Sunday, November 3, 2013

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

This article is part of a year-long feature - watching and blogging about twenty acclaimed, cult, challenging and rare films over the course of 2013. The full list of films (and links to other completed posts) can be found here. Sixteen: now, after years in the making, it's Robert Altman's Nashville!

As far as credit sequences go, they don't come any more electrifying than Nashville's. Taking the form of one of those irritatingly familiar infomercials for mail order musical complications, within barely a minute of the classic Paramount logo appearing on screen, we've been assaulted with a primer of how we need to watch Altman's utterly distinctive film. We get previews of the film's country music soundtrack, and we're briefly but loudly introduced to the film's dizzying ensemble. It, like the film that is to follow, is anarchic and overloaded with information, yet somehow remains crystal clear in its presentation.

Nashville, fascinatingly, is constantly on the verge of collapse. It's a film without a single protagonist: there's 24 of them, plus many other who swoop in when necessary. Inevitably, the narrative follows tangents at every possible opportunity, while also bringing most of the major players together during a number of busy central setpieces. The visual style is ramshackle, almost as if the camera operator is desperately darting from person to person, breathlessly arriving just in time to capture the important moment. We could say something similar about the editing: the multi-perspective structure a precarious house of cards, regularly giving pivotal characters fifteen seconds or less of screen time before urgently cutting away to someone or something else.

It should be exhausting, it should be frustrating. It should, by all rights, ultimately just surrender to its innate chaos. In a minor cinematic miracle, it doesn't. It's not a short film by any stretch, whizzing past the 150 minute mark, but it's extraordinarily efficient with its finite screentime. It's particularly impressive when at least a third - if not closer to a half - of that is dedicated almost exclusively to musical performances (brief aside: I must confess, as someone who actively dislikes country music, I was genuinely surprised by how enjoyable the musical content is, enlivened by the enthusiasm of the cast performing their own songs, perhaps most notably an impressively convincing Henry Gibson). There are cutaways to action elsewhere as the songs continue in the background, but really there are long stretches when this isn't very far beyond a concert film. That Altman still manages to fit in 24 individual stories, that frequently crossover but by-and-large provide the various characters with their own dedicated arc? Well, it's a juggling act that must be seen to be believed.

These are a varied bunch of tales too, merrily leapfrogging genres from moment to moment. Alongside the music, there's plenty of comedy - whether that's Shelly Duvall's character Martha, farcically feeding on the fame and attention of others, or a madcap early film traffic jam that almost resembles something from Week End or a Jacques Tati film. There's plenty of drama, most poignantly perhaps the segments focused on Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), and her destructive but mutually passionate affair with up-and-coming star Tom (Keith Carradine): a relationship that culminates in one of cinema's cruelest and most tragic telephone calls, where Tomlin's silence response is heartbreaking and Carradine's clearly grimacing at his own casual nastiness. There's a thriller element too - what exactly is that mysterious soldier (Scott Glenn) stalking superstar Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) up to? That ominous story strand actually leads to a surprising twist, with the violent climax perpetrated by someone else entirely.

This storytelling busyness all serves the film's grander ambitions. The Nashville setting is pitch perfect for this examination of 1970s America. Mostly, Altman seems fascinated by the concept of fame - his chosen city, the Capital of Country, is where everyone from the hyper-famous to the lowly wannabe comes together in insightful, weird, wonderful ways. The film's portrait of Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), for example, comically exaggerates the delusions of a no-question untalented person who needs to follow her impossible dreams. Her eventual humiliation, though, is one of the film's soberest, grimmest scenes, distorting the audience's preconceptions. It's a complex portrayal of the effects of fame on those who want it, those who have it, those who despise it: Nashville, the beautiful contradiction that it is, is critical, cynical, triumphant, celebratory and so much more, barely taking a breath as it moves from one mode to the next.

It almost seems reductive to me to continue breaking down this film in terms of individual themes, narratives, yada yada yada. Above all, Nashville is simply tremendous fun to watch. It's a film to get drunk on - full of character and ambition, energy and warmth. You could analyse Nashville and surely find vast thematic depths, but so many of its pleasures are immediate. In a world this vast, 157 minutes barely seems like enough time.

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