The Man Who Knew Infinity
An account of a remarkable person should strive to be as equally remarkable as its subject, not the timid and tidy boilerplate special of a…
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.
Welcome to "Nashville."
The majority party here isn't the Replacement Party but the movie itself -- "The damndest thing you ever saw," according to the original American ad campaign, and the grandest gala Robert Altman ever threw. It's a bustling, sprawling, wide-screen, multi-character, multi-narrative, multi-soundtracked celebration of the kind we've come to think of as most characteristically "Altmanesque." Characters and extras mingle, moving from foreground to background, in and out of the kaleidoscopic panorama; everybody talks or sings and hardly anybody listens; music and politics fill the air and the airwaves; and no lens, no matter how wide, can quite take it all in, even with the frame-expanding assistance of the finely tuned Lion's Gate 8-Track Sound System that aurally plunks you down smack dab in the middle of it all.
It's all too much, and that's the idea. You could probably take any random shot in the movie -- maybe even a single frame -- and trace how the elements in that image flow through the entire film. (I've done it inadvertently by hitting "pause" on my DVD player and then getting drawn into and distracted by all the fascinating details in the freeze-framed image.) But "Nashville" is a movie that's always in motion; you can point at it, but you can never pin it down.
So, how do you even begin to write about this damndest thing? One way might be to place 24 columns side by side to track all 24 -- count 'em, 24 -- of your favorite stars through their characters. Or maybe a panoramic color-coded diagram that shows how they all relate to one another and to the movie's major themes: politics, commerce, music, family, celebrity, religion, violence, history, patriotism. But for the purposes of this article, I've decided to zoom in, past the macro-ness of it all, and focus on a micro approach. Think of it as a "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" take on an overwhelming American masterpiece.
* * *
"Yellow is the color of caution..." -- Opal from the BBC
In the stripes-and-star-spangled banner of "Nashville," nearly every character is associated with a color, most of them primary: red, white, blue, yellow or black. The King and Queen of country music, Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) are resplendent in blinding Good Guy White, while Barbara Jean's second-string rival, Connie White (Karen Black), is the scarlet pretender to the throne in frock of flaming red. Replacement Party political operative John Triplette (Michael Murphy) always sports a blue suit and tie or a pale blue dress shirt, Haven's lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) prefers leisurely polyester plaids in orange and tan, and the folk-rock trio Tom, Bill and Mary (Keith Carradine, Allan Nichols and Cristina Raines) wear black/white, blue and red, respectively -- no doubt all of it one hundred percent cotton.
But there is one, and only one, purple strand running through the Panavision tapestry of "Nashville," one character who combines red, white and blue, and that's Lady Pearl, wife of Haven Hamilton and stepmother of Bud Hamilton (who is clothed like an oversized baby in pastel yellow synthetic double-knits). Pearl's hen-on-helium voice, cackling laugh, incandescent red hair and purple-and-white ensembles stand out in "Nashville"'s display of Bicentennial colors, but to follow her thread is to see how tightly she's interwoven with the fabric of the movie as a whole.
Pearl shows up in the background of the film's first interior shot, and only the third shot of the movie, after the animated TV spot. As the drone of Hal Phillip Walker's van fades into the distance (providing, by default, the movie's background score) a military snare, bass, and banjo riff fades up and -- cut -- we're in a recording studio, where Haven is laying down a new patriotic anthem, aimed squarely at one of the most phenomenally lucrative marketing opportunities in American history, the 1976 Bicentennial extravaganza.
The shot begins on the drummer, source of the sound that first caught our attention in the previous shot, and passes across Pearl and Bud, seated in a glassed-off control room. On the other side of Bud is a mustachioed man in a straw hat with a camera around his neck, lulled to sleep by the slow, deliberate cadence of the tune. The camera pans across the room (and Buddy gently elbows the snoozing Mustache Man awake), drawing a connection from Buddy and Pearl to Haven in the vocal booth. We don't know the nature of their relationships yet, but some intriguing dynamics are already coming to the surface.
As Haven crows his jingoistic ballad, Pearl watches intently, her hand almost obscuring a Mona Lisa smile as if she's attempting to hide something. What is she thinking? Only minutes into "Nashville," Haven introduces religion into the movie's mix of marketing and politics, conflating faith and patriotism:
I pray my sons won't go to war But if they must, they must. I share my country's motto And in God I place my trust.
Pearl looks like could be stifling laughter -- or cannily sizing up the song as a sure-fire hit. Or both. She leans to Buddy as if she's about to whisper a comment from behind her hand, but Altman cuts away before she says a word. Buddy, of course, was never in danger of going to war during Vietnam; he got a college deferment to attend Harvard Law School. Displaying his peculiar knack for infantilizing Buddy, particularly in front of large groups, Haven later boasts before a drill team of schoolgirls: "We're tryin' to give him all the breaks that we never got." (Although nobody would have conceived it in 1975 -- five years before Ronald Reagan and 25 years before George W. Bush -- Buddy could one day grow up to be the President, just like Connie White says.)
For self-critical progressives like Altman, America is a liberal ideal striving to live up to its unrealized potential; to reactionaries, it's a fallen paradise, an illusory Eden into which they hope to retreat, even though it never actually existed in the first place. One looks forward, the other back to the future (a signature Reagan-era phenomenon). And just when it seems you've got Haven's "200 Years" pegged as a reactionary American-exceptionalist manifesto, the declamatory chorus shakes things up a little:
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!
Old Glory stands as a testament to our history and how far we've got to go? The song throws us a curve ball, winding up with right-wing platitudes and then delivering something (to mix baseball metaphors) out of left field. "Nashville" is rarely as black-and-white -- make that red-or-blue -- as you initially expect. That enormous Panavision flag that waves at the end of the film, with 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"), is a resonant image of apprehension and hope; idealism and disillusionment; nostalgia for the past, fear for the future, and a sense of lagging behind, not quite belonging to the present.
As "200 Years" suggests, "Nashville" is a portrait of a country vainly and naively wrapping itself in the flag. But while Haven's song, and Walker's platform, are chock-full of bromides and clichés, they're not entirely bullshit, either. Like so many things in the movie, they make you laugh, and then you swallow hard. The laugh is for real, but it's deceptive. Altman aims to mix up emotional responses, so that you may find yourself laughing and crying (or laughing and sighing) at the same time. And Pearl -- crass, sensitive, tough, ridiculous, shrewd, touching Pearl -- embodies all these contradictions.
As "200 Years" ends in a crescendo, Pearl urges Buddy to remove an intruder from the session. It's Opal "from the BBC" (Geraldine Chaplin), who has unaccountably wandered into the scene and disrupted it, she will do throughout "Nashville." "You gotta get her outta here," Pearl insists, hoping Buddy will escort Opal out before Haven notices. But it's too late. Buddy is frozen in his seat, gripping the armrests and unable to decide whether to move or remain inconspicuous, when Haven demands to speak to him. "Y-yes sir, Dad," Buddy responds. The family dynamics are beginning to come into focus. Pearl knows the rules as well as Buddy does, but like a one-man dog, Buddy snaps into action only when Dad commands him.
Most interactions between Pearl and Haven these days are filtered through a third person, and usually that means Buddy. Even they communicate directly, there's an edge to the exchange that suggests they've been getting on each other's nerves for a years, but have found ways to work around the irritation. Most of the time. Buddy is the buffer between them, and the object of their never-ending passive-aggressive tug-of-war. In an argument over the lyrics to an old song, Pearl finally loses it when she turns to Buddy for support and he refuses to take sides. "What-difference-does-it-make-it-was-a-hit!!!" she snaps.
Pearl clearly adores her bud, Buddy. Watch her face at the Grand Ole Opry, while Haven is singing "For the Sake of the Children," about a man who can't leave his wife because of how much he loves his kids. Shortly after a corny couplet about a father and his boy ("'Cause Jimmy's been wishin' that I'd take him fishin'/His Little League pitchin' is somethin' to see..."), stepmom and son share an unheard confidence (maybe she finally tells him what she was thinking at the recording studio) and they both laugh. It's as happy and relaxed as we've seen them. Buddy quickly turns his attention back to Dad, but -- in what can only be considered a "privileged moment" -- Pearl fixes her gaze on Buddy and beams, radiating joy and love. It's then you realize that the only time she gets Buddy all to herself is when Haven is performing.
At the airport to welcome the recently de-hospitalized Barbara Jean, Pearl, in her little purple suit, sits in the back of an open-roofed white Jeep, with Buddy at the wheel and Haven riding shotgun. The national anthem begins to play as they enter the frame, foreshadowing Pearl's tearful reminiscence of First Lady Jackie Kennedy "in her little pink suit" in the rear of the limo on the day of JFK's assassination. Pearl carries the white roses that Haven will present to Barbara Jean, and nobody even helps her out of the Jeep. She dutifully feeds Haven background about the school bands and twirlers who are performing "just for this event" while he shakes hands and signs autographs for members of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. But Haven barely listening to a thing she says ("Yes, that's so nice"), until he dismisses her in the same, under-the-breath tone: "Pearl, shut up."
The tension between Haven and Pearl, no less than the more overly volatile conflict between the correlative couple of Barnett (Allen Garfield) and Barbara Jean, contributes to the disquieting air of something-about-to-rupture that builds throughout "Nashville." Infidelities multiply; assurances are undermined; couples split or grow quietly estranged; deals fall apart; paths cross or fail to synch up. By the end, there's a sense at the end that each character is more alone than ever, left to suffer the personal and political fallout of all that's come before.
* * *
"Nashville" depicts a South that is still stubbornly a part of the Confederacy, and where civic pride still trumps national identity. "This is Nashville," or "You don't belong in Nashville," as Haven repeatedly insists. When we see a poster of JFK on the wall of the Old Time Picking Parlor -- a bluegrass joint right next to Walker headquarters where "Nashville" began -- it seems incongruous. While the bluegrass band howls a tune about the Mississippi River, the camera pans from the JFK image to the stage, past a surprisingly satirical "Discover America" poster of a hitchhiking Richard Nixon impersonator. This place feels more like a lefty-folkie counterculture hangout than a country-western honky-tonk -- and, wouldn't you know it, it's Pearl's joint.
Outside, young Walker campaign workers are plastering parked cars with flyers. Inside, some patrons wave Confederate flags, while Lady Pearl welcomes customers. "Hi young stud," she says, heartily greeting Kenny (David Hayward). "C'mon in and sit down right over here." Skinny, bespectacled young Kenny is anything but studly. "He looks like Howdy Doody," Mary says. The first thing he does is apologize to Bill and Mary for taking up space at their table. Pearl's inappropriate salutation underscores the truth about this kid, but there's something maternal in it. She has no way of knowing that Kenny (who might be a cousin of Lee Harvey Oswald, or Norman Bates) has come to Nashville to put some distance between himself and his own clingy, overprotective mother. He's the antithesis of Buddy, the other young adult son in the movie with the diminutive name -- scrawny not beefy, geeky not blandly handsome, poor not wealthy. But both boys seem to be in danger of being suffocated by parents.
There's a running gag in "Nashville" about the hierarchy of celebrity -- which "star" is flattered and recognized and who is not -- and when Pearl, relishing her role as hostess and her moment in the spotlight, caws, "We've got some stars in the house tonight!" she begins by introducing Tommy Brown (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 unexpected violence intervenes before Pearl can work her way up to Haven, the off-stage headliner.
Tommy, who's seated with Haven, rises to acknowledge the applause, but a drunken Wade (Robert Doqui, as the movie's only other black major character) 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!" Mortified, 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 catcalls: "Hey, he's leavin' -- the Oreo Cookie is leavin'!" Haven's surely right: Lady Pearl's Parlor would seem to be the last place in Nashville that a scene like this would erupt. Which is probably why it does.
A minor brawl breaks out. Kenny tries to stop Wade and is thrown aside -- just one more little humiliation, another reminder of his impotence. Pearl takes the stage to restore order, announcing: "I got two guns here." It's a comic moment -- Pearl doesn't look like she knows quite how to handle firearms -- but it contributes to the unsettling feelings in the air. This is the first public "assassination" in the picture, and it involves the movie's eventual assassin, at a club with a JFK poster on the wall, in an atmosphere charged with music, race, politics and the sparkle of celebrity.
Racial tension crackles through the movie, especially when the "stars" reveal themselves to be 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 Tommy of his place as an honored guest at their table, but not one of the established "family." A lot is going on here -- but this scene at the Pickin' Parlor, seems more of a critique of political correctness than a jab at redneck racists. Even the Confederate flag-wavers aren't rubes; they look more like clueless tourists, blithely unaware of what that flag could mean to other people in the same room.
* * *
Our first insight into Pearl's personal politics comes at the pre-Opry picnic at Haven's "Bergmanesque" rural place, which is also the first time we see her in private conversation. She, Haven and Triplette are having a little conference, away from the rest of the guests, about Haven performing at an event for Hal Phillip Walker at the Parthenon. Dressed in a pink blouse and purple mascara, with strings of purple and red "pearls" around her neck, Pearl gets a little testy when Haven makes a pun involving Tennessee walker horses and the last name of Triplette's candidate. "That is not the kind of 'walker' I had in mind," she says peevishly, as if the joke had been at her expense. She will not be trifled with.
Pearl seizes control of the conversation and gets down to business. "Mr., uh, Triplette. 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 uses the term "puny-like" in her later comparison of RFK to JFK; perhaps this is where the word-association comes from.)
Pearl slips into a bit of a melancholy 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, trying to figure out what's going on.
"That's a fact," Pearl declares, and she excuses herself. The subject has gotten a little too personal for her liking and she doesn't want to talk any more about it. End of subject.
This is the set-up for Pearl's big moment in "Nashville," the one that everyone remembers most vividly: a tipsy, teary monologue (ghostwritten by Thomas Hal Phillips, creator of the Walker campaign, according to Jan Stuart's making-of book, "The Nashville Chronicles") in three segments, edited down from a 20-minute performance. Baxley herself had worked for RFK, and wanted to get her feelings about the Kennedys and the assassinations into the movie. Altman gave her two reels of film to do it.
The scene takes place at a club where Pearl has again been shunted to the background, pouting and sipping a drink at a rear table with Opal of all people, while Haven, Triplette and Connie White, fresh from the Grand Ole Opry show, are talking business and movie stars up front. Perhaps she's sulking over Haven's decision to entertain the notion of appearing at the Walker rally; it's not clear if she knows about the gubernatorial bait Triplette has dangled. She's likely wishing she could be sitting with Buddy at the table in front of her.
Opal spots Pearl's Kennedy campaign button, which she at first mistakes for one of those ubiquitous Hal Phillip Walker ones. With characteristic obliviousness, Opal babbles: "How strange. I thought that everybody in the South didn't go for Kennedy." (I love the construction of that sentence.)
This is all it takes to get the slightly inebriated Lady Pearl rolling: "That's John Fitzgerald Kennedy," she says emphatically, stressing that she knew John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Hal Phillip Walker is no 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." The "anti-Catholicism" remark comes as a surprise. Pearl is employing the same language many liberals would use about a candidate's race, but for Pearl it's the religious bigotry that hits closer to home.
Even the dense Opal by now realizes she's struck a nerve, as Pearl spills out her personal JFK assassination memories, that sound remarkably like everybody else's: "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. 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."
There's so much insight (and oblique character revelation) in this rambling speech: Pearl's bitterness toward people who aren't smart and aware enough to vote the way she does (a feeling so many of us share); her insistence that she is morally and politically superior to the Tennesseean clods around her; her still-vivid recollection of the exact number of votes cast in the 1960 election; the poignant images of the fat-bellied sheriff and Jackie's "little pink suit" from our collective JFK TV-coverage memories; the tendency of people in barrooms to get sentimental over the lost ideals of their youth; her glorification of RFK in terms that are at once moral, sexual and aesthetic ("Oh, he was a beautiful man"); the comically futile failure of language in her attempts to compare the stature of the two brothers (the deified elder is 'John Fitzgerald Kennedy' while the younger is 'Bobby' -- like 'Buddy' or 'Kenny' -- more human and "puny-like"); 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 Pearl, looking bereft and perhaps a bit hung over, at a solemn Catholic mass. Also present are Star (Bert Remsen), Wade, and, in the choir, the gloriously tuneless Sueleen Gay (the late Gwen Welles), trying to sing along in Latin. Elsewhere, Delbert and his deaf kids attend a muscular Protestant service of some kind, with Haven performing in the massive chorale. Tommy and his family witness a baptism in a black gospel church (Southern Baptist?). Although Tommy sings indifferently from a pew in the congregation, Del's wife Linnea assumes a conspicuous place as the only white person in the choir. You get the feeling they're both maintaining appearances in their own way. And Barbara Jean renders a heartfelt hymn from her wheelchair at the hospital chapel (eyes closed, retreating into a private world where she and Jesus walk and talk like lovers), while Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) and Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) trade Barbara Jean anecdotes in awestruck whispers.
Most of the movie's families don't pray together -- but "Nashville" suggests a kind of spiritual kinship among the characters at each service. And now we see the through-line, from that JFK poster at the Old Time Picking Parlor to this woman, seated alone on a Sunday morning with a doily on her head. Pearl's Catholicism, as much as her politics or her sex, contributes to her sense of estrangement from her surroundings. (The South has the lowest percentage of Roman Catholics in the nation, less than 5 percent.)
From here, Lady Pearl recedes into the busy background of "Nashville." We spot her seated on the stage of the Parthenon when the gunshots are fired. And we catch a glimpse of her leaning rigidly against one of the columns as Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) begins to sing "It Don't Worry Me," but then she disappears -- replaced, it seems, by Sueleen Gay, desolate in pink, collapsed against the column where Pearl had previously stood. Buddy helps Barnett, Tom and Tommy carry Barbara Jean off the stage; Delbert leads wounded Haven away after he hands off the mic; but Pearl simply vanishes in the confusion.
* * *
According to "The Nashville Chronicles," in the screenplay for a sequel, written by Robert Harders under Altman's supervision and set twelve years later, Lady Pearl had left Haven and was backing the gubernatorial campaign of now-divorced Linnea Reese. It's a testament to the open-ended reality "Nashville" creates that we can easily imagine the characters continuing their lives offscreen after the conclusion of the movie proper.
I like to think Pearl's went something like this: Her beloved Buddy -- paralleling his alter ego Dave Peel, who entered the ministry in California -- became a Catholic priest and made his mother very proud. At least she won that part of him away from Haven. In the late 1980s, disgusted and disillusioned by the church's Medieval attitude toward women, the antiquated conservative theology of Pope John Paul II, and the Vatican's cover-up of widespread child abuse by priests (which was already well-known by then), both Pearl and Buddy left Roman Catholicism for the more progressive Episcopal Church, where Buddy again became a priest, assigned to a racially mixed congregation in Nashville.
Buddy ran into Sueleen Gay (widow of Tom Frank, a drug casualty at 29) one night at his mom's Old Time Picking Parlor, where Sueleen had accompanied her old friend Wade, at his behest, with the idea of keeping him from drinking too much. It didn't work, but Buddy was able to calm him down before things got out of hand. Wade wouldn't punch a priest, even if he was an Episcopalian. Buddy and Sueleen clicked immediately (she wasn't used to being attracted to guys who treated her well) and they got married a year later. Although she remained a half-hearted Catholic, Sueleen continued to sing in the choir at Buddy's church during special services for the deaf attended by Delbert and Linnea Reese's kids. Pearl thought Sueleen was a little white-trash for Buddy, but she did her best to keep her trap shut. Besides, she saw a little of her naive, younger self in Sueleen -- or, at least, wanted to.
Pearl stayed out of politics until Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. She enlisted the popular clout of her husband Haven, whose career was enjoying a resurgence on the American Recordings label, after talking him out of building his own theater in Branson, Missouri. With the assistance of veterans from Hal Phillip Walker's old organization, they helped delivered Tennessee for Clinton-Gore and, in 1994, they got to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom, which the Clintons had painted purple in her honor. Pearl, by now a grandmother of three, became nationally known as an outspoken advocate for religious freedom and tolerance, and the principle of separation between church and state.
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