Nashville (1975; dir. Robert Altman)—In an ironic twist that would probably delight Opal, Nashville’s clueless English journalist/groupie/hyperbole machine, BBC.com recently named Altman’s rambling network narrative about country music, hero worship, God, America, life, liberty and all the rest, one of the 25 greatest American films. But I’m not part of its fan club. I wouldn’t show it to anyone as evidence of Altman’s genius, either; I’d lead with something earlier (California Split, McCabe and Mrs. Miller) or later (Short Cuts, Gosford Park) to make my case. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Nashville is a beloved work from a major artist I respect and admire that leaves me wondering what I’m missing, no matter how many times I see it.
Forty years later, Nashville’s combination of triple-decker sound design and gliding, rubbernecking three- and four-way imagery remains stimulating and fun to roam around in. But an awful lot of fat and filler gunks up this cynical 160-minute pep rally, and the alleged viewer freedom offered by Altman’s roving zooms and overlapping dialogue is seldom as radical as its reputation. Plus, the country music that keeps the film a-goin’ is often just plain bad, particularly during a wheel-spinning 20-minute concert sequence at The Grand Ole Opry. Whatever topical humor folks chuckled at back then is out of date by now, although some of the most outlandish satirical touches have indeed turned into prophecy; the campaign speeches droning on from the Hal Phillip Walker-mobile sound Trump-like in their button-pushing iconoclasm and defiant claims to political-outsider legitimacy.
Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean in Nashville
Notwithstanding key physical and emotional contributions from polyestered, pot-bellied presences like Alan Garfield and Ned Beatty (“I’m gonna hard-boil me a couple eggs”), a thrillingly brief Elliott Gould cameo wherein he smartasses his way through a log-cabin luncheon, and everything about the indomitable Lily Tomlin, the most affecting scenes involve men humiliating and embarrassing women. Several small moments—a singer (Christina Raines) chanting unreturned “I love you”s in a hotel bed while her bedmate and band member (Keith Carradine) snoozes next to her, or Barbara Harris lurking and peeping from the wings like the Phantom of The Opry as her pantyhose and dignity tear and fray—secretly prepare you for the big, unforgettable ones. Like the meandering monologue by troubled singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely, who wrote this scene the night before shooting) that sabotages her riverboat concert. Or the off-key, mostly artificial and completely deluded Gwen Welles’ disastrous performance at a men-only Hal Phillip Walker benefit. When it comes to the women of Nashville, you may say they ain’t free. And it do worry me. Grade: B