Buying Nashville

by Steven Abrahams

from Jump Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 6-7
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

There is so much “information” about characters and lifestyles in Robert Altman’s new film, NASHVILLE, that the temptation is to accept the film only on its own most apparent terms—as brief descriptive fragments of a larger system which is never made manifest. With most films, that system is largely identifiable with the politics of studio, producer, director, and screenwriter, or some combination thereof. With Altman’s films, however, determining critical perspective is complicated by the fact that his material often remains on the level of its characters. It rarely rises to the level of statement, where ideology is more apparent. Certain earlier Altman films ease this dilemma by functioning as parody (BREWSTER McCLOUD) or as descriptions of marginal subcultures (CALIFORNIA SPLIT). NASHVILLE, though, does not simply parody its subject, and its concerns can hardly be dismissed as marginal. The questions to which the film points—the nature of popular art, the relation of culture to politics, and that of performer to audience—are vital for critics of popular culture. These concerns require that this film be pieced back together so that Altman’s work may be politically evaluated with respect to both form and content.

Altman’s statement in NASHVILLE is complicated by the formal structure of the film, his much-acclaimed development of twenty-four characters through overlapping subplots. The potential advantages in challenging traditional film narrative are numerous. This multi-character structure—by eliminating a focus on two or three main characters—facilitates presentating reality as interpretive, conflicting experiences. As in Marcel Ophuls’ THE SORROW AND THE PITY, this structure can highlight the political context of an historical moment by presenting many interpretations in conflict with one another. The difficulty with NASHVILLE is that Altman’s commitment is neither to social documentation nor to melodramatic contrivance. The film’s structure allows for an unevenness in which characterizations range from believable, sympathetic portrayals to broad caricatures (such as Geraldine Chaplin’s Opal from the BBC). In thus allowing actors and actresses some measure of control in interpreting their characters, Altman’s process taps new sources of creativity, at the same time as it obscures the film’s overall intentions. Are we meant to see the characters in relation to their roles in the world of music and politics, or do we cheer the performers? Clearly Altman tries for both goals, but he’s ultimately more comitted to entertainment than to analysis.

The film’s opening sequence presents all the characters as products for our consumption (a mocking advertisement for the film) and the recording session with Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson). These images give insight into the theme of art as product. Increasingly, though, the film builds on melodrama, which encourages identifying with the characters and perceiving their music as personal expression. This conflict—between art as product and art as personal expression—is a focal one for mass culture, both film and music. NASHVILLE attempts to give some analysis of the culture and also to cash in on the audience’s tendency to love the performers and to buy their art.

In the film’s final scene, we are swayed from one emotion to another—from the triumphant performance of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) to the assassination and finally to the charismatic rendition of “It Don't Worry Me.” The final triumph over adversity is an emotional catharsis for the audience, and all insight into this politically loaded situation is drowned in the emotion. Those final moments of NASHVILLE provide important clues about Altman’s priorities and his ideas about art and politics.

For Altman, the successful performer is one who, through the performance, transcends the moment’s concreteness, such as personal problems and distance from audience. The music which results may be a song about everyday, ordinary reality (as in most country and western music). But, it is important to recognize that it is a song about the everyday, sung by a star who is performing for an audience. In NASHVILLE, the real stars make these transformations so effortlessly that we accept them as people singing about their lives. Barbara Jean sings from her soul, and her music inspires love and hate as if she were truly intimate with her fans. She falls apart between songs—when her emotional problems overwhelm her, and the audience loses sympathy for her. The character of Tom (Keith Carradine) on- and off-stage reflects this same definition of the successful performer. We are clued as to how he uses his music for purposes of seduction, as something he creates (a product) for selfish gain. Nevertheless, in his nightclub performance of “I'm Easy, he becomes transformed into a man singing a love song to a woman who has come to see him. Finally, when Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) sings “It Don't Worry Me,” we know she is destined to be the new star. She is transformed from a frazzled, inarticulate runaway wife into a performer who comes to life and makes personal contact with the audience.

The issue is not whether performers do, in fact, make personal contact with their audience and sing songs (or act parts) which draw on personal experience. Of course they do, and part of a successful (non-Brechtian) performance is built on the illusion of personal contact between artist and audience. But that aspect of art, the personal expression, is only a half-truth, especially regarding mass cultural forms like country music and the narrative film. The other truth, the larger truth, defines art also as a commodity. NASHVILLE’s complexity and confusion stem from the fact that Altman has glimpsed but shied away from this larger truth. If we ultimately perceive the film’s stars as struggling individuals, we lose the focus on the structure of the Nashville music industry. Such ambivalence has certain parallels with Altman’s position as a filmmaker.

Altman is a relatively independent filmmaker whose films (other than M.A.S.H.) have not had great financial success. Altman is treated critically as an artist with minimal commercial concerns. NASHVILLE, though, is a turning point, especially considering the film’s elaborate plan of distribution (prime coverage in major magazines, concurrent sound track sales) and the future film projects which Altman has lined up (with the financial backing of 0mb de Laurentis). Likewise, country and western music is making important changes from its mythic definition as the undiluted expression of the common man to a recognition of the growth of the Nashville music industry. In fact, there has always been a powerful commercial aspect to the music of Nashville. WSM (the radio station which broadcasts the Grand Ole Opry to millions of listeners) stands for “We Shield Millions” and has been a profitable enterprise for the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. The new Opryland, which is seen in Altman’s film, is a $40 million complex with television facilities. It reflects the gloss and sophistication which accompanies the industry’s phenomenal growth. The danger for the audience is the perception of this art, whether Altman’s films or Nashville’s music, as somehow transcendent over commercial facts, as art which is not a commodity. The film NASHVILLE begins to deal explicitly with the economic context of its characters. But it ultimately reinforces popular myths about performers as apolitical, noncommercial artists.

In relation to the politics of the performers in his film, Altman is aware of the artist’s classic denial of interest in politics:

Lady Pearl: “We never let Haven Hamilton take sides politically.”
Bill: “I don't care about politics.”
Tom: “I don't vote for nobody for President.”

Barnet: “No politics. No governments. No nothing.”

By situating these comments in a Presidential campaign which draws these performers into participation, Altman presents these denials as myopic and ineffectual. Yet beyond seeing through the characters’ protests, the film audience never sees the political campaign’s broad reality either. The candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, is never seen. Rather, he is heard presenting his platform through campaign vans to non-listening drivers and pedestrians. The campaign is essentially populist in nature, full of appeals to the common man’s sense of frustration with the system of taxes, manipulation by lawyers, rising prices, and even the meaninglessness of the National Anthem. John Triplette (Michael Murphy), the front man for the candidate, sells his man to everyone as if it were not a question of politics, just good common sense and show-business acumen. If Walker is a candidate modeled after George Wallace, Altman has avoided presenting the “harder” issues of racism and foreign policy. We, too, are forced into a kind of myopia in which fragments of common sense are substituted for issues. The final political rally is just another concert with the hint of something larger in the ominous black limousines and the huge, billowing U.S. flag.

The politics of NASHVILLE are, finally, discernable in the film’s formal structure. With twenty-four characters, a variety of sub-plots, and multiple sound tracks, Altman situates the viewer in a complex world, seemingly without a coherent political perspective. We must locate the film’s politics both in this absence of a broad political analysis and in the presented level of the text. On the level of the text itself, Altman presents a commercial art which is more self-expressive than product related and a political campaign which is more commonsensical than issue-oriented. Because there is no consistent attempt at parody or analysis, NASHILLE leaves us on an experiential level where myths and half-truths about popular culture are reinforced rather than systematically challenged.