Nashville and the
American dream

by Michael Klein

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

“I was once a tool of oppression
And as green as a sucker could be
And monopolies banded together
To beat a poor hayseed like me.”
-- Populist campaign song, 1890.

“Price of bread may worry some
But it don't worry me ...
Economy’s depressed, not me ...
And you may say I ain't free
But it don't worry me.”
-- NASHVILLE, 1975.

The NYC house critics have been unanimous in their praise of NASHVILLE and in viewing it as a satire upon the grotesqueries of “middle America.” Even Irwin Silber, writing in the Marxist weekly, The Guardian, has taken this tack in a review subtitled “country music unmasked.” Silber praises the film for “capturing the mood of decay in America today,” finds the roots of the country music in the film in “the backward consciousness of a Southern white populism,” “a Ku Klux Klan mentality.” Silber defines the film as a successful exposé of the business code of the country and western music industry, of “imperious superstars extolling the virtues of simplicity” and of “joyless sex (as) stepping stones to center stage or just rewards of stardom.”

Rex Reed, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, also regards Altman’s film as a satire, but finds it “vicious, malicious” and therefore anti-people:

“What emerges is a let’s get the dumb slobs out there in the silent majority and blame them for everything that’s wrong with the country kind of movie.”

From these and other reviews one would think NASHVILLE was scripted by Terry Southern from a novel by Jacqueline Susann, and directed by John Huston. On the contrary, NASHVILLE may very well be one of the best U.S. films in the last twenty-five years. If so it is neither because it debunks the country and western music industry, nor solely as a result of its many scenes of acute satire.

NASHVILLE (in some respects like John Dos Passos’ novel USA) is a non-linear narrative montage about the United States that takes a sympathetic view of the people as victims of commercial capitalist-induced cultural dislocation. As the people’s roots in a semi-subsistence (agrarian/small business) capitalist society are destroyed by the march of monopoly and finance, they are further oppressed by inversions of humane personal values and idealized familial relations of the past.

Dos Passos symbolized this by having an advertising man pervert Emerson’s “self-reliance” into a commercial for quack “self-medication.” He portrayed the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti as a sacrifice “which would make the old words new,” although at the end of the mass protest meetings the United States “stood defeated.” Altman is similarly ambiguous: the people’s need for the old communal values may be perverted by proto-fascist demagogues, especially as they (and Altman) have little sense of the class needs in society. However, their democratic ideals and a communal sense of endurance are strengths which the people still possess and which may contribute to renewal in the future.

Altman communicates his vision of change in the United States by a rhetorical style of reverse irony. The film begins as an acute and humorous satire of the surface reality of a decadent U.S. “empire” (Altman’s term for the United States in “It don't worry me,” the song that accompanies the opening credits). A cowboy singer records a song of praise to the tradition of General Patton and Vietnam. There is a multiple car crash on the freeway -- car crash as spectacle of commodity fetishism -- more effective than Godard’s sequence in WEEKEND. The huge neo-classical building in the heart of Nashville that is a symbol of the Republic is revealed to be a fake; even the original was a hollow plaster of paris facade.

Altman’s direction of the actors further contributes to the style of ironic Brechtian distance. Because the cast was allowed to write some of their own lines and to improvise, they tend to perform with an exaggerated realism that approaches symbolic stylization. This is especially notable in the crowd scenes in which many of the minor performers act with an intensity equal to that of the major figures in the foreground, producing images that are a mixture of documentary and cabaret.

However, as NASHVILLE progresses, the rhetorical parody often negates itself. The conventions and clichés of the commercial culture are revealed as a distortion of what in fact are legitimate human values and needs. Altman’s main vehicle for this is a very precise counterpointing of the main characters. Although we tend to be dislocated by Altman’s paratactic cutting from character to character and story to story, the method functions to convey the film’s perspective. In general, figures of integrity are counterpointed to figures who reflect the decadence of Nashville.

For example, a black restaurant worker is contrasted to a black performer who makes his way to success singing imitation country style music. In one scene the restaurant worker heckles, “the goo-goo man of the hour,” accusing him of cultural prostitution. Also, throughout the film he warns his white woman friend against the perils of the record industry she is trying to break into and comforts her after her star-climbing misadventures. Because of this, and because he comes across in simple human terms (that is neither as a liberal saint nor as a superfly avenger), the portrayal conveys a strong anti-racist statement.

Another example is the neglected wife of a local promotion man, a mother of two deaf mute children. She is counterpointed to a James Taylor sort of rock singer and three of his casual pickups -- the wife of his co-partner who is also a singer in the rock group; a groupie from California who flits around Nashville selfishly neglecting to visit a close relation who is dying of cancer in the hospital; and a jet set reporter from the BBC who is doing a documentary about superamerica and its fab celebrities.

Early in the film we witness a very moving scene in which the mother talks in sign language and half phrases with her mute children. Later in the film, in bed with the rock star who has composed a song “I'm Easy” especially for her (and another woman), she talks to him in sign-language, the language of her mute children, the most important source of love and giving in her life. A few minutes later he orders another mistress by telephone, while she dresses to return to a marriage that is both a trap and a source of meaning. Her plight echoes one of the songs sung earlier in the film (an example of the way that clichéd country and western music often refracts real situations):

“I can't leave my wife
There are three reasons why
Jimmy and Kathy and sweet Lorelei.”

It is significant that a line from one of the old style love lament songs—“It’s that careless disrespect”—negates the rock singer’s “I'm Easy” contemptuous treatment of women. It is sung by Barbara Jean, a farm girl who has become a star singer. She is the main representative of value in NASHVILLE, a factor that has been generally overlooked by the many critics who have praised Ronee Blakley’s performance and singing but have neglected to inquire into its meaning.

While Barbara Jean is the central figure in the film, and as such is set in relation to most of the other characters, two are placed in especially interesting counterpoint. The first is Connie White, her new rival who performs country ballads in the new sleek style. The second is a young cafeteria waitress who carefully attempts to copy Barbara Jeans manner. However, she is a pathetic parody, for she sings not from Barbara dean’s social and personal experience but merely from emulation and a desire to find happiness by entering the star world of the modern American dream. We discover that there is a quality beyond technique that creates an affinity between the real singer and her audience—she reflects their experience and submerged longings.

Early in the film we view Barbara Jean’s arrival at the Nashville airport. It is the sort of lyrical scene that Raoul Coutard excelled at: a long shot of an airplane landing, the main character emerges and walks swiftly across the screen. Only in NASHVILLE the image has depth and isn't planimetric: as the scene develops, another plane arrives in the background, at an angle to the first. Then the camera pulls back and situates her arrival within the social spectacle: Barbara Jean returns to Opryland after convalescing from a serious accident. However, in the middle of the hoopla and promotion, she collapses, a small figure in the midst of the crowd. The ostensible reason is strain, frailty of personality.

But it is more than this. She is class-split and culturally dislocated. A farmer’s daughter has become a star, singing songs from her childhood culture. Her art, rooted in the values of an idealized agrarian society, is now archaically situated in a spectacle of commercial decadence. No wonder she cracks up.

“When I fell my life vanishing
Like waves upon the sand,
With nothing to replace it but invention,
So I make my rhymes and sing my song,
Still they don't understand.”

She stands on the stage interrupting her songs with tales about the past. It begins as conventional patter, but soon something is wrong. Barbara Jean stops singing and starts to talk about her grandmother’s false teeth, and her Wizard of Oz childhood (the millennium somewhere over the rainbow). Nobody—the audience, the band, even Barbara Jean—understands what is taking place, although it has been prefigured in her songs. Her alienation is both a personal and a social tragedy.

“Momma and Daddy raised me with love and care,
They sacrificed so that I could have a better share,
They fed me and nursed me
And sent me to school,
Momma taught me how to sing
Daddy lived the golden rule ...”

She sings not only of a lost past but of a past that has been idealized, and as such represents a utopian wish for something better than the present social system and culture. It is true that neither Barbara Jean nor Altman makes as explicit a dialectical connection between the old collective familial values and future social change as, for example George Jackson did in the prison letters that were written to his father.

“No one believes me when I tell them you never went to a night club or finger poppers party during the twenty years that I remember. I don't think any man in the U.S. would have reacted as you did concerning that incident with the Hudson car, fixing it with your hands and driving it for five years in that condition ... I think I see the larger historical concept in its full detail. The obligation you felt toward us I feel toward history.” -- Soledad Brother, p. 98.

However, it is this need for social connection to which Barbara Jean’s alienated, atomized audience responds, however mystified and idealist the expression. The source of her great popularity, and of the music the film reflects in other scenes, is expression of contemporary pain and projection of a familiar utopian ideal in common terms:

“And I know there must be something someplace
and some way to live
So just help me keep from sliding down some more.”

In the final scene of the film, Barbara Jean is shot by an assassin who was awaiting the arrival of the candidate at a concert at which she is appearing. As the crowd is at the point of panic, one of the minor characters in the film, a figure out of God’s Little Acre who has come to Nashville in quest of stardom, walks onto the stage and begins to sing. The crowd joins in and disorder is averted.

One the one hand the ritual-like death of Barbara Jean is not in any immediate sense a scene of renewal. The song that is sung—“It don't bother me”—is a far cry from either the utopian laments of contemporary country music, or the Populist radical ballads of a preceding generation. On the surface level it is bleak satire: passive acceptance of economic exploitation and cultural oppression, an ironic hymn to a spurious sense of individual freedom—an atomized internalization of the U.S. empire. As the camera cranes back we see that both the people and the business elements behind the proto-fascist campaign have joined in the song.

“Cause in my empire life is sweet ...
And life may be a one way street

But it don't worry me.”

One aspect of the final image (perhaps primary) points sadly toward present dangers of incipient fascism. However, the intensity of the final scene arises from the interplay of this sense of immolation with another quality. When Barbara Jean is shot, her co-singer Haven Hamilton is wounded. Nevertheless he rises to the occasion, calls to the crowd to keep calm and asks for a song. Suddenly a person we have caught a glimpse of trying to escape from a dirt farm life comes out of the wings and a new folk star is born, all tears and torn stockings. As she sings, the camera pans bringing many of the characters of the film into spatial connection. The song is taken up by a black gospel choir, and soon the whole community joins in.

When she breaks off singing to say, “Dead people is free from pain, y'know,” we respond with compassion. For “It don't worry me” isn't sung lightly and ironically as it was over the credits at the start of the film. It is now sung with pathos in blues style as a sad acknowledgement of social problems and personal pain, as well as an attempt by denial to escape from the fear and the pain. As the people in the crowd join in, a potential source of strength is revealed in opposition to the surface words of the song. There is a possibility that the hopes, ideals and resources of the people that are being corrupted by present society might be a harbinger of the future. We are left with the contradiction, and also with a renewed sense that the needs of the people may only be truly fulfilled by negation of the social system that has (in Marx’s words) “torn asunder” human connections and values.