Director: Robert Altman
Production: Paramount Pictures; Metrocolor, 35mm, Panavision; running time: 159 minutes. Released 1975. Filmed on location in Nashville.
Producer: Robert Altman; screenplay: Joan Tewkesbury; title design: Dan Perri; photography: Paul Lohmann; editors: Sidney Levin and Dennis Hill; sound: Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin; music director: Richard Baskin.
Cast: David Arkin ( Norman ); Barbara Baxley ( Lady Pearl ); Ned Beatty ( Delbert Reese ); Karen Black ( Connie White ); Ronee Blakley ( Barbara Jean ); Timothy Brown ( Tommy Brown ); Keith Carradine ( Tom Frank ); Geraldine Chaplin ( Opal ); Robert Doqui ( Wade ); Shelley Duvall ( L. A. Joan ); Allen Garfield ( Barnett ); Henry Gibson
Oscar for Best Song ("I'm Easy" by Keith Carradine),
1975; New York Film Critics' Awards for Best Motion Picture, Best
Direction, and Best Supporting Actress (Tomlin), 1975.
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* * *
Robert Altman's Bicentennial epic about one weekend in the lives of people in Nashville, Tennessee, conveys his personal reflection on the state of the nation and his political call to fellow Americans on the nature of the state. Altman's artistic success results from the way he shapes uniquely American materials and sensibilities into a complex ideological network.
After three prologue scenes, Altman introduces a staggering total of 24 characters in one long location sequence at the Nashville airport (only Connie White—Karen Black—is not there, but her poster image represents her). The interweaving of characters, music, sights, and sounds in the airport and freeway sequences establishes them and their lives within a modernist context, a barrage of sensory impressions which Altman choreographs into a bombardment of movement and timing. The continuously moving camera, rhythmic cuts between characters, background band music, TV announcer both on screen and as off-screen voice-over commentator, airport noises, characters talking and overlapping each other, continue to build in momentum until all characters are on the freeway on the way to town. The freeway sequence incorporates wider perspectives in aerial and high angle shots, highway noises, conversations and arguments until, as screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury said, "Everything has whirled and spun and played through your senses."
Following this barrage-like exposition, Altman departs from stylistic sensational overload and moves to a "floating narrative," much like the style of TV soap operas in which the lives and events of many characters are presented by cutting back and forth between them. Altman periodically brings together and connects his 24 characters through devices of communication: telephones and telephone conversations, radio programs, tape recorded songs, the p.a. announcements of a presidential campaign van. He presents events happening simultaneously while slowly allowing for the evolution of time. Altman then cuts between four simultaneous church scenes, offering perspectives on as many characters as possible, then moves forward by cutting events into a progressive 24-hour period. Fewer things occur simultaneously as the camera begins more and more to catch each character impressionistically rather than following them all at the same time.
Cutting back and forth between gestures, reactions, and responses, their dynamic personalities of the characters emerge. But nothing is hinted at of their internal workings. They remain the sum of their exposed surfaces as no psychological or narrative meaning is assigned to their existences. Country singing star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) comes the closest to exposing an internal emotional depth, but that is because her emotions have become her raw surface, both as a star and as a person, turning her into a fragile human being. Because she is the key narrative character, her fate and its meaning is more unresolved than anyone else's at the film's end.
In the last sequence of the film, the rally at the Nashville Parthenon, Altman reunites and refocuses on all his characters in one place. Unlike the airport scene, here the characters are united by a single event on which their reactions and responses depend. The Parthenon rally and the subsequent assassination act as the narrative's culminating hub, while all the characters move like spokes of a wheel in relation to it. Altman moves from the barrage of simultaneous moments in many characters' lives to a progressively more linear pattern until he is once again able to present many perspectives simultaneously responding to one single unifying element.
By creating a mosaic of contemporary American life, Nashville suggests a cultural view of reality that is made up of fragmented images and their incomprehensibility. But Altman overturns a bleak finale with the optimism that learning to live with uncertainty yields an affirmation and assignment of meaning to life in and of itself.
When influential New Yorker critic Pauline Kael first saw the film, she applauded Altman's vision, "I've never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way." Her laudatory review, based on a screening of a pre-release version of the film, caused a minor flurry of controversy about critical responsibility and was not able to help the film out of its box-office doldrums. But despite its lack of popular success, Nashville has since been heralded as one of director Altman's finest films and one of the quintessential American movies of the 1970s.