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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.
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.
"Nashville" 25th reunion. (photo by Jim Emerson)
When the doctor says you're through Keep a'goin! Why, he's a human just like you -- Keep a'goin!
-- Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in "Nashville"
View image 24 of your favorite stars.
Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally
-- Kurt Cobain, "Pennyroyal Tea"
It's true that all the men you knew were dealers who said that they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter
-- Leonard Cohen, opening lyrics for "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"
View image "Nashville" 25th reunion. Note gigantic Oscar at right; Altman got his own, regular-sized one six years later. (photo by Jim Emerson)
"However, the cortex, which is dwarfed in most species by other brain areas, makes up a whopping 80 percent of the human brain. Compared with other animals, our huge cortex also has many more regions specialized for particular functions, such as associating words with objects or forming relationships and reflecting on them. The cortex is what makes us human."
-- John J. Ratley, M.D., "A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain"
I'm not sure what, if anything, meaningfully connects these fragments to the passing of Robert Altman -- or his films, as alive now as they ever were -- but they were all things I encountered during a day spent thinking about Altman and, to my surprise, not wanting to speak out loud about him to anyone. I talked to my mother on the phone. She asked hesitantly, "Have you heard any news today?" "Yeah," I said, and changed the subject. What can I say that isn't trivial? (Rhetorical question, please.)
In this state of grief, nothing I'm writing or thinking about Altman is adequate, or even makes much sense, in large part because a whole moviegoing lifetime of engagement with his movies (beginning at age 15) has so profoundly shaped who I am and how I experience the world. Like hundreds, thousands (millions?) of cinephiles and cinephiliacs, I found life (and, paradoxically, shelter) in Robert Altman's movies. "Nashville" is my church, to which I return again and again for joy, insight, inspiration and sustenance. (I haven't written about it for years, but I also know that I'm almost never not writing about "Nashville.")
To this day, I am in some deep but irrational sense convinced that the characters in "Nashville" (even though I know they're played by 24 of my very favorite stars!) continue to exist outside the parameters of the movie itself. I've met and interviewed, for example, Ned Beatty, but there's Ned Beatty the actor and then there's Delbert Reese, who is someone else entirely. Delbert exists, imaginatively independent of the great actor (one of my all-time favorites) who inhabited him in "Nashville." (This is most unlike the other most-influential movie in my life, Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," made just the year before "Nashville," which is as "closed" a film as "Nashville" is "open." "Chinatown" ends so definitively that, "Two Jakes" aside, any life beyond the final frame is unthinkable.)
Right now I just want to share another fantastic memory: In 2000, I heard there was going to be a 25th anniversary reunion screening of "Nashville" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. I'd moved back to Seattle by this time, but I bought tickets the moment they became available (for five bucks apiece) and went to LA for the event: My favorite movie, in a pristine print, in one of the finest movie theaters in the world, with most of those 24 favorite stars in attendance. It was... transplendent (as a Shelley Duvall character once said). I'll post an update with IDs later, but for now, see if you can identify the people onstage (taken with a now-primitive, but still beloved, Canon Digital Elph)
Pauline Kael's famous, ebullient review of "Nashville" here reminds us how exciting and innovative the movie was in 1975.
Principal population of "Nashville" after the jump: