An Essay on Nashville

by smARTfilms curator Tova Gannana

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The first lines spoken in Altman’s film “Nashville” come from a loudspeaker on a political campaign van, “Fellow taxpayers and stockholders of America, all of us are involved in politics whether we know it or not.” Altman had promised the studios a Country Western film, so on the heels of his collaboration with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury in Mississippi shooting “Thieves Like Us”, Altman sent Tewkesbury to scope out Nashville and come back to him with notes. One of the first things she saw that ends up in the film, was a car crash pileup involving a boat on the highway. In 160 minutes Altman doesn’t rush his film or his characters. It took two months to shoot “Nashville” and the film takes place over the course of five days with the city and its population at the center. It was a hot Southern summer and Altman had the cast living in a motel and an apartment building in town. All actors were paid the same salary. The film was made for under two million dollars. Altman and his family lived in a log cabin on the outskirts of the city. Being resourceful he used his family's rental as a party location in the film, and every Sunday he threw a real BBQ party for his cast and crew. There are 24 characters in “Nashville”.


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Geraldine Chaplin as Opal says “This is America, all these colors crashing into one another.” Opal who claims to be making a documentary for the BBC and we are never told otherwise. Opal is a fraud in the sense that she is trying to impress the people of Nashville with what feels like fake credentials. She is an opposite to the Political Candidate Hal Phillip Walker who we hear throughout the film but never see. Just as Walker has all these people in the film working for him to give him legitimacy in the eyes of the audience, Opal plays as though she represents the people at the BBC. Walker is a voice; Opal is sight and sleight of hand; Opal seems to appear in most scenes the way Walker's loudspeaker does. Altman had his actors write a lot of their dialogue, songs and backstory. “I’m easy”, is easily the hit song of the film and was written by Keith Carradine who plays Tom, one-third of a band and solo hopeful, who sings “I’m easy” in the film. At the 48th Academy Awards, Carradine won the Oscar for Best Song, less blonde and bearded than he was in the film. “I don’t believe this. I’m incredibly happy.” Carradine said as he smiled his toothy grin. Altman’s “Nashville” is a “place” where dreams go to die or come to fruition; this dichotomy is what interested Altman. “Nashville” could be a bus station in Hollywood.


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Ronee Blakely from Caldwell Idaho plays fragile country star Barbara Jean who faints in one of the first scenes of the film. We don’t hear her sing till almost the end. Blakely pulls from her own childhood memories of her country family, her grandmother clacking her false teeth along with the radio, herself as a child learning both sides of a record and earning fifty cents performing it back to the proprietor of an Idaho store. These are the real and sometimes mythological roots of Country Western music. On stage and album covers these stars are in sequins and spangles, they want us to know they grew up from earth like the rest of us. Two disenfranchised young men in the film are opposites like Opal and Walker. One is a soldier played by Scott Glenn the other is a societal menace who looks like “Howdy Doody”. The two watch over Barbara Jean but with different intentions. The soldier still in uniform sleeps without her knowing in her hospital room full of flowers holding a small bouquet of his own. His mother saved Barbara Jean from a fire when she was a child. He, however, is unable to save Barbara Jean from “Howdy Doody”. She has become by now a public figure. She has been working, she recalls, since that first fifty cents and at some point that’s all she remembers. Her voice is the pure voice in the film. She appears always in white with ribbons or flowers in her hair. She is the artist exploited by agents and audience alike. The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has a line from his book “Coney Island Of The Mind” that is appropriate here, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever and forever and how it never never quite can fade into a money losing nothingness.” Barbara Jean is the music that comes from somewhere real and unadulterated.


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“Nashville” was made during the Vietnam War, in 1972 and not many years after the Kennedy’s, Evers, Malcolm, and King were assassinated. The glow of American can-do had turned into confusion, had turned in pop culture to sickly sweet with shows like “Laugh-in” and “Celebrity Sweepstakes”. “Nashville” is a film of the last innocents parading around their dreams on their sleeves. They all want to make it and the ones who have made it aren’t sure if they have. That is one of the themes of this film and of America. Altman said “Nashville” was his Russian novel, his “War and Peace”. In 1972 Richard Nixon was reelected and in 1974 he resigned. Nixon the ugly beauty queen had won the popularity contest, and he was insecure therefore susceptible to his own paranoia and persuasive longing to control. Barbara Jean is not shot for any particular reason but because she is a symbol. In America where so much of our historical story has been invented, so too are our symbols. Altman uses the Grand Ole Opry as a stand-in for the importance of the nation's White House, as if to say, here is where we broadcast from. Nashville as the most American of all cities, the way that Manhattan and Los Angeles are, or for that matter Wallace, Idaho. The point being in the mind of America the center is wherever there are Americans. As Gertrude Stein said “Any American is an American”. The last shot of the film is sky. Godard did this with his 1966 film “Contempt”, in his last shot of the ocean, which is to say, the camera as a hand sweeping over a landscape, God gave us all of this and what have we done? Godard a Calvinist, Altman a Catholic. Today the sweet emptiness of the films closing song, “It don’t worry me”, is sung darker and without its Country Western sunny disposition. Because in our time there is so much to be worried about. And never has it been so easy to act deaf.

—Tova Gannana, curator

Join us on November 21st at 7:30 PM for Nashville.


Tickets: $10 Member, $12 Non-Member

Dinner seating in Bistro begins at 5:30 PM. Reservations recommended - 206-451-4011.
Auditorium opens at 7:00 PM
Movies at 7:30 PM