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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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String of Pearl: The Lady of Altman's "Nashville"

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Remembering Robert Altman (February 20, 1915 - November 20, 2006). This piece, revised and expanded from a Scanners post, was published in the German film magazine steadycam in a 2006 tribute issue, "Der Spieler Robert Altman: Zocker, Zyniker, Provokateur, Bluffer, Genie."

Well, we must be doing something right To last... two hundred years! -- Haven Hamilton, "200 Years"

It begins with a cheesy, hyper, K-Tel-style TV commercial for itself, segues into a libertarian political spiel by the presidential candidate for the Replacement Party, and then into a rousing Bicentennial anthem sung by a toupeed country-western singer in a white rhinestone-studded outfit.

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Pearl of the South: A tale of two reviews

John Fitzgerald Kennedy's early cameo appearance in "Nashville," at Lady Pearl's Old Time Picking Parlor.

Please consider this my initial contribution to Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon -- happening all weekend at No More Marriages!

View image Inside Pearl's Parlor: Red, white and bluegrass. Kenny Fraiser (David Hayward) enters from behind the flag at center.

How can two critics see (or remember) the same movie, and have such contradictory interpretations of how it works and what it means? And what better case-in-point than Robert Altman's 1975 "Nashville" -- now being remembered in the wake of Altman's death last week, and seen through the prism of Emilio Estevez's recent release about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, "Bobby"?

View image Lady Pearl: "The only time I ever went hog wild, 'round the bend, was for the Kennedy boys. But they were different."

From two reviews of "Bobby":

View image "... and the asshole got 556,577 votes."

Watching the movie, I kept thinking of "Nashville." And not just because Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece remains the most politically and psychologically astute big-ensemble/where-America's-at movie ever made (it's got a presidential campaign and ends with a beloved public figure gunned down, too). There's a minor character in it, played by Barbara Baxley, who's a Kennedy-loving Yankee married to a country music star. In one boozy monologue, she expresses all that was both hopeful and delusional about what the dead Kennedys represented for progressive citizens. I've never forgotten that speech, while the more simplistic and diffuse "Bobby" is already starting to fade from memory.

-- Bob Strauss, LA Daily News

View image Alone at Mass.

Despite its reputation as an exuberant classic, "Nashville" knows zip and cares even less about country music or the city of Nashville (where it was shot) -- which doesn't prevent it from heaping scorn on both. It even ridicules a dowager who tearfully reminisces about John and Bobby Kennedy, and it shamelessly encourages viewers to share its contempt for the rubes. The relentless cynicism that Nashville brandishes as proof of its hipness ultimately gives way to glib, high-flown rhetoric in the climactic repeated shots of an American flag filling the screen while a nihilistic pseudocountry anthem, "It Don't Worry Me," builds to a crescendo, asserting the concert audience's unembarrassed cluelessness.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

First, I want to point out the obvious: Bob Strauss is right even when he's wrong (I don't think Baxley's character is minor or a Yankee) and Jonathan Rosenbaum is wrong even when he's right (Altman admitted he wasn't interested in making a movie about the real Nashville or country music; after all, he let the actors write their own songs). Rosenbaum's preoccupation with his own perception of "hipness" (which he deems extremely uncool) appears to have obscured his view (or his memory) of what's happening on the screen in Altman's movie. As I said in a comment over at The House Next Door, using "Bobby" to bash "Nashville" makes as much sense as using "Neil Simon's California Suite" to bash "Short Cuts" -- or "The Towering Inferno" to belittle "Playtime." Yes, there are superficial similarities (as Bob points out), but in terms of ambition, complexity, vitality and sheer movieness, there's no comparison.

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Interview: Arthur Penn and Steve Tesich

Vincent Canby of the New York Times selected "Four Friends" as one of the year's 10 best films. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, it was described as "an amazingly bad movie." It has been elsewhere praised as a masterpiece and damned as cornball dreck, and somewhere in the middle of all this commotion there resides, I believe, a small film treasure that is about as good as this sort of film can be.

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