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Friday, 3 April 2015

Nashville (1975)

Being the self-confessed film fanatic that I am, I'm frequently asked to name my favourite film. That's a pretty silly question if you think about it and one that is impossible to answer, since not only are there a large number of movies of which I am very fond, but also that 'list' is something of a moveable feast with different titles coming and going as the mood strikes.

However, if you were to ask me which film I have watched more than any other, "Nashville" would win hands down. I seem to play my copy which I've had since the Seventies (and incidentally it only recently became available here on DVD and Blu-ray) at least once a year, and you crafty mathematicians can work out that it celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. The reason that I find this movie from one of my favourite directors, Robert Altman, so watch-worthy is that I notice something new and different each time it plays. There aren't many films with that continual element of surprise.. Yet, oddly enough, I have never reviewed it nor even mentioned it in this current blog. I did refer to it several times in my old AOL blog and wrote a brief, heart-felt R.I.P. for Altman when he died in late 2006.

So the time has come to wax lyrical about some of the movie's many charms. Altman only found success in feature films fairly late in his career, after churning away on industrial films and television series. He was well into middle age when he had his first hit "M*A*S*H" in 1970 and in the years between then and the above feature he directed six remarkable movies including "Brewster McCloud", "McCabe and Mrs Miller", and "Thieves Like Us". However it was with "Nashville" that his trademark techniques were established, utilising large ensemble casts with overlapping scenes and dialogue. He is not usually a story-teller as such, but rather an expert in creating a sense of place and the fleeting interaction of various and varied characters -- with their dreams, hopes, and fears.

In this movie he has 24 lead actors whose stories mix and match during a long weekend in the country music capital of the title. Foremost among these are Lily Tomlin as a gospel-singing mother of two deaf children, Geraldine Chaplin as a pretentious and self-deluding BBC documentary reporter, Keith Carradine as the womanizing lead singer of a pop trio, Henry Gibson (of Laugh-In fame) as the smug glad-handing local legend, and Ronee Blakley as the fragile and ultimately tragic country diva. Other stand-outs among the cast include Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Karen Black, Barbara Harris, Keenan Wynn, a very young Scott Glenn, Gwen Welles as an ambitious but totally talentless would-be singer, and Jeff Goldblum who pops up everywhere but who never says a word. Meanwhile in the background is the booming microphone of the 'Replacement' Party's campaign truck with its reactionary and populist political messages.

Altman creates the panorama of this place as a microcosm of American society at the time, all set to a splendid selection of country and western music. The movie was initially criticised by the established Nashville community for not showcasing their own established 'hits', but rather promoting a selection of new numbers all performed by various cast members (and only Blakley came from a musical background). Many of the new songs were written by the ensemble members themselves; in fact Carradine's "I'm Easy" won the best original song Oscar that year. The film was also Oscar-nominated for best movie, best director, and a double best-supporting actress nomination for both Blakley and Tomlin. Now, of course, the Nashville hierarchy treat the film as a classic paean to 'their town' and it has become a well-deserved cult favourite as well.

Coincidentally a new documentary titled "Altman" has just been released, but in celebrating the maverick who broke all the rules of movie-making, the film is apparently a pedestrian and fairly turgid re-cap of his career by a succession of talking heads. Only the clips from his many marvellous movies make it of any interest. One would be far better off re-watching some of the idiosyncratic films which made the term 'Altmanesque' so meaningful, so entertaining, and so influential to subsequent film-makers.
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