“This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville!”
A winding mosaic of American ideals makes up Robert Altman’s 1975 masterpiece Nashville, presenting a city blinded by hope, opportunity and patriotism. It fits in the playbook of American cinema that deconstructs time, place and person, demonstrated in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, and even Harmony Korine’s Gummo, together creating a scrapbook that works well to pick apart the American psyche.
Considered to be Altman’s magnum opus, Nashville paints a portrait of 1970s America, one spiked with political obsession and the distraction of the celebrity. Starring 24 main characters, and many other contributing characters, the film is a sprawling anthropological examination of a certain sub-section of American society, as the city of Nashville gears up for a political convention. From Jeff Goldblum’s ‘Tricycle Man’ casting cool judgement over the people of the city, to Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton, a frenetic country singer with political drive, each member of the city helps to build into its eclectic image, forming a web of complicated, eccentric values.
The culture of 1975 Nashville manufactures its own image and places celebrity at the most paramount importance, with each member of the city feeding into the festering frenzy of such individuals. It all stems from the film’s opening scene in which the city welcomes Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a local celebrity, with an ostentatious display led by a marching band and baton twirlers. With hundreds of baying fans waiting at the windows of the airport, Barbara Jean’s representation of the beating heart of Nashville is clear, often appearing as the illustrious prize for so many city residents.
None more so than the boldly irritating Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a BBC reporter tasked with documenting the political rally in the city. Obsessed with the idea of celebrity, Opal has a dogged determination to wheedle out information from her subjects, taking her slowly up the ladder of notoriety with a bulky recording device constantly attached to her side. Though she’s not the only one. In a wild society of flailing arms and constant distraction, having the loudest voice is, unfortunately, the best way to be heard, so residents of the city arm themselves with whatever they can. Cameras, microphones, musical instruments, anything that can amplify their voice and make them stand out in the sea of noise. For the worst culprit, look no further than Hal Phillip Walker, the political figure running to be ‘Replacement Party’ president whose bizarre, sprawling statements can be heard echoing across the city from the loudspeaker of his electoral van.
“Did you ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he?”, Walker’s brash statement blares from the van. His waffle should line the very essence of the film, it is his campaign after all that the film is all about right? As the electoral van speeds and skids through the city, it does well to reflect its own suffering to be heard in a city which would much rather listen to the entertaining joys of its various country singers. In all the turmoil of the city’s excitement, the actual meaning of the cause at hand slowly dissipates, illustrated by the fact that the political candidate Hal Phillip Walker never even appears throughout the film.
A vivid musical portrait of a significant politically charged period of time, Robert Altman adopts a documentary style to reflect the messy ideals of 1970s America, lightly stoking the bubbling fury that lies just beneath Nashville’s crust.