sacred music, and the country lexicon as America’s sacred text. At the same time, country music often feels like the answer of Altman’s own project of trying to fuse music and dialogue, and to thereby draw out the musicality of dialogue. One of the most memorable scenes sees country music star Barbara Jean, played by Ronee Blakley, frustrate a crowd of onlookers as she defers each performance with a series of rambling reminiscences that gradually eclipse her songs, and become the performance themselves. Appropriately, most of her reminiscences involve her recollecting sounds – chipmunks, chickens – that she associates with key experiences in her life, as the space around country music displaces the music itself, or at least collapses the music into the broader and more demotic soundscape that preoccupied Altman’s films of the early 1970s.
In the process, country music is framed as the ultimate American sound, and as a contested zone between people who are keen to claim American sound as their own. Many characters in the film revert to spoken language when they seem on the verge of singing, or start singing in the middle of apparently prosaic conversations and situations. At the same time, various country music voices in the film are co-opted by a political party that is staging an event in Nashville at the same time as the country music festival. Referring to themselves as the Replacement Party, this political group is represented primarily by its spin doctor, played by Michael Murphy, and by a party vehicle that circulates throughout the narrative, broadcasting messages about the state of America, and the Replacement Party’s own policies. On the face of it, these policies seem fairly radical – taxing churches, bringing down big business, insisting on political accountability – and they quickly segue into a socialist platform that insists that “all of us are deeply involved with politics, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.” As the film progresses, however, the anonymity of this countercultural voice, and the absence of a clear candidate, starts to make the messages of the party more suspect, as the decontextualised voice of the counterculture begins to seem more and more complicit with the very structures and institutions it is supposedly critiquing.
In the absence of a candidate (or at least a candidate that we ever see), this political and countercultural presence taps directly into the country voices and country sounds that are mediated and shared through the musical festival taking place in Nashville. Not only is Barbara Jean pressured into playing at the Replacement Party’s flagship event at the Nashville Parthenon, but veteran country singer Haven Hamilton, played by Henry Gibson, is convinced to announce his candidature for governor (and agent of the Replacement Party) at the same event. The future of democracy and the pliability of the country voice thus segue into the same situation over the course of the film, which alternates between symmetrical jingoistic spectacles, and the hum and murmur of the public sphere that exceeds and surrounds them. Part of the skill and beauty of the film is how precisely Altman positions us on that threshold, evoking the public sphere itself as a mobile and precarious experience that is as fleeting as the Replacement Party van that appears from time to time in the narrative, along with the musical performances that the party tries to tap into, many of which occur semi-spontaneously in tiny venues or amidst private and fleeting audiences.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the highway pileup that starts the action, and which produces many of the connections and correspondences that resonate throughout the film. For a moment, the sublime sweep of the highway into Nashville signals a spectacle on the scale of the Replacement Party’s ambitions, but it’s quickly disrupted by a multi-car crash that sees a spontaneous happening constellate around the wrecked cars, before spilling into adjoining lanes and then up onto the freeway shoulder. In a wry revision of the traffic jam in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End, Altman refrains from even the slightest semblance of a tracking-shot, refusing to treat the ensuing commotion as a challenging to the serene continuity and plasticity of his camera. Instead, he immerses us in a more disorienting and exhilarating concatenation of different sonic planes than in any of his films so far, burying the Replacement Party candidates deep in the midst of a demotic country ambience that they are never quite able to contain and commandeer, as valiantly as they might attempt it.
Here, as throughout the film, the flexibility of that country music space depends upon the most superb editing of Altman’s career to date. While Dennis M. Hill and Sidney Levin are credited as the film’s editors, and undoubtedly played a massive role, Altman’s directorial style already seems to presume and demand their decentred editing approach, which subsists upon rapid cross-cutting between music and dialogue, and between different musical performances, imbuing the film with a musical momentum even when music isn’t playing in whatever scene is to hand. Virtually every public gathering is accompanied by country music of some kind, fusing country music in turn with the very possibility of a public sphere, and building an extraordinary evocative tapestry as Altman directs for some of the quickest and most mercurial cuts of his career. Watching it, I had an acute sense of how it must feel to live and work in a town where music is always being played in some venue or another, since that awareness also percolates its way through the film, making it feel as if a live performance is always taking place in the next room, only ever a single brief cut away.
This music starts to predominate in the middle of the film, resulting in over an hour of performances, centred on several pieces by Barbara Jean. These musical sequences prevent the characters and narrative from ever quite coming into focus, allowing the different figures in the film to perpetually slip in and out of their musical roles, whether as performers, listeners, or both at the same time. In that sense, the majority of the film takes place between musical performances, or during the pauses in musical performances, most spectacularly in the rendition of “I’m Easy” that Keith Carradine’s folk rock artist performs to Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall and Lily Tomlin. In addition, the shift from one musical act to the next, and the musical momentum of the editing, prevents the narrative from ever settling for too long on any character, while also ensuring that most of the characters are only “characters” in the sense that character exists in country music to begin with. As with country music, individual experience is here handled with a studied banality that displaces the individual as the main lens through which we view the film, instead evoking a collective ensemble experience that is enacted, rather than depicted, at the moment of performance.
No surprise, then, that two of the most individualistic characters of Altman’s 70s output – Mrs. Miller and Philip Marlowe – are put behind him here, since both Julie Christie and Elliott Gould – who played those characters – appears as themselves in this film, effectively marking a break with the last residues of character-driven drama present in Altman’s films before this point. It’s around Christie and Gould that the film comes closest to documentary, since they simply mingle with the rest of the cast on their way through Nashville to another location, as they were doing in real life. During the scenes in which they appear, it feels as if Altman is revising and radicalizing even the most dramatic ensemble impulses of his earlier films, finally arriving at the rhythm-driven devolution of character and narrative – the genuine ensemble experience – he had been yearning for his entire career. In the process, a new kind of space starts to emerge in his ensemble world in the form of a provisional private zone – often characters shacked up in motel rooms – in which the private sphere fails to fully differentiate or distinguish itself from the public sphere. Where Marlowe’s house and Mrs. Miller’s bedroom, were still relatively distinct from the world around them, genuinely private spaces wouldn’t really exist again in Altman’s oeuvre, although his recourse to theatre adaptations and chamber dramas in the 80s would implode them in a very different way before his return to his grand ensemble visions in the wake of The Player.
Over the rest of his career, Altman would return to these provisional private spaces time and again, using them to alternately compress and elasticise the rhythm that gave his films such a unique internal momentum. Within Nashville, that process crystallises around Barbara Jean’s body, which takes the apparent openness of the female country singer’s body to a hallucinatory and – eventually – horrific extreme. On the one hand, Barbara Jean’s musical presence depends on the availability, openness and frankness that ostensibly characterises country music. On the other hand, Barbara Jean is stricken with an unnamed nervous condition that makes it increasingly harder for her to inhabit this role, or to differentiate her music from the broader country sound that surrounds it. Much of the tension between these two impulses plays out in her hospital room, where she is quickly escorted after arriving in Nashville, and which she only leaves for a couple of musical performances. Performatively private rather than totally public or private, this hospital room is full of flowers and gifts. It’s also where Barbara Jean grudgingly makes the decision to appear for the Replacement Party benefit at the Nashville Parthenon, on the condition that her political affiliation be muted by the absence of any political sloganeering during her performance, or any overt connection between her music and the values of the party itself.
The body of the female country music star thus becomes a cipher for the body politic at this particular moment in American history. Like the body politic, Barbara Jean is expected to disclose something of herself in response to the current political crisis, just as her role as a country music singer also demands that she sing about crisis, in one form or another. At the same time, however, the body politic has grown suspicious about overt statements of ideology, just as the convention of country music is that the female singer, in particular, refrains from generalising too much about her own experience, instead letting the frankness of her address and the presence of her body and words testify to that experience instead. Both the country music star and the body politic are driven by the thorny question of how to mediate the authenticity that sustains them without performing that authenticity, or turning authenticity itself into a mere performance. As the film nears its conclusion, this increasingly places Barbara Jean in the position of spokeswoman for the public sphere that percolates through the film, precisely because her position as a country singer means that she isn’t permitted to even translate that public sphere into political statements or slogans.
This correspondence culminates with the incredible final sequence, which takes place at the Nashville Parthenon, “the Athens of the South,” and plays as Altman’s effort to hear and see exactly how American democracy might devolve at this particular point in time. Upon arriving on the stage, Barbara Jean realises that she has been tricked, and that she is going to be forced to perform in front of the Replacement Party signs, to introduce Haven Hamilton as the next Replacement Party governor and (possibly) to usher in an appearance from a Replacement Party presidential candidate. Caught at that unbearable threshold, at which her authenticity is on the very cusp of being congealed into a performance, she is assassinated by a member of the crowd, in a sequence that draws upon the iconography of John F. Kennedy’s assassination a little over a decade before. Rather than a president being assassinated by an opponent, however, a country singer unwittingly representing a party is destroyed by the very process of being forced into that role, which is perhaps why the assassin feels complicit in the party’s spectacle, even or especially if he isn’t conscious of it.
The end of Nashville thus charts out a situation in which the countercultural voice has been abstracted from its original mouthpieces, and instead used to broker a reluctant performance of authenticity from the American people, with the country vernacular of Barbara Jean as their platform. Rather than an assassination being directed by conservative forces against the liberal establishment, the assassination now takes place as a way of closing the gap between this countercultural voice and the crowd that it is trying to assuage with a spectacle of authenticity. In a perverse way, the image of Barbara Jean’s death therefore completes her authenticity, producing an eerie sense of closure that settles over the film once she has been taken off the stage. At this point, the crowd momentarily starts to dissolve, and the film lapses into its most inchoate soundscape, while the most marginal character in the screenplay – a woman who is perpetually lurking around the fringes of the action – unexpectedly steps onto the stage and commands the crowd with a rendition of “It don’t worry me.” Gradually, imperceptibly, the crowd reconstitutes itself, until Altman is able to pull back and end the film with one of the symmetrical and monumental patriotic shots that have recurred through the screenplay, this time firmly centred on the Parthenon.
This gradual return to symmetry takes place during a massive zoom that gradually pulls us back until the stage, the crowd and the structure of the Parthenon is all subsumed into the frame. Yet Altman doesn’t hold the shot for quite long enough for us to settle into its symmetries, while the zoom in this case is so inimical to his own restless zoom-and-pan style throughout the film that the resolution feels illusory. Add to that the fact that the Replacement Party candidate never arrives, and that the Replacement Party is all but abstracted from the rest of the event, and the film arrives at a kind of unsettling false consciousness – a public sphere that seems to have absorbed the voice of the counterculture, and to have learned the lessons of the late 60s, but is still somehow lacking. In some of his earlier films, Altman presented the counterculture as carnivalesque, sometimes in a critical mode, and sometimes in an appreciative mode. That very sense of carnival is precisely what is co-opted by the anonymous voice of the loudspeaker here, as the broadcasters from the Replacement Party van segue into the collective country music spirit of the crowd, and a public sphere tentatively re-emerges, but with something missing.
In these final moments, Altman beautifully and plangently captures the decline of the counterculture as an event that can’t be contained by narrative or character, and instead demands the collective proprioception of a musical-political happening to be properly evoked. As Barbara Jean is carted off the stage, Altman collapses his film into this failed happening, but does so in such a seamless way that its promises feel peculiarly false, even or especially as it is difficult to pinpoint just what makes them so. Watching it, I felt that the real subject of Altman’s career was Woodstock, or at least that Woodstock, and Michael Wadleigh’s version of Woodstock, was the horizon of Altman’s diffuse audiovisual landscape. Throughout much of the film, Linnea Reese, a gospel singer played by Lily Tomlin, speaks in sign language to her children, and advocates for the use of sign language more generally. In these last images, Altman also seems to be providing a kind of sign language, a shorthand for querying and revising his own auteurist claim to be the mobile, flexible voice of the counterculture – shorthand because those revisions couldn’t yet be fully articulated in regular cinema, let alone in conventional public discourse. Of course, that’s precisely because the public, as conceived by the counterculture, is what is at stake here, in one of the most mercurial, emergent and memorable films to be made about America in the 70s.