I would guess I was thirteen or fourteen when I first saw M*A*S*H. I loved it, but it also kind of freaked me out. I had never seen anything like it before, and it was unsettling in a way I couldn’t explain at the time. Part of it was certainly the black humor and the rampant sex, but also it just felt different. It wasn’t like a Hollywood movie. The director had broken a lot of the rules that commercial films were supposed to follow, giving M*A*S*H a rhythm and a vibe that was startling and liberating. A lot of that had to do with the sound.
Robert Altman was thinking about sound in a way that nobody else was at the time. He had a brash, iconoclastic approach to filmmaking that not only asked audiences to change the way they looked at movies but also the way they listened to movies. Up til nineteen seventy, the vast majority of American filmmakers mostly thought about sound as a matter of recording dialogue. If you could hear the actors clearly and understand what they were saying, that was good sound. Altman trashed that approach. He spent the early seventies trying out different ideas, looking for ways to make his work as rich aurally as it was visually.
Nashville is one of the early peaks in Altman’s career. Aside from all its other virtues, it has a soundtrack that is incredibly dense and dynamic. Layers of dialogue are mixed with background noise and source music to create a sprawling aural landscape. You won’t catch every line of dialogue, and you don’t need to. The movie doesn’t single out the stars, doesn’t tell you what you should be paying attention to. There are multiple stories that criss-cross and overlap, sometimes tin a single scene. You get to decide what you want to focus on.
One of Altman’s key innovations was to get away from the standard boom mike, which records dialogue and background noise together. He started using multiple mikes attached to the performers. This way each actor was recorded on a separate track, which could then be mixed in any way the director wished. This process was way more complicated than the traditional approach, and Altman was lucky to have a number of skilled people working with him. Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin handled the multi-track recording. William A. Sawyer served as the sound editor and Richard Portman was the re-recording mixer. I don’t know of anyone before Altman who even came near to creating this kind of complex aural environment. He gives us layers, he gives us textures. When you watch the movie, don’t just focus on the dialogue. Listen to the sound.
The script, by Joan Tewkesbury, was written with this approach in mind. Nashville was conceived as a panorama of America, a tapestry with multiple stories woven together. Tewkesbury and Altman discussed the basic structure, talked about specific characters, and she spent some time getting to know the city. Though the film has a loose, spontaneous feel, Tewkesbury has said that for the most part Altman stuck to the screenplay. But some actors did offer their own ideas about the characters they played, and in some cases these were incorporated into the film.
One of the most important instances of this is the scene where Barbara Jean, the frail country music star who’s just gotten out of the hospital, is performing in a crowded amphitheatre. According to Patrick McGilligan, Tewkesbury initially had the character fainting in front of the crowd. But the actress, Ronee Blakley, felt she needed to take the character farther and came up with a meandering, stream-of-consciousness monologue which makes it clear that Barbara Jean can barely keep it together. Altman, after first telling her to stick to the script, allowed the actress to go and ahead and play the scene her way. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the movie.
This character, the country music star whose life is falling apart, is central to Nashville. You might even say she gives the movie its soul. Barbara Jean is both radiant and ethereal. Overflowing with warmth and kindness when she’s with her fans, but bitterly unhappy when she’s alone with her husband/manager. She’s going to pieces, and doesn’t seem to be able to pull herself together, but when she’s onstage singing she soars. In her music, in her voice, she’s the embodiment of the humble simplicity that’s at the center of country music mythology.
That mythology isn’t just central to Nashville’s image of itself, it’s central to America’s image of itself. The film was released just before the nation’s bicentennial, and it’s clear that Altman is using the country music capitol to offer his vision of America. The ideal of the simple, hardworking men and women who do their jobs and care for their families without raising their voices to complain is one that country songwriters have returned to over and over again. And politicians have taken up the refrain in countless campaigns, singing the praises of the God-fearing folks who live in the heartland, the great “silent majority” that keeps the country going through thick and thin.
Altman skewers that myth over and over again in Nashville. But he doesn’t discard it. In fact, though Altman spends a lot of time tearing away the lies and the hypocrisy, it’s because he wants to find the truth at the heart of that myth. The director does spend a good deal of time holding his characters up to ridicule, but he lets us know that they have other sides, too. There are moments in Nashville where these people surprise us, where they turn out to be better than we thought they were.
One character who surprises us is Haven Hamilton, and in large part this is because Henry Gibson plays the part with such smooth cunning. As obnoxious as Hamilton is at times, the actor keeps him from becoming overbearing. He strikes a careful balance between arrogance and innocence. Gibson is a wonderfully gifted actor, but Altman is one of the few filmmakers who knew how to use him. The director gets remarkable performances from many of the cast members. I mentioned Ronee Blakley above, and she is phenomenal as Barbara Jean. It’s to her credit that she immersed herself in the character so thoroughly that she was able to build on what Tewkesbury had written, taking it even farther. And musically, her performances are among the highlights of the film. Michael Murphy is appallingly confident and cool as a political hustler who’s laying the groundwork for his candidate’s campaign. He’s everybody’s friend, smiling and shaking hands, saying whatever’s necessary to get what he needs.
There are many other fine performers in the film, but it would take forever to give them all their due. Briefly I’ll say that Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Robert Doqui, Barbara Harris and Lily Tomlin are all outstanding. And aside from playing their individual parts, they work together beautifully. Altman was known for making films that utilized a large cast of characters, and this is one of the finest ensembles he ever worked with.
In Nashville Altman presents a sweeping landscape of American music, American culture, American life. Though at times he seems to be filled with bitter cynicism, it’s clear he also has tremendous love for his country. The movie is shaped by this conflict, and Altman doesn’t try to resolve it. At the end of Nashville, a crowd of people that has just witnessed a tragedy comes together in song, lifting their voices with the performers on stage to affirm that they will keep moving forward no matter what. However the song’s refrain, “You may say that I ain’t free, But it don’t worry me,” is deeply disturbing. Is it that they aren’t paying attention to the lyrics? Or is it that they really don’t care?
Altman lets you decide what it all means. The camera pans slowly upward, away from the crowd, and the voices fade as the sky fills the frame.