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Many Characters Collide in Nashville: A Film Review of Nashville by Christopher Wostenberg

Being a recognized film buff by colleagues, I occasionally get asked for recommendations, especially for certain occasions, like holidays and major events. Since it’s July (at least at the time of writing this), I was thinking of what is a great patriotic film or film that represents America. Obvious choices would be war films where the United States is the victorious hero, or ones that depict the “American Dream” that anyone can be successful, regardless of their starting point. If you have read enough of my reviews, you should know by now that I tend to not always go with the obvious, and this review is no different. I feel that a great film about America is one that tries to portray the diversity in our society, both good and bad. These are ensemble cast films like 2004’s Crash, 2000’s Magnolia, 1989’s Do the Right Thing and (my choice for this review) 1975’s Nashville.

Nashville is not a plot-driven film, instead it is a character study. As such, I cannot lay out a nice, concise plot summary. I can say it is a movie about twenty-four characters over the period of five days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee. The characters overlap with each other, making the film more than a bunch of vignettes. At times the movie is comedic, while at other times it is dramatic. It has a political undertone, as one of the characters, Hal Philip Walker (unseen in the picture), is a grassroots politician demanding change in America. Some characters support Walker through fundraisers and a rally, while others are ambivalent to Walker and politics. Many characters are musicians, and the movie has a lot of music, but it is not a musical—in the traditional sense—as the music does not drive the plot; rather, the movie focuses on trying to understand the characters as best as possible and how their lives entwine.

The movie was made during the heart of the New Hollywood movement, a shift in mainstream Hollywood films to be more artistically driven. The movement took much inspiration from international sources and older movies. This was in part from new filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Woody Allen having studied film in college. Many of the icons of this era made major blockbusters and critically-acclaimed films allowing for more freedom for filmmakers. Many consider this the high point of American filmmaking.

A simple event of a couch falling into a lane on the freeway causes a massive pile-up that effects the characters of Nashville and illustrates how people react in different ways to the same event. Retrieved from Nashville (Altman, A., 19, Paramount Pictures), Scene at 00:22:03.

Just watching Nashville, it seems far removed from other great American films of this period like Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), The Godfather (1972), Annie Hall (1977), and Taxi Driver (1976). This is in part due to its director, Robert Altman, accidentally falling into filmmaking. He did not study film like many of the other New Hollywood directors, so he was not trying to copy the techniques and styles of others. Instead, he sets up his own style as evident throughout Nashville, and this is what makes it stand out. Nashville has a realistic, free-flowing style, almost like people-watching at a major event.

First, the camera movement in Nashville is very fluid. The camera moves much like a person following the action. Within scenes there are rarely any jumps or changes in perspective. The camera might zoom in or out like a human eye focusing, but generally pans (stimulating a head moving side to side), tilts (stimulating a head moving up and down) or tracks (stimulating a person walking). Also, the movement is not always logical following one character throughout, but instead gets sidetracked by other events going on. This is reminiscent of the French filmmaker Jean Renoir (son of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir), especially his film The Rules of the Game—another masterpiece neglected when it was originally released. The choice in camera movement makes the audience feel like they are in the scene watching the characters’ lives unfold instead of being in a theater watching what the director intends for them to see.

Visuals are only one piece of the film-going experience, another is audio. Nashville breaks one of the early, unwritten rules of cinema and that is the audience must be able to hear all spoken dialogue. Put differently, dialogue should not compete with other audio in the film. Citizen Kane originally broke this rule with having dialogue over music and other sounds. Altman took this further, especially in Nashville, by having actual conversations overlapping. Think about being in a crowded restaurant, a bunch of conversations are going on all at once. It is hard to focus on all the conversations. Instead, you either focus on the conversation at your table, or focus on surrounding conversations. It is the same in Nashville: many conversations and audio triggers are hitting your ear and you can pick out some of it, but ultimately you must choose what to focus on. Upon re-watching you might pick out something else you did not initially hear as you focus on something different. The mixed conversations and audio overlay is critical to giving a sense of believability in the film. Quite a few scenes occur during crowded events, like a show at the Grand Old Opry, or in a barroom, or even at an outside rally, so the mixed audio effects add to the realism and hectic nature of the scenes.

The final aspect of movie that adds to the natural feel is the use of actor improvisation. The film is based on loose ideas for the scenes and not a well-structured script. Instead, the characters have well-defined back stories and motivations. One way this was accomplished was by having the actors write the music for their characters. Once the actors got to know their characters inside and out, general frameworks for scenes were presented and the actors were allowed to improvise their dialogues and interactions giving an organic flow to the scenes. The use of improvisation is most evident in the character of Opal, the BBC radio reporter, as she rambles on about what she observes going on. In the Sunday morning scene, Opal walks around a junkyard describing it as a graveyard for rusty automobiles. It feels like an outtake for the film as it does not fully fit with the other scenes at first, but clearly depicts Opal’s personality trait of trying to imbue meaning and create a story out of everything. A similar feeling is invoked by the speeches made by the unseen Hal Philip Walker. Each actor became their character, which made their improvised moments true to the characters, and thus true to the film.

Favorite Scene: I have chosen one of the earliest scenes in the movie as my favorite, which is the traffic pileup. The scene perfectly represents all that I have written so far, particularly how the same event results in varying reactions from the characters. The scene starts with a couch falling off of a car into one of three lanes on a highway. This random incident causes a pileup that blocks all lanes of traffic. It has the feel of many car crash scenes from the era, with people slamming on the brakes and skidding into each other. The difference is that instead of the main character causing the accident and escaping, the characters of the film are caught up in the traffic leading us to see how they deal with it. Thus, it is a start to a scene instead of an end like in most films.

Ultimately, Nashville is a movie about characters more than plot or story and this scene encapsulates that. For one character, the traffic jam allows her to escape her controlling husband and make a go at being a singer and her own person. While for the foreign journalist Opal, it is a missed opportunity to film and capture a scene that she feels is representative of America. Some characters try to control the situation by asking people to move their cars to the side of the road, while other characters just relax and enjoy it.

As mentioned before, the scene is unconventional of other films of the time but is fully representative of Altman’s style. It is more akin to real life than a staged episode. The scene is lengthy without driving the story forward. The camera, and thus the attention of the audience, goes from one group to another to see what is going on, much like a person who cannot stay focused on one thing for too long observing the event for themselves. Overlapping dialogue is heard, with the predominating one being the political ramblings of the Hal Philip Walker projecting from his campaign van. Sometimes a character is followed from one point to another switching to a new interaction that is later forgotten as something else occurs that catches our attention. The technique is done so effortlessly that it seems natural. The complexity of interactions and the overlap of everything makes the scene—and much of the movie—re-watchable as every time you notice something new. Overall, it represents the movie as whole.

Hopefully through this film review I have encouraged you to watch Nashville at least once. I highly encourage watching it multiple times with long breaks in between to catch the many layers and interactions. While it is not conventional, it has inspired quite a few filmmakers of today and is an interesting character study for a particular moment in time and place in America. As I have stated, I feel it represents in part what America is about, both good and bad. Additionally, it might stimulate you to watch other films from one of the lesser-known greats of the New Hollywood movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Robert Altman. Or if country music and the ‘70s is not your thing, you might be encouraged to watch a different Altman film instead. I might recommend Short Cuts or The Player to view a similar type of film set in ‘90s Los Angeles.

Originally, I was going to end this film review with a patriotic film quote, but it did not seem all that appropriate. Instead, a better ending comes from a quote about people from one of the great literary and film characters of all time, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaption. The quote is:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”


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