I’m going to assume that most people have bothered to watch this film. I am sure that I am setting myself up for shock, as I know that the next ten people I ask will most likely say they haven’t seen this film, but these days I find myself talking to people who haven’t watched anything for 1980 and nothing they really surprises me. Still, this most famous Altman film is considered a classic and I am certain it shows up on my critical lists that hope to determine the best or most important films of all time. If Nashville is on those lists it might just as well be damned to not being watched. As Mark Twain put it, classics are things people know of or have on their shelves, but never touch. Nashville doesn’t really touch me, not emotionally, but it never fails to interest me with its innovative use of sound and its overlapping and intertwined narrative. It is a mosaic masterpiece, but is it art or just ornamentation? I am not sure.
1) Patchwork stories work best when you have semi-famous and famous people making up each part of the quilt. Try as I might I can’t imagine this film working without some easily recognizable film faces. Not everyone in this film is A-list material, some are not even B-list, but there is a general sense of familiarity. Even if you can’t remember his or her name, just seeing someone you think you’ve seen somewhere else or in another film helps settle you into the story.
2) Square pegs can fit into round holes. It just takes work. As unique or even as banal as some of the characters in the film appear to be they never escape the reality of being actors playing parts. Most of the cast walks through the film as if they were just wearing a different hat. Few people in this ensemble cast really seem born to play their part, most feel squeezed in, not wholly out of place, just gently forced into a place they don’t belong.
3) I’m glad this didn’t start a series! Were Nashville made today, I fear that any slight whiff of success would have had producers running to make other “fictional city documents”. I’m sure some phrase coiner would come up with a catchier term, but I can clearly envision the rush to capture the cool, weird, hip, and exciting feel of cities like Portland, Phoenix, and Pensacola. Or did this already happen, just different cities and on TV?
4) Truth is still stranger than fiction. Though Nashville is not really a strange film, nor is its characters that odd, it is certainly offbeat or it is marching to the beat of its own drummer or the strum of its own lap steel. There is a wide stretch of characters in this film, but few of them even come close to capturing the real oddballs, Perhaps Altman’s choice to create a huge cast or a work of fiction prevents us from seeing the dreamers, and desperate souls that certainly lurk in shadows of Nashville. But then again the director is making a work of fiction not a documentary, but in this case a documentary would seem far more interesting. As it is Altman approaches Nashville much like the character BBC reporter in the film approaches America. He’s not looking at what is really going on around him, but rather at what he wants to see going on around him.
5) There is nothing wrong with Nashville. There is nothing wrong with this film. I’ve been splitting hairs only because I think the city of Nashville is one of Americas most interesting cities steeped in lore and legend, but totally off the map of most Americans, especially those with no love of country or western music. Altman’s film is a great work of cinema that uses some profound sound techniques to help him craft a rather original narrative form not often attempted and one that is usually poorly imitated. Though the story, what little there is overall, is wonderfully played out by strong actors who each enrich their character’s personal sagas with subtle acts and gestures that make for resounding moments, they cannot really compete with the more interesting reality that is Nashville, Tennessee. The few day jaunt that Altman gives us is a mere glimpse at a city that is as hard to define as Hollywood itself. For decades Hollywood has been in love with itself and at odds with itself and for all its attempts it still has not found one film that can clearly depict the city were stars are born. Altman has twice tried to capture the feel of Los Angeles/Hollywood (Short Cuts and The Player) and in both cases he’s come very close, only to realize that no one project can sum up a town like Los Angeles or Hollywood. Tucked away in Tennesse, Nashville is quite the same. Nashville has had far less films made about it and its power to attract would-be singers and pickers. Altman steers clear of Hollywood’s love of over simplification, but even his large net cannot fully capture the experience of Nashville.