At Home Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) – Blu-ray review

June 10, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Pioneer Altman, plus several dozen settlers, set out in search of a new kind of cinema, and found the capital city of freewheeling ensemble dramas.

(Robert Altman, 1975)

Even by the adventurous standards of 1970s American cinema, Robert Altman’s magisterial ensemble drama Nashville stands out as an extraordinary statement of intent about what film could and should actually do.  Altman had spent the first half of the decade casually dismantled many of Hollywood’s favourite genres – war movie, Western, thriller and gangster flick – but in Nashville it was time to rebuild cinema in his image.

The result, while it dispenses with so much of the orthodoxy of movie-making, is a declaration of the medium’s possibilities. Nashville is novelistic in scope and texture, as it follows several dozen protagonists, yet it seldom bothers to dissect the inner lives that prose can handle so much better. Similarly, while it’s a performance piece, rich with actors and musicians, it couldn’t work on the stage because the drama is so loosely woven: it’s not a film you come to for barnstorming dialogue or acting set-pieces.

Instead, Altman skirts around the actors to focus on two even greater stars: the camerawork, and the editing. The first of those snakes langurously around, looking for interesting people to alight on as it pans, zooms, refocuses. The editing, meanwhile, is there to keep the plates spinning, refusing to let any one story dominate and gradually showing, through parallelism and ironic counter-point, how all of these apparently little, throwaway stories, can converge to a bigger meaning.

The setting is crucial, but the timing more so: the year before the bicentennial, and a chance to take stock. “We must be doing something right, to last 200 years,” sings Henry Gibson in the opening sequence; Altman spends the next two-and-a-half hours disabusing us of that notion. This is post-Kennedy, post-Watergate cinema, occasionally too on-the-nose but mostly opaque enough to work on a metaphorical level.

Altman’s Nashville is America’s soul, fought over by politicians and entertainers. It’s a world of division, where pampered, philistine stars are escorted from event to event, shielded from ordinary folk – who, in any case, are a mix of clueless wannabes, uncritical fanboys and psychos. People bumble around, hoping more for sex or stardom and ignoring the endless pronouncements by a Presidential candidate who might be a liberal hero or could be a dangerous fanatic. Meanwhile, the media, who ought to be able to expose this rotten state of affairs, is represented by the idiotic figure of Geraldine Chaplin’s BBC reporter, a naive tourist who couldn’t spot a decent story if it happened under her nose.

It’s a film very much of its time – it shares its electioneering iconography with Taxi Driver, for example – and yet remarkably prescient in the way that entertainment can be used to seduce and sweeten political pills. It’d be pretentious were it not for Altman’s aloofness; the sheer rhythm and fluidity of the film saves it from being the didactic, state-of-the-nation address it might have been. It’s possible to enjoy it as a mosaic of short stories, cleverly colliding with each other; as a satire of the music business (there are some pitch-perfect pastiches of country and Western); or as a feast for lovers of great acting, with Gibson, Lily Tomlin and Chaplin in particularly fine form.

1975 was a banner year for cinema: Nashville’s fellow Best Picture nominees were One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Jaws, Barry Lyndon and Dog Day Afternoon, arguably the Oscars’ finest ever field. Altman was largely unrewarded – save Best Song – while Cuckoo’s Nest and Jaws became emblems of the decade’s transition from character dramas to blockbusters.  Today, Nashvillelooks like a noble aberration. Even the ensemble dramas that Altman inspired, with the possible exception of Altman protégé Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, aren’t anywhere near as ambitious in terms of form or content – and that includes Altman’s own later efforts like Short Cuts or Gosford Park.  Yet Nashville remains a tantalising glimpse of a cinema built less on pre-existing forms than on the musicality of its own medium.

Nashville is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 16th June 2014.  It’s a Masters Of Cinema release, so extras are solid, including an old commentary by the late director, plus a spot-on essay by Adrian Martin.

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