Director: Robert Altman
Writer: John Tewkesbury
Cast: Keith Carradine, Karen Black, Geraldine Chaplin, Henry Gibson, Shelley Duvall, and Lily Tomlin
I recently saw Nashville and feel that it is an important movie and has sort of been forgotten over time. Nashville is Robert Altman’s epic study of American culture, politics, religion, and show business. Altman explores the shallowness of American life, the emptiness of politics, the superficiality of religion, and the pure commercialism of show business by following the inter-twined lives of twenty-four characters during a five-day period in Nashville, Tennessee. These themes not only serve as guidelines to appreciating Nashville, but also they are themes vital and present in American society. Powerful and poetic imagery, style, and use of many aural and visual hallmarks aid the expression of these themes that Altman has developed throughout his history as a filmmaker.
The beginning of the film immediately introduces the audience to two of these themes: commercialism and political emptiness. The opening credits to the film are in the style of a stereotypical hard sell television commercial for a country/western album of “twenty-four of your very favorite stars.” The screen is full of attention getting devices with constant movement of images and words in all different directions symbolizing the confusion and uncertainty that the American public constantly faces. Altman’s brilliant trademark use of sound comes into play here as he overlaps at least three layers of sound during this sequence. All at once the audience hears music, lyrics, and the announcer confusing the viewer as to what he or she should be listening. This feeling of confusion is echoed when the announcer making this obviously commercialistic sales pitch ironically says, “… twenty-four, count’em, twenty-four of your very favorite stars…right before your very eyes without commercial interruption,” implying that what he is saying is not “commercial interruption.” After the opening credits, the film opens at the headquarters of the independent (Replacement Party) candidate Hal Philip Walker. Several of the stereotypes that go with politics are present: his truck is red, white, and blue, the slogan is “New Roots for the Nation,” a very general and empty political statement. However, once his voice is heard over the loud speaker, the audience is introduced to an obviously anti-establishment, anti-bureaucracy campaign. Also important to this scene are the obvious abundance of signs and billboards scattered all around the street. Here Altman actually puts the two themes of commercialism and politics against each other. Walker’s campaign van is just part of a sea of commercialism all competing for the attention of the viewer.
Probably the most important theme and message that Altman tries to illustrate is the shallowness of modern American culture. Altman does not say that all of America is shallow, but he tells the audience that this particular view is quite present in society. He personifies this view with Opal (Geradine Chaplin), a BBC reporter who is working on a documentary about (what else?) American culture. Altman uses Opal to relay this view because, as a journalist, she is part of the media where much of the world gets its information and creates its own views about life and society. Unfortunately and ironically, Opal is completely clueless about this subject and there are several instances in the film that make the audience aware of this fact. The first and most obvious instance is that Opal is British. A foreign or “alien” female character is a common element in several of Altman’s films (The Player, Mccabe and Mrs. Miller). Altman uses foreigners to play certain roles in his films, when he wants to create a distance between those characters and the world around them. Opal is completely oblivious to the reality of the society around her. She is constantly drawn toward the fake glitzy surface of American culture like when she interrupts Haven’s son, Buddy’s, song at Haven’s party to go talk to Elliot Gould, a famous actor. She thus denies Buddy his chance to sing, and her chance to report the reality of being the son of a superstar. Another way Opal personifies the shallowness of American culture is during the scene outside the recording booth, where a black gospel choir is being led enthusiastically by white gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin). Opal, instead of appreciating this particular American music style, immediately asks if Linnea is a missionary and then exaggerates the situation to the point where she sees the black singers as “tribalistic.” This is an amazingly shallow statement and symbolizes the presence of racism in modern society. Yet another example of Opal’s personification takes place in the big traffic jam sequence. Opal describes the pile up using her own cliches saying that she “saw a leg sticking out,” or “It’s America. Those cars smashing into each other and all those mangled corpses.” She fails to recognize the truth of the situation and describes this small non-fatal pile up for the benefit of her own reporting. Instead, she makes it into a large gruesome crash which metaphors what she believes is “America.” One final example of how Opal represents a view of imperviousness to real evidence about the true nature and culture of America is during the assassination scene at the end of the film. During the tragic and symbolic assassination of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), Opal momentarily steps away and misses the whole thing. She then must ask people around her “what happened,” confirming her neglect for what is going on around her. Altman shows this view of how some people are oblivious to what is actually happening around them to be one of valid concern.
There is one common theme that connects nearly every character in Nashville and that is religion. Religion in Nashville is very superficial and no one really seems to have a particularly strong grasp on his or her faith. Altman shows his careful craft of editing during the church scene where he crosscuts between four simultaneous Sunday services. In each of the services it seems that many of the characters treat church as just another performance. At Haven’s (Henry Gibson) service he stands in the choir and sings very egotistically and loudly. He is actually trying to show off and out-sing the church chorus. Linnea directs a gospel choir at her service and Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) joins in from a pew separate from the choir as if he were doing a special performance for an audience. Lastly there is Barbara Jean’s service where she sings about herself, pouring her heart out in a slow emotional gospel tune. “ All of these characters hold a very superficial view of religion and take part in it only if they can be seen and heard.
Several of the other characters in the film are indirectly connected with religion. For example, in the scene directly preceding the church sequence, Tom (Keith Carradine) is shown in bed with his band mate, ironically named, Mary (Cristina Raines). Mary has her head on Tom’s chest as she mouths the words “I love you.” The camera slowly moves up and focuses on a Jesus-looking Tom with his long hair and short beard. Altman then cuts to a large stain glass portrait of Jesus Christ at one of the church services the next day. This ironic juxtaposition symbolizes sex versus salvation, again mocking true faith in religion. Another indirect religious connection is with Opal. After the church sequence the scene switches to an auto junkyard. The bells from the church can be heard faintly in the distance as the audience sees Opal rambling on about a pretentious religious meaning she is attempting to gather from a yard of rusty old cars: “I’m wandering in a graveyard. The dead here have no crosses nor tombstones nor wreaths to sing of their past glory, but lie in rotting, decaying, rusted heaps. Their innards ripped out by greedy vultures’ hands. Their vast, vacant skeletons sadly sighing to the sky. The rust on their bodies is the color of dried blood – dried blood. I’m reminded of, of an elephant’s secret burial ground. Yes…These cars are trying to communicate. Oh cars, are you trying to tell me something? Are you trying to convey to me some secret?” Opal, as always, makes no sense and definitely shows little knowledge about the subject of religion and salvation.
Robert Altman’s Nashville is a brilliant and poignant commentary on America that focuses on some of the more prevalent and common themes in society. Altman puts his own personal touch on these issues and themes and creates an epic critique of American ideals and integrity. A
Nashville is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 39 minutes.