Nashville (15)

Southern discomfort

Robert Altman's re-released Nashville, the centrepiece of a two-month NFT season of Sixties/Seventies American cinema, still looks bracingly unruly 30 years after it was made - a manic, all-embracing pageant that is to Seventies America what Frith's painting Derby Day is to Victorian Britain. But Nashville has endured less as a statement specifically about mid-Seventies America than as a radical experiment in open-form cinema, an attempt to see how fiction film-making might attain a more complex and immediate purchase on the world.

One thing Nashville can't claim to be, however, is a film about country music, any more than a film set in Los Angeles is necessarily about movies: it's just that showbusiness has so totally annexed the two cities that their non-industry populations risk being ignored, relegated to "civilian" status. In fact, Altman's Nashville is less a microcosm of America than a mirror image of Hollywood. There are established stars, more or less venerated royalty, like spangle-suited patriarch Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) and fragile princess Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley). There is a whole ancillary population of industry support - management, lawyers, chauffeurs - and there are the dreamers, such as Gwen Welles's hopeless singer, cruelly co-opted into stripping. (Music, Altman implies, is crueller than the movies: at least in film you can get away with never opening your mouth and so exposing your lack of talent.)

Then there are the opportunistic visitors: Michael Murphy's political aide, trying to raise support for a third-party "people's candidate"; Shelley Duvall, at her most Martian, as a man-hungry West Coast waif.

Other characters move between worlds, like attorney's wife Linnea (Lily Tomlin, in the film's most nuanced performance), who moonlights with a gospel choir and is pursued by Keith Carradine's vain, predatory folk singer.

Altman's characters don't just vie for space, but compete to be heard: his famous overlapping dialogue is at its most dizzying and demanding in Nashville. At moments, you catch what sounds like a hugely significant line and realise that it's been mutttered in passing by a walk-on player, as if picked up on the soundtrack by accident. This is, in fact, a film about sound, the music industry providing a model of a world in which people listen to each other, or fail to: the film begins with its unseen "Replacement Party" candidate driving round in a van, his Tannoy haranguing empty streets. The 24 characters correspond to 24-track recording technology, with Altman deciding who gets heard and who gets drowned out, and who surfaces for a brief solo before sinking back into the mix. Significantly, the clearest communication is between Tomlin's character and her two profoundly deaf children.

Nashville effectively founded the school of American improv-ensemble cinema, with its actors given free rein to improvise, work on their characters, diverge from Joan Tewkesbury's script. Many of the cast wrote or co-wrote the songs, and although a few really do sound like the "redneck ... crapola" derided by Murphy's character, many are strongly crafted and nearly all are dead-on pastiche without being caricature.

Invariably, certain actors' strength of personality means that some characters end up bigger than the fiction they inhabit.

Nashville's most irrepressibly oversized figure - sometimes but not always to the film's advantage - is Geraldine Chaplin's monstrous Opal, a self-absorbed babbler supposedly making a documentary for the "British Broadcasting Company". Opal's improvised running commentary surely figures as Altman's warning about the futility of trying to impose coherent meaning on the film's frenzied circus, of trying to reduce it all to neat allegory.

Nashville's reputation as a political allegory partly rests on its ending with an (unexplained) assassination, and not the one we expect. Especially with hindsight, we can see Altman's finale as a chilling exposure of the American culture of denial, of what these days is routinely referred to as the nation's need to "move on", to "find closure". No sooner is the victim bundled out of sight than a communal sing-song is organised and it's as if nothing has ever happened: the song, appropriately, is called "It Don't Worry Me". It's surely as much to Nashville as to the murders of John F Kennedy and John Lennon that we owe our sense that in America sudden death is just a specialised branch of showbusiness.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen