Big Auto Dynamite
Leah Churner on Nashville

Watch the scene discussed in Leah Churner's essay here.

In 1974, the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman, a cramped, un-air-conditioned tabernacle in downtown Nashville to the Opryland USA, a theme park ten miles out of town, with roller coasters, a gondola sky ride, a Tin Lizzie course, a petting zoo, and ample parking. The relocation of the iconic Opry to its new headquarters was executed with a distinctly American, hyperrealistic flair, “trading up” while making a holy show of nostalgia. A spotlight-sized circle was sawed out of the Ryman stage and installed in the new, enormous, climate-controlled auditorium. Upon this “unbroken” circle (the very shape a reference to a Carter Family song), a featured performer can technically stand in the same spot where Hank Williams stood in 1949. The wooden relic was there in the name of tradition, obviously, but it also served to obscure its origins, to spritz a little misty haze around the Opry myth. The fiddlers’ revue that began in the Twenties as an advertising dais for the National Life Insurance Company, owner and operator of the radio station WSM, had become, fifty years later, a semi-religious institution and an amusement park to boot.

The production of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville coincided with the move. Altman says he discovered Ronee Blakely singing backup at the Ryman, and by the time they started shooting, the new Opry was complete, a cozy building that looked like a cross between a plantation house and a ski lodge (inside, it had pews instead of seats). Altman recognized Music City as a bicentennial microcosm of the nation: the horizontal city with the famously modest skyline, the capital of rhinestones and periwinkle tour buses and crying pedal steel. The industry in Nashville had emerged as the estranged, fraternal twin of Hollywood, and now it was taking a page out of Anaheim’s book.

Nashville is a comedy about society revealing itself through architecture, a loosely plotted sightseeing tour in panoramic long shots. We see the Ryman building buried in the distance in the opening shot, and that’s the last time it appears. It’s like the fleeting reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass office building in Jacques Tati’s vision of Sixties Paris, Playtime. We see the contemporary city, not the mythic one: bored session musicians, fez-topped Shriners in the bandstands at Opryland, a picnic at a NASCAR rally. But Altman knows that architecture has an aural as well as a visual dimension, and Nashville is as much about soundscape as anything else.

In Tati’s film, inanimate objects sing and dance: neon signs hum and chairs wheeze and elevators appear out of nowhere. In Altman’s, a conga line of motor vehicles pours out of an airport parking lot, sabotaging a toll booth’s boom-barrier, and the presidential candidate “Hal Philip Walker” is nothing but a sound truck (a Wizard of Oz on wheels) blaring a pre-recorded speech. Watching either of these films, the viewer must be active, must scan the frame, catch as catch can and come back again later. The soundtracks are as “panoramic” as the picture: these are their directors’ first films in stereo. Sound is enveloping, three-dimensional, making room not only for music but also for noise.

It is in the realm of noise that the two films are at their most creative. Paradoxically, the scenes look like silent comedies. Tati loves pantomime. When Hulot visits a friend’s apartment, the camera catches the scene from the other side of a glass wall. What we see is a “charade” of hospitality—the offering of refreshments, the unpacking of the home movie projector, and (well, would you look at the time?!) the guest’s hasty farewell. All we hear is street noise. Later in the film, an elderly chanteuse sings a maudlin ballad in a nightclub, swaying with tears in her eyes, but she is completely drowned out by the hubbub. The loudest scene in Nashville, a ninety-second vignette at the Nashville Motor Speedway, has no discernible dialogue and no musical number to speak of. We can see lips moving, but the words go unheard. The players act with their arms and legs.

This is the apotheosis of Altman: a subcultural pit stop, a flurry of improvised activity. Very little of dramatic consequence happens. In the bleachers, white singer Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) pulls a watermelon out of a cooler and hands it to black singer Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown). Haven’s wife, Pearl (Barbara Baxley), leaps up in embarrassment and seizes the melon, shoving a plate of green grapes in Tommy’s hands. The only discernible voice is that of a young singer over at a podium (played by assistant editor Maisie Hoy), who is presently shown doing a karaoke-grade rendition of the film’s ultimate anthem, “It Don’t Worry Me.” Zoom in and out of cars on the track. Next up on the microphone is Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), doing some kind of mime routine (“This is with gestures,” we hear her utter). It’s hard to tell if she’s singing or not—if she is, the sound is eclipsed by the revving motors, the loudspeaker, and the babbling, indifferent crowd. The camera stays on Harris in extreme long shot. She’s gyrating on top of a platform that says NASHVILLE in giant red letters.

There are so many layers of sound that most of the dialogue is inaudible. More than any other spot on this immense, polyphonic soundtrack, the NASCAR cacophony manifests the radiant disdain that makes Altman’s movies so lively, and it’s a clear fuck-you to the critics who complained about muddy sound in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and especially to Jack Warner, who fired Altman during the production of Countdown in 1968 for his idiosyncratic use of dialogue. In other words: You want overlapping? I’ll give you overlapping!

Sound designer Jim Webb orchestrated the wildly complex soundtrack through multitrack recording. A proliferation of loudspeakers, tape recorders, and VU meters, Nashville is Altman’s big audiophile movie. Like The Conversation, The Shout, and Blow Out, Nashville combines a story about sound engineering with a technologically innovative soundtrack. (As a backstage musical about the music industry, culminating in the attempted assassination of a female singer giving a concert on live TV, it also bears a passing resemblance to Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, released eight months earlier.)

In contrast to Playtime, which was shot in 70mm on a set and postdubbed, Altman filmed Nashville in Panavision on location, using direct, live sound. Webb, who had prior experience on concert documentaries (Elvis on Tour) and televised golf, designed the Lion’s Gate 8 Track Sound System for California Split in 1974. He set up Split like a golf tournament—instead of using the traditional boom microphone, the actors wore radio lavalier mics, which allowed them to improvise, interrupt each other, and roam around. This also facilitated a freer camera and made long shots with syncronized sound possible.

Multitrack recording (aided by Dolby noise reduction) made it so that Altman could isolate and emphasize individual voices in noisy scenes, and separate the unceasing stream of chatter into individual channels. In postproduction, the sound editors sifted through the many channels, a process Altman called “un-mixing.” On Split, Webb and company experimented with the “sound zoom,” adjusting the relative volume of sound sources to match the movements of the camera. For Nashville, Webb retained the body mics for dialogue and wired the musical sequences like a concert documentary (which it was, since all the performances were live), with dozens of microphones arrayed around the stage, feeding into an additional sixteen tracks.

From its multitudinous source tracks, Nashville was mixed down to four-track magnetic stereo, rather a big deal for an independent feature in 1975. There was as yet no way to put high-fidelity stereo sound on a standard optical soundtrack, so stereo was still generally reserved for major musicals, historical epics, and anything released in 70mm. Four-track mag was the 35mm sound-on-film system developed by Fox in the early Fifties for Cinemascope. The filmstrip had two stripes of audiotape on either edge, which fed four speakers: left, right, center, and rear. Producing magnetic prints cost at least twice as much as standard prints and required exhibitors to invest in special projector equipment. Nashville was among the last films released in magnetic stereo (along with American Graffiti, Phantom of the Paradise, and The Man Who Fell to Earth). The format was phased out after 1976, when Dolby stereo (A Star Is Born, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) made it possible to put four channels of sound and a mono mix on the same optical soundtrack—significantly cheaper all around.

The NASCAR scene is a visual pun, a literal representation of Nashville’s sound design—multiple tracks of asphalt (the color of audiotape) each carrying a noisy engine. Some of the cars even have the characters’ names painted on them. Here comes Haven Hamilton; there goes Tommy Brown. But this scene serves a practical purpose, too, as a demonstration of the Lion’s Gate 8 track and stereo surround. Here is Altman flexing the muscles of the Lion’s Gate 8 track and four-track stereo, giving us a sense of just how much layering of sound is possible.

Such virtuosic sound-baths are native to stereo movies, and are usually irrelevant to plot. The first stereo release, Disney’s Fantasia (released in “Fantasound”) didn’t even have a plot—it was an illustrated symphony. The lengthy filmed overture by the 20th Century Fox Orchestra at the beginning of How to Marry a Millionaire has absolutely nothing to do with the gold digging of Monroe, Grable, and Bacall. It’s there, up front, to showcase Cinemascope’s “glorious Technicolor, breathtaking widescreen and stereophonic sound!” At screenings of Millionaire and other early Cinemascope shows, the feature was prefaced by a short film illustrating the immersive, you-are-there powers of the format by putting the audience on a roller-coaster, in a helicopter, in front of a choir performing Handel’s Messiah and even up in the bleachers at a stock-car racing rally. The racetrack was perfect for showcasing widescreen and surround sound, with cars vrooming in your left ear, then your right, behind you.

In Audio Vision, Michel Chion coins the term “emanation speech,” which he describes as, “speech which is not necessarily heard and understood fully, and in any case is not intimately tied to the heart of what might be called narrative action . . . The director may direct the actors and use framing and editing in ways that run counter to the standard rules—avoiding the emphasis on articulations of the text, the play of questions and answers, important hesitations and words. Speech then becomes a kind of emanation from the characters, an aspect of themselves like their silhouette is—significant but not essential to the mise-en-scène and action.”

The point of emanation speech is to “decentralize” film sound, to wrest some of the power from the almighty line reading and redistribute it elsewhere, so that “the world is not is not reduced to the function of embodying dialogue.” Altman was trying to do something like that, to move even further away from text-bound, you-have-to-hear-every-word canned theater and create entire sound environments that weren’t predicated entirely on dialogue exchange. With the zoom lens, the camera can float, drift, and change its mind, and with multitrack recording, the sound mix can do the same. Unfortunately, the director has remained pigeonholed as Mr. Overlapping Dialogue.

Nashville was Altman’s most ambitious project. A commercial disappointment, it precipitated a slump in his career (echoing, to a milder extent, Tati’s trouble with Playtime). But time has been kind to Nashville, kinder than it was to the Opryland theme park, which shut down in 1997 due to persistent flooding. (The Grand Ole Opry is still in operation, though it too was half underwater as of early last month.) Robert Altman’s Nashville endures because it is habitable. What the critic and novelist Gilbert Auder wrote about Jacques Tati’s epic also goes for Altman’s: Nashville “is not merely set in a city, it itself is a city, a proliferation of perspectives, a multifarious mesh of signs, a semiotic utopia. The spectator cannot hope to comprehend its complete topography in a single viewing and ends by browsing rather than reading the imagery.”

Watch the scene discussed in Leah Churner's essay here.