The Bye Bye Man
The Bye Bye Man is the kind of film that is so boring and bereft of anything of possible interest that it becomes infuriating.
Taking down Pauline Kael's 1976 collection Reeling to re-read her famous review of "Nashville," I find a yellow legal sheet marking the page: my notes for a class I taught on the film. "What is this story about?" I wrote. The film may be great because you can't really answer that question.
It is a musical; Robert Altman observes in his commentary on the new DVD re-release that it contains more than an hour of music. It is a docudrama about the Nashville scene. It is a political parable, written and directed in the immediate aftermath of Watergate (the scenes in the Grand Ole Opry were shot on the day Richard M. Nixon resigned). It tells interlocking stories of love and sex, of hearts broken and mended. And it is a wicked satire of American smarminess ("Welcome to Nashville and to my lovely home," a country star gushes to Elliott Gould).
But more than anything else, it is a tender poem to the wounded and the sad. The most unforgettable characters in the movie are the best ones: Lily Tomlin's housewife, who loves her deaf sons. The lonely soldier who stands guard over the country singer his mother saved from a fire. The old man grieving for his wife, who has just died. Barbara Harris' runaway wife, who rises to the occasion when she is handed the microphone after a shooting. And even that smarmy country singer (Henry Gibson), who when the chips are down acts in the right way. Kael writes: "Who watching the pious Haven Hamilton sing the evangelical `Keep a' Goin,' his eyes flashing with a paranoid gleam as he keeps the audience under surveillance, would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?"
The movie takes place over five days in Nashville, during the countdown to a presidential primary. A candidate named Hal Phillip Walker, never seen onscreen, is running for the upstart Replacement Party, and has won four earlier primaries. His candidacy was launched, according to the ABC newsman Howard K. Smith, when during a speech to college students he asked such questions as, "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" Yes, Smith's commentary concludes, Christmas has always smelled a little like oranges to him.