FILMS

ALTMAN AIMS AT AMERICA, AND MISSES

John Hofsess August 1 1975
FILMS

ALTMAN AIMS AT AMERICA, AND MISSES

John Hofsess August 1 1975

ALTMAN AIMS AT AMERICA, AND MISSES

FILMS

John Hofsess

Good films extend the range of feeling and understanding in an audience. That’s the first problem with Robert Altman’s Nashville — there’s no stretch.

The present version prepared for theatrical release runs two hours and 39 minutes and was edited down from 10 hours which Altman hopes to repackage as a series and sell to a television network. In it we follow events over several days in the lives of 24 principal characters. Most of them are Country and Western singers, some of them stars of the Grand Ole Opry, or desperate aspirants whose talents range from zero to socko. Nearly 30 songs are used in the film but none are truly the Nashville sound. Largely to save money (the film had a scant $50,000 music budget out of a $2.2 million total) musical director Richard Baskin helped some of the performers — Henry Gibson, Karen Black, Lily Tomlin (above), Keith Carradine — compose their own material. Hiring the real McCoy or acquiring the rights to their songs would have cost far more but been worth it. Baskin defends this amateur night at Nashville on the grounds that “a lot of well-known Country singers aren’t so great anyway.” The results range from acceptable parody, 200 Years (by Gibson) which opens the film, to a dirgeful ditty, It Don’t Worry Me (by Carradine) which closes the film, but neither song — nor anything heard in between — displays the energy or musicianship of first-rate Country music. The score has been praised, like everything else in the film, mostly by reviewers who don’t give a hoot for “red-neck music.” What they appreciate apparently is Altman’s backstage view of Nashville’s music industry as a metaphor for much that is wrong with contemporary America. You need only check out an album such as Chet Atkins’ Superpickers to realize how false and condescending Nashville is in treating Country music as essentially cornball stuff that anyone can compose and play. The fact that there is no show-stopping musical talent in Nashville chops the top off the movie right from the start.

So we’re left with a bicentennial morality play, a postWatergate wallow in guilty confusion. The film opens in a recording studio with Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a regional star, singing a sanctimonious hymn to America’s greatness (“We must be doin’ somethin’ right to last 200 years”). But twice he stops short to cuss out the piano player called Frog (played by music director Richard Baskin). Finally Hamilton walks out in a huff telling management he’ll cut the record when they get the proper talent to back him up, and telling Frog, “Get yer hair cut, boy. You don’t belong in Nashville.” Of course we are supposed to notice the discrepancy between Hamilton’s public image and private self, and we are encouraged to regard it as hypocrisy. But (a) the piano player really is lousy, and (b) all of us behave somewhat differently in public than in private and the occasional ironies are not proof of moral turpitude. Practically every scene in Nashville is of this sort — full of suggested commentary upon human behavior but lacking in clarity.

A BBC television correspondent named Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) wanders through a vast junkyard filled with smashed remains of old cars, intoning into her microphone, “This is America . . . bruised, bleeding, rotting, wasteful . . .” and so on. During another stroll through a huge park jammed with school buses (this being the South and all) she says such things as, “Yellow is the color of cowardice. Yellow is the color of caution. Yellow is the color of — why — the yellow peril . . .” etc. She is used throughout the film to make fatuous remarks about things that Altman wants to show the audience but not criticize directly himself — a hypocritical narrative device that might be called having your social comment and eating it too.

The film ends with an assassination. The killer, Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward), is a Bremer-like youth who stalks through the picture looking for someone famous to shoot. In the only scene that yields any information about him (a long-distance call between him and his mother) we learn that he springs from — are you ready? — an overprotective home. (“Kenny, you left your blue suit in the closet, what are you wearing?” “I don’t need my blue suit, Ma . . . ”) He finally finds what he’s looking for in the person of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), America’s latest sweetheart, who dresses in flowing white gowns and sings happy songs about mommy and daddy. Our assassin is driven stackers by all the references to mother love in her ode to My Idaho Home and shoots her stage centre between choruses.

“I don’t have any philosophies. I don’t have anything to say,” Altman told Tom Wicker of the New York Times in a recent interview when the film opened to rave reviews. “I don’t believe in propaganda. Nashville is certainly not a definitive study of a culture. It’s not even supposed to be accurate. It’s just an impression.” Altman makes the whole brouhaha over the film sound like a misunderstanding. He is a 50-year-old lapsed Catholic and devout pothead which might suggest a certain mental and moral athleticism. While certainly adventuresome, as his films over the past five years show — M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, Images, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us and California Split — he’s a hit-and-miss director wildly uneven in taste.

Like Easy Rider in the late Sixties, Nashville hits a mythological motherlode. It shows people a disfigured face of America that they want to see. Its fame, acclaim and popularity will last — with luck — all of two years. Then people will start asking, as they quite commonly do now when Easy Rider is shown on TV, “How could anything so simpleminded ever have been hailed as a masterpiece?”

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