Number 46: Nashville
Brewster McCloud, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding, Health, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, and A Prairie Home Companion, Altman invents and perfects a genre totally unto himself: non-linear, tapestry-like, epic, rambling, multi-tiered, literary, improvisatory, and unique.
Nashville is the most successful of these terrific Altman films: it has the best cast, it has the best music, and it has the most to say about a very specific part of America. Written by Altman and Joan Tewkesbury with plenty of room for the actors to improvise business and dialogue, the film captures the essence of this country like few other films. Altman’s Nashville is by turns sprawling, hopeful, joyous, lost, alone, unaware of its own irony, and irretrievably sad. You know—‘Murica!
During the next five days, the audience is introduced to other Nashville regulars and hangers-on. Barnett (Allen Garfield) is Barbara Jean’s husband and manager; he is in a near-constant state of apoplexy. Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) is Haven Hamilton’s constant companion. Del Reese (Ned Beatty) is a lawyer and a local campaign worker for Hal Phillip Walker; his wife Linnea (Lily Tomlin) ends up having a one-night stand with Tom. Wade Cooley (Robert Doqui) is a restaurant short order cook who tries to persuade waitress Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) that she is not a talented singer; she refuses to listen to him.
Why do all these different women have one-night stands with Tom? Simple. “I’m Easy,” sings Tom over and over in the film’s Academy Award-winning song, which Carradine wrote and performed himself.
Nashville’s Greek Chorus is a Hal Phillip Walker campaign sound truck that endlessly drives, popping up again and again throughout the film, broadcasting folksy campaign speeches to the open air. At first it is a little hard to get a handle on Walker’s beliefs; the sound emanating from those speakers sounds like a string of fuzzy aphorisms…
Hal Phillip Walker’s Voice (over loudspeaker):
“Who do you think is running Congress? Farmers? Engineers? Teachers? Businessmen? No, my friends, Congress is run by lawyers. A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only. To clarify—that's one. And to confuse—that's the other. He does whichever is to his client's advantage. Did you ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn't he? Ever ask a lawyer how to get to Mr. Jones' house in the country? You got lost, didn't you? Congress is composed of five hundred and thirty-five individuals. Two hundred and eighty-eight are lawyers. And you wonder what's wrong in Congress. No wonder we often know how to make a watch, but we don't know the time of day.
“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?"
Newsman Howard K. Smith, playing himself, comments, “Hal Phillip Walker is not going away. For there is genuine appeal, and it must be related to the raw courage of this man. Running for President, willing to battle vast oil companies, eliminate subsidies to farmers, tax churches, abolish the Electoral College, change the National Anthem, and remove lawyers from government—especially from Congress.”
Nashville’s Three Miracles: 1) Altman’s pioneering sound recording method, which mikes and records each actor separately, allowing Altman to “mix” the resulting vocal tracks during editing (more like a musical recording than a movie soundtrack) for a layered effect that captures the overlap and spontaneity of real conversation; 2) the film’s terrific songs, all of which were written by the actors themselves: Carradine’s Oscar-winning “I’m Easy”, the upbeat and hilarious “Two Hundred Years” and “Keep ‘A Going” by Henry Gibson, and the anthemic-yet-resigned “It Don’t Worry Me”; and 3) the sophistication of the film critics and the movie-going public in 1975 that made this film a hit.
Nashville presents, perhaps better than any other film, the oxymorons that define American life: tearful celebration, relentless optimism, humble heroism, genuine irony, both epic and personal in scale. Altman’s masterpiece is at once “of its time” and “for all time,” detailing the dreams, conflicts, desires, and realities of a deeply divided country.
"In nomine Patrici, et Scorsese, qui mecum est Jai Beaie, Amen.”