Thursday, July 31, 2008
Robert Altman's best films contain ironies and counter-ironies in such copious quantity that it's tough to know which in particular to cite. What's the most indicative example of them all--Sidney Chaplin's BBC reporter, Opel, thrusting her microphone and her pretentious opinions upon a world of artificiality, in a vain effort to discover the "real" Nashville? Or, is it instead best realized in Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton, a fixture in the Nashville scene, too self-absorbed to realize he's about as well regarded around town as his ridiculously false toupee. Nothing could be simultaneously more or less real than this parallel universe of the superficial, the egocentric, and the self-serving.
Each character behaves in a coldly selfish fashion, and even the kindest gestures appear mutually parasitic in the end. Criticism of L.A. glitz and its culture of gorgeously inauthentic unreality would reach its ultimate conclusion two years later with Woody Allen's magnum opus, Annie Hall, but here is one of its first major public viewings.
The country music capital as allegory for the American political process is the best way to pull together all of these disparate elements into some coherent whole. At best, this is a means of pulling together a rough microcosm of fundamentally different people, linking the political world with the celebrity world, and as such it is the axis upon which the movie revolves. Altman's Nashville is a backwater Los Angeles, and its satirical, caustic eye goes easy on absolutely no one.
Quite unusually, while many Hollywood films extend the supreme cliche of a grotesquely farcical portrayal of the south, playing up the peculiarities of natives at the expense of their dignity, in watching Nashville, that overused cliche is thankfully nowhere to be found, so much so that it's easy to forget that this is a film set in that oft-lampooned region of the country.
It's a harsh film, played straight-faced and without the winking kind of grossly distorted caricature present in many satires, which amounts to letting the audience in on the joke and providing sure-fire laughs--as such it demands much from its audience. It's the sort of picture that may take a couple viewings and some background study to understand in totality, and even then it leaves many questions unanswered.
Nashville makes no attempt to stick to narrative conventions, instead trying to examine bits and pieces of the lives of no less than twenty-five characters in a little over two and a half hours of running time. The ultimate ensemble film, the audience never gets a chance to be bored, or, at first, totally engaged. Imagine a soap opera or a rapid-cutting miniseries which never makes promises to tie up loose ends or resolve plot devices. To put it bluntly, it takes a while to get into Altman's directorial world, and in particular to process the dialogue, which in the director's trademark fashion is peculiarly cross-streaming, flowing from one scene to another and often within individual scenes themselves. Yet, within this paradigm, linear time is strictly observed, as the events progress in real time, over the course of five consecutive days.
Nashville at times comes across as a parade of eccentrics spouting droll, dry-as-bones humor. One must accept the metanarrative that selfishness is the supreme drive of the human condition and that celebrity is utterly and entirely vapid and hollow. At no point is the audience allowed to completely suspend disbelief--one always knows one is observing art, so those wishing to see character development or much in the way of conventional plot, per se, will be sorely disappointed. Though it may take some getting used to, Nashville is a good film, definitely one-of-its-kind and one never imitated by subsequent directors. Frankly, I don't know how one could.