Many Things at Once
Matthew Eng on Nashville
The woman in the lacy, Pepto Bismol–pink dress stands upright against a column on the far right of the Parthenon, matching pink clips parting her curly red hair. She is a waitress who has debased herself to stand upon this stage—the first step, she hopes, in realizing her dream of becoming as big a star as Barbara Jean, the reigning queen of country music. But the queen has been killed minutes before on this very stage and another aspirant has snatched the spotlight, rousing and uniting the crowd in song. And the woman in pink stands there, shell-shocked and motionless, incapable of joining the singalong. Before, she would have sung for anyone who asked, croaking out a tune in a voice of unmitigated awfulness. At last, in her solitary stupor, she is unable to utter a sound. You, who have watched the scene dozens of times, never noticed this actress before, but now you can’t take your eyes off of her.
When asked to name my favorite film by strangers, acquaintances, and distant relations, I’ve grown accustomed to answering, without a pause or a blink, one title and one title only. I can’t remember when exactly Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) became my default answer to this pesky, well-intentioned question. Maybe it was around the spring of 2013, when I was a sophomore at NYU taking a class on American Cinema from 1960 to the present. For my final assignment, I wrote about Altman’s magnum opus, attempting to catalog the many ways in which the director uses the title capital to map out a microcosm of America in all its diversity, hypocrisy, and abnormality. Two years later, I reworked the essay into a piece that I published on Tribeca Film, the editorial offshoot of the Tribeca (Film) Festival. The timing was pure coincidence: I left that week to focus on a Master’s degree I was pursuing in the same Cinema Studies department where my attachment to Nashville had been truly solidified; for my application, I submitted yet another revision of my original essay about my favorite film.
Some movies are cherished and carried with us in perpetuity, residing more in the mind than on the screens where we’ve seen them. For me, this is Nashville. Looking back at my now decade-old essay, I see an overeager, fastidious student trying to encapsulate this gargantuan movie in its entirety, on the terms that I had been taught to believe officially mattered, while giving short shrift to why it matters to me, skimming over the more intimate, ephemeral particulars that move and delight me so deeply. (I am, in certain ways, still this student.) For when I think about Nashville, I seldom think about Vietnam, the Kennedy killings, Watergate, party politics, race relations, celebrity, or the sclerotic, undying American experiment. Hal Phillip Walker, the offscreen fringe candidate whose grassroots presidential campaign and sometimes weighty, sometimes woo-woo pronouncements dominate Nashville, hardly ever enters my train of thought.
Nashville immerses, overwhelms, and humbles me. It is a paragon of an ideal cinema, one invested in life as lived by human beings, made up of thwarted connections, silent revelations, and the kind of inexplicable, incidental, ground-level moments that most filmmakers can barely bring themselves to consider nowadays but which are the perpetual stuff of our daily existence. It is a free-form epic comprised of showstopping musical performances, bitter blowups, and one tragic assassination, and yet its real meat is life’s cacophony of pauses, absurdities, and loose ends, its plurality of perspectives. By rendering nothing and no one superfluous, Altman offers the sublime antithesis to the uniform, depersonalized experiences of most American movies that seek to convey and converse with the zeitgeist.
But have I fallen into the same trap of seeking to rigidly define a thing rather than delve freely into its details, to favor the grand scheme above all else? As a canonized piece of New Hollywood cinema, Nashville has certainly been written about to death and you have probably read a similar summation of Altman’s vision before. Perhaps what a film like Nashville requires is a willingness to venture down alternative pathways. Are there new ways to explore this classic, rather than approaching it as a monument one need defer to, a manmade colossus one must master? I am already hundreds of words into this essay and Altman’s is still the only name I have mentioned. Nashville is not a lone auteur’s triumph but a work shaped by many hands, including the screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, often devalued in the film’s definitive appreciations but whose script, shaped by her own wanderings and encounters during research trips to the city, were formative, the foundation on which Altman and his actors could improvise, experiment, and be free.
It is these dozens of actors who inhabit my thoughts about Nashville; some performers scarcely exist for me outside the frames of this film. Many of them were or would become Altman regulars; some would never act for him again. A number of them wrote the songs sung by their characters and costars; many more channeled biographical details—from schoolyard taunts and traumatic injuries to ongoing addictions and volatile temperaments—into the lives they shaped for the camera. Nashville can be appreciated as a record of a group of actors—some of the most striking, soulful, and unmistakable talents of the era—gathered in a given time and place, creating distinctive personas on their own and in tandem with one another. Revisiting my original piece, I see myself struggling to acknowledge these actors beyond the scope of their characters’ functions in the film, how they inform Altman’s sociological overview.
There is little attention paid in my essay to the elegance and nonchalance with which Henry Gibson (as the Napoleonic bigwig Haven Hamilton) and Keith Carradine (as the horndog folk singer Tom Frank) embody the pomposity and callousness of their largely reprehensible characters. I squeal whenever Karen Black swans in as the regal, ruthless Connie White for three songs and a jab at Julie Christie; her self-penned “Memphis” is somehow as memorable to me as anything by Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette. Kenny Frasier, David Hayward’s runaway-turned-killer, enters and exits the film with his motives unknown, but he is all the more haunting for remaining such an abashed and apologetic presence throughout the film. I could compose an essay-length laundry list of my favorite one-off interactions, like Barbara Baxley’s soused Lady Pearl mourning the Kennedy brothers at the same table as Geraldine Chaplin’s daft chatterbox Opal, who has at long last met a conversation partner she can’t interrupt. Black, Baxley, and Chaplin—like Gwen Welles, Christina Raines, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Harris, and Shelley Duvall—are women who drift along the periphery of Nashville but they are central to my adoration of the film.
Maybe their performances are skin-deep sketches—or maybe they are more impressionistic by nature, evoking larger lives and inner worlds in gesture, expression, speech, and song. These characters are not the sum of their antics, inanities, cruelties, and delusions. After all, it is Harris’s scatterbrained Albuquerque who, after spending most of the movie prattling on the periphery—in bars and backrooms and on the sides of roads, telling anyone who’ll listen that she’s a singer—saves the day with unforeseen voice and verve. Nashville demonstrated to me not only the unorthodox modes through which character can be communicated in narrative cinema but what a film character can rightfully be, how elision and opacity can captivate and secure an investment in characters about whom we ultimately know so little.
The woman with the long, brown hair lies atop a man who isn’t her husband, underneath the sheets of his hotel room bed, her head nestled on his bare chest. (This was not an unfamiliar situation for the actress who plays her; she was, at the time, in a long-term relationship with her scene partner here.) As he sleeps, she says, “I love you.” She repeats it, again and again, flat yet unwavering, without answer. It is a lovesick incantation, an unraveling of the strings that bind her heart. Later, a dithering and likely fraudulent journalist from the BBC will brag that this same man has bedded her days earlier. Hearing this disclosure, the woman turns away and covers her mouth, shielding the pain of this latest sting. When, that same night, the man serenades someone in the crowd who isn’t her, tears pool in her eyes, tears that are invisible to all who encircle her. You have seen this film several times and have witnessed her agony before, but only now can you discern the depths of her private, hopeless devotion; only now does it hit you.
When I think about Nashville, it is not so much the man behind the camera that I mull over but the woman behind the microphone.
Barbara Jean, the ailing, exalted country music queen around whom Nashville pivots, was alleged to be based on Loretta Lynn and Lynn Anderson. But Ronee Blakley, the real-life, folk-adjacent singer-songwriter who won the role at the eleventh-hour after Susan Anspach balked at Altman’s lowered fee and perceived disdain for the character, renders any and all models or comparisons moot. If Barbara Jean began as a mockery of dizzy, high-haired divadom, Blakley, the character’s primary author, makes her accessibly mortal, even amid the clucks of an impromptu chicken impersonation on stage. Barbara Jean consumed Blakley, who wrote all of her songs and stayed up nights during the 1974 shoot rewriting and refining them. The lines separating Blakley’s life and music and Barbara Jean’s dissolved over time; when the latter recounts a burn injury to a bewildered crowd at the Opryland theme park, we are also hearing Blakley’s memories of coming into painful contact with a Fourth of July firecracker at age six. “She was making her own movie,” claimed Tommy Thompson, Altman’s lifelong confidant and the film’s assistant director. “You never quite knew where Ronee was going to be.”
Just as the quivering, cordial humanity of her acting precludes the character from becoming a punchline, Blakley, a robust, effusive, and uncommonly affecting singer, makes it impossible to dismiss or diminish Barbara Jean’s artistry. The husky vibrato in her piercing rendition of the hymn “In the Garden” awes the congregants of a hospital chapel to whom she has shut her eyes, as if searching for the lyrics from within; after Karen Black died in 2013, Blakley visited the burial site of the actress cast as her onscreen rival and sang the same song at her grave.
No performance of Blakley’s cuts harder than “My Idaho Home,” in which Barbara Jean honors the hardscrabble family that built her. The sparseness with which Blakley, as singer and songwriter, limns a father’s grief upon the death of the father who raised him never fails to gut me. To my mind, it is as eloquent and elegiac a reminder as any that all things are fleeting, that one day we will lift our eyes and those we love, those who made us, will be beyond earthly reach. The lyrics “His daddy drank whiskey and had a sharp eye / He sold chicken medicine farmers would buy / Together they hunted the fields and the farms / When his daddy died, my daddy rested in my mama’s arms” conjure a movie whose images never appear in Altman’s film but exist in my mind’s eye. Blakley, a daughter of Idaho, penned the song on a flight out of her home state, following a visit with her family.
I want to stop thinking of movies as mountains at whose peak I must plant my flag. To boil Nashville down to a single message or theme is to glide over its contradictions, reject its enigmas, betray all that is multitudinous about its construction, its appearance, its soundtrack, its power. Criticism certainly requires a rigorous thinking-through of one’s reactions to a piece of art and the intentions of its maker(s). But so much writing about film is bent on deducing and relaying a work’s larger thematic significance or narrative meaning. These are important considerations, but I am more interested in reading and writing criticism that honors and indulges the subjective experience of watching and responding to a film, that makes space for the felt, granular, ancillary, isolated qualities of a film that speak to one person and one person alone.
Nashville is not an authoritative documentary of the city in which it is set but a rebellious, multipart object that eludes capture and defies oversimplification. It offers a blueprint for how more filmmakers might approach narrative but also for how more critics might approach films, whether new or like family to us, seeking not to master them but to hone and understand the perspective that views it. Altman’s film, which is also Tewkesbury’s film, which is also Blakley’s film, which is also the film of many others, touched me at an early age of my cinephilia and continues to speak to me, not for its import but for all that makes it odd, emotional, and profoundly human. It is a work that abides, sharp-eyed and curious, questioning what it sees, even as it strives to see it all.
The woman with the black bob sits in a dark nook of a crowded bar, her face projecting a ghostly pallor. We have watched this white woman clap and convulse during a recording session with her all-Black gospel choir and seen her eyes light up while intently listening to her partially deaf son describe his day swimming at camp. But her gaze has lost its luster as the lanky folk singer’s come-hither song sinks into her; this ballad may not have been written for her, but tonight it is dedicated to her and her alone. You know this actress, but this moment will seal your devotion to her forever. It’s the shock of seeing one of the most pliant and expressive faces in all of entertainment rendered inanimate, transformed into a blank canvas for you to project any number of impressions upon. When the song ends and the woman finally allows herself to blink and breathe in, the moment exerts a seismic impact. This is your first time seeing the film. You will watch this scene again and again with breathless expectation throughout the years—and it will roll through you like thunder, always.