Monday, February 2, 2009

The Great Movies: "Nashville"


Nashville
Robert Altman, 1975


We looked at another Robert Altman movie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, back in December. Nashville, a better known film, shares much in common with McCabe and, as far as I know, all of Altman's work . It features an enormous cast of well-drawn characters who interact in a natural, highly realistic fashion. The film is less concerned with telling a conventional story than it is with drawing a portrait of a given time and place. Because the movie is not plot-driven, events seem to follow on each other in simple chronological order, just as in real life. As watchers, we feel almost like another character in the film, not saying much but always hanging out at the fringes of the action.

In general, I like this style of film-making. Yet Nashville itself, unfortunately, didn't do much for me. This is perhaps because it treats a subject, the country music scene of the 1970s, that I could not care less about. I mean, sure, you can say it's really about human universals of love, longing, and loss, and that's more or less true. In a way, Nashville is a composite of a dozen short films on such elemental topics, all squashed together. But, you always come back around to the shabby setting, a big-time music scene that chews up most of its aspirants and rewards a tiny few with lives of lonely celebrity. And then, there's the music itself. Out of a sprawling 160 minute movie, probably around an hour is music video. Much of the music is pretty good, sure, but it's just concert footage of fake concerts, and as such doesn't do much for me.

[update: It has been about two weeks since I wrote this review, and I should admit that over that time the movie has aged well for me. There are some movies that are great fun while you are watching them, and you forget them a few days later. There are others that are not great to watch, but make an impression that stays with you. Nashville seems like it might end up in that second category.]


Plot: Some two dozen people pursue their various goals and interests over several days in Tennessee. At the end, there's a big concert where some crazy stuff goes down.

Visuals: An active camera is generally placed among the characters at about eye level, often wandering through the crowd; this is part of what makes it feel somewhat like you are participating in the action instead of just watching it. Much of this movie takes place in music clubs, and since these all look pretty much the same I was occasionally confused as to whether we had jumped to a new scene in a different club, or if we were continuing the same scene in the same club.

Dialogue: Altman's dialogue just feels like people talking. Unlike in most movies, where characters all take turns talking as if they were in an polite college seminar, Altman's characters often talk simultaneously, or over the top of each other, like real people. Since there is no conventional plot, dialog doesn't bear much of a burden of exposition; instead of just explaining what's going on, conversations are more about establishing the characters and their relationships.

Prognosis: I hardly know what to say. If you want to give Altman a whirl, I'd suggest starting with McCabe & Mrs. Miller or perhaps 1992's highly entertaining The Player (but not -- I suspect I'll get flack for this -- the grossly overrated MASH). If you like any of those, or if you like country music, or if you live in Nashville, jump on in! Just schedule an appropriate chunk of time. This is a long 'un!

9 comments:

La Gringissima said...

I liked "Short Cuts"

margaret said...

All's I remember from "Nashville" is the really really long concert — endless in more ways that one!. I agree with La Gringissima; "Short Cuts" might be a better place to start.

DrSchnell said...

I'll third the recommendation of Short Cuts - Nashville never did it for me (well, after two viewings, anyway). I didn't find the characters particularly compelling, and I must admit, the almost complete absence of any kind of story arc kinda bugged me; it has that endless meandering quality of many 1970s movies. If it's random interactions of people I'm after, I'm surrounded by them every day. But then again, I also really liked movies like Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train", which is not exactly story driven. So sue me for being inconsistent....

DrSchnell said...

Also, if you're looking for an Altman movie to avoid, I highly recommend not seeing "Ready To Wear".

Ben said...

I won't disagree with you on your assessment of the movie MASH, but I loved the TV series.

Chance said...

Yes, Short Cuts is probably the go-to Altman film. I agree about Mash; simply did not see what was so great about it. I recently saw The Player for the 2nd time; the use of in-jokes and over the top camera-work and music make for a less abstruse Altman joint, and the ending will satisfy the typical moviegoer who, unlike Altman it seems, craves closure.

sister jen said...

My deep fondness for M*A*S*H makes me wonder how much older I am than all y'all...sigh...is it a Seventies thing?

You're right, it may just be a Donald Sutherland thing.

I adore Altman (I wanna add "Come Back to the Five and Dime" and "Gosford Park"), but I never want to see "Dr. T & the Women" again. You're right, that may be a Richard Gere thing. But maybe not.

Chuckdaddy said...

I'll jump on thr Short Cuts bus. Might be my favorite movie.

Michael5000 said...

I just remember Short Cuts being... well... long. But it was my first exposure to Altman, and I might be more receptive to it now.