By Jessica Singer
Robert Altman’s Nashville is famous for effectively capturing a unique time and place in cultural history: the country music circuit of mid 1970s Nashville, Tennessee, America’s country music capital. Yet Nashville covers far more terrain than that for which it is most often given credit. Yes, metaphorically, the film serves to critique American culture, commercialism, and the political hypocrisy of the 1970s, but the values exhibited and explored here are quite universal and apply just as well to modern-day society. And really, this film is not just about politics anyway. It’s about people: the stories they tell, the ways in which they see themselves, and the ways in which they want others to see them. These characters feel real- they alternately exhibit vulnerability and pride, insecurity and vanity, stubbornness and tenderness. A web of relationships and circumstances inspiring all of these human tendencies would certainly sound like a lot to cover, but this seems to be the very story that Robert Altman, with his trademark style of ensemble filmmaking, was born to tell.
Shortly before creating Nashville, Altman was asked by United Artists to direct a film that was to, conveniently, feature many of the country songs that company had recently bought. Altman had no interest in directing a vehicle designed to publicize United Artists’ music, and he turned the offer down cold, but he did take a liking to the Nashville setting. He decided to send his script supervisor, Joan Tewkesbury, there to observe the culture and take notes. The diary Tewkesbury kept during that time turned into the screenplay for Nashville. Interestingly, Tewkesbury incorporated the character of a BBC reporter trying to find meaning amidst the Nashville scene- a character (minus the obnoxious and shallow traits!) to whom she felt much akin during her own time there.
The film takes place over one busy weekend, with the characters interacting in various ways as they converge in Nashville to prepare for a political rally that is to feature an all-star country music concert. An elusive presidential primary candidate (whom we never actually see), running under the banner of the “Replacement Party”, has orchestrated the rally in hopes of displaying support for the campaign from the area’s country stars. We follow the story lines of the country music stars as well as the music scene’s wannabes, groupies, and politicians as the film unfolds.
Altman includes no fewer than 24 lead roles in Nashville, and manages to interweave the stories of every one of those characters. In this way, Nashville fits right into, and perhaps most perfectly exemplifies, Altman’s unique brand of ensemble filmmaking (as seen in such films as A Wedding, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, and A Prairie Home Companion). The influence that this style of cinema had on future filmmakers is profound, inspiring directors such as P.T. Anderson, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, and Stephen Soderbergh. The practice of intertwining plotlines organized around an occupational or lifestyle theme became increasingly popular, and was used in films as diverse as Parenthood and Boogie Nights, among countless others. On television, Altman’s groundbreaking influence basically led to what is now one of the most popular kinds of television series- that of the ensemble cast-exemplified in such shows as “E.R”.
In the 1970s, however, Altman’s style was rebellious. He did not fit into the confines of genre, or any confines, for that matter. Rather, his was “messy” filmmaking: full of chaotic snippets of scenes and unresolved subplots. Nashville is over two and a half hours long, and includes over an hour of country music performances, not to mention that cast of 24 characters. For some, Nashville is meandering, frustrating, and hard to follow; for others, it is artful, well-crafted, and revelatory.
Altman aims, above all, for realism; when watching Nashville, one almost feels as if one is spying, watching people’s lives unfold as they would in real life, letting these people and their stories speak for themselves. The film was shot almost entirely in sequence, and the actors spent much of their own time in character. To master the realistic, natural effect, Altman, as usual, made use of overlapping dialogue- the way people really talk- as well as the talents of his actors, whom he let improvise a great deal of the time. Contrary to popular belief, though, the film did begin with a solid script, which was left largely intact, to which its writer would attest. The character’s actions were dictated in the screenplay, but actors were often allowed to write their own lines and submit them to Joan Tewksbury. Geraldine Chaplin, as Opal, for example, actually wrote all of the ridiculous metaphors she rambles off in the junkyard and bus yard, while Scott Glenn, Keenan Wynn, and Gwen Welles strictly followed the script. In addition, most of the songs performed by the actors (and there are many) were actually written by those actors, and they’re surprisingly good!
Altman said to a reporter at the time of Nashville, “If we had just taken what was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary. One head, no matter how good — well, it just can’ be the same as everyone bringing something to it”. Fittingly, Altman relied greatly on his sound engineers and cinematographers (in addition to his actors) to achieve his desired effect.
Nashville made use of Altman’s new eight-track sound system, which he and sound engineers Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin had just developed for Altman’ company, Lion’s Gate. This system made it possible for Altman to record sound live on set with microphones alone, with Webb and McLaughlin handling the radio miking of up to twelve characters in a single scene. Post-dubbing was eliminated, and Altman could later mix and un-mix to achieve his multi-layered soundtrack.
Just as this sound design allowed Altman to pick up more minor-character and background noise, the unconventional cinematography also allowed for more realistic and robust filmmaking. Altman used multiple cameras and lit entire environments instead of individual shots, so that his actors had complete freedom of movement. The actors often were not privy to information on which angle would be used, a tactic that prevented them from playing to a camera. The camera would pick up on conversations and then pull out to another conversation, and so on and so on, often quickly cutting from scene to scene.
Though not quite as commercially successful as M*A*S*H had been in 1970 (audiences were becoming more interested in blockbusters like Jaws in 1975), Nashville was still embraced by audiences and critics alike, and it quickly brought Altman, at the height of his career, back into the public eye. The relatively unknown-at-the-time actors who comprised the cast (Ronee Blakley, Karen Black, Henry Gibson, Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Baxley, Geraldine Chaplin, Gwen Welles, Ned Beatty, Barbara Harris, and Michael Murphy, to name a few), were also celebrated. In fact, there was speculation that year that for the first time in Oscar history the entire supporting actress category might consist of five actresses from the same movie, but only Lily Tomlin’s gospel singer and Ronee Blakely’s fragile country star (based loosely on the life of Loretta Lynn) ended up being nominated in the end. Nashville also received Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay was ignored, most likely because people assumed the film had been almost completely improvised by the actors. Nashville ended up losing the Oscars for which it was nominated that year to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Nashville’s one Oscar went to Keith Carradine’s folksy “I’m Easy”for Best Song), but, to this day, the Altman masterpiece is still considered one of the greatest films of the 1970s.