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Pearl of the South: A tale of two reviews

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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!

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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"?

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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":

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"... 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

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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.

From the moment it was released, people lined up to exalt or disparage "Nashville" -- and that's understandable. (See the Village Voice reprint of a 1975 conversation between Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris here. Southerner Haskell's opening statement contradicts Rosenbaum's almost point for point.) But I've always thought the "hipness" charge, as a critical gambit, was more of a projection on the part of the slinger than an appropriate slur against the movie itself. "Nashville" is too complex and multi-layered to be dismissed as an attempt to be "hip." Indeed, its most brutal portrayal is of Tom (Keith Carradine), the archetypal callow, blonde LA hipster-folkie poseur who scorns everyone he sees -- except Linnea (Lily Tomlin), who's got his number. Tom exudes misanthropic youthful arrogance from the get-go, sneering at Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) at the airport with a trite "counter-cultural" put-down: "How ya doin, sarge? Ya kill anybody this week?" I hope Rosenbaum (a critic I very much like, by the way) doesn't honestly believe the movie -- or the audience -- is so insensible as to uncritically embrace Tom.

(At the Nashville 25th Reunion, Carradine talked about how uncomfortable he was playing such an asshole, and how Altman thought it was funny to keep pushing Carradine, making the character even more of a scumbag, amused that the nice kid from "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Thieves Like Us" was going to have to act like a real prick this time around.)

To self-critical liberals like Altman, America is a progressive ideal we have yet to live up to, a potential we've striving to reach; to reactionaries, it's a fallen paradise, an illusory Eden into which we hope to retreat, even though it never actually existed. One looks forward, the other back to the future (a signature Reagan-era phenomenon), and these clashing American themes are announced in the ultra-patriotic Bicentennial anthem that begins the movie, sung by rhinestone-spangled Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson): "We must be doin' somethin' right to last 200 years!" And yet, just when you think you've got this overbearing little tyrant pegged, there's the chorus: "We're all a part of history/Why, Old Glory waves to show/How far we've come along till now/How far we've got to go." It's never quite as black-and-white -- make that red-or-blue -- as you expect. That Panavision flag that waves at the end of the film, the portentous ripple that blows across it (signifying "trouble in the USA" in the words of the ominous pre-Parthenon concert song: "Wonder what this year will bring") -- these are not trite images that can be reduced to snide rube-baiting.

"Nashville" is a joyous movie about a senseless (and, it seemed, endlessly repeating) tragedy. It's hard to pluck out the Kennedy threads in the movie because the myriad contextual references (to Dallas, Catholicism, race relations, feminism, the South and the Southern Strategy, the shadow of Nixon, politics as showbiz, showbiz as politics, both as marketing tools...) are so finely woven into the fabric of the film. That's essential to the greatness of "Nashville": Just about any theme or moment can be examined in isolation, but to pull at one strand is to discoverf how tightly it's intertwined with everything else in the picture.

First, let's recall that Joe McGinnis's eye-opening landmark book about presidential marketing, "The Selling of the President 1968," was published during Nixon's first term, and that "Nashville" was born out of Altman's devastation over Nixon's landslide victory four years later. The movie was made around the time of Nixon's downfall (there's one passing reference to Watergate, but no mention of his resignation or of President Ford), and targeted for release in the summer of 1975, on the cusp of the biggest marketing bonanza this country had ever seen: The American Bicentennial. A couple ironies to consider: People who saw the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate on television tended to feel Kennedy won, while those who listened on the radio leaned toward Nixon; and the presidential candidate in "Nashville" never appears onscreen.

So, here's a movie about the packaging of candidates and celebrities, and the maintenance of public images (as penetrating today as it was then), in which the American flag is flown for branding purposes -- from the opening TV commercial (an ad for the very movie we're about to see), to the emergence of presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker's starred-and-striped Walker-Talker-Sleeper van, to the final shots of the enormous American flag hanging from a replica of the Greek Parthenon (that hasn't lasted even 200 years!). Anyone who witnessed the boom in American flag displays after 9/11, and how quickly the phenomenon degenerated from sincere expressions of individual patriotism, grief and sympathy into cynical bullying and manipulation, ought to catch the nuances associated with the use of the red, white and blue here.

"Nashville" a portrait of a country naively wrapping itself in the flag and retreating into "It Don't Worry Me" apathy (or "stay the course" -- Nixon's Vietnam phrase) of the very stripe that got Nixon re-elected -- and Reagan and Shrub. But the patriotic symbols the movie parades before us are never as simplistic or superficial as they seem at first glance. Walker's platform (the Replacement Party) is chock-full of libertarian and reactionary platitudes, but it's not entirely b.s., either. Like so many things in the movie, it makes you laugh, and then you swallow hard. The laugh is for real, but it's only the starting point for a thoughtful consideration the movie, which aims to mix up emotional responses so that you may find yourself laughing and crying (or laughing and sighing) at the same time.

Candidate Walker confronts the theme of audience/voter apathy at the very start, addressing Americans' claims that they're not interested or don't want to get mixed up in politics or that they can't do anything about it anyway: "Let me point out two things: Number one, all of us are deeply involved in politics whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not. And number two: You can do something about it." Then comes the punch-line: "When it costs more to buy an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first trip to America -- that's politics!"

"Nashville" depicts a South that is still a part of the Confederacy (anybody want to contest that perception?), and where civic and pride still trumps national identity ("This isn't Dallas -- it's Nashville!" proclaims Haven. "They can't do this to us here in Nashville!"). And so, when a poster of JFK appears on the wall of the Old Time Picking Parlor -- a bluegrass joint right next to Walker headquarters, it seems incongruous at first. Outside, young Walker campaign workers are plastering parked cars with flyers. Inside, some patrons wave Confederate flags, while Lady Pearl (Baxley), Haven's wife/manager and the owner of the place, welcomes guests.

There's a running gag in the movie about the hierarchy of celebrity -- which "star" is flattered and recognized and who is not -- and when Pearl announces "We've got some stars in the house tonight!" she begins by introducing Tommy Brown (former NFL running back Timothy Brown), a country singer based loosely on Charley Pride, who in 1967 had become the first black artist to play the Grand Ole Opry since 1925. As with any concert bill, the biggest names are saved for last, but Pearl never gets that far. When Tommy, who's seated with Haven, the shiniest star in the house, rises to acknowledge the applause, a drunken Wade (Robert Doqui, the only other black major character among the 24 "stars" in the picture) heckles him from the back of the room: "Tommy Brown's the whitest nigger in town!... He oughta drink some of that milk -- it fits his personality!" Haven abruptly announces that it's late and apologizes abjectly ("This is not typical of Lady Pearl's Parlor. It's not typical of Nashville, you understand, and I hope you'll tell the other ones") while Tommy is hustled out of the room as if by the Secret Service, followed by Wade's continued catcalls: "Hey, he's leavin' -- the Oreo Cookie is leavin'!"

Racial tension crackles through the movie, if only because the "stars" are so unaccustomed to a black man's presence among them, and so eager to show they are not "prejudiced," that they insist on mentioning his race (and/or his Mandingo "beauty" -- talk about jungle fever!) in every encounter. (This may also be their subtle, if subconscious, way of reminding him of his place as an honored guest, but not one of the "family.") A lot is going on here -- but this scene at the Pickin' Parlor, is more of a dig at liberal political correctness, not a poke at rubes. Even the Confederate flag-wavers don't appear to be rubes; they look more like clueless tourists.

Sure, we're inclined to put some stock in Wade's intoxicated characterization of Tommy -- or maybe he's having a delerious Mel Gibson/Michael Richards moment -- but we don't excuse his rudeness in the presence of a star. Two stars. And because he's a star, Tommy is a clear target for bigotry and charges of Uncle Tomism -- even while his status puts him in the old OJ category of Royalty Beyond Race. (This is the first public "assassination" in the picture -- and it directly involves the movie's eventual assassin.) Tommy is a black man who has become a star, but had to sacrifice part of his identity as a black American in the process. Whether he feels that way about himself we don't know; but we do know he feels it from some members of the audience. Tommy Brown is not a caricature, and it should go without saying that, even in this scene alone, the approach to racial themes in "Nashville" is more nuanced, sophisticated and raw than all the post-Rodney King rhetoric delivered in the Ambassador kitchen by Laurence Fishburne in "Bobby."

At the picnic at Haven's "Bergmanesque" country place, Pearl gives her first, brief speech about the Kennedys while straightening out a problem with Hal Phillip Walker's political operative, John Triplette (Michael Murphy). She plays the "bad cop," handling the situation politely but firmly, and thus allowing Haven to remain the untarnished star, charming and playful.

"Mr.... Triplette," she says in a let's-get-down-to-business tone. "Now, I'm real sorry ol' Delbert went and told you Haven would appear at the political rally. He knows better than that. Well, we never let Haven Hamilton take sides, politically."

Haven interjects: "You understand, we give contributions to everybody. And they are not puny contributions."

Pearl slips into a bit of a reverie: "Only time I ever went hog wild, 'round the bend, was for the Kennedy boys." Then she snaps back. "But they were different."

"Oh yes Ma'am, they were," Triplette says with evident sincerity.

"That's a fact," Pearl declares. End of subject. This isn't like anything Triplette, the smooth operator who considers everyone in Nashville a redneck, has yet encountered during his visit -- somebody with a history of political passion and conviction. That makes Pearl a formidable obstacle for him, but he appears mildly startled into respecting her in this moment, even as he's calculating his next move.

The final Kennedy-"dowager" scene takes place at a club featuring legendary fiddler Vassar Clements (yes, the real Vassar Clements), where Pearl is seated out of the limelight -- possibly sulking over Haven's decision to continue entertaining the notion of appearing at the Walker rally. She's at the back, stuck with Opal from the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin), while Haven, Triplette and Connie White (Karen Black), fresh from the Grand Ole Opry show, are talking business and politics. Early in the film, Triplette explains that the reason he's looking for country stars to appear at the Walker rally is because he understands people "down here" are suspicious of movie stars because they think they're "eccentric, crazy, Communists -- a lot of them are. So, when Sue the publicist (screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury) brings by Julie Christie for introductions (as she did earlier with Elliott Gould), it's no surprise that the country stars don't quite know who the movie star is, prompting one of Haven's great fawning non sequiturs: "I was talking about the Christy Minstrels just this morning and now we have Julie Christie here. So good to see you!" (One gets the impression Haven likes to space out with a joint occasionally -- not unlike Altman himself.) In the rear of the room, Opal spots Pearl's Kennedy campaign button, which she at first mistakes for a Hal Phillip Walker one. With her typical simplistic overstatement, Opal exclaims: "How strange. I thought that everybody in the South didn't go for Kennedy." (I love the construction of that sentence.)

That all it takes to get the slightly tipsy Lady Pearl going: "That's John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Well, he took the whole south -- except for Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky... And there's a reason he didn't take Tennessee. But he got 481,453 votes... [starting to cry] and the asshole got 556,577 votes...."

"Now, the problem we got here is anti-Catholicism," Pearl continues, her tongue drunkenly tripping over that last term. "These dumbheads around here, they're all [choking back more tears] ... Baptists and whatever, I don't know. E-e-even to teach 'em to make change over the bar, you gotta crack their skulls. Let alone teach 'em to vote for the Catholic... just because he happens to be a better man."

Opal by now realizes she's hit a nerve, as Pearl spills her personal JFK assassination memories: "And all I remember the next few days were us just looking at that TV set and seeing it all on. Seeing that great big fat-bellied sheriff saying, 'Ruby, you sonofabitch.' And Oswald. And her... [lips trembling, voice cracking] in her little pink suit."

"And then comes Bobby," Pearl continues with great sentiment. "Oh, I worked for him. I worked here and I worked all over the country.... Oh, he was a beautiful man. He was not much like... uh, John, you know. He was more... puny-like. But all the time I was working for him I was just so scared. Inside, you know. Just scared."

So, is Pearl's outpouring simply a game of Ridicule-the-Dowager, as Rosenbaum characterizes it? Or, more ambivalently, as Strauss describes her monologue, an expression of "all that was both hopeful and delusional about what the dead Kennedys represented for progressive citizens"? There's so much truth (and oblique character revelation) in this rambling speech (broken into three sections and at least partially improvised by Baxley): the bitterness at people who aren't smart enough to vote the way you do (does that strike a chord with any blue- or red-staters today?); her still-vivid recollection of the exact number of votes cast in the 1960 election, fifteen years earlier; the poignant images of the fat-bellied sheriff and Jackie's "little pink suit" in the universally shared JFK TV-coverage memories; the tendency of people in barrooms to get sentimental over the lost ideals of their youth; the comically futile failure of language in her attempts to compare the stature of the two brothers (the deified elder is "John Fitzgerald Kennedy"; the younger is "Bobby" -- more "puny-like," on a more human-scale, but his death is just as heartbreaking); the acknowledgment of the worst (mostly unspoken) fears so many Americans harbored when RFK ran for president...

The next day, in a magnificent but brief montage of church services, we see Lady Pearl, looking bereft and maybe a bit hung over, at a solemn Catholic mass. Also present are Star (Bert Remsen), Wade, and the magnificently tuneless Sueleen Gay (the late Gwen Welles) in the choir. Pearl sits alone, with a doily on her head. Meanwhile, Haven, his business manager Delbert (Ned Beatty) and Del's deaf kids attend a muscular Protestant service of some kind (with Haven performing in the chorale), while Tommy and his family witness a baptism in a black gospel church where Del's wife Linnea the gospel singer (Lily Tomlin) is the only white person in the choir. Meanwhile, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakeley) renders heartfelt hymns from a wheelchair at the hospital chapel (eyes closed, always retreating into her own private world when she sings), while Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) and Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) trade Barbara Jean anecdotes in awestruck whispers.

Most of these families don't pray together -- but "Nashville" suggests a kind of community and spiritual kinship among the characters at each service. We eavesdrop on characters in situations where they're in their element and where they're fish out of water. But now that we know Lady Pearl is Catholic (was she raised as one, or did she convert after one of the Kennedy assassinations?), the JFK poster at her Parlor fits into place, and the memory of it underscores her isolation as she sits by herself in the pew. (Lest we forget: A whole generation of Catholic households in the 1960s and '70s created virtual shrines to the American martyrs -- Jack and Bobby, sometimes with Dr. King -- in the living room or the parlor or the dining room.)

Perhaps Lady Pearl doesn't spend as much time on the screen as some of the other 23 main characters in "Nashville," but I've never forgotten her -- or felt contempt for her, either. As is the case with so many of my favorite moments in movies, she had me laughing and crying simultaneously. Bless her for it.

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