This weekend at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, there was a double feature of films starring silver screen legend, Geraldine Chaplin. On Saturday, David Lean's Doctor Zhivago screened for its 50th anniversary, and on Sunday, it was Robert Altman's turn. His beloved Nashville played to a nearly-full house, 40 years after its debut.
Of course, the two films weren't shown just to celebrate their anniversaries, but they were presented by Chaplin herself. She joined the audience at the Gables Art Cinema to introduce both films and followed up with a Q&A. This was my first time seeing Nashville and I have to say, there's nothing better than watching a masterful film with someone to tell you about the intimate details of its production.
To discuss Nashville without mentioning Robert Altman's storied career would be a crime. Everybody has stumbled across at least one of Altman's films: MASH, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, A Perfect Couple, Popeye, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, The Player, Short Cuts, Dr. T and the Women, Gosford Park, and his final film A Prairie Home Companion. Mind you, that's not even all of them, but just enough to give you an idea of just what a versatile filmmaker he was. Most importantly though, he was a master of handling ensemble casts.
Nashville is just as amazing as folks say it is, and much like Sidney Lumet's Network -- which was released just a year after -- it only becomes more relevant as time goes by. As Chaplin mentioned at the screening, politics haven't changed since the film's premiere. Just as Hal Phillip Walker's Replacement Party propaganda rings through the streets from loudspeakers attached to his van, political opinions are forced on us today. And yet, some of the sentiments in his statements still ring true, as is the case with good political satire. "All of us are deeply involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not," he preached. It's damn true, just as the characters in the film are all connected whether or not they know it and and whether or not they like it.
That's exactly what Altman does best; he handles these immense, free-wheeling narratives, tying them together with his ensemble casts. While many of the people that populate his film begin as caricatures, they emerge as nuanced, complex characters by the end of the film. By the end of Nashville's almost three-hour running time, the audience has become well-acquainted with these weird folks; and they're not always easy characters to get attached to.
The film's women are particularly fascinating (which makes the fact that they scored four out of six of the Golden Globe nominations for Supporting Actress that year unsurprising): Lily Tomlin's choir singer with deaf children who has a shady romantic past, Shelly Duvall's waifish music fan who floats from one man to the next, Chaplin's frantic documentarian whose musings on American culture are entertainingly over the top, Ronee Blakley's tragic and beloved country superstar Barbara Jean. Even Barbara Harris' endearing woman, smart enough to do what she needs to do to get ahead without putting herself down (which only makes her performance of "It Don't Worry Me" at the end of the film so much more potent).
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But these great, and genuinely human, characters come with the baggage of a whole lot of country music; some hard to watch (Sueleen's singing when she's forced to strip to get her dream), some heartfelt (Tom's performance of "I'm Easy"), and some totally hilarious (way too many of these to list). It isn't exactly for everyone, but it's well-worth pushing through simply to watch how Altman delivers a snapshot of emotional evolution and change. Then again, the country music may not be the only frustrating thing, in typical Altman style, the film has no interest in sticking to any script. During the Q&A, Chaplin said that they were all told to toss out their scripts, to improvise, and develop their own dialogue for their Nashville characters.
It's that kind of looseness that makes Nashville special. It moves from story to story, almost so comfortably that one could fade away and come back in at any point without missing a beat. It's not simply loose in plot (of which there's barely any), but in its style as well. Even in the most cramped spaces, Altman makes everything feel as though its unfolding in the most natural way. Oh sure, it's packed with jarring cuts at times between two different events happening simultaneously -- the opening cuts between Tomlin's free gospel performance and Hamilton's control of country -- but no scene ever feels slipped in without ease or purpose. Much in the way people enter and leave the lives of others, these individuals all slip in and out whenever they please or whenever life requires them to.
And that's what makes Nashville such a memorable film. It never feels like it aspires to be more than it should be, even with its massive cast of characters and length. As ridiculous as it seems at times, it's an honest little portrait of a city and the people within it; a place that hardly seems forty years in the past.