“Writin’ it down kinda makes me feel better”: Robert Altman’s “Nashville”

2 October, 2008 (00:03) | by Richard T. Jameson, Essays, Film Reviews, Robert Altman | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News no. 43, September 1975]

Nashville is a film with a mirror in it. The mirror is Robert DoQui’s face; specifically, his face at that moment when Jeff Goldblum takes the cap off the saltshaker at the airport lunch counter, pours the salt into his left hand, lifts the left hand and waves the salt bye-bye as if it had fluttered from his fingers like a swallow to fly back to Capistrano, then makes a pass over his salad with his right hand and spreads the salt just where it belongs. Robert DoQui’s face gives back a replica of the viewer’s own expression at that point. Or no, not quite. Gwen Welles is called over to fill in the proper glow of mystified delight. She leans across Goldblum’s salad and beams, “How’d you do that?”

Just a few of the faces of "Nashville"

I was lucky. I saw Nashville a month before it opened locally. I had scarcely any notion of what I was going to see. I knew Pauline Kael had done a warp-9 ecstasy over it before it was even finished, but I hadntstill haventread what she had to say. Even after my first look, I avoided reading most reviews and articles dealing with the film, although the knowledge that they were piling up in unprecedented numbers began to irritate and slightly intimidate me. I mention this by way of apology for any redundancy in what follows; Id had a lot of fun with the movie and didnt want to spoil my chance to have fun with an article about it. Inevitably, reports reached me, bits and pieces, quotable quotes bannered by the ads and bounced off from by some of the few writers I did read. These reinforced my conviction that anyone desiring to meet Nashville on its own eminently meetworthy terms should abstain from reading about it, be very rude to well-meaning friends who will understandably feel compelled to hymn their favorite scenes, and avoid listening to the too-categorically-synoptic trailer that identifies each of the 24 star characters who wend their ways through this tortuous but rewarding cinematic terrain. The present discussion is not excepted and the as-yet-nonviewer is urged to peel away after the three asteriskswhich, be it noted, are not red, white, and blue.

Nashville is a mystery, and the thing to get straight right away is that the mystery not only isnt going to be solvedit cant be, and shouldnt be, solved. What are mysteries for? You read the solution and put the nightlight out and go to sleep and forget the whole thing. Itd be a pure shame to forget any piece of Nashville. This mystery deserves to remain viable, for viability is what its all about.

We had some ground rules, you gave me some truth.

It begins with the Paramount mountain, anachronistically black-and-white and streaked with scratches. Immediately this is blasted offscreen by a welter of color and sound. The voice of a huckster, paced only a little slower than the tobacco auctioneer who used to cry Sooolld American in the commercials, becomes intelligible a few beats into a spiel about Robert Altmans Nashville, two years in the making. In the center of the Panavision frame the cartoonish faces of the two dozen star performers flash on one after the other while at left their names roll up the screen in alphabetical order and at right a list of the films hit songs crawls downward. Snatches of the songs cut across the spiel and the title NASHVILLE itself, reiterated at the announcement of every second or third name, splashes diagonally overall in various unspeakably garish tints. Its an outrageously accurate facsimile of one of those record-album shills that endlessly punctuate the programming of syndication-swamped TV stations. Perversely, the stars weve never heard of tend to rate the heftiest adjectivizing: …the fantastic Scott Glenn…not to mention the terrific David Hayward…and the all-time great Dave Peel… The multilayered aptness of it all will, of necessity, become apparent only as the film unreels. Meanwhile, we snickerin order to head off or disguise unseemly gulping for airand privately vow to meet the challenge of a super-crammed visual and aural experience. Pile it on, Altman; catch me sleeping, huh!

And so it is that, the gauntlet thrown, the rules of the contest apparently declared, we sweep the opening image of the film proper with radar. A full frame it is, too: signs. different shapes, sizes sires of type; WALKER-TALKER-SLEEPER NO PARKING, and beside that, hand lettered, askew, NO PARKING TODAY (silly), and, yeah, sure, naturally, the center of the frame is in motion, a garage door sliding up out of sight as those billboard-style, K-Tel Products album-coverstyle faces previously occupying frame-center displaced one another in the title credits. A red-white-and-blue sound wagon heaves into view and a new voice, of one Hal Phillip Walker, Presidential candidate of the Replacement Party, launches into some (recorded?) downhome earnest talk. Oh, right, there were political posters on that garage door too. I get it: sell a movie, sell a star we never heard of, sell a politician and even a political party we never heard of. The sound truckthe Walker-Talker-Sleeper (or is the garage where the Walker-Talker Sleeps? or is Walker, the Talker, a Sleeper in the campaign?… The sound truck (as we were saying) turns onto a busy avenue and we twig: more signs. As many signs as there are signs on any normal street. And it is a street, after all, a chunk of available actuality beyond the comprehensive reconstruction of the most assiduous art director. The camera eye, led by the movement of the Walker wagon and then just as naturally reoriented to accept the compositional imperative of a perspective-dominating thoroughfare, might take its next lead from one of those highway route signs pointing us ahead or around the corner. Or perhaps its the Mini-Adult Cinema that suggestively matters in this sector of Heartland America. Or, no, of course, it must be that mammoth billboard for The Bank (thats just what it says: The Bank), which seems to have a huge tear in it until we realize the hood of a streetlamp is inadvertently darking up the foreground. OK, no tear in the billboard; but The Bank surely matters, for candidate Walker is talking politics in the gut economic terms to whose validity that whole streetful of traffic testifies: When you have to pay for an automobile what cost Columbus to sail to the New World, thats politics. We become aware that a military marching motif has been added to the soundtrack, and that it goes very handily with the relentless crawl of that flotilla of cars the Walker wagon has become a part of. Are Walkers speeches scored? No, were being nudged toward the next location, a recording studio, over which the technical credits begin to appear in red-white-and-blue combinations as a singermomentarily unseen, like Walkerrapidly updates U.S. history from Columbus time:

My mothers people came by ship and fought at Bunker Hill.

My daddy lost a leg in France, I have his medal still.

My brother served with Patton; I saw action in Algiers.

O we mast be doin somethin right to last 200 years.

Altmans movies always beginbut really beginwith a terrific sense of auspiciousness, with a new wrinkle pressed into the very concept of auspiciousness. M*A*S*H is so set about going its own way that it disdains a formal title card and leaves it to the viewer to pick the (never explained) acronym out of the slushy DeLuxe Color density of a combat shot. Brewster McCloud rewinds itself, Metro logo and all, so that Margaret Hamiltons Astrodome band can get The Star-Spangled Banner down to her satisfaction. The opening lateral track of McCabe and Mrs. Miller seems only accidentally to discover the bedewed figure of the first of its title characters blearing through the blue-green of the drizzly Northwest landscape, then all but invisibly zoom-locks onto him and respectfully cranes to acknowledge his monumental arrival in the nascent community of Presbyterian Church. In Thieves like Us a similar strategy twines the Neanderthal progression of Bowie and Chicamaw right into the fabric of land and history, while the first moment of California Split finds its two stars passing each other like schleps in the night during a tracking shot whose casual intricacy assures us that somebody indeed is in charge here.

The beginning of Nashville incorporates the formal suggestibility of all these previous steppings-off and keeps right on going, developing an expansiveness, inclusiveness, and incisiveness all its own. Every shot, as it comes on, advances us to a new plateau of possible reference, a plateau that is explored and sometimes climbed away from as the shot proceeds. As the best of directors have always done, defining, redefining, and enlarging our notion of what is classical about the classical cinema, Altman simultaneously gives us something new to watch and a new way of watching it. Nashville never really ceases to carry on this process, but making us aware of this implicit formal intention is the virtually explicit business of the first reel of the movie, up to and through the moment when a gleefully nonstop line of automobiles backs itself into temporary congestion in one widescreen setup, drives out under and finally through a mechanical parking gate arm that just cant cope, and slides to a narratively convenient massed halt behind an instant scrapheap on a proud Tennessee freeway. As the best of directors have always done, Altman is making a movie about his own moviemaking, and I suspect that anyone for whom that idea is not intrinsically exciting may well wonder why theres so much fuss about this cornucopia of a film.

Im promoting a movie but Im not making one.

Altman went back to Los Angeles with eight hours worth of film to reduce to something like livable running time. Where did five-and-a-quarter hours of footage go? Surely a lot of it is stacked on top of the 159 minutes we now have. Take the beginning of a sequence in Deemens Den, a Nashville tavern where amateur talent stage their acts for free beer and glory. We overhear the proprietor, Trout, haranguing somebody: …long hair, smokes cigarettes that look funny, the guys an admitted homo… As far as hes concerned, the lines refer to Hal Phillip Walker, another specimen of amateur talent whos come to enter and hopefully win his fourth Presidential primary. Walker still isnt onscreen. Neither is Trout, though someone might have had a camera on him when he spoke his piece. Instead were looking at Jeff Goldblum as the unaccounted-for Tricycle Man who is conspicuously present almost everywhere somethings happening, who pulls into scenes ahead of the Walker wagon and limousines and anything else that looks as if it ought to have prior claim on the territory as the most watchable phenomenon. He sits at a table, beaming his gaze and an imbecilic grin on everything around him; a copy of Varietyever-present showbizlies before him. Trouts lines might almost describe him; they certainly suggest questions about him; they dont obviously not describe him.

We remember the dumb joke of the dumb rock singer Bill who, upon seeing a campaign banner spread across a standee near the airport music counter, said, Wait a minute, wait a minute! Hal Phillip Walker looks exactly like Connie White! Since we never shall see Walker he might as well resemble Connie White (long hair… admitted homo), and Connie White is so late making an appearance in the flesh (Karen Black is the last of the 24 stars to materialize) that its tempting to count the standee as her entrance. Life goes on on many levels in Nashville, often many levels at the same instant of viewing and listening time; and people are defined in the film, exist in terms of these different levels.

Henry Gibson: putting a little more Haven into it

Henry Gibson: putting a little more Haven into it

Back in that recording studio, for instance, just having cut from the traffic-filled downtown street, we find ourselves panning across an area filled with faces, costumes, and paraphernalia that beg to be scrutinized. The above-quoted opening of 200 Years has firm possession of the soundtrack and we accept without thinking about it that the pan is focusing us toward the source of the voice. We cant know which character is singing, but we may suspectand simultaneously disbelievethat the voice belongs to Henry Gibson, Henry Laugh-In Gibson, already unpredictably cast as the weaselly Dr. Verringer in Altmans The Long Goodbye. The righthand edge of the frame arrives at the recording booth and the identification is confirmed: it is Henry Gibson (outrageous) and…whats he wearing?a rhinestone-studded country-western outfit?! (more outrageous)…andlisten to those lyrics…coming out of Henry Laugh-In Gibson!! I gather, from some comments Ive heard, that some viewers apprehension of the scene stops about there: its a campy putdown of jingoistic music, and those who produce and purvey it, with a little unreconstructed, post-Vietnam imperialist warmongering to clinch the matter (all those battle references implicitly the something right that weve been doing to last 200 years). All of that is in thereexcept that Id say its a pinning-down of camp jingoism, which is different from campy put downbut theres also more. The energy, the suspense, and the payoff of that camera movement belongs toand as far as we are concerned, is virtually identical withHenry Gibson and/or Haven Hamilton, the star that this star is portraying. Not that we can know about Haven Hamilton yet, so that when Gibson calls a halt to the performance of the backup chorus and musicians and then bids it recommence with a little more Haven in it, were not even aware that haven bears a capital H, let alone aware of what it refers to, or that it refers to a person. But We do know something about Haven Hamilton now, maybe even without knowing it, very much as we begin to know Tony Camonte of Howard Hawkss Scarface by virtue of the dislocating angles and serpentine adjustment of the lengthy tracking shot which opens the film bearing his nickname and vouchsafes glimpses of Tony himself only as simian shadow or silhouette. And as in Scarface, regardless of where commonsense and official morality may be pulling us, the bedrock dynamism of Haven and the milieu of which he is some kind of master exert an irresistible appeal; for the sociopolitically inconvenient fact is that, in movies, whats dynamic is usually whats most satisfying.

A great deal of the early pleasure of Nashville inheres in spotting our stars and characters, checking off those performers we recognize and filing away faces and figures that dont necessarily promise to turn into Somebody but are striking enough that (like the Mini-Adult Cinema and The Bank) we notice them. Within the same frame at the airport lunch counter Altman collects Keenan Wynn and an anonymous cracker-crusher (Gaillaird Sartain) whos willing to make chitchat, Jeff Goldblum and his salad, and Gwen Welles and Robert DoQui going about their daily work. Some interactions get started, and some actions that have nothing to do with one another save that theyre occurring in the same neighborhood. Goldblums semi-private magic act encourages Welles to break into lethal song, and we cut to a new face, that of Ned Beatty. We havent seen him enter because he hasnthes apparently been eating there all along, outside of camera range. In fact, where he is in relation to everyone else is impossible to determine; we cut to a frontal medium closeup of him…disgusted isnt the word, and interested isnt the word, but hes focussed on something. Sueleens, i.e. Welles, singing? Thats what we hear on the soundtrack, and under normal conditions thered be no getting away from it within that restricted space. Audiences invariably take Beattys ambiguous pan as a cue for laughter, and the response is just. But maybe hes just thinking about somethingwell learn presently that hes waiting to meet Michael Murphy, due on the next planeand doesnt even register the singing (we never cut to a shot of Sueleen after going to Del Reese, i.e. Beatty, dont even get referred back to the lunchroom at large). But a couple hours later in film time, several days in narrative time, Sueleen will establish such a claim on his imagination that in retrospect this non-encounternon- in both conventional visual terms and behavioral termsshapes up as an act of funky destiny.

Altman makes us conscious of the formal levels in his film. We recognize the separateness of these levels even as they are overlaid to create a reality-in-depth of dazzling complexity. Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) gets up from the dinner table to answer the phone, and one of her children asks where shes going; the children, we know by now, are deaf, and suddenly we see that the simplest ambient sound can be an exotic and undiscovered thing. Often we are aware that a room, a highway, a populous frame is vibrant with the potential for event, while those who are part of the scene proceed vaguely about their business with little or no sense of this. Did the grinning Tricycle Man also hear what Trout was saying? If he didor didntwould he grin more, or less? Some of the loveliest moments in the film are, dramaturgically speaking, very small ones in which we are made certain that, if only temporarily, a character has been privileged to share our perception of this density. Also taking part in the aforementioned Deemens Den scene are three characters related by aspiration: Sueleen, the waitress and would-be singer; an arrestingly dopey blonde (Barbara Harris) who styles herself Albuquerque and has come to town with the same ambition; and Star (Bert Remsen), her ironically named husband who wants no truck with such foolishness and who, consequently, is unpleasantly surprised to find that the wife has disappeared to pursue her dream. Searching for her, he arrives at the Den and sits sipping beer alongside Sueleen, her very counterpart. And a few moments later (amid, of course, a great deal of other activity), as Sueleen is taking her turn at the microphone, in walks Albuquerque to strike up an exploratory conversation with a musician. Cut, belatedly, to Star, staring into infinity, who suddenly snaps upright and whirls about. Winifred! he hollers. And she, as though for all the world they were pulled up at a gas station and he were interrupting her friendly chat out the window with the cute attendant, says Whuut?! Split-second hesitation of the Stars in their courses, then Albuquerque née Winifred is off like a shot. It is, again, a small thing, but it is, again, lovelyand bespeaks a cockeyed sense of faith on the part of Robert Altman.

The levels can operate deceptively. Early enough in the film that we can pardonably interpret it as a personal greeting, a huge sign banners WELCOME TO NASHVILLE. Band music blaring, we tilt down from the sign to the equally screen-filling sprawl of the airport; a party of dignitaries has just left the building and is striding self-importantly our way. They arent really coming to greet us, of course, and in fact no one in the group will prove to be anyone at all as far as the ensuing film is concerned. But the promise of Nashvilleand certainly of Nashvilleis that any of them might. Albuquerque stands poised above another NASHVILLE sign at the racetrack and, while the vroom! vroom! of star-sponsored racing cars utterly claims the soundtrack, pours heart, soul, and a flailing body into performing a song. Conversely, as a limousine rolls up the drive past Haven Hamiltons country place a selective soundtrack permits us to pick up the dubious conversational rumble inside: for one of the speakers is aurally identifiable as Elliott Gould and Elliott Gould is a star and stars, unlike amateur singers and maverick politicians, neednt supply their own amplification devices: the world around themand in this case the film itselfdoes it for them. Altman may appear to belie this a little later in the uninterrupted take of Julie Christies arrival among and departure from the circle of local celebrities; she checks in, smiles nervously, leaves; Haven Hamilton takes it in stride, as the proper due of two stars (his, that she be presented to him; hers, that she be presented to him), and tries to fill in Connie White on who was just in their midst. Oh my yes, shes a very great star. Shes won an Academy Award! As he delivers these lines his gaze turns away toward the performing stage, inadvertently sweeping the camera in the process. And at that moment Haven Hamilton becomes Henry Gibson, Robert Altman regular, savoring an in-joke; I dont know which one it was, shes been in so many. And if the transmutation goes unnoticed, Connie Whites subsequent remark just cant; that cant be a star because She doesnt even know how to comb her hair! The only Julie Christie film that remark can refer us to is McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Now, by extension, the entire oeuvre is invoked to certify stardom.

There are levels beyond those of sound and sight, reference and inference, and Altman plays it the Pirandellian way on all of them. Nashville and Nashville converge as Connie White stands in for Tammy Wynette, Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) for Minnie Pearl, the Misty Mountain Boys for the Misty Mountain Boys; some singers named Barnett lend themselves to the film even though a fictitious character named Barnett (Allen Garfield) ranks as one of the most unsavory we encounter. Scott Glenn plays Pfc. Glenn Kelly; Timothy Brown, Tommy Brown; country-western songwriter and singer Ronee Blakley, country-western songwriter and singer Barbara Jean. Thomas Hal Phillips, an associate producer on Thieves like Us, is credited with the political campaign of Hal Phillip Walker. Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines, who played lovers in a little-seen picture called Hex, repeat the relationship here. We even leap across media for a droll cast-list clue: Merle KilgoreTrout (no wonder Kurt Vonnegut flipped over the movie!). And throughout the film stalks a character with camera and tape recorder who claims to be making a documentary on Nashville.

Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines (frame grab from DVD Beaver)

Tom (Keith Carradine) and Mary (Cristina Raines): He's easy (frame grab from DVD Beaver)

Altman goodhumoredly acknowledges that all this has its self-serving side, from the opening title announcement (which many audience members take for a preview and hence are mystified by, since theyre there to see that very movie) through Elliott Goulds answer to the question of what, suddenly, hes doing there: I came to a party…. Im promoting a movie”—California Split—”but Im not making one. But the structural integrity of the framework redeems it from cutesypoo self-indulgence. Consider the moment when Bud Hamilton (Dave Peel) escorts the would-be documentarian (Geraldine Chaplin) from his dads recording studio at dads express orders. Next door some less finicky performers are doing their stuff, so he takes her there. Beyond the glass of the control booth a troupe of black gospel singers is working up a number. Someone among them seems a bit out of place, but we have only a glimpse of her before she is obscured by Opal (Chaplin), who fusses interminably before settling into her seat. Then we see clearly and its our other Laugh-In veteran, Lily Tomlin. Were barely into the movie at this point, and perhaps dubious about this whole star business. Lily Tomlin in a black gospel troupesounds pretty precious. Is that woman a missionary? Opal wants to know; Bud explains that actually shes the wife of our studio lawyer. The setup becomes clear: humorlessly libberrull Suthrun housewife uses hubbys connections to fuel her showbiz fantasies and work off a little racial guilt at the same time. The singing resumes and she throws herself into the performance with the exaggerated enthusiasm of a honkie determined to acquire rhythm. The camera zooms in slowly. The womanLily Tomlin or Linnea Reese?drops behind the chorus half a beat…and after an instants stumble to catch up, looses a peal of the most unaffectedly delighted laughter youve ever heard. Good faith is firmly established in Nashville and is rarely in jeopardy thereafter.

Del, you sure you dont want me to come in there and fry you an egg?

No, honey, Im gonna hardboil me a couple.

Altmans camera is voracious for life. One of the disappointing things about Thieves like Us was that, for all its limpid look of a time and place and race of people reconstituted rather than gauzily remembered, it was so small and self-contained. A non-Scope format was right for the film and the directors apparent intentions therein; but the Altman films that fill up my head are sprawling, casual-seeming affairs that give the impression of having effortlessly arrived at a compromise between life lived in the round and life contained on a rectangular plane.

If Nashville suggests a yearning toward thematic bigness with exercises in Watergate-style pettifoggery, rumblings of political assassination, and song lyrics that maintain Were all a part of history, the most direct and least impeachable bigness it manifests is visual. The Panavision format has rarely been treated to such dynamically enclosable material as it encounters here. Altman is infatuated with airplanes, limousines, highways, beds, lunch counters, corridors, ranks of Tennessee Twirlers, the curtain and stage at the Grand Ole Opry, the Parthenon, the word Nashville in capital letters, a long laid-back ‘cycle out of that Easy Rider movie. Indeed, the Tricycle Man, unencumbered by characterological baggage beyond an air of benign eccentricity and a ready visibility, virtually constitutes a visual and connective principle within the film, and frequently serves as a kinesthetic bridge between, say, last night and came the dawn. A scene ends and, whether Tricycle played a part in it or not, we accept his presence at the beginning of the next. His thoughtless mobility is sufficient to glide us into terrain we identify as our next scene, or up to a character weve been wondering about since he/she last passed through the frame. Altman pans and zooms not only with the man and his vehicle but also along the vectors so forcefully described and anticipated by the motion and the very shape of the machine, and does so so fluently that we rarely have a sense of the machines visual size changing on us as we optically pull back to be ready to watch the impending sequence proper.

Although I retain vivid memories of a great deal that Ive been given to see in Altmans movies, theres rarely a shot in Altman that makes one go Great shot, great shot as with, for example, a Ford or a Sternberg. Hence theres no reluctance to see a shot change, no urge to fix the perimeters where they are so that we can mentally take the picture down from the screen and hang it on a wall at home. He (still meaning Altman, though Im not unmindful of the extraordinary demands for responsibly creative collaboration on the part of his cameramanhere, as in California Split, Paul Lohmann) zooms, pans with the effortless logic of the glancing curious eye. And that eye will be aesthetically satisfied. Its worth noticing that whenever the subject onscreen does not naturally lend itself to comfortable containment by the Panavision horizontala comparatively rare occurrencethe camera or, usually, the zoom lens will be in motion, drifting inward to tighten up and redefine the visual area within which the action is to be played out. That the zoom, that much-abused weapon in the filmmakers arsenal, seems so right in Altman is due to the fact that a nondemonstrative use of the zoom comes nearer to approximating the action of the stationary observers (i.e., the moviegoers) own mental apparatus for focussing on the detail (here a comparative term) within the plethora of visual information our physical vision provides us. The zoom, as Altman mostly employs it, alters perception; camera movement adjusts the world. Both spatially and ethically, Altman tends to leave the world where and as he found itexcept insofar as the act of discovery constitutes a transformation.

The way Altman builds his movies, this sense of discovery can be sharedor a direct parallel to it experiencedby the viewer. When, in a busy airport corridor, Del Reese (Ned Beatty) speaks to a man who might be (but isnt) the guy hes supposed to meet, the strangers movement across the frame inadvertently wipes a conspicuous character into existence as far as the audience is concerned. Del and the stranger occupy the lefthand end of the screen while definitive Altmanite Shelly Duvall84% naked, thick as a drinking-straw, towering on bright green two-story platform shoestakes up the right and stares, disconcertingly, straight at us, defying us to notice that at screen left the stranger has shaken his head no and moved forever out of the film, John Triplette (Michael Murphy) has stepped up and introduced himself to Del, and two-thirds of the singing team of Bill, Mary and Tom has just bisected and circumvented the politicians greetings. Theres just no missing Duvalls materialization, and no failing to recognize and respond (whether exuberantly or exasperatedly) to Altmans cavalier, upfront solution of the problem how to get so many people into purposive motion in such a congested vicinity and such a brief portion of time: just put them there and let the viewer try to impose any standard focus on the scene.

Once this strategy has been established and the viewer has either accepted it or resolved to sit back and grouse, the most mundane gesture has a way of seeming marvelous. Roland Barthes might write an essay explicating the delicious rightness of Ned Beatty committing the gravity of his form and physiognomy to waiting for the water to come to a boil so he can hardcook an egg; I only know that at the moment that image appeared onscreenand stayed there long enough to assure me that Altman was as delighted with it as II felt as if the entire film up to that point had prepared me for a moment of co(s)mic beauty, a moment that somehow served to deepen the character of Delbert Reese beyond any regionally satirical gesticulations the shrewd actor in the role might (and subsequently did) indulge in. I hereby abandon any attempt to account for this sensation, or conviction (its both); but I did feel compelled to testify it was there.

I got no time. Im under the gun here.

Bigness, as attained in Nashville, is inseparable from a species of stylistic vitality. When the starlets of the Tennessee Twirling Institute present their greetings to Nashville idol Barbara Jean after her recovery from a near-fatal fire, the screen is overwhelmed with red-white-and-blue jingoism, prancing sexism, and canny commercialismbut it is overwhelming, and the energy of the sequence does not inhere entirely in the spirit of awestruck mockery one senses just offscreen. Yet this sort of bigness, this sort of vitality inextricably involves the threat, perhaps even the promise, of violence. Those martial charmers move on Barbara Jean as if she were a military objective. The realization of the sequence is fraught with ambivalence, an ambivalence ingrained enough that we are encouraged to recognize a grotesque alliterative affinity between the Tennessee Twirling Institute and the Baltimore Burn Center where Barbara Jeans life was saved. (Did screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury have to make either place up?)

Violence is arguably a part of Nashville from that first bit of sensory overload that comprises the main title. If it is historico-politically invoked by the lyrics of Haven Hamiltons (and Henry Gibsons) 200 Years, its presence is felt more directly in the increasing tension to get through the song itself. The first moment of behavioral splendor in the film occurs when Haven, momentarily basking in the respectfully self-effacing support of the chorus, slowly sweeps the studiohis studio at that momentwith a stern-jawed, beady stare, as though personally Remembering the Maine from his private gun turret. Potency and futility are utterly confused in his injunction to the hapless (and disgusted) piano player Frog: Get a haircut! You dont belong in Nashville!”—an absurdly pompous directive that strongly colors the ensuing band-accompanied WELCOME TO NASHVILLE sequence. Comedy and violence underwrite one another throughout the opening movements of the film: in the flare-up of tempers in the airport parking lot, the destruction of the mechanical arm at the gate, the chain-reaction smashup on the freeway initiated by two such out-of-place objects as a davenport and a boat; the conversational violence of Lady Pearl insisting on her memory of a song lyric (Wanda Wanda, WANDA WANDAwhat difference does it make, it was a hit!!), and her warning to a truculent black patron of her Old Time Picking Parlor: Nigger boy, I got two guns here”—squirt guns.

And it is a multivalenced kind of violence that Altman catches in a moment like the actual disembarkation of Barbara Jean from her private plane. We watch in longshot as she is led toward the gate and ultimately the focal center of the festivities. Meanwhile, a gigantic airliner (American Airlines…) enters and passes through the frame; it remains in the background during its entire progress through the shot, yet its size and the roar on the soundtrack quite dominate the field. We havent met Barbara Jean yet, only know that some rather silly and pretentious people seem to be making a big thing of her arrival, and hence suspect the director is having a superior lark here; so the passage of that plane punctures a balloon of self-importance, upstages both the official star of the moment and all the fringe characters seeking to claim their fair or unfair share of an ultimately unpredictable stage. As our perception of Barbara Jean changes (and if it doesnt, were watching very different movies), that looming plane will come to be revealed in retrospect as a foreshadowing of the vast billowing flag that casts either a pall or a benediction over Nashvilles final harrowing/exhilarating scene. And of course it also, back in immediate terms now, does satisfying violence to entrenched notions of what is customarily permitted to occur within a single takewhich variety of stylistic violence is highly liberating.

Barbara Jean: the comeback performance

The return of Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) (frame grab from DVD Beaver)

We experience a kindred, maybe even more complex feeling of violence done to safely discrete levels a few moments later. An announcer from WENO-TV who has been droning onsometimes informatively, but mostly just droningabout the nonevent of Barbara Jeans return is delivering his summary statement on the stars reception. Earlier we have been referred to him by way of the monitor on the TV color camera, but now we look directly at him as though the television screen and the Panavision format had become one. Just behind and beside him appears one of the ubiquitous Walker girls whove been proselytizing all over the airport. He doesnt notice her, goes on generating the sort of verbal Muzak designed to lull the TV audience into feeling complacently informed. The Walker girl, having assimilated the Jacqueline Kennedy look that a decades detoxifying has made safe for Southern consumption, turns on her Closeup smile and holds up one of her candidates posters. The two reflexive gestures of noncommunication coexist peacefully for a moment. Then a security guard administers the shepherds crook and hustles her out of frame. WENO drones confidentially on.

It is in the very fibre of Nashville that the membrane separating the performer and the audience, who-gets-to-be-on and who-gets-to-watch, is permeable in the extreme. Haven Hamilton trades backstage pleasantries with black singing star Tommy Brown, mutters a caustic follow-up for his own (and, incidentally, our) delectation, then strides onstage and launches into song, all in one unbroken take; a moment later, the camera tracking his stroll along the Opry stage only gradually shifts its focus from the audience to him, and many of the people in that audience are engaged in walking up and down, snapping pictures, looking at or for someone other than the official star; in the foreground of the shot, musicians exchange perversely un-overheard comments, and occasionally we cut to an irreverent John Triplette who, onstage behind Haven, offers snide cracks about his height (or lack of same) and costuming. The well-scrubbed vacancy in that frame-invading Walker girls stare anticipates the eccentric blandness of a VoAg student from Columbus, Ohio, who looks like Howdy Doody, alternately assents to and denies being a musician, and is particular about who looks in his fiddle case (no one). The flipside of that image is the foggy intentness on the face and in the pigeon-toed amble of a girl from Albuquerque who climbs out of a strange car she has co-opted for a motel room, rummages in her purse as she crosses a highway, and doesnt look behind her as two cars collide more or less because she is where she is. Nashville is intricately balanced between aspiration and desperation, between callous indifference and the realistic acknowledgment that life is irreversibly a one-way street, between crazy accident and obsessive vision, between adoration and exploitation, between being transfigured and being transfixed. It is a volatile and by no means clearly predictable combination, even if it does go by the name of America.

Can anybody tell me what happened?

There is an absolutely terrific moment in Fritz Langs M when the leaders of the metropolitan government and the leaders of the citys underworld are meeting, in their respective headquarters, to discuss a common crisis. Schränker, crime boss extraordinaire, has been standing up addressing representatives of various criminal guilds, delivering a masterfully theatrical summation of the problem facing them. His peroration ended, he moves to reclaim his seat; but first he sweeps his arm before him in reinforcement of his spoken invitation: Gentlemen, I appeal to you—”“—for advice. The last words, which would do very well to conclude his sentence, are in fact spoken by the commissioner of police, who apparently has just made similar remarks to the committee seated round his table and is also sweeping the air with his arm as an indication that the floor is open. A film class I was showing the movie to had audibly been zapped by the cut between those two images and actions, so I asked them to say what was so great about it. Some people looked sheepish, others expectant. A few ventured sharp interpretive observations about the levels of society, political morality, the moral equivalence of the law and the lawless in the film. True, true, all of it, which I duly acknowledged. But then I suggested that while all of those things seemed to fit, the essence of that moment lay not in any paraphrase of the scene and its stylistic and ideational elements, but in the gasp, the shock of recognition, the dazzling fact of that inspired cut.

Nashville has already acquired the status of an important social and cultural event. It goes without saying that such a phenomenon can hardly be left to the movie critics. Novelists, statesmen, political commentators have been pronouncing on it; some of them have outdone those frivolous film types with their enthusiastic endorsements while others have seen the need to remind us that it is, after all, only a movie, fraught with flash and filigree and manipulative technique. Those hip enough to be aware of other Altman films point out that you can detect his hand in the picture and suggest how this sullies the pristineness of the Great Themes: Bicentennial America, The Spiritual Emptiness of Contemporary American Life, Politics as Show Business. Shame on him.

As Haven Hamilton is singing that were all a part of history, Altman cuts to a shot hes used once already, of a tourist family watching through several layers of glass as, on the glass itself, we perceive layers of reflections, of the musicians supporting Haven, and Haven himself in his glassed-in booth. Into this visually stratified setup, which plainly implies that were all a part of the performing arts as well, steps Opal, self-allegedly of the BBC. She adds another visual plane to the shot and the larger life-reality it indexes. She is the commentatornot just any commentator, but specifically the sort that insists on imposing a template on whatever reality she falls upon. She possesses an infallible instinct for cliché and the ability to flip through her mental card-file with the speed of a computer. The readymade categorization she comes up with in turn cues a preordained response on the part of her projected audiencefailing which, shell supply the response herself as a display of her sensitivity credentials. Its America, those cars, smashing into each other. The suffocating anguish with which she reacts to a highway accident that (for all we see) doesnt produce a single bruise is so undifferentiated that the same tone and expression is pressed into service over the news that Linnea Reeses children were born deaf. Her intellectual and emotional affects are as unconvincing and as distant from a truly comprehensive viewpoint as her tatterdemalion garb is from any style of dressstylelessness achieved in the very process of trying to aggrandize to herself the trappings of a free soul in inquisitive sympathy with a wide, wacky world.

For it soon becomes apparent that Opal has no point-of-view at all, only the hysterical conviction that anything recognizably a situation ought to generate one: Ive got to be more positive…no, more negative…oh Christ, thats fascist!… At times her free-associative methods of tricking up a commentary suggest the method of Nashville itself in reverse: confronted with an awesome (and Panavision-satisfying) field of school buses, she leaps from one yellow conceit to another (cowardice, caution, sunshine, the Yellow Perila hilariously inapt vehicle for making a racially tolerant statement about the plight of black schoolchildren). Like Altmans wishful stars, she will try anything in the hope that it might work; but she wants to lock out any vagaries that might clutter up her well-knit representation of vérité, whereas they cherish the faithwhich Altmans cinéma condonesthat out of the most cluttered array of unlikely material might emerge a coherence unprecedented and unique.â€

With such an explicit symbol of incomprehension flashing like a caution light, its not a little amazing that so many Opals have come forth in the media to do their own restrictive numbers on Altmans film. Or perhaps its not so amazing after all. Those who want to treat Nashville as though it were an essay in The New Republic may, if only subconsciously, recognize themselves in the character and resent being pegged so early in the proceedings.

The few (nonmovie-oriented) attacks on Nashville that Ive read have all pulled the same copout at some point. Somewhere amid the columns of self-righteously disenchanted prose one discovers a sentence, or sentence-fragment, along the order of: Of course, one must concede Altman his vitality; then its back to the shovels to chastise the director for poaching on deepthink preserves. The fundamental fallacy of this approach lies in a time-honored confusion between form and content that more than a few movie writersand makershave fallen prey to. The fact is that the Big Themes are not what Nashvilleor any other good movieis about; theyre grist for the mill, as much as the characters personae, the players personalities, physical equipment, and techniques, the locations, the structure and timing and ostensible matter of the dialogue, the textures of the cinematography and the very characteristics of the film emulsionyou name it, it all goes into the hopper. Find me a recording studio scene in any movie of the past decade that doesnt make some use, if only flatfooted, of the transparent compartmentalization endemic to the location. Altman, as a filmmaker of more than usual sensitivity to the expressive possibilities of any environment, couldnt not make some use of those multiplanar reflections any more than John Ford could have just treated Monument Valley as an exceptionally photogenic place to take pictures. Thats clear enough, surely; thats style, and style is that trivial business movie directors are expected to be good at, use to gussy up the real meatnpotatoes stuff of content. But content really isnt content, not in a good film. Altman couldnt not make a Bicentennial America movie at this time, and he couldnt not make a Bicentennial America movie that didnt cast back on a decade of assassinations and Watergate; it goes with the territory. And how do you represent any kind of American panorama without acknowledging that the landscape and lifestyle are dominated by the automobile? He provides for an Opal (a counterfeit feature of the American scene like her automotive almost-namesake) to wander through a monumental junkyard and poeticalize the hulks into the skeletons of some man-made pachyderms (The rust on their bodies is the color of dried blood… I seem to be wandering through some elephants-graveyard…), but her wishfully chic ravings tell us more about her than they do about the United States. Its fascinating to catalogue imagery, both during the film and in mental replay afterwards (automobiles intrude in Linneas elliptical anecdote about a friend who bumped her head while climbing into her daughters sportscar—”one of those little ones”—and now sits in the hospital with her eye buulged out), and Nashville is about cars in the same way that the first French Connection was about them: they imaginatively, unobtrusively recur as part of the filmmakers design (as do certain shot setups, movements, linking devices). But if you take these elements out of the movie and walk away and use them to build, or satisfy, your own construct about, say, The Automobile in America and All It Stands For, well, you may produce an instructive and edifying commentary, but it wont be about Nashville. Nashville is back there with Altmans vitality.

Just you wait.

Some grumblings about directorial condescension have begun to surface in regard to Nashville. While I infer that some of those thus complaining are really saying that they feel condescending toward the people in Altmans movie, certain characters do have hard going. Opal is so obviously and definitively a wrongo within the familiar Altman mystique that even comic irony cant save her from being an oppressive presence more often than she proves a tactically useful one. In at least one situation the viewer is scarcely better off than she, and hence may feel a bit taken. Its possible that some fragment of those missing five-and-a-quarter hours once altered this situation; at any rate, when Opal bulls her way into Tommy Browns trailer during the freeway snarl, we have no way of being aware (though, imaginably, she may) that the fellow who opens the door and begins answering her questions is Tommy Brown himself. (Timothy Brown himself, one of many unknowns in M*A*S*H, was still an unknown for all practical purposes until the present film was released.) Opal is pretentiously gauche as usual, taking care to address the trailerful of blacks as You lovely people; not only doesnt she recognize Tommyshe doesnt know her target, merely a famous name, is black. Behind her is a picture of (presumably) the star, but a towel casually draped over it prevents both her and us from making the connection. The cruelty toward Opal by both the director and the Browns is actively justified by her behavior, though it remains rather unsavory. And, without getting needlessly stuffy about it, we are also justified in resenting being placed in the position of so many demi-Opals: we dont necessarily categorize the black folks in that trailer the same way Opal does (aides to a white star), and Altman shouldnt assume that we do. One flashes back to the queasily self-righteous (if understandably self-defensive) attitude of M*A*S*Hs good guys to Majors Burns and Houlihan. In this case its as if we were deemed guilty of a moral failing because we werent part of a Robert Altman movie company who, improvisations aside, have seen the script.

Fortunately, the Tommy Brown trailer scene is the exception, not the rule, in Nashville. And aside from Geraldine Chaplins Opal, Shelly Duvalls clique-y gargoyle act as L.A. Joan, and the perfunctorily typecast Allen Garfields Barnett, Altmans peopleplayers and characters bothare permitted extraordinary breathing-room in which to redeem themselves from any taint of being conceived merely as emblems. Arthur Penn talks about the character of Harry Moseby in Night Moves as though he were the embodiment of all that is creepy in contemporary American life, and then you see the movie and Gene Hackman turns the guy into an eminently sympathetic human being. When upwards of 20 actors gift us with richly knowable presences in one movie, its rather silly to assume theyve pulled it off in spite of the sniggering know-it-all manipulation of a superior son-of-a-bitch.

Consider Sueleen Gay, the singing waitress whose congenital inability to hit a single note does nothing to diminish her conviction that she has the makings of another Barbara Jean. Theres never room in which to doubt that Sueleen is perfectly terrible as a songstress, and her attempts to graft star allure onto her incurably lower-class persona are grotesque: shellacking her hair into one precarious coiffure after another, stuffing tissue paper into the bra that peeks out of her armpit. Michael Dempsey has noted how many dreamers like Sueleen have fatally crashed to earth in earlier Altman films: Brewster McCloud, John McCabe, Cathryn (Images), Philip Marlowe. Sueleen is, or ought to be, ground down time and again: applauded by a Deemens Den audience thats really telling her how awful they think she is, congratulated by a leering Trout who has set both her and the supporters of that homo Walker up for a disaster, hooted by a hallful of businessmen who have come to a smoker and damn well know what a girl at a smoker is supposed to do. The Deemens Den experience doesnt faze her because it would never occur to her that that sort of applause isnt applause at all, but a tactic employed by nonparticipants whose ventures into the dangerous waters of performance are limited to collective, self-congratulatory put-ons and putdowns; the half-rhyme pun on the places name comes home on the audiencethe one in the film and those in the theater who share its notion of fun and thus demean themselves. The less-elliptical crudity of the smoker crowd strikes homewithout wounding that inner core where Sueleen remains, in her own mind, a singer. The striptease she provides is walked through but not performed: the real Sueleen Gay will be on at the Parthenon tomorrow, having consciously bought her chance to share a stage with Barbara Jean. When she removes the tissue from her bra and tosses it to the spectators, she is neither baring her soul nor discarding the tawdry accoutrements of her ambition; the tissue is there, and disengaging it from herself is a necessary stage of getting into a condition of technical nakedness, of neither more nor less significance than stepping out of her shoes. Indeed, as the strip is lighted and angled, Sueleen is scarcely more prominent than any one of a dozen anonymous males surrounding her; her presencelike the candidacy of Walker, for that matteris only a pretext for one more gathering whose internal and incidental dynamics constitute the paramount event of the evening.

Gwen Welles told me that the original scriptor at least one of the scriptscalled for Sueleen to be shattered by her experience at the smoker and to commit suicide. As she tells it, they had shot the scene of her homecoming and Del Reeses abashed propositioning of her, and were getting ready to film her final conversation with her hot-tempered black friend Wade (Robert DoQui). Its five minutes to one a.m. An entire sector of Nashville is without electric power so they can light the street and housefront. At one everything has to be shut down; but fast. Altman turns to her and asks whether shes ready, and she discovers shes saying no. Whats the matter? They laugh at her, they make fun of her, she has to do a striptease, shes half out of her mind, this jerk wants to fuck herand now shes supposed to commit suicide! My God, Bob, this girl has suffered enough! Altman takes it in and nods, Yeah, you got a point there. OK. So within five minutes she and DoQui come up with a new scene and play it through twicetwice because the first take is ruined by Welles reaching out to rap DoQui on the wrist by way of emphasizing her point: the mikes in his sleeve and the soundtrack goes THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! The scene we get to see goes something like this:

Wade: Sueleen, you OK?

Sueleen (leaning back against a lighted door, the fracture rays shooting across the translucent glass seeming to emanate from her): Oh Waadel had to do me a striptease tonight.

Wade: You what?!

Sueleen (eyes down): Yeeahh. I had to, so I could get to sing at the Parthenon tmarra with Barbara Jean.

Wade (shaking his head furiously): Sueleen, thatsthats terrible, girl!

Sueleen (same dreamy singsong voice, as though he hadnt heard right): I had to.

Wade: Thats terrible! Thats dreadful! (Sensing its hopeless) Sueleenlm goin tell you somethin‘—I been meanin to tell you a long time. Sueleenyou cant sing! (She looks up at him with a patient smile as though he were being silly.) Youcantsing! You aint never goin be a singer. You aint never goin be able to sing.

Sueleen (the smile accompanied by a slow headshake now: the man is commencing to rave): Oh yeah?

Wade: They goin kill you, girl! They goin destroy you! They goin walk on your soul, girl!

Sueleen (still smiling, knowing better than to have expected anything else): Oh yeah?

Wade: Sueleen

Sueleen: Just you wait.

Wade: Sueleen

Sueleen (starting to edge through the door): Just you wait.

Wade: Sueleen, dont do this.

Sueleen: You just be at the Parthenon tmarra.

Wade: Sueleen

Sueleen (leaning back out through the door): Im gonna be all right.

Wade: Sueleen, you listen to me

Sueleen: Just you watch. Im gonna be all right.

Wade (an ultimatum): Sueleen, Im leavin this goddam town tmarra. You better come with me.

Sueleen (still on the same track): Goonight, Wade.

Wade: But you cant sing!

Sueleen: Uhh huh. Goonigbt, Wade.

Wade: Sueleen! (The door closes.) Shyitt!! I shoulda knowed (turning away from door and toward camera; muttering to self) That goddam bitch, why do I even bother with her, she make me so goddam mad… (descends steps, dropping out of bottom of frame)

As things turn out, Sueleen doesnt sing at the Parthenon, instead ending the film in a frozen, hieratic stance against one of its concrete columns. But its the Sueleen Gayand the Gwen Wellesof this scene I remember most vividly, the one who put up her hair and practiced smiling in the mirror and listened to Grand Ole Opry on the radio running off the same extension cord snaking around the plaster saints on her dressing-table to power her hairdryer. Altman returned her life to her at five to one in the morning, and when she said goodnight, Nashville got its electricity back.

Its not my way to let you see

Whats goin on inside of me…

Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) has been phoning up Linnea Reese ever since he got to Nashville. The first time he reaches her, she has company of her husbands for dinner and a mouthful of food. The next time she treats him like some crazy person and tells Del to get the po-lice on him. The next time he asks her will she meet him that night at the Exit/In and she says, Ummmm—” Cut to the Exit/In and her arrival.

Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese (frame grab from DVD Beaver)

Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese (frame grab from DVD Beaver)

Motivation has been a recurring carp on the part of most of the same people who want to theme Nashville into the ground. They especially have in mind an aberrant Norman Rockwell boy who takes out a gun and commits a very public murder at the end of the movie. The challenge might as handily have been provoked by numerous interpersonal events of a more explicitly private nature (but these lack the cachet of apparent social comment); for the most compelling relationships in the film and the narrative turns they generate are satisfyingly free of 1:1, paint-by-the-numbers cause and effect. Rather than supply motivations for his characters, Altman provides themand uswith a climate of reference comprised largely of the stops and starts of behavior and modulated by visual and aural structures at his beck and call. In this connection there was never better reason for a film to be 5¼ extra hours long; the pull of those offscreen events keeps suggestively slurring the layers of separate lives and separate stories. Propinquity in the film becomes a matter of not only occupying the same visual space within a frame, a hurdle weve gone over by now, but also of emotional and behavioral correspondences that caress one another as locations change and scenes elide into other scenes.

Its easy enough to pick up some conventional signals about Linnea Reese. Shes clearly obsessed with the crippled, the disenfranchised, the infirm. She attends a black Baptist church, not a white one, and sings with a black choir. She must maintain a medical log on the entire county; the sight of the Tricycle Mans outlandish machine precipitates a description of a ward at the hospital full of boys, the best-lookin boys youd ever want to see…crippled from the waist down, and when we get back to her a moment later shes embarked on an account of the lady with the buulged eye. The orientation is natural enough: her two children have been deaf from birth, and her face is a study in quiet joy as she encourages and virtually assists her son, with her own facial muscles, in shaping the words that will convey an account of his day at school. Her husband, momentarily superfluous to the mans-world of politics, wanders into the dining room and thoughtlessly interrupts the child. To his mind he cant interrupt the boy because hes standing behind the kid and his spoken words can scarcely provide a distraction to the boys thought-processes. But of course Linnea doesnt see it that way, which he has to remind himself, and a decades learnedperhaps well-intentioned, but learnedtolerance is wordlessly bespoken by the manner in which he circles the table, leans on a chair, and interjects: What are ya tellin, Jimmy? Schoolis it what happened in school today? ‘Ja learn anything? The undramatic montage which had previously served to supply gently instructive stress on the communication of three soulsJimmy haltingly speaking, Linnea bending in encouragement, Jimmys sister taking as much delight in his accomplishment as he does and receiving an occasional sign-language gloss from Linneatightens up a notch and insinuates an edginess that Linneas soft Let him finish confirms. Jimmy finishes his taleand we cut to applause. Were at Deemens Den, Sueleen Gay has just finished her performance, and Trout (who, appropriately enough, has just got off the phone with the man in the Reeses livingroom) is covertly ridiculing her. Two congenital victimsand the word congenital is particularly right when we consider that the Reese marriage has produced a pair of handicapped offspringhave been decisively linked through the sympathetic neighborhood of two discrete scenes, and we have taken the first stepthough, as usual, we cant recognize it as such at the timetoward an understanding why Linnea Reese, Better Homes and Gardens housewife, shows up at the Exit/In.

That laugh which erupts from Linnea/Lily at the recording studio must win any decent audience to her (watching her watch her boy speak, you want to be able to endow a foundation or something). But shes no sentimentalized saint in street clothing, no uncomplicatedly nice lady. A raunchy number about a woman who is the high-priced spread is being performed as she circumspectly enters the Exit/In; this knowing breach of musical taste spears out of the environment like a slap in the face, and complements her discreetly offwhite suit in proffering a penetrating insight into her own idea of herself at that moment, as a gentlewoman embarking on an episode fraught with private moral compromise. Whether her nervous glances around the room are intended to discover Tom or someone else who might see them together is impossible to determine. Indeed, between Tewkesburys canny writing and Tomlins performance, its tantalizingly difficult to separate Linneas failure to pick up on Toms intended meaning during their first phone conversation from her deliberate (frightened? polite? devious?) refusal to pick up on itan ambivalence that carries through her pretense of completing the conversation after the other party has hung up.

We cut to a shot over Tom and an empty chair beside him. Linnea, in the background, heads toward him, but L.A. Joan, whos been changing male companions as frequently as wigs, enters from another angle and reclaims the seat. Linnea veers off to a far corner of the room. Was this a setup? Did he just want to lead her out and humiliate her suburban sense of self-identity? We never do find out just when and how Tom and Joan got together, but Altman proceeds to supply elusiveyet deeply convincingevidence of Linneas importance in Toms scheme of things.

As far as snappy picture-caption identifications of Tom are concerned, hes the promiscuous singer. He certainly does make time with a lot of chicks during the film, but the encounters are all, save one, marked by an asperity that seems directed against himself as much as against the females in question: the Volkswagen girls who give him a lift from the airport and press their phone numbers on him during the freeway tie-up; Opal, whom he almost literally kicks out of bed (she wakes up not knowing where she is, thinking its Israel of several years ago, when she was very romantic about that sort of socialism): Mary, the wife of the third member of their trio, who falls asleep murmuring I love you”—to his rigidly sleep-seeking facewith the desperate regularity of a music box winding down). His one-night stands are ritually accompanied by a solo performance of himself on tape; and for that matter, bes been playing it solo since his arrival in Nashville, having avoided his partners in the trioas partners in the trioeven up to this moment when the drift of lives in Musictown has brought them to the same wateringhole. The trio is temporarily reconstituted when Tom, who is called on to sing as arranged in advance, invites them up to perform.

Before this, we get some further preparation. Opal latches onto Bill, Mary, and Norman, their chauffeur (David Arkin), at their table and permits herself to be forced into disclosing her liaison with Tom (Lets say I got to know himas it wereknow himin the Biblical sense). Mary, sitting in three-quarter-rear-profile, turns abruptly awaywhich is to say toward the camera, presses a hand to her mouth, and stifles…what?a cry of shock? shame? laughter over this absurd character to her right? Bill, at the left, leans in to press what he takes for an advantage; despite his protestations that I know whats going on, he almost never does; his and Opals want of subtlety are made for each other. And while he leers—”Ya slept with him, right!?”—Mary just stares bright-eyed at…for want of anything else, us, as though we could know whats behind that hand.

And Linnea, fled to a corner table, has been joined by Wade, drifting like the rest of them, smouldering with antagonism toward Sueleen who doesnt know better than to try to be a singer, toward Tommy Brown, the whitest nigger in town, toward people who touch his torch-cut truck-mobile. Wade has bought Linnea a beer (Would you put it in a wineglass, please?) and is drinking his umpteenth own, rapping the foaming bottle on the tabletop as a hang-loose expression of applause.

The Exit/In audience doesnt know about Tom and Linnea. They dont know about the tensions fracturing the Bill, Mary and Tom trio, who now take up their professional stances on the stage. Mary is the lead singer, Tom and Bill accompanying on guitars from either side. And as she begins to sing, the frame eases in on her and Tom:

Ol railroad train has taken you from me.

All my lovin has turned to misery.

Hes all I ever wantedwhy did be run from me?

Since youve gone my heart is broken another time.

We cut back to a three-shot as Mary turns toward Bill, but almost immediately we move in for a two-shot of them:

I didnt know that you were leavin

Till you were out the door

Bill joining in on the last three words

I didnt know the love you gave was a real love.

I didnt know a lot of things then

Mary has to clear her throat

Lord, I know them now.

Since youve gone my heart is broken another time.

Mary acquires another echo on the last line: Wade. At his Since youve gone my heart is broken another tii-iiime, Linnea lowers her head almost to the table. Its a moment of almost definitive hilaritynot gut-busting hohoho hilarity, though Wades drunken soulfulness and our awareness of the slaphappy construction work destiny has tolerated to produce this odd couple lend an unignorable comic charge to the scene; rather, the hilarity of having inhaled too much free oxygen, or in this case had so many contrary impulses feeding into us along so many unexpected vectors that something has to explode. And it will, in the covertly violent gestureseveral moments away yet in screen timeof Tom flinging Marys jacket after her as she and Bill virtually flee the stage. But for now all this tension is ultimately focussed outward, on us, the only audience that these several neighboring instances of private anger, pain, shame, whatever have. Tom doesnt know that Mary was singing to Bill; Bill doesnt know that Mary was singing to Tom; and when Mary wasnt singing to one or the other of them, she kept her eyes fiercely concentrated on a spot high on the opposite wall.

Even the jacket-flinging doesnt really take off the charge because its almost slurred over by a cut. Weve gone from Linneas lowered head to the fundraiser where Sueleen Gay is to sing. Sueleen… It was her performance at Deemens Den that prompted Opal to say, It must be some sort of amateur night, which in turn prompted Tom toward that first phone call to Linnea. She sings some now, long enough to establish once more that She cannot sing a lick; then its back to the Exit/In, Bill and Mary regaining their table with strained smiles, and Tom preparing to sing a song he wrote with somebody special in mind who just might be here tonight.

Usually in a movie you have some warning that a great sequence is coming. Its part of the special quality of Nashville that the great ones get started on you before you know it, so that when its clear youre right in the middle of it, you wish you had a chance to thank somebody.

This one sneaks up on Linnea, too; undoubtedly verging on numbness, she barely glances Wades way when he mumbles, ‘Scuse me, I hafta go to th baffroom, and slides his suddenly superfluous presence out of the area. Tom is speaking that intriguing lead-in when she turns her eyesthe least suggestion of focus returning to themhis way. There are other superfluities to be dealt with: Opal bows her head with practiced modesty and the absolute certainty that she is the special someone. Its called `Im Easy, Tom goes on, and Altman cuts to L.A. Joan, who may or may not recognize how that might apply to her. Mary seems stricken with that terrific sense of awe. But their medium-closeup interchangeability doesnt make it. While we will cut to one or another of them again on ensuing lines of the song that suggest an apt reading of that particular character, the main thrust of the song and the whole almost-epic force of the sequence is focused elsewhere. It is a sign of Altmans favor that Linnea remains in a middle-distance, off-center, framed by other figures, yet unmistakably the other most crucial factalong with Tom Frankof a scene and a song that invariably stops even this unebbingly fluid movie. Since virtually every line bespeaks the compelling complicity of Linnea and Tomjust as the tortured shifts of yous and hes in Marys song contributed to the dynamics of that momentlet them be quoted here:

Keith Carradine serenades the room

Tom (Keith Carradine) serenades the ladies

Its not my way to love you just when no ones lookin.

Its not my way to take your hand when Im not sure.

Its not my way to let you see whats goin on inside of me.

When its love you wont be needing, youre not free.

Please stop pullin at my sleeve if youre just playin,

If you wont take the things you make me want to give.

I never cared too much for games and this ones drivin me insane.

Youre not half as free to wander as you claim.

But im easy … Im easy…

Give the word, Ill play the game, as though thats how it oughta be

Because Im easy.

Dont lead me on if theres nowhere for you to take me,

If lovin you would have to be a sometime thing.

I cant put bars on my insidesmy love is somethin I cant hide.

It still hurts when I recall the times Ive tried.

But Im easy … Im easy…

Take my hand and pull me down, I wont put up any fight

Because Im easy.

Dont do me favors, let me watch you from a distance

‘Cause when youre near I find it hard to keep my head.

When your eyes throw light at mine, its enough to change my mind,

Make me leave my cautious words and ways behind

Thats why Im easy… Im easy…

Say you want me, Ill come runnin without takin time to think

Because Im easy.

Take my hand and pull me down, I wont put up any fight

Because Im easy.

Give the word, Ill play your game as though thats how it oughta be

Because Im easy….

Lyrics and music by Keith Carradine

It doesnt take a closeup to see that that face in the corner is full; Linnea and we are mutually certain that something has been consummated here. Applause fills the Exit/In, applause in which Linnea does not join. The camera holds on her, still off-center, still the yearning focus within that populous sceneand on the soundtrack bump-and-grind music begins to cut in. After a moment we cut once more to Sueleen at the smoker. Shes delighted. Enthusiasm fills the hall. She doesnt know that its enthusiasm for what the bands music is promising, for a performance the nature of which she has yet to be told.

Linnea Reese is no longer in doubt as to the nature of the performance expected from her. When we get back to her and Tom its in his room. Were looking at the tapedeck, from which weve panned on the occasion of the two prior visits a woman paid to Toms bed. This time we cut to the bed instead of panning there. This time Tom is looking at the woman whos with hima woman matronly enough to have stayed in her slip. This time the candle burning on the nighttable is a focal element of the scene (in Opals morning-after it was simply part of the clutter, set off by a bottle of supermarket wine; in Marys scene the camera stayed in close, holding on Marys reverent gaze and Toms willful indifference to her). In the aftermath of making love, Linnea asks Tom if he wants to learn something in sign language. How do you say, `I love you? he wants to know. Linnea demonstrates several different symbols he immediately performs himself. And she breaks up his gestures in midair, ostensibly waving away the smoke from his cigarette. She changes the subject to that: How can you stand to smoke those things? Toms answer and the voice from the tapedeck quietly coincide: Its/Im easy…. A moments hesitation: she asks for a drag: bedplay resuming? He hesitates; her hand, draped nervously across his lifted thigh, hinges up briefly in an exquisite gesture of request; he gives her the cigarette. She takes a drag, streams the smoke upward. He grins and says, Doesnt look good. That room-warming smile flashes for just a second: No? No, he says, leaning up to kiss her neck. The smile snaps away: So what!—” Tom moves as if to embrace her again; she leans across him and lifts her watch from the nighttable. Do you have to go? She has sat up and turned her back, answering in the affirmative. Cantcha stay another hour? …No…. [a stillness]…I just cant. And she moves away from the bed.

Its not my way for you to see / Whats goin on inside of me…: the scene plays out according to principles of self-defense practiced religiously by each party. Tom gets on the phone and calls a regular lay up north; Linnea scrupulously doctors her suburban self before the wavy mirror on which a previous caller had left a last unheard I love you”—through which inscription Tom himself was reflected while making his ultimate, temporarily successful call to Linnea. Linnea glances at the off-screen Tom as she primps; her methodical haste almost suggests a feeling of reassurance that he has indeed turned his attention elsewhere; you dont want to get addicted treating nice-looking boys who are paralyzed from the waist down. The phone call is scarcely interrupted by her reaching under the blankets to unhook her panties from Toms ankle. They exchange a tender-comrade kiss, Toms hand over the mouthpiece of the phone; reflected in the mirror, she manages a sporty salute very nicely. The girl on the other end of the line hears the door close and asks what it was. Room service, Tom replies with bitter efficiency at that sort of thingbut for whose benefit is the pointing finger as he says, Just put it on the table, theres 50 cents there? The tapedeck and the dialogue wont coincide again.

Its that careless disrespect

I cant take no more, baby

Kenny Fraiser is introduced angry. His car radiator is blowing up at the periphery of the freeway jam when Del Reese walks over and asks him couldnt he just pull out of the way and let these people through. Maybe youd like to get in here and try it!”—and before Del has even had a chance to register that, its apologized for, Sunday-school shameface. The car isnt going to move again, so Kenny gets out of it, reaches into the backseat for the musicians case on top of a slew of Hal Phillip Walker posters (browsing, incurious citizens reflected overall in the car window), and climbs up onto the viaduct. Was Kenny Fraiser even stopping over in Nashville? Was he necessarily even going to be at the Parthenon four afternoons later, until his landlord started there to find his niece and a little old lady at Mrs. Greens funeral leaned over to nudge Kenny after him?

It takes a considerable effort of will, after one has been through the shattering finale of Nashville, to remember that one spent a good deal of the film wondering not why Kenny was going to do but what he was going to do. The escalation of violence on all levels in the filmand, again, the reflexive assumption that a movie so conspicuously about American life approaching the Bicentennial will have to take both irrational and programmatic violence into accountincline us to look for a major eruption. Besides, this fellow tells some people he isnt a musician and others he is. Suspicious. Opals Oh youre a musician! as she discovers him swallowed up amid the cars that are trying to tell her something (perhaps revisiting the remains of his own clunker) is directly answered by a cry of still-living engines as a race car skids around a track curve with a roar that cancels all the music visibly present on the scene: meek and mild Howdy Doody, standing up to intercede as Wade offered violence to singer Tommy Brownor perhaps just standing up at the wrong momentcaught the charge himself. Later, Mr, Greens sobbing laugh as he looks at the medicine intended for the wife hes just learned has expired will be succeeded by the inadvertently heartless laughter of Opal and Triplette as they stand in the Walker fundraising hall, Opal explaining her theory that a climate of armament produces political assassins: Lady Pearl, and all these people in this country who carry gunstheyre the real assassins. They stimulate other people who are perhaps innocent but who pull the trigger”—and we cut to Kenny making a long-distance call to his mother. The night before, we watched him pass by the Walker-Talker-Sleeper garage and give it a hard, slow look; so when he starts unlocking his instrument case at the Parthenon we want to say, What are you doing, schmuck? Walkers still sitting in his car out back!

Yet weve also been prepared to accept the target that Kenny does fire on at the Parthenon. Barbara Jean, whom even the self-infatuated Haven Hamilton is forced to regard as the star and symbol of Nashville, bears death with her from the moment she enters the film, The pre-film accident that necessitated her stay at the Baltimore Burn Center and marked her body in a way that we can see when the folds of her dress bloom in the wind is succeeded by a sudden collapse before the crowd of well-wishers at the airport and, on the day after her release from the hospital for that crisis, by her figurative collapse as a coherent performer at Opryland. When she first appears her very glances and smiles are directed by Haven Hamilton and her tribute to the Tennessee Twirlers and the Franklin High band seems fatuous (I mean, the Tennessee Twirlers!it must be fatuous); but her insistence immediately thereafter on saying hello to the crowd that airport security and the callousness of her husband/manager Barnett have kept at a distance begins to establish the unassailable genuineness of her enthusiasm for who- and whatever comes her way. Isnt she, perhaps, pathologically enthusiastic? Theres a desperation about her giving of herself; in the midst of a throng in her own hospital room, she and we realize of a sudden that all these people are elaborately going about their various business while she sits at the hallowed center, her special being scarcely relevant to the proceedings. It is as though she were a light that had to translate itself into electric power and feed back along the conduits to the world around her; and when the world isnt having any for a moment….

Its no accident that the validation of Barbara Jean in the coin of the Nashville realm occurs in a Sunday morning service in the hospital chapel. Weve traveled there by way of a thunderously potent series of glimpses of official worship around the town: beginning with a sparsely attended Catholic service (There shall be One Fold and One Shepherd), significantly attended by some of the most frustrated characters in the cast; moving to the huge, bright, modern Baptist cathedral, the voice of its congregation a roar, Haven Hamilton among the choir, the red of the carpet a blazing match of the scarlet Grand Ole Opry curtain; thence to the black Baptist service, in shades of black and brown and white, Tommy Brown sitting without self-advertisement near, not in, the choirand as a spiritual is offered up in celebration of a baptism, we cut to Barbara Jean, a single candle by her side, her confinement to a wheelchair only underscoring the thrill in the blood as out of that frail body, dressed as if for sacrifice, soars a voice with literally the strength of a multitude: And He walks with me and He talks with me… Surely He does, if He walks and talks with anybody. But… the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.

The camera backs slowly away from Barbara Jean, then reverse-cuts, disclosing the small assembly in the chapel: Barnett, waiting for it all to be over; an earnest young girl nodding and moving her lips in accompaniment to that voice; a group of mostly aged friends and relatives of other hospital inmates; and two men, Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) and Pfc. Kelly (Scott Glenn), keeping what will turn out to be deathwatches over the crucial women in their respective lives. The camera, as if energized by Barbara Jeans hymn, carries us toward these two whom neighboring rooms along the same corridor and now this service have brought together. Mr. Green obsessively speaks of his wife; the young soldier who secretly sits by Barbara Jean at night listens respectfully. We had a boy in the Service, Mr, Green addsoffered as an implicit apology for his presumption; we lost him in the South Pacific. Im sorry to hear that, sir. World War Two. They face Barbara Jean again.

Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) and Pfc. Kelly (Scott Glenn): Keeping the deathwatch (screen grab from DVD Beaver)

Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) and Pfc. Kelly (Scott Glenn): Keeping the deathwatch (screen grab from DVD Beaver)

Kenny Fraiser arrives at the Green house in search of a room for rent. The Walker wagon is passing by with its nonstop message: If theres any cleaning-up to be done, were going to have to do it. Mr. Green has nodded off to sleep on the front porch; Kenny has to rap gently on a column to wake him. What was your name again? Seekers of political allegory in Nashville may hypothesize in Kenny the revenge of generations who were lostin foreign wars, for instancewhile the Greens of a Nation to which Hal Phillip Walker now offers New Roots slept. Kenny is given the dead sons old room, a room which bears his photograph on the wall but is equally dominated by the soon-to-be-shade of Mrs. Green (a sewing machine is visible through the door; the wallpaper, roses). Kenny will later reject the offer of L.A. Joan as she sits on the bed under that photo while he, on the phone to his mother, stands under the complacently heroic image of an officer in a still-earlier American war. He hangs up on his mother as she becomes more her domineering self, but pretendslike Linnea Reeseto finish the call according to more genteel uses. I love you, Mother”—voice softening with the wonder of it—”I really do.

The energy of life and fatality is conducted along Nashvilles nearly ineffable stylistic binding. The consolidation of the suggestive, symbolic force of the offscreen Mrs. Green with Barbara Jean begins in a quietly complex single rake in the hospital corridor: Mr. Green comes out of his wifes room, looks around, and the camera tracks out and pans obliquely as he moves across and down the hall to get his niece; shes just picked up Bud Hamilton outside the door of Barbara Jeans room, and refuses to leave; Mr. Green bows out graciously and the camera reverses its pan and track to follow him back to Mrs. Greens door. The figure whose presence and movement have provided motive force forjustified the existence ofthe shot is gone; even the people he spoke to, Martha/L.A. Joan and Bud, have been reduced to verbal presences, Bud asking Who was that? Pfc. Kelly comes down the hall (and Whos that? is a question weve been asking about him on both cast and character levels) while Mr. Greens shot is still running; Kelly, of course, is looking for Barbara Jeans room. Later, Altman will rearrange the basic structural units of this scene as Barbara Jean leaves the hospital. Kelly loiters in the corridor in foreground, near the elevators. Barbara Jean comes wheeling down the hall, her own entourage and a clutch of hospital personnel and other patients visitors massed around her. As they near the elevator, the doors open and Mr. Green emerges. He and Barbara Jean greet one another and she asks after the health of Mrs. Green. Shes fine, fine. Ive got her medicine right here. Kelly has moved in among the Barbara Jean people. You give her my regards, now. Barbara Jean tells Mr. Green, who is soon lost from view amid the other people. Barbara Jean is wheeled into the elevator car he just left and her party jams in after her, Barnett directing the carts of well-wishers flowers elsewhere (Take that cortege on the other elevator). The screen and hallway are still full of visual bustle as we hear the first words of the nurse: Mr. Green, Im sorry to have to tell you this…. Mrs. Greens death is thus upon Mr. Green, and us, in an inextricable admixture of suddenness and gradual inevitability. The grotesquenessand a formal symmetryis completed by the return of Kelly to the foreground, rejoining Mr. Green there and breaking out of his accustomed taciturnity to make delighted confession of his devotion to Barbara Jean (Mr, Green, my mama saved her life…), a confession as compulsive and as unwanted as Greens own intrusion on the soldiers listening to Barbara Jean in the chapel. Then he runs off after the object of his adoration and the affirmation of survival. Barbara Jean has been granted a temporary stay of execution, and the old man is left to the lonely and absurdly comical fact of death.

Theres one other thing going on in that scene. Barbara Jean, as shes wheeled along, is singing about leaving the hospital. Preceding her, Barnett sings a sardonic Bye bye, bye bye refrain of his own, echoing the chilling sequence of the night before when he left Barbara Jean alone, on the verge of hysteria, to go out and mend fences in the professional community. Advising her Dont tell me how to run your lifeI been doin a pretty good job of it, he warns her not to go nutsy on me again and runs her through a rote rehearsal of their partnership, Barbara Jeans answers coming in barely audible breaths: Wherem I goin? King o the Road. Whom I gonna see? Connie. Whym I doin that? Thank her. And whom I doin that for? Me. Thats right. Now Im goin out the door. Whadda you say when Im goin out the door? You say `Bye bye‘—say it. Bye! `Bye bye!‘” Bye!… Now, across the aforementioned, almost subliminal exchange of Kelly and Green, Barbara Jeans and Mrs. Greens life-energies, Barnett is called to the phone for one of John Triplettes attempts to enroll Barbara Jean in the Walker benefit at the Parthenon….

Youve got your own private world

I wouldnt have it no other way

Altman cuts to Kenny Fraiser staring up at Barbara Jean as she sings those lines from Dues at Opryland;

But baby youve been hidin ‘your wounds,

Pretendin what you say.

Its not my way to let you see / Whats goin on inside of me… Kenny and Barbara Jean are as relentlessly bound to one another as Tom and Linnea. Barbara Jeans private world we see into in that hospital room, the night, the funereal flowers, hands arranged as in death, Light in August for consolationand out of that comes song, and an energy that literally inspires, so that others spirits soar as high as they can be. Kennys private world we glimpse: his room at the Greens, for instance, Like my room at home, a room the camera is never privileged to enter, only view from the foyer, wondering if the details presented to viewthe sewing machine, the dead sons pictureare salient facts or just facts.

It hurts so bad it gets me down down down

I want to walk away from this battleground

This hurtin match it aint no good

Id give a lot to love you the way I used to do

Wish I could…

In Nashville density is destiny, and people are why they do. Barbara Jean can take her private wounds and render them into public art, the miracle of communal experience. The free impressionistic form of her Tapedeck in His Tractor and the rambling imagery of her Opryland breakdown fuse triumphantly in My Idaho Home, the final number she will perform, a poetic summation of the traditional decency and life-abundance of America, and of the family as the kernel of the society:

We were young then, we were together,

We could bear floods and fires and bad weather

At these words the mammoth Flag displayed across the face of the Parthenon surges out as if in response. To Kenny, who registers this as a stylistic fact of the scene, it speaks an imperative. His instrument case bears an eerily blank crayon drawing of himself; he lacks the means of aesthetic response, yet will be heard from; his heritage as a free-enterprising male demands it of him. And his hand goes to the key that he wears on a chain round his neck, like a set of dogtags, or a religious medal.

My daddy grew up on his own more or less

His mama died when he was just eleven

He had seven sisters to raise him

But he dreamed of his mama in Heaven

Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton on stage

Barbara Jean and Haven Hamilton on stage

Mothers in Heaven are easier to live with than mothers in Columbus, Ohio, and American myths can be defused a little by being consigned to the historical past. Yet the ending of Nashville isnt that cut-and-dried in its revisionism. Just before the shooting, Haven Hamilton is bringing Barbara Jean a bouquet of lilies; he circles behind her, nodding in concert with the audiences applause and, as on prior occasions, aggrandizing their appreciative emotion to himself. Yet its a different Haven who stands ignoring his own bleeding arm and charges the crowd: This isnt Dallas, its Nashville. Show ‘em what were made of. They cant do this to us here in Nashville. Local boosterism goes hand in hand with a deeper faith: he turns to the others onstage and insists, as if slipping into a trance, Somebody singsomebody sing—” And as he moves, the camera moves with him, and theres scarcely a clear perception of how Winifred, with comically torn hose, mouth agape, herself in a state of shock, comes to be suddenly on, the microphone passed from Ravens hand to hers. Altmans mise-en-scène can hint at the mystical but in the last analysis the performance has to be there. And in this apotheosis of youre-going-out-there-a-chorusgirl-but-coming-back-a-star, it is. Winifred-become-Albuquerque, her voice and pose gaining assurance with each second, begins to scatter Barbara Jeans flowers over the crowd. And as so often before in Nashville, the very substance of inauthenticity is rendered authentic. Its an act of transubstantiation in which performer and audience necessarily share, and the only miracle Robert Altman gives credence to. Life remains a one-way street, there are cops in the crowd, and the singing fades as we tilt to a bleak sky. But its an ellipsis, not a period. The miracle and the mystery remain. Nashville is a mystery play and, mystery plays being what they are, a celebration.

*Two points here, peripheral to the immediate discussion but important. 1) Like Sympathy for the Devil in Godards 1 + 1, a performance of 200 Years is never successfully concludedpartly because Haven wilfully stops it and shatters the spell he himself has done the most to cast; partly because a supporting performer falls him; and partly because those 200 years arent over yet either. Also, the official morality of the 1932 Soar/ace and the official morality of the 1975 Nashville are virtually reversed; the official morality of Nashville is not the easily explodable superstar patriotism of folks like Haven Hamilton but rather the reflexive cynicism of, if not a professional hipster like Altman, the members of his audience who expect American life to be a downer.

†It should be noted that Opal is not the only negative version of the artist in the film. Triplette, the impresario of Hal Phillip Walkers primary campaign, also operates by forcing heterogeneous material into a convenient shape with a single efficient thrust. Hell manipulate anybody, whether his ostensible ally Del Reese (Ned Beattys feverishly chummy endeavors to keep pace with Triplettes sophistication are marvelous) or the opportunistic Haven Hamilton (dangling a governorship) or the insecure rock singer Bill (this redneck music…your basic country crapola vs. a hip group like yours). From a viewer standpoint, Triplettes edge over Opaland its a crucial edge within the dynamics of this movieis that hes frighteningly, breathtakingly good at what he does (and Michael Murphy is so good at keeping the shiftiness of the character lucid that he may be the most underrated actor in the picture). At the end we see Triplette, stunned, surveying the shambles of a spectacular he had directed. He exits: political convenience has been confounded, but a more ambiguous political reality has been verified.

Richard T. Jameson

The author wishes to acknowledge the indispensable contribution of Kathleen Murphy to this article.

© 1975 Richard T. Jameson

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