“No politics. No government. No nothing!” Remove these elements from any American film set or produced amid the anger, disenchantment and paranoia of the mid-1970s, and what remains? The answer is either a large great white shark or a tongue-in-cheek ode to the birthplace of country and western music
However, given a full 4K tune-up, and set to feature as the cornerstone of a BFI retrospective season of his work, it is the double negative of this rhetorical exclamation, in this meandering film’s final act, which concerns the great Robert Altman in his rambling, toe-tapping, drily polemical epic, Nashville.
Seeking to protect his ailing wife and falling star, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), from the curse of political affiliation, Allen Garfield’s musical manager, Barnett, rebuffs fixer, Triplette (Michael Murphy), and PR man Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), who ride her coattails with ulterior motive for populist presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker. But if no nothing is permitted, just how long can the music, the fame, the adulation and applause drown out that bum note, the low hum of reality, that one instrument, playing in the background and barely audible, that says something is very seriously wrong here, and simply won’t go away? An itch that must at some point be scratched. Or shattered by a gunman’s hail of bullets.
It is all that occurs between the lines, between the vacuous emptiness of chasing celebrity, snippets of small talk and the false promises of The Dream, where the real heart, soul and bitterness of Nashville exists: the threat of mid-air hijackings; anti-Vietnam War sentiment; tearful recollections of the Kennedy brothers and what could have been; drunken or unspoken allusions to racism and bigotry in the South; a hopeless, degraded wannabe singer forced to strip to take one step further up the ladder towards fame and fortune. There is a very human, almost documentary style to the manner in which the film is shot which renders it an intimate, small-scaled epic film, rippling outwards with far greater ramifications. The 24-character strong line-up, where none take the headline spot, is a patchwork ensemble representative of the walks of life, aspirations, hardships, injustices, hopes and dreams of an entire nation. And yet its narrative travels to nowhere from a standstill.
The plot has neither a beginning, nor a middle and an ambiguous ending that offers little by means of a resolution. It says everything, and yes, for some it will say nothing. After a brief recording studio prologue, we move to an airport. The multitude of characters we meet – and will spend the best part of three hours with – are in transition, they’re coming or going, always on the move. This lack of stability, the temperance of their lives, loves and ambitions speaks to something much larger here. The dialogue, improvised and as seemingly organic and naturalistic as Nashville’s construction, is complimented by songs which members of the cast themselves wrote. For all of its casual, fleet footedness, sauntering across town from one club to the next, one hotel room to another, there are transcendent, breath-taking moments of melancholy and stillness.
A man learns of his wife’s death, his world shattered; a mother listens intently to her deaf child delight in retelling an eventful swimming lesson; the camera rests on this same woman’s face, full of longing and disbelief, as she looks upon a young singer whose latest composition was written for her. Furthermore, as well as being a thinly veiled slight aimed at the political establishment – Walker’s manifesto, blared from loudspeakers mounted on a campaign bus throughout, provides a jarring alternative soundscape to bluegrass and sporadic open mic nights – Altman’s picture also sympathises with all those who get off the bus in Hollywood with similar illusory dreams of big screen success there. Building to a simmering crescendo of sorts, where the loosely interconnected band of established performers, hopefuls, those wanting to give, and others wanting to take, will all appear together onstage for a rally, what are we to take away from this allegorical tale?
Standing beneath the columns of the Nashville Parthenon – aspiring to the great Greek seat of culture and civilisation, an immense Star-Spangled Banner flown high above, the film itself, and the nation it represents, is not built on such sturdy foundations. If and when tragedy strikes, is the answer to simply keep singing? The show must go on, but it is the masterful ways in which Altman weaves doubt, hard truths, and holds up a mirror to the hypocrisies of contemporary America, that elevates his 1975 film to be one of the decade’s greatest cinematic achievements.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63