Just a few years into the 21st century, Olivier Assayas wrote in The Village Voice: “Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.” It’s been 25 years since David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece drilled its mutant images into the minds of unsuspecting audiences, and Videodrome is as contemporary and relevant as ever.
You can trace David Cronenberg’s meditations on technology, disease, addiction, and mutation in the body human all the way back to his earliest shorts (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and features (Shivers and Rabid). Like George Romero before him, Cronenberg’s earliest films brought horror out of the past and into modern life, breaking taboos and barriers of good taste along the way. He makes his ideas physical and visceral, in a way that you can see and almost feel. It only becomes sharper and more resonant with his remake of The Fly, where he charts the transformation in gooey detail that looks like some diseased attack on the human body (it’s been called a metaphor for AIDS) and eXistenZ, a virtual reality game made flesh, where the line between fantasy and reality doesn’t so much blur as dissolve and overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to effect physical reality.
Even his most recent films explore the same ideas, only instead of some outside agent, he focuses on the way violence and emotion play upon our minds and our bodies. In Spider, the human mind creates a reality for its main character because the truth of his actions are too much to handle: psychosis as a kind of evolutionary fail safe, and this reality created from within is as real to him as the physical world. In A History of Violence, the past that the hero Tom wants to ignore and deny, his repressed history of violence, emerges like a dormant virus when he and his family are under threat. And it emerges without thought — it’s pure instinct, like a hardwired reflex kicked into action with the surge of adrenaline. An essential part of Cronenberg’s genius is making his concepts physical, visceral, alive. It’s what makes his ideas so powerful.
As long as I can remember, I’ve loved horror movies. Growing up in a family and a small town that buried all the bad stuff under silence, politeness and euphemism, I took guilty pleasure in stories about monsters getting loose in the dark, scaring all the pillars of community to death. Scared me, too, but deep down, I confess I was primally tickled when vampires, blobs, giant bugs, werewolves and aliens broke all the rules. What delight when some long-faced mayor/military officer/scientist/minister, confronted by nightmare, had to eat his platitudes!
But even if her Peter Pan’s one of the beautiful and damned Lost Boys (1987), Wendy must grow up. And growing up means learning how few movie-monsters wear anything like the real face of evil. That’s because the most toxic spillage of evil, as Hannah Arendt tellingly observed, is often everyday, slow, banal, gray — so humdrum it’s the rule, not the exception. How can a movie express such an unremarked blight?
Exorcist: The Beginning reminds one, with a vengeance, that most mainstream films don’t tackle Arendt’s brand of evil — and the kind they do take on is generally silly, phantasms born of infantile imaginations. By their very nature, movies aim to make moral-ethical states visible, shaping the inner journey into palpable adventure. That’s especially true of American films, designed primarily for entertainment rather than epiphany.
Horrorshows like this prequel to 1973’s genuinely scary The Exorcist have become ever more literal and physical, dominated by a Grand Guignol fascination with the myriad ways the human body can be mutilated.
[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert C. Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 23/01/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]
We aimed to make something robust in which every question leads to another. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t believe in reincarnation; I don’t think I could do a film about it if I did. I was more interested in the idea of eternal love. I wanted to make a mystery, the mystery of the heart.
– Jonathan Glazer
You know you’re seeing something special from the very beginning.
In what you soon understand to be a prologue, but for now you take at face value, you hear the words “OK.” It’s a disembodied voice, a lecturer or an interview subject, apparently, but there’s no image, just a dark screen, so you don’t know who’s talking or why. “OK,” says the voice, “let me say this …” Potent words for the opening of a film. Maybe a little self-important, but let it go. For now anyway.
The voice goes on:
If I lost my wife and, uh, the next day, a little bird landed on my windowsill, looked me right in the eye, and in plain English said, ‘Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back …’ What could I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. I’d be stuck with a bird. But other than that, no. I’m a man of science. I just don’t believe that mumbo-jumbo. Now, that’s gonna have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.
Anything may be possible. But not likely. Class dismissed.
And now you hear music, an insistent repeating flute motif like the sound of a chirping bird echoes the bird-on-the-window metaphor of the lecturer. But these echoes of springtime are betrayed by the image that we at last see: Central Park in the snow, and a bundled, hooded man on his daily run. Bright light, cold air.
Setup 1 is a long following shot of the running man. This is a main title shot if ever there was one, since all we see is this man running in front of us. A good time to run the opening credits, but we don’t get them. Instead, all our attention is directed to the shot. Four dogs dart across the runner’s path. The runner enters a short tunnel and only then does the title appear: Birth.
[originally published in Queen Anne News, August 2006]
I was telling my friend about The Descent, one of the most authentically terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years, when she called a halt to my rhapsodizing about its scare tactics. She wasn’t kidding. Movie stuff that comes oozing up from the darkness behind the brain seriously freaks her out. So how come I’ve loved hair-raisers since forever? What’s in it for me?
Maybe it’s connected with going about as far as you can go into really bad places (we’re not talking dreck flicks here, but genre classics) … and coming back alive. A film like this breathtaking British stunner works like a nightmare trip, the darkside equivalent of a vision quest. Vicariously surviving The Descent into hell confirms your power over death. The best horror movies teach us that, rephrasing Dylan Thomas, we do not have to go gentle into that bad night.
The Descent opens with instant kinesis: a trio of women, high on risk and adrenaline, fighting their way down extreme rapids, while a man and a little girl watch from a nearby bluff. Director Neil Marshall clues you in from the film’s exhilarating get-go that his tough, resourceful heroines are larger than wives and mothers. Forget the sidelines: these women game hard, testing their physical skill and courage to the limit.
Scant time, after leaving the river, to chill out before what feels like a scene of riskless calm is horrendously shattered. You’ve hardly settled down from mastering those wild rapids before getting body-slammed by a terrible tragedy out of the blue. The movie nails down — in your nerve-endings — the difference between courting danger in extreme sports and the way everyday killing violence comes unbidden, without warning.
[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Love and Death,” November 15, 1983]
Jerzy Skolimowski. The name does not come trippingly to the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but it’s worth fixing in mind all the same, for Skolimowski is one of the sharpest filmmakers now living. He doesn’t get to make a lot of films, and none that he’s made has won wide or conspicuous release. But every time I see one of his best moves—Barrier, Deep End, Moonlighting, much of TheShout—I come away exhilarated and a little awestruck at the nimbleness and suggestibility of his cinematic imagination. Few films are so quirkily, relentlessly alive. Few succeed so vividly in evoking a distinctive vision of life, in which the abstract and the concrete, the accidental and the poetically inevitable, trade off and reinvigorate one another as naturally as the heart pumps blood.
Blood is the first thing we see in Deep End. Or it may be red paint. Or it may simply be (as Jean-Luc Godard had it in Pierrotlefou) red. One of the moments I always think of first when I reflect back on this movie is a daftly barbed encounter between Sue and the bathhouse cashier. Sue drifts into the cashier’s vicinity and begins lazily to consume a milkshake. The cashier, an older woman, less attractive, more desperate, and weight-conscious, does her utmost to ignore the provocation; she glares without glaring. As so often in the film, the architecture of the scene is fraught with tension and definition. Sue moves to a bench across the corridor and eases down onto it; the cashier sits, half cut off from view, in her window. Hold this no-(wo)man’s-land composition a moment. Then this disembodied hand seems to reach out of the wall beyond the cashier and paint a hot red streak up and down the background. The explanation is perfectly rational: we have had ample opportunity to notice that the baths are undergoing a token cosmetic renovation, and in this case a painter has simply been working his way down the hall that intersects our focal corridor at the back of the shot. (He steps fully into view a few seconds later, a wholly anonymous, dramatically irrelevant personage.) Still, that first shock of red bursting against the otherwise bilious environment is at once profoundly unsettling and giddily satisfying. One wants to laugh and gasp in the same breath: laugh at the outrageous obtrusiveness of this stylistic comment, and gasp at how directly it speaks to the derangement of this deceptively prosaic world.
[Originally written for theÂ University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Voices and Visions,” April 20, 1982]
Tight shot: a man’s back, naked, bent, straining; his bands tied behind him; his head, whether yearning forward or bowed in fear and trembling, unseen. The posture faintly evokes your basic bullet-in-the-back-of-the-neck, Darknessat Noonâ€“style execution. The Latin recitation somewhere just offscreen imparts a suggestion of religiosity to the agony. The man strains harder, balances precariously, and tips out of frame â€” out of existence, we might as well say, for he seems to have been lost in the white, infinite void of the empty screen.
Well, forget all that, because it’s wrong. Nobody’s getting executed or awaiting the zealot’s lash, and the infinite whiteness is just the bare wall of a room in a university dormitory shared by four premed students. They’ve also shared a ritual, over the years, of collecting their spare change in a piggybank, and now the time has come to see which of them gets to keep it. They could cut cards or play one-potata two-potata, but where’s the perversity in that? No, they turn it into a ritual ordeal, wherein each aspirant assumes the aforementioned position kneeling on the edge of a table, leeeeeeeans forward, tries to pluck up a matchbox, poised about two feet out, with his mouth, and (that’s not all, no, that’s not all, that would be too easy), having plucked it, seeks to resume his former kneeling-upright position as opposed to falling very painfully on his chin, nose, brow, or all three once they’ve been compacted into a single pulpy mass.First guy to succeed wins the piggy.
[originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
THE TITLES, shadow-masked to the old 1.33 format, roll up against a grey moderne background and give way to a series of black-and-white still photos. In the photos a man and a woman are making love, awkwardly, with their clothes on, in the woods. We hear groans—do they go with the pictures? Ecstasy? Agony? Just exertion? The camera pulls back; we see the photographs are being shuffled in a fat workman’s hands. Seated behind a desk nearby, tokenly commiserating but clearly exasperated, Jack Nicholson wears an expensive-looking cream-colored suit. The suit goes with the pre-smog daylight in the room; the light is itself like heavy cream; it looks as if it would feel like heavy cream to walk through. The fat man shoots shy, helpless glances at Nicholson, looking up from the pictures, looking back at the pictures. Then he throws the pictures away and begins to blunder around the walls. “All right, Curly, enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, I just had ’em installed on Wednesday…. What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.”
Nicholson plays a private detective named J.J.—one of them’s for Jake—Gittes. Unlike Philip Marlowe, more like Sam Spade, he has not merely an office but a suite, and at least two operatives work for him. For, not with—he’s the boss. Unlike either Marlowe or Spade (at least as far as the movies tell us), he does “matrimonial work”; indeed, as he will declare later in the film, it’s his “meeteeyay.” He pushes Curly out the door fraternally—Curly is mumbling about not being able to pay until he makes another run on his fishing boat—and lets the creamy light carry him into another room where operatives Walsh and Duffy are waiting with the company’s next client, a Mrs. Mulwray. Mrs. Mulwray thinks her husband is seeing another woman. Gittes affects just enough disbelief to permit Mrs. Mulwray the consolation of knowing that that’s the last thing a man like him would expect the husband of a lady like her to be doing. “Mrs. Mulwray, have you ever heard the expression `Let sleeping dogs lie’? You’re better off not knowing.” But Mrs. Mulwray wants to know and she has the money to pay for Gittes’ services. Her husband—Gittes is genuinely surprised at this one—is the head of the Los Angeles water company.
[Editor’s note: This essay was originally written in 1998, before the re-edited version from producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch, and is based on the 109-minute version that was rescued from the vaults in 1975, generally known as the “preview version. This version had replaced the original 98-minute theatrical version in retrospective screenings and TV showings, but it makes its DVD debut – along with the 98-minute theatrical version – on the new Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition, which also features the previously released 1998 “restored” version. The essay has never before been published.]
Despite the fact that, like most of Welles’s films, Touch of Evil was the victim of injudicious cutting, it holds together narratively better than just about any film he ever made. The result is a film even more corrosively insidious than Mr. Arkadin—a film in which we’re never quite sure what’s going on, but are always profoundly aware that, whatever it is, it is far more horrible than it appears. And, in Touch of Evil, that is very horrible indeed.
It’s an intentionally seedy film—you can pretty much smell Hank Quinlan—and Welles, always a better director of space and decor than of actors, creates in his mise en scene a dynamic tension between the rich baroque and the decadent gothic. “Baroque” in the way it uses incidental ornamentation within the frame composition, insisting upon signs, posters, souvenirs and bric-a-brac to provide comment on character and event, as well as to lend atmosphere. Bulky Quinlan, looking up quizzically, belatedly prepares his defense against the lanky Vargas, in a room walled with bullfight posters and photos of the great matadors. We almost expect him to snort and paw the earth. This mise en scene was, in part, Welles’s debt to Karl Freund, neo-Gothic cameraman (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Metropolis, 1926; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930; Dracula, 1931) and director (Mad Love, 1935) who combined compositional richness with thematic darkness to create a Cinema of the Grotesque that seminally influenced the look and style of Citizen Kane (1941).
This sense of the Gothic, augmented with lessons learned from Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, is evident in The Third Man (1949), a film directed by Sir Carol Reed but as closely associated with Welles in our cinematic collective consciousness as any film on which he received directorial credit. Reed had himself quoted the child’s bouncing ball and a few other tones and gestures from Lang’s M in Odd Man Out(1947); and the collaboration of Welles and Reed on The Third Manwas one of like minds and visions, learning from each other, and creating, along the way, both a film masterpiece and an enduring document of the shattered physical and human architecture of postwar Europe.
[Originally published in Movietone News no. 43, September 1975]
Nashvilleis 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?”
I was lucky. I saw Nashvillea 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 hadn’t—still haven’t—read 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; I’d had a lot of fun with the movie and didn’t 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 Nashvilleon 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 asterisks—which, be it noted, are not red, white, and blue.
Nashvilleis a mystery, and the thing to get straight right away is that the mystery not only isn’t going to be solved—it can’t be, and shouldn’t be, solved. What are mysteries for? You read the solution and put the nightlight out and go to sleep and forget the whole thing. It’d be a pure shame to forget any piece of Nashville. This mystery deserves to remain viable, for viability is what it’s 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 Altman’s 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 film’s “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. It’s an outrageously accurate facsimile of one of those record-album shills that endlessly punctuate the programming of syndication-swamped TV stations. Perversely, the “stars” we’ve 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 snicker—in order to head off or disguise unseemly gulping for air—and 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-cover–style 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 truck—the 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 it’s 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 (that’s 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, that’s 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 Walker’s speeches scored? No, we’re 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 singer—momentarily unseen, like Walker—rapidly updates U.S. history from Columbus’ time:
My mother’s 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.
Altman’s movies always begin—but really begin—with 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 Hamilton’s 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 Nashvilleincorporates 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. Nashvillenever 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 can’t 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 there’s so much fuss about this cornucopia of a film.
I‘m promoting a movie but I‘m 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 Deemen’s 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 guy’s an admitted homo…” As far as he’s concerned, the lines refer to Hal Phillip Walker, another specimen of amateur talent who’s come to enter and hopefully win his fourth Presidential primary. Walker still isn’t onscreen. Neither is Trout, though someone might have had a camera on him when he spoke his piece. Instead we’re looking at Jeff Goldblum as the unaccounted-for Tricycle Man who is conspicuously present almost everywhere something’s 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 Variety—ever-present showbiz—lies before him. Trout’s lines might almost describe him; they certainly suggest questions about him; they don’t 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 it’s 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.
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 can’t know which character is singing, but we may suspect—and simultaneously disbelieve—that the voice belongs to Henry Gibson, Henry “Laugh-In” Gibson, already unpredictably cast as the weaselly Dr. Verringer in Altman’s 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…what’s he wearing?—a rhinestone-studded country-western outfit?! (more outrageous)…and—listen to those lyrics…coming out of Henry “Laugh–In” Gibson!! I gather, from some comments I’ve heard, that some viewers’ apprehension of the scene stops about there: it’s 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 we’ve been doing to last 200 years). All of that is in there—except that I’d say it’s a pinning-down of camp jingoism, which is different from campy put down—but there’s also more. The energy, the suspense, and the payoff of that camera movement belongs to—and as far as we are concerned, is virtually identical with—Henry 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,” we’re 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 Hawks’s Scarfaceby 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, what’s dynamic is usually what’s most satisfying.
A great deal of the early pleasure of Nashvilleinheres in spotting our stars and characters, checking off those performers we recognize and filing away faces and figures that don’t 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) who’s 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 they’re occurring in the same neighborhood. Goldblum’s semi-private magic act encourages Welles to break into lethal song, and we cut to a new face, that of Ned Beatty. We haven’t seen him enter because he hasn’t—he’s 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” isn’t the word, and “interested” isn’t the word, but he’s focussed on something. Sueleen’s, i.e. Welles’, singing? That’s what we hear on the soundtrack, and under normal conditions there’d be no getting away from it within that restricted space. Audiences invariably take Beatty’s ambiguous pan as a cue for laughter, and the response is just. But maybe he’s just thinking about something—we’ll learn presently that he’s waiting to meet Michael Murphy, due on the next plane—and doesn’t even register the singing (we never cut to a shot of Sueleen after going to Del Reese, i.e. Beatty, don’t 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-encounter—non- in both conventional visual terms and behavioral terms—shapes 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 she’s 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 did—or didn’t—would 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 Deemen’s 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, lovely—and 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 aren’t 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 Nashville—and certainly of Nashville—is 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 Hamilton’s 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, needn’t supply their own amplification devices: the world around them—and in this case the film itself—does it for them. Altman may appear to belie this a little later in the uninterrupted take of Julie Christie’s 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, she’s a very great star. She’s 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 don’t know which one it was, she’s been in so many.” And if the transmutation goes unnoticed, Connie White’s subsequent remark just can’t; that can’t be a star because “She doesn’t 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 Nashvilleconverge 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 Kilgore—Trout (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.
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 they’re there to see that very movie) through Elliott Gould’s answer to the question of what, suddenly, he’s doing there: “I came to a party…. I’m promoting a movie”—California Split—”but I’m 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 dad’s recording studio at dad’s 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 it’s our other Laugh-In veteran, Lily Tomlin. We’re barely into the movie at this point, and perhaps dubious about this whole “star” business. Lily Tomlin in a black gospel troupe—sounds pretty precious. “Is that woman a missionary?” Opal wants to know; Bud explains that actually “she’s the wife of our studio lawyer.” The setup becomes clear: humorlessly libberrull Suthrun housewife uses hubby’s 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 woman—Lily Tomlin or Linnea Reese?—drops behind the chorus half a beat…and after an instant’s stumble to catch up, looses a peal of the most unaffectedly delighted laughter you’ve ever heard. Good faith is firmly established in Nashville and is rarely in jeopardy thereafter.
—Del, you sure you don‘t want me to come in there and fry you an egg?
—No, honey, I‘m gonna hardboil me a couple.
Altman’s 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 director’s 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 Nashvillesuggests a yearning toward thematic bigness with exercises in Watergate-style pettifoggery, rumblings of political assassination, and song lyrics that maintain “We’re 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 we’ve 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 machine’s 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 I’ve been given to see in Altman’s movies, there’s rarely a shot in Altman that makes one go “Great shot, great shot” as with, for example, a Ford or a Sternberg. Hence there’s 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 I’m not unmindful of the extraordinary demands for responsibly creative collaboration on the part of his cameraman—here, as in California Split, Paul Lohmann) zooms, pans with the effortless logic of the glancing curious eye. And that eye will be aesthetically satisfied. It’s worth noticing that whenever the subject onscreen does not naturally lend itself to comfortable containment by the Panavision horizontal—a comparatively rare occurrence—the 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 filmmaker’s 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 observer’s (i.e., the moviegoer’s) 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 it—except insofar as the act of discovery constitutes a transformation.
The way Altman builds his movies, this sense of discovery can be shared—or a direct parallel to it experienced—by the viewer. When, in a busy airport corridor, Del Reese (Ned Beatty) speaks to a man who might be (but isn’t) the guy he’s supposed to meet, the stranger’s 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 Duvall—84% naked, thick as a drinking-straw, towering on bright green two-story platform shoes—takes 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. There’s just no missing Duvall’s materialization, and no failing to recognize and respond (whether exuberantly or exasperatedly) to Altman’s 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 onscreen—and stayed there long enough to assure me that Altman was as delighted with it as I—I 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 (it’s both); but I did feel compelled to testify it was there.
I got no time. I‘m 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 commercialism—but 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 Jean’s life was saved. (Did screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury have to make either place up?)
Violence is arguably a part of Nashvillefrom that first bit of sensory overload that comprises the main title. If it is historico-politically invoked by the lyrics of Haven Hamilton’s (and Henry Gibson’s) “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 studio—his studio at that moment—with 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 don’t 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 WANDA—what 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 haven’t 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 doesn’t, we’re 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 Nashville‘s 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 take—which variety of stylistic violence is highly liberating.
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 on—sometimes informatively, but mostly just droning—about the nonevent of Barbara Jean’s return is delivering his summary statement on the star’s 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 who’ve been proselytizing all over the airport. He doesn’t 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 decade’s detoxifying has made safe for Southern consumption, turns on her Closeup smile and holds up one of her candidate’s posters. The two reflexive gestures of noncommunication coexist peacefully for a moment. Then a security guard administers the shepherd’s crook and hustles her out of frame. WENO drones confidentially on.
It is in the very fibre of Nashvillethat 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 girl’s 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 doesn’t look behind her as two cars collide more or less because she is where she is. Nashvilleis 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 Lang’s M when the leaders of the metropolitan government and the leaders of the city’s underworld are meeting, in their respective headquarters, to discuss a common crisis. SchrÃ¤nker, 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.
Nashvillehas 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 “we’re all a part of history,” Altman cuts to a shot he’s 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 we’re 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 commentator—not 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 audience—failing which, she’ll supply the response herself as a display of her sensitivity credentials. “It’s America, those cars, smashing into each other.” The suffocating anguish with which she reacts to a highway accident that (for all we see) doesn’t produce a single bruise is so undifferentiated that the same tone and expression is pressed into service over the news that Linnea Reese’s 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 dress—stylelessness 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: “I’ve got to be more positive…no, more negative…oh Christ, that’s 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 Peril—a hilariously inapt vehicle for making a racially tolerant statement about the plight of black schoolchildren). Like Altman’s 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 faith—which Altman’s cinéma condones—that 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, it’s not a little amazing that so many Opals have come forth in the media to do their own restrictive numbers on Altman’s film. Or perhaps it’s not so amazing after all. Those who want to treat Nashvilleas 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 (non–movie-oriented) attacks on Nashvillethat I’ve 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 it’s 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 writers—and makers—have fallen prey to. The fact is that the Big Themes are not what Nashville—or any other good movie—is about; they’re 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 emulsion—you name it, it all goes into the hopper. Find me a recording studio scene in any movie of the past decade that doesn‘t 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, couldn’t 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. That’s clear enough, surely; that’s style, and style is that trivial business movie directors are expected to be good at, use to gussy up the real meat’n’potatoes stuff of content. But “content” really isn’t content, not in a good film. Altman couldn’t not make a Bicentennial America movie at this time, and he couldn’t not make a Bicentennial America movie that didn’t 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. It’s fascinating to catalogue imagery, both during the film and in mental replay afterwards (automobiles intrude in Linnea’s elliptical anecdote about a friend who bumped her head while climbing into her daughter’s 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 filmmaker’s 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 won’t be about Nashville. Nashvilleis back there with “Altman’s 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 Altman’s movie, certain characters do have hard going. Opal is so obviously and definitively a wrongo within the familiar Altman mystique that even comic irony can’t 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. It’s 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 Brown’s 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 doesn’t she recognize Tommy—she doesn’t 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 don’t necessarily categorize the black folks in that trailer the same way Opal does (aides to a white star), and Altman shouldn’t assume that we do. One flashes back to the queasily self-righteous (if understandably self-defensive) attitude of M*A*S*H‘s good guys to Majors Burns and Houlihan. In this case it’s as if we were deemed guilty of a moral failing because we weren’t 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 Chaplin’s Opal, Shelly Duvall’s clique-y gargoyle act as L.A. Joan, and the perfunctorily typecast Allen Garfield’s Barnett, Altman’s people—players and characters both—are 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 Movesas 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, it’s rather silly to assume they’ve 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. There’s 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 Deemen’s Den audience that’s 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 Deemen’s Den experience doesn’t faze her because it would never occur to her that that sort of applause isn’t 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 place’s name comes home on the audience—the 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 home—without 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 presence—like the candidacy of Walker, for that matter—is 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 script—or at least one of the scripts—called 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 Reese’s abashed propositioning of her, and were getting ready to film her final conversation with her hot-tempered black friend Wade (Robert DoQui). It’s 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 she’s ready, and she discovers she’s saying no. “What’s the matter?” “They laugh at her, they make fun of her, she has to do a striptease, she’s half out of her mind, this jerk wants to fuck her—and now she’s 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 twice—twice because the first take is ruined by Welles reaching out to rap DoQui on the wrist by way of emphasizing her point: the mike’s 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 Waade—l 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 t’marra with Barbara Jean. Wade (shaking his head furiously): Sueleen, that’s—that’s terrible, girl! Sueleen (same dreamy singsong voice, as though he hadn‘t heard right): I had to. Wade: That’s terrible! That’s dreadful! (Sensing it‘s hopeless) Sueleen—l’m goin’ tell you somethin’—I been meanin’ to tell you a long time. Sueleen—you can’t sing! (She looks up at him with a patient smile as though he were being silly.) You—can’t—sing! You ain’t never goin’ be a singer. You ain’t 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, don’t do this. Sueleen: You just be at the Parthenon t’marra. Wade: Sueleen— Sueleen (leaning back out through the door): I’m gonna be all right. Wade: Sueleen, you listen to me— Sueleen: Just you watch. I’m gonna be all right. Wade (an ultimatum): Sueleen, I’m leavin’ this goddam town t’marra. You better come with me. Sueleen (still on the same track): Goo’night, Wade. Wade: But you can‘t sing! Sueleen: Uhh huh. Goo’nigbt, 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 doesn’t sing at the Parthenon, instead ending the film in a frozen, hieratic stance against one of its concrete columns. But it’s the Sueleen Gay—and the Gwen Welles—of 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.
It‘s not my way to let you see
What‘s 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 husband’s 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.
“Motivation” has been a recurring carp on the part of most of the same people who want to theme Nashvilleinto 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 them—and us—with 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 5Â¼ 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 we’ve gone over by now, but also of emotional and behavioral correspondences that caress one another as locations change and scenes elide into other scenes.
It’s easy enough to pick up some conventional signals about Linnea Reese. She’s 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 Man’s outlandish machine precipitates a description of a ward at the hospital full of boys, “the best-lookin’ boys you’d ever want to see…crippled from the waist down,” and when we get back to her a moment later she’s 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 man’s-world of politics, wanders into the dining room and thoughtlessly interrupts the child. To his mind he can’t interrupt the boy because he’s standing behind the kid and his spoken words can scarcely provide a distraction to the boy’s thought-processes. But of course Linnea doesn’t see it that way, which he has to remind himself, and a decade’s learned—perhaps well-intentioned, but learned—tolerance is wordlessly bespoken by the manner in which he circles the table, leans on a chair, and interjects: “What are ya tellin’, Jimmy? School—is 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 souls—Jimmy haltingly speaking, Linnea bending in encouragement, Jimmy’s sister taking as much delight in his accomplishment as he does and receiving an occasional sign-language gloss from Linnea—tightens up a notch and insinuates an edginess that Linnea’s soft “Let him finish” confirms. Jimmy finishes his tale—and we cut to applause. We’re at Deemen’s 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 victims—and the word “congenital” is particularly right when we consider that the Reese marriage has produced a pair of handicapped offspring—have been decisively linked through the sympathetic neighborhood of two discrete scenes, and we have taken the first step—though, as usual, we can’t recognize it as such at the time—toward 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 she’s 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 Tewkesbury’s canny writing and Tomlin’s performance, it’s tantalizingly difficult to separate Linnea’s failure to pick up on Tom’s intended meaning during their first phone conversation from her deliberate (frightened? polite? devious?) refusal to pick up on it—an 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, who’s 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 elusive—yet deeply convincing—evidence of Linnea’s importance in Tom’s scheme of things.
As far as snappy picture-caption identifications of Tom are concerned, he’s “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 it’s 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 face—with 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, be’s been playing it solo since his arrival in Nashville, having avoided his partners in the trio—as partners in the trio—even 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 (“Let’s say I got to know him—as it were—know him—in the Biblical sense”). Mary, sitting in three-quarter-rear-profile, turns abruptly away—which 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 what’s going on,” he almost never does; his and Opal’s 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 what’s 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t know about Tom and Linnea. They don’t 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. He‘s all I ever wanted—why did be run from me? Since you‘ve 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 didn‘t know that you were leavin‘ Till you were out the door
—Bill joining in on the last three words—
I didn‘t know the love you gave was a real love. I didn‘t know a lot of things then—
—Mary has to clear her throat—
Lord, I know them now. Since you‘ve gone my heart is broken another time.
Mary acquires another echo on the last line: Wade. At his “Since you’ve gone my heart is broken another tii-iiime,” Linnea lowers her head almost to the table. It’s a moment of almost definitive hilarity—not gut-busting hohoho hilarity, though Wade’s 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 gesture—several moments away yet in screen time—of Tom flinging Mary’s 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 doesn’t know that Mary was singing to Bill; Bill doesn’t know that Mary was singing to Tom; and when Mary wasn’t 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 doesn’t really take off the charge because it’s almost slurred over by a cut. We’ve gone from Linnea’s lowered head to the fundraiser where Sueleen Gay is to sing. Sueleen… It was her performance at Deemen’s 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 it’s 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. It’s part of the special quality of Nashvillethat the great ones get started on you before you know it, so that when it’s clear you’re 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 Wade’s 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 eyes—the least suggestion of focus returning to them—his 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. “It’s called `I’m 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 doesn’t 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 Altman’s favor that Linnea remains in a middle-distance, off-center, framed by other figures, yet unmistakably the other most crucial fact—along with Tom Frank—of a scene and a song that invariably stops even this unebbingly fluid movie. Since virtually every line bespeaks the compelling complicity of Linnea and Tom—just as the tortured shifts of “you”s and “he”s in Mary’s song contributed to the dynamics of that moment—let them be quoted here:
It‘s not my way to love you just when no one‘s lookin‘. It‘s not my way to take your hand when I‘m not sure. It‘s not my way to let you see what‘s goin‘ on inside of me. When it‘s love you won‘t be needing, you‘re not free. Please stop pullin‘ at my sleeve if you‘re just playin‘, If you won‘t take the things you make me want to give. I never cared too much for games and this one‘s drivin‘ me insane. You‘re not half as free to wander as you claim. But i‘m easy … I‘m easy… Give the word, I‘ll play the game, as though that‘s how it oughta be Because I‘m easy.
Don‘t lead me on if there‘s nowhere for you to take me, If lovin‘ you would have to be a sometime thing. I can‘t put bars on my insides—my love is somethin‘ I can‘t hide. It still hurts when I recall the times I‘ve tried. But I‘m easy … I‘m easy… Take my hand and pull me down, I won‘t put up any fight Because I‘m easy.
Don‘t do me favors, let me watch you from a distance ’Cause when you‘re near I find it hard to keep my head. When your eyes throw light at mine, it‘s enough to change my mind, Make me leave my cautious words and ways behind— That‘s why I‘m easy… I‘m easy… Say you want me, I‘ll come runnin‘ without takin‘ time to think Because I‘m easy. Take my hand and pull me down, I won‘t put up any fight Because I‘m easy. Give the word, I‘ll play your game as though that‘s how it oughta be Because I‘m easy….
—Lyrics and music by Keith Carradine
It doesn’t 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 scene—and on the soundtrack bump-and-grind music begins to cut in. After a moment we cut once more to Sueleen at the smoker. She’s delighted. Enthusiasm fills the hall. She doesn’t know that it’s enthusiasm for what the band’s 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 it’s in his room. We’re looking at the tapedeck, from which we’ve panned on the occasion of the two prior visits a woman paid to Tom’s bed. This time we cut to the bed instead of panning there. This time Tom is looking at the woman who’s with him—a 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 Opal’s morning-after it was simply part of the clutter, set off by a bottle of supermarket wine; in Mary’s scene the camera stayed in close, holding on Mary’s reverent gaze and Tom’s 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?” Tom’s answer and the voice from the tapedeck quietly coincide: “It’s/I’m easy”…. A moment’s 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, “Doesn’t 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. “Can’tcha stay another hour?” “…No…. [a stillness]…I just can’t.” And she moves away from the bed.
“It’s not my way for you to see / What’s 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 don’t 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 Tom’s ankle. They exchange a tender-comrade kiss, Tom’s 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 thing—but for whose benefit is the pointing finger as he says, “Just put it on the table, there’s 50 cents there”? The tapedeck and the dialogue won’t coincide again.
It‘s that careless disrespect
I can‘t 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 couldn’t he just pull out of the way and let these people through. “Maybe you’d like to get in here and try it!”—and before Del has even had a chance to register that, it’s apologized for, Sunday-school shameface. The car isn’t going to move again, so Kenny gets out of it, reaches into the backseat for the musician’s 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. Green’s 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 film—and, 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 account—incline us to look for a major eruption. Besides, this fellow tells some people he isn’t a musician and others he is. Suspicious. Opal’s “Oh you’re 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 Brown—or perhaps just standing up at the wrong moment—caught the charge himself. Later, Mr, Green’s sobbing laugh as he looks at the medicine intended for the wife he’s 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 guns—they’re 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? Walker’s still sitting in his car out back!”
Yet we’ve 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. Isn’t she, perhaps, pathologically enthusiastic? There’s 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 isn’t having any for a moment….
It’s 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. We’ve 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 choir—and 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 Jean’s 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 adds—offered as an implicit apology for his presumption; “we lost him in the South Pacific.” “I’m sorry to hear that, sir.” “World War Two.” They face Barbara Jean again.
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 there’s any cleaning-up to be done, we’re 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 Nashvillemay hypothesize in Kenny the revenge of generations who were lost—in foreign wars, for instance—while the Greens of a Nation to which Hal Phillip Walker now offers New Roots slept. Kenny is given the dead son’s 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 pretends—like Linnea Reese—to 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 Nashville‘s 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 wife’s room, looks around, and the camera tracks out and pans obliquely as he moves across and down the hall to get his niece; she’s just picked up Bud Hamilton outside the door of Barbara Jean’s room, and refuses to leave; Mr. Green bows out graciously and the camera reverses its pan and track to follow him back to Mrs. Green’s door. The figure whose presence and movement have provided motive force for—justified the existence of—the 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 “Who’s that?” is a question we’ve been asking about him on both cast and character levels) while “Mr. Green’s shot” is still running; Kelly, of course, is looking for Barbara Jean’s 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. “She’s fine, fine. I’ve 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, I’m sorry to have to tell you this….” Mrs. Green’s death is thus upon Mr. Green, and us, in an inextricable admixture of suddenness and gradual inevitability. The grotesqueness—and a formal symmetry—is 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 Green’s own intrusion on the soldier’s 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.
There’s one other thing going on in that scene. Barbara Jean, as she’s 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 “Don’t tell me how to run your life—I 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 Jean’s answers coming in barely audible breaths: “Where’m I goin’?” “King o’ the Road.” “Who’m I gonna see?” “Connie.” “Why’m I doin’ that?” “Thank her.” “And who’m I doin’ that for?” “Me.” “That’s right. Now I’m goin’ out the door. Whadda you say when I’m 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 Jean’s and Mrs. Green’s life-energies, Barnett is called to the phone for one of John Triplette’s attempts to enroll Barbara Jean in the Walker benefit at the Parthenon….
You‘ve got your own private world— I wouldn‘t 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 you‘ve been hidin ’your wounds, Pretendin‘ what you say.
“It’s not my way to let you see / What’s goin’ on inside of me…” Kenny and Barbara Jean are as relentlessly bound to one another as Tom and Linnea. Barbara Jean’s private world we see into in that hospital room, the night, the funereal flowers, hands arranged as in death, Light in August for consolation—and out of that comes song, and an energy that literally inspires, so that others’ spirits soar as high as they can be. Kenny’s 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 view—the sewing machine, the dead son’s picture—are 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 ain‘t no good I‘d give a lot to love you the way I used to do Wish I could…
In Nashvilledensity 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
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 Nashvilleisn’t 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 audience’s applause and, as on prior occasions, aggrandizing their appreciative emotion to himself. Yet it’s a different Haven who stands ignoring his own bleeding arm and charges the crowd: “This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville. Show ’em what we’re made of. They can’t 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 sing—somebody sing—” And as he moves, the camera moves with him, and there’s 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 Raven’s hand to hers. Altman’s mise-en-scène can hint at the mystical but in the last analysis the performance has to be there. And in this apotheosis of you’re-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 Jean’s flowers over the crowd. And as so often before in Nashville, the very substance of inauthenticity is rendered authentic. It’s 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 it’s an ellipsis, not a period. The miracle and the mystery remain. Nashvilleis 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 Godard’s 1 + 1, a performance of “200 Years” is never successfully concluded—partly 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 aren’t over yet either. Also, the “official” morality of the 1932 Soar/ace and the “official” morality of the 1975 Nashvilleare virtually reversed; the “official” morality of Nashvilleis 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.
â€ It should be noted that Opal is not the only negative version of the artist in the film. Triplette, the impresario of Hal Phillip Walker’s primary campaign, also operates by forcing heterogeneous material into a convenient shape with a single efficient thrust. He’ll manipulate anybody, whether his ostensible ally Del Reese (Ned Beatty’s feverishly chummy endeavors to keep pace with Triplette’s 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, Triplette’s edge over Opal—and it’s a crucial edge within the dynamics of this movie—is that he’s 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.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 17, 1979]
It was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.
Apocalypse Now is a dumb movie that could have been made only by an intelligent and talented man. It pushes its egregiousness with such conviction and technical sophistication that, upon first viewing, I immediately resolved to withhold firm judgment until I’d seen the film again: perhaps I’d missed some crucial irony, some ingenious framework that, properly understood, would convert apparent asininity to audacity. I didn’t find it. It isn’t there. What is there is the evidence of a reasonably talented filmmaker having spectacularly overextended himself—Francis Ford Coppola who, having had a toney pop epic widely accepted as great cinema, felt he was ready to make Citizen Kurtz.
How poetically apposite it must have seemed, that the property Orson Welles nearly undertook to film before making history with Citizen Kane was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. How artful of Destiny to have stayed his hand, so that around the end of the 1960s John Milius could show Coppola, his fellow film school alumnus, a script transposing the 1898 novella from deepest imperial Africa to the morass of the Vietnam War. Kurtz, the scholarly representative of the ivory trade turned savage demigod, would become a Special Forces officer who had started fighting both sides of the war with a private native army based upriver in Cambodia; Marlow, Conrad’s conscientious truthseeker and narrator, was to be transmuted into a hitman for the generals and an interested civilian agency.
It’s easy to see what appeal this held for Milius, with his unabashed enthusiasm for superheroes and “man’s inherent bestiality” (he has been involved subsequently with Dirty Harry, Jeremiah Johnson, The Wind and the Lion, Hardcore, and 1941, among other films). Easy to see, too, how he would have made a more directly action-oriented film out of it (the best sequence in the film, the Air Cav raid on a Vietnamese village, is pure Milius in concept, as is Robert Duvall’s surfing and napalm freak Colonel Kilgore, the only fullblooded characterization).
Coppola kept Milius’s action set-pieces but elected to frame them within a narrative structure that engenders a hallucinatory suspension, rather as the opening deathdream of Xanadu in Kane casts a spell that pervades the most dramatically vivid scenes in that film. He called his particular brand of hallucination “film opera,” and relied on it “to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War.” It was a bold stroke, inspired, and fatally ill-advised.
A sense of narrative suspension is entirely appropriate to an adaptation of the Conrad novella, in which Marlow’s very telling of the tale is the definitive act over and above the events narrated. But Coppola’s Marlow character is unqualified to provide the ethical and emotional referent so crucial to the drama. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) begins the film in such a moral, physical, and spiritual funk that it’s impossible to conceive how he could be further undone by a journey into any heart of darkness; nor have we reason to impute to him any capacity for illumination. There is no room for him to fall into knowledge, no way for the journey upriver into the jungle to develop its proper resonance: the snake of civilization swallowing its pre-evolutionary tail. Willard is one of Coppola’s affectless monsters like Michael Corleone at the end of the Godfather saga, but without the preceding six hours of film to explain how he got that way.*
Everything is foregone. And it may be protested, of course, that that is How It Is. Mankind fell a long time ago; Vietnam was only the flowering of a corruption intrinsic to our national identity; “This is the end,” the Doors sing at the beginning. That’s profound—or sophomoric doodoo, depending how it’s put across. “Rosebud” is dollarbook Freud, as Welles called it, if you take it in isolation; but if you believe that the true Rosebud is not a sled, not a snowglobe, but the whole intricate up/down, in/out, past/present, light/dark, living/dead construct, that Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane, not a man but a movie, the sum of all the contradictory jigsaw pieces of evidence, of identity, then Rosebud is brilliant, a cinematic stab at, say, William Faulkner’s goal of writing the history of the world “between one cap and a period.”
So foregone can be good. But it takes a stylist of considerable range and power to sustain that kind of narrative suspension. Conrad was such a stylist; Welles, too. It just may be that Francis Ford Coppola is not a stylist at all. He has a good eye, he composes his frames and shot sequences with intelligent purpose, and certainly he inspires a steely concentration in his actors (he needs more from them than most directors do); but he is a one-thing-at-a-time director. A given shot makes a single, clear statement. There is no resonance—although there is sometimes a built-in interpretation of the statement that is foregrounded so deliberately it can’t resonate.
This is true even of his American art film The Conversation, a movie that seems to explore the ambiguity of media (as Kane does in spades). But whatever ambiguity it possesses is a function of the screenplay, not the direction. The central set-piece—the conversation recorded by several microphones, played back a dozen times, filtered, synthesized, and also revisualized (presumably in the mind’s eye) from a multiplicity of camera angles till it yields sinister, contradictory meanings—is fine as suspense stuff, but it’s ambiguity-by-the-numbers: “I could have shot this scene all these different ways” instead of “I shot it right the first time and locked everything in.” (Indeed, Coppola did go back and reshoot the scene when his editors called for additional footage to tinker with.)
Coppola is an excellent screenwriter (v. the achievement of polishing Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the screen) and he has actually received more honors for his screenplays than for his direction. But he knows that the cinema is a director’s medium, that the director is superstar. Pretty clearly, he determined that Apocalypse Now would be taken first and foremost as a director’s movie (as Kane, for all the brilliance and detail of its script, is a director’s movie). And, the miscalculations about the Marlow figure aside, it is as a director’s movie that Apocalypse Now most resoundingly flops.
A lot of people who can see the problem with the film’s scenario logic and characterizations nevertheless manage to come out cheering because of the “visual power.” May I propose that “visual” is the most abused term in the filmcrit lexicon? It is not enough for a film to be full of moving subjects and moving camera, flaring lights and inky shadows, towering compositions and tricky dissolves. That can add up to arrant pictorialism, a miscellaneous lightshow, or meretricious folderol. It isn’t “visual” unless it’s informed by an organic intelligence. There is organization in Coppola’s film, but organicity it’s not. His motifs don’t grow—they merely recur. His images, even when technically impressive, don’t reverberate with possibility—they freeze up with literalness. They don’t suggest—they denote.
To take a central image in both Conrad’s novella and Welles’s film, “darkness” becomes infinitely suggestive: of corruption, and the sacred privacy of the soul; the terror of the unknown, and the bliss of unconsciousness; unanswerable Nothingness, and uncreated worlds waiting to be intuited by an artist-god. To Coppola, it means that when you get to Kurtz’s compound you turn out the lights and let Marlon Brando mumble in the dark.
Style isn’t decoration. It isn’t something an artist imposes on content. It’s the life-energy of the work of art. It’s life itself. The best artists feel awe toward their medium. It doesn’t seem to hold any terror for Coppola. He’s not a stylist—he’s a technologist who confuses art with state-of-the-art. Harry Caul in The Conversation could get emotionally involved only with the phantoms created through his sophisticated sound system; the centrality of technology to the method of that film prefigures the creative formula of Apocalypse Now. Coppola can buy better technology than anyone who’s made movies before. He knows that 70mm cinematography is capable of incredible richness and texture, and that Walter Murch can mix more levels on a soundtrack than you can even identify. This produces a kind of depth, geophysically speaking, but other sorts are missing. Coppola’s film is “operatic” because it’s heightened—and thin.
In thrall of the kinesthetic firepower available to him, apparently confident that it will lift anything to new levels of expressiveness, Coppola perpetrates some of the most astonishing banalities in the history of prestige pictures. A phantasmagoric U.S.O. show in a Vietnam lagoon is a zapper for about as long as it takes Willard’s river patrol boat to round the bend and afford a good look at it; after that, it’s endless fascination with a Hugh Hefner Playmate rubbing an M-16 between her thighs, which seems to have something to do with sex and violence. A sun- and drug-zonked surfer in the boat crew paints his face like military camouflage and basks in the constant flickering of a meaningless night battle; Kurtz later appears similarly daubed, and of course there are all those primitive Cambodians painted head to toe: who is civilized and who is savage?! The man who once orchestrated the stunning juxtaposition of a Corleone baptism and the nationwide elimination of the family’s enemies here has Kurtz’s natives slaughtering a ceremonial bullock while (can you dig it?) Willard swims through some handy primeval slime to assassinate Kurtz. It’s as if Coppola were making an audiovisual aid for people who had never been introduced to any of these concepts before.
And yet he reaches the nadir when straining for the most intellectual—and silliest—signification. Both Kurtz and a spacey disciple of his (Dennis Hopper) quote T.S. Eliot—and not only Eliot, but “The Hollow Men,” a poem that bears an epigraph from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness! And then the camera tips portentously to discover copies of From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough—Eliot’s key mythic source material in composing “The Waste Land”—lying in Kurtz’s quarters. I mean, what the hell does the man think he is doing? Are we to understand that Brando’s Kurtz knows there was an earlier, fictional Kurtz whose footsteps he is retracing? Is this the ultimate form of narrative suspension? Is Coppola indicating his own serene acceptance of the inevitability with which Apocalypse Now will be subsumed in the racial consciousness?
Apocalypse Now is nothing if not an attempt to make a serious and important work of art. One must admire Coppola’s crazy courage in laying fortune, career, even his home on the line to get the film made. And if he reached beyond his range as an artist, well, that is an honorable failing. But one thing is unforgivable. Francis Coppola based his film on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; he even went back to Conrad to restore material omitted from that first John Milius screenplay. Almost everything that is any good in the film, that has lasting power to disturb, is based on Conrad’s original vision. A seaman from the Polish Ukraine, who learned to use the English language with a majesty and subtlety few have equaled, created one of the definitive works of—and on—the Western imagination. There are no credits on Coppola’s film, but the programme book has columns of them. Joseph Conrad’s name is never mentioned, although a photo caption reverently notes: “September 3, 1976. Marlon Brando arrives. He reads Heart of Darkness and shaves his head for the Colonel Kurtz role.”
Richard T. Jameson
*The reference, in 1979, was to The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two; G-III was made in 1990.