Despite studying film for more than a decade, I had never seen Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). This should not be interpreted as a disclosure of neglect or ignorance. Instead, it was because I felt like I owed the film – like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey – a proper presentation. Essentially, I didn’t want to watch a poorly mastered DVD and I waited for one of the Los Angeles rep theaters to program a 35mm or DCP. While I never found such a screening, the good team at the Criterion Collection has released the film in a stunning Blu-ray/DVD package with a flawless HD transfer.
Sitting down to finally watch the film, I found myself frozen with fear. Would Nashville – like Easy Rider – be one of those films that has not aged well? I recently got into a discussion with blogger Lara Gabrielle and some of her readers on her website over what makes a film worthy of the title “classic.” There was a wide discussion about a year cut off (many prohibited “classic” to be a part of the Classical Hollywood System), longevity (has it remained a classic?), cultural relevance, and innovation. Both Nashville and Easy Rider are considered classics of the New Hollywood Renaissance. However, I’ve always felt that Easy Rider is one of those films whose value is overstated because of its innovations (the rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, the French New Wave editing patterns) and not because it’s a particularly strong movie. The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first feature with a dialogue scene, but does that make it a classic? Hell no.
Thankfully, Nashville is not Easy Rider. While it may be worthy of its “classic” designation because represents a major innovation in the technology of filmmaking (the soundtrack was recorded live on 24 tracks, allowing Altman to overlap the dialogue and music without losing clarity) but also cultural relevance. While Easy Rider captures the counter-culture rebellion of the 60s, the specificity of Nashville’s depiction of disillusioned America gives the film a universality that the former film lacks. Watching Altman’s opus – which might as well be called America – in 2014 tells us how little has changed in the past four decades. We are still plagued by the angst produced by our unfulfilled dreams. The words of unseen presidential candidate could easily belong to a member of the Tea Party. Our addiction to gun culture has only intensified. And, finally, the naive flag waving country song that Henry Gibson sings – “We must be doing something right to last 200 years!” – sounds like it can still be found on the radio. It is because Nashville is so vividly realized that it still cuts to the bone.
I begin with the massive achievement of Nashville because – on paper – it is a film that really shouldn’t work at all. Running almost three hours – one of which consists of country music – and following more than twenty characters across five days, the film’s structure should alienate the viewer. The film doesn’t have a protagonist, let alone a plot. Yet, thanks to the magnetism of Altman’s actors and actresses (most notably, Barbary Baxley, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Henry Gibson, and Lily Tomlin) – which has been honed through a combination of Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay and a long process of improvisation – we’re always interested in the small slices of life the film is serving up to us.
The nucleus of the film – aside from the unseen Presidential candidate – is Ronee Blakley’s country singer. Recently released from the hospital after being burned by a fire baton, Blakley’s character is carefully managed by her protective – if slightly overbearing – husband (Allen Garfield). Yet, this has secluded her from the world, leaving her emotionally fragile. This is only magnified by the realization that she may be encountering the sunset of her career and – as we see in the midst of one of her musical performances – this puts her on the verge of a mental breakdown. It’s a magnificent performance (especially given that it was Blakley’s debut) in a film filled with small yet vibrant character sketches.
In this sense, Nashville is like a Cassavetes film that – thanks both to Altman’s ability to “kill his darlings” and sheer through his footage mercilessly and his formal sophistication – that balances a concern for character and performance with momentum. (In interviews on the disc, we’re told that Altman told the actors and actresses to color outside the lines of the script but that he’d cut away if they bored him.) For instance, Altman cuts from Henry Gibson’s old school rhinestone cowboy yelling at a hippie piano player to “cut his hair! You don’t belong in Nashville!” to a shot of a sign reading “Welcome to Nashville!” Altman’s juxtapositions continuously undercut his characters, providing a lens of slight caricature without stooping to absolute parody. These characters – like Gibson’s – may be occasionally mocked, but he still redeems himself in the end. After watching the bulk of Criterion’s Cassavetes set so close to Nashville, it should be pretty clear whose documentation/depiction of reality I find more rewarding.
Criterion’s release provides a stunning HD transfer (there’s also a DVD) that perfectly balances vibrancy with the tactile grain of a 35mm print. The soundtrack, a DTS 5.1 remix, perfectly balances the music and dialogue into a perfectly decipherable aural narrative (which is saying a lot, considering how awful the similarly multilayered sound mix on California Split is). The disc contains an archival audio commentary with Altman which is a bit of a dead spot (there are long stretches of silence) and many of the insights he shares can ultimately be found on the disc’s other bonus materials. Personally, I’d spend 2 hours watching the new documentary (featuring assistant director Alan Rudolph, Blakley, Tewkesbury, Carradine, Tomlin, and others) and three television interviews that Altman recorded regarding the film over thirty years (it’s fascinating how his memory changes small details!). Needless to say, this is a great film–a classic– and Criterion has not pulled any punches in giving it the definitive home video treatment it deserves.