Altman’s open surface

by Jane Feuer

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 31-32
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

In the opening sequence of NASHVILLE, the camera follows the Replacement Party’s truck along a downtown street; a porno theater is in prominent view. A high school girls’ drill team greets Barbara Jean at the airport; instead of batons, they are twirling guns. Outside the airport, the camera observes a group of cars pull out of a parking lot in perfect formation. The film is made up of thousands of such tiny observations, and it is this accumulation of detail, rather than the foregrounding of any single incident, that allows critics to say that Altman is making metaphors for America. NASHVILLE has more of a documentary quality than do Altman’s earlier films. Gone are many of the stylistic flourishes of the earlier films—the heavily filtered beautifying photography, the turtle-paced zoom shots, the slow motion deaths.

NASHVILLE thus seems to have affinities with the “open” film, the film of revelation in which “reality” unfolds without guidance from the director. Taking many of his examples from the postwar Italian cinema, Andre Bazin valorized this type of film which had no dramatic structure in the usual sense. Perhaps the furthest extreme of the open film occurs in cinema verite, where the drama arises or does not arise out of actual events, filmed in the most unobtrusive way possible. Altman in NASHVILLE keeps his camera at a distance to observe an event, such as the high angle point of observation of the traffic accident. A couch falls off one car, and we watch as ten other cars collide. It is comedy without comment. Or is it? Characteristically, Altman will choose an environment and let it reveal itself. In THIEVES LIKE US, a mania for Coca Cola and constant radio broadcasts seem to emerge from the milieu itself. One watches the film and thinks, “This is the South, this is the depression.” But it is always Altman’s view of the South. Altman’s casual, on-location filming technique may be related to that of open filmmaking, but only insofar as the revelation of a milieu is part of Altman’s style. Details are not merely given, they are’ selected and patterned. In the traffic accident used as an example above, the scene is commented upon by the British journalist, Opal: “It’s America, all those cars crashing into one another.” To place this seemingly editorial remark in context, one must understand Opal’s role in the film. Throughout the film, she provides the kind of “liberal” commentary that could easily be mistaken for Altman’s own point of view. But Opal overdoes it, and her character is made so distasteful that such an interpretation must be qualified. Opal is in the film to prevent the audience from making easy generalizations about the film as a whole.

Altman’s images or symbols in NASHVILLE are, as always, naturalized (i.e., seeming to emerge out of the milieu but at the same time, chosen with care). Motor vehicles are one of the primary symbols of the film. It seems fitting that cars should play a primary role in a contemporary U.S. setting, yet their use in the film is hardly accidental. Altman’s expressed intention in NASHVILLE is to show how politics and show business are related. Both are manufactured, like automobiles, and both make a lot of noise and lead to expressions of violence—important themes in Altman’s films. When the political slogan—New Roots for America—is projected against the sky on a blimp, the promotional icons of politics and show business are united. Altman’s hitherto implicit commentary on the surfaces of U.S. culture becomes explicit in NASHVILLE.

There is a social dimension to Altman’s work, and his NASHVILLE does bear same relationship to an actual city in Tennessee. In their outwardly referential, self-conscious dimension, Altman’s films can be compared to those of Godard. Both directors make films that are in some sense parodies—they play on the conventions of other films. But Godard is a far more intellectual and political filmmaker than is Altman. Instead of employing a loose narrative, Godard questions narrative itself by constantly breaking into the self-contained world of his fiction with quotations, printed. titles, lines of dialog calling attention to the fact that “this is a movie.”

Also like Godard, Altman has played very consciously with genre conventions. THE LONG GOODBYE incorporates all of the staples of the detective genre in distorted form, so that we are always aware that we are watching a detective movie. the title song pops up in unexpected places—in a bar, on the car radio of Altman’s Jewish gangster. The gateman does imitations of movie stars. Marlowe is interrogated as the police watch through a one-way mirror; Marlowe plays to this mirror, smearing his face with the finger printing ink. In McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, the standard images of the Western—the raising of the town, the funeral, the shootout at the end—are parodied. As Godard has shown, to parody a genre is to comment on it, evaluate it. The funeral scene in McCABE could not exist without the model of “classic” Westerns such as John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS. In both films the community clusters around the grave and sings hymns. In the world of-Ford’s Westerns, the, funeral is a ritual that serves to solidify a tightly-knit community, threatened from the outside but internally unified. But in having Mrs. Miller’s whores sing the hymns, Altman takes the West off Ford’s mythic plane, modernizes it.

Altman’s West could never be a Fordian community. No matter what setting he uses, his fictional worlds always resemble the world of the contemporary United States. Altman has given us not one but many Americas—the gambling world of CALIFORNIA SPLIT, the army camp in M*A*S*H*, space-age Houston in BREWSTER McCLOUD, to name a few. All of these are decadent societies whose stability is threatened. McCabe’s mining town is dominated by the whorehouse not the saloon; the strict sanctions of Army life are destroyed by the pranks of the M*A*S*H* heroes; Gould’s Marlowe inhabits a Southern California far more time and space bound than the almost indistinguishable underworlds of the genre proper.

The casualness of Altman’s dramatic construction parallels these themes of decadence. Without a tightly constructed plot, we are not cued as to which are the important scenes. In McCABE a tough looking cowboy rides into town, apparently to gun down McCabe, only to wind up cavorting at the whorehouse as the real killer appears.

The other side to this casual flow of events is violence, violence which can erupt at any time and which need not be motivated. The young thug in McCABE shoots Keith Carradine’s good natured cowboy; the Jewish gangster mutilates his lover’s face; in CALIFORNIA SPLIT Elliot Gould is repeatedly beat up by a fellow gambler; and in NASHVILLE Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton are shot at a political rally. These moments of incredible violence permeate Altman’s films and give the lie to the casual ambiance of their surfaces. The outbursts of violence are foregrounded. McCabe enters into a poker game obscured by a medley of voices, but he dies in slow motion. In THIEVES LIKE US Bowie plays at robbery and murder as if it were the baseball career he might have aspired to in a different environment, but he is gunned to death in a seemingly endless take. In Altman’s decaying societies, the casual surfaces and the violent undersides intertwine. They are not opposite poles but rather two complementary manifestations of worlds gone berserk.

In NASHVILLE this counterpoint of complacency and violence is explicitly tied to 1970’s politics. It would be possible but misleading to provide a motivation for the murder. A young man comes to Nashville with Hal Phillip Walker campaign literature in the back seat of his car. Pearl indulges in maudlin sentimentalizing of “the Kennedy boys.” Opal presents a theory about political assassinations, saying that people who carry guns inspire assassins; Altman cuts to the young man. This young man is shown to have mother problems; he hears Barbara Jean singing about her ma and pa; he shoots Barbara Jean. All of these threads run through the film and can be pieced together, but that misses the point. The assassination is of necessity capricious. Anyone could be the killer and anyone could be the victim in a world where violence runs very close to a surface of complacency. Haven Hamilton’s words when he is wounded—this isn't Dallas, it’s Nashville—must be taken ironically.

NASHVILLE’s dramatic structure appears to be of amore documentary nature than in earlier films because he has abandoned the unifying consciousness of a protagonist. The Altman hero or antihero, Marlowe or McCabe or Bowie, existed on the periphery of an established world. We saw that world from his point of view which was never an inside view. In NASHVILLE, this play between outsiders and an established social order is split into multiple consciousnesses but the contrast remains. The outsiders serve as threads that unify and focus. Geraldine Chaplin’s obnoxious journalist is one of these. She is the most obvious of the outsiders and becomes a mouthpiece for certain stereotyped views of the United States. The other prominent outsider is Triplett, the political organizer who courts everyone indiscriminately. He tells the rock singers that they will serve as an antidote to “redneck music,” yet he offers Haven Hamilton the governorship of Tennessee.

The earlier Altman hero may well be a romantic, he may aspire to the old virtues of loyalty, romantic love, acts of valor, but these values are impossible in a decadent milieu. Marlowe and McCabe are at once cynical and naive. Marlowe trusts his friend who betrays him. McCabe’s smart business dealings boomerang upon him. Acts of heroism seem out of place, meaningless. McCabe has his grudging revenge in the superimposed snow while Mrs. Miller goes out in the slow zoom of an opium dream. Marlowe dances off to the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood.” It’s all been just a movie, we are told. There are no heroes in Southern California.

To hinder identification with the characters in NASHVILLE, Altman has made them as distasteful as possible. they are not exactly stick figures but they are not psychologically deep. They lack the ambiguities of Marlowe or McCabe—we never wonder if any of them are heroes. To give these personages psychological depth, to encourage audience identification with them, would run counter to the entire thrust of the film, a portrait of a world in which the individual has become just one more inaudible voice.

The density of image and sound in NASHVILLE is thus no mere technique or trademark. It is rather the culmination of all of Altman’s pictures of decadent Americas, Americas he reveals as decaying more from sensory overload than from any political corruption. We are frequently asked to take in very complicated sequences, often shown from an omniscient camera angle. Single shots become sequences and can be infinitely analyzed. In one shot-sequence Barbara Harris, who aspires to be a “country singer or a star” crosses the street. In the background are traffic noises dominated by the blaring of the campaign truck. A car stops to avoid hitting her: this causes a crash with another car. As the victims of the crash yell at one another, a couple of campaign “girls” run up to solicit votes. Such is the density of a relatively short take involving no dialog. Yet it is packed with reverberations. The crashing cars echo the earlier scene on the expressway and      n emphasize the theatricality of the political campaign (earlier, a campaign “girl” holding a Walker placard had placed herself in front of a TV commentator’s camera).

Altman has never been an explicitly political filmmaker; and NASHVILLE is not a “message” film. Rather, Altman is a meticulous observer of the surface symptoms of corruption. McCABE AND MRS. MILLER condemns capitalism at the level of its images: the dope-glazed eyes of Julie Christie and the interminable snow into which the enterprising young McCabe descends and is buried. NASHVILLE gives us the sounds of this corrupt surface: Barbara Harris trying to make her singing debut at an auto race, only to be drowned out by the buzz of cars; Sulene Gray’s (Gwen Welles’) pathetic singing obscured by shouts and jeers at the smoker; the endless drone of Opal’s voice into her tape recorder as she walks through graveyards of automobiles and buses, groping for just the right cliché. The political campaign itself is represented by a truck with a loudspeaker—no one listens to the populist sentiments it emits. Any attempt at personal expression is likely to be obscured by the noise of traffic, blaring radios, overlapping conversations. That is the thematic significance of Altman’s sound mix.

Above all the noise stands the music. The music in NASHVILLE is never extraneous, it is primary to a culture which expresses itself in popular songs. Singing is the primary mode of expression in NASHVILLE. It can epitomize a character either in terms of pathos (Sulene Gay’s “I Never Get Enough”) or of hypocrisy (as when Keith Carradine’s Rock Don Juan lures the gospel singer to his bed with the song “I'm Easy”—lyrics of commitment from a young man whose need for women to scrawl “I love you” on his mirror appears to be insatiable).

The worlds of country music and politics are mutually reinforcing. In the title sequence, Haven Hamilton is, recording a ditty for the bicentennial—“We must be doing something right, to last two hundred years.” Of course, all that follows is a direct contradiction of this lyric. The film’s final song—“You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me”—is a far more appropriate expression of the film’s mood. Singing becomes a way of lulling an audience into a celebration of its own complacency. Hal Phillip Walker spouts populist platitudes—he wants to get lawyers out of government and change the national anthem to a tune that everyone can sing. Altman suggests that “It Don't Worry Me” may be that song.

That final song crystallizes what is for me the central dilemma in NASHVILLE. The songs in NASHVILLE may be parodies but they are catchy as hell. Altman seems to be aware of the fact that every audience will interpret his film from its own political point of view. “It Don't Worry Me” continues as the images end, as if Altman wanted the audience to walk out of the theater humping the song. The audience becomes part of the crowd at the Parthenon and, depending on how we have perceived the film, we are either indicted or implicated in its world view. Such, I believe, is the depth of Altman’s cynicism, a cynicism that is revealed by Altman’s continued attempts to subvert easy liberal interpretations of the film. Altman seems to have taken into account the fact that “200 Years” would become a hit on country radio, that his film would be misunderstood. The drama of NASHVILLE’s final sequence does not end when the lights in the theater come up.