Twenty-five years ago, it looked like Robert Altman's freewheeling cinematic tapestry would change movies forever. What happened?
Robert Altman’s “Nashville” was released in 1975. We’d only recently pulled out of Vietnam; the energy crisis was upon us; Nixon had just resigned; and hardly anyone had heard of an oddly ambitious Southern governor named Jimmy Carter.
The world of filmmaking and filmgoing circa 1975 seems just as remote. The idea of studying movies in college was new and exciting; the filmmakers of the French New Wave still had some vitality; screenplays and collections of movie reviews were regularly published — indeed, a film critic, Pauline Kael, was one of the country’s most argued-over intellectuals; the annual summer onslaught of action-adventure extravaganzas was as yet unanticipated. Repertory houses showing older and foreign films could be found in many cities, and colleges were the homes of competing film series.
Most of the big hits of the 1970s were as square as they’ve always been, but there was always something for movie buffs to quarrel about. Had Godard blown it by embracing Maoism and video? Were Bertolucci and Bellochio really the equal of Antonioni and Fellini? Why were so few people aware of Ichikawa?
In America, the World War II/Korean War generation of filmmakers — Sidney Lumet, Sam Peckinpah, Altman, Arthur Penn — was in full bloom at the same time the “film generation” baby boomers (Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese) were introducing a new cosmopolitan art consciousness into American movies. There were heroes to root for and bad guys to hiss; the model was “the artist” vs. “the businessman.”
With the release of “Nashville” and “Jaws,” the summer of ’75 delivered both the culmination — and the beginning of the end — of that period. “Nashville” seemed to incarnate a film buff’s hopes for American movies. Here was an artist putting the machinery of popular culture to work for the sake of art, yet entering into the spirit of popular culture and partaking of its energy too. That was the dream: the power of popular art combined with the complexity of fine art, high and low not at war, and not blurred indistinguishably into each other, but embracing.
“Nashville” was debated in the mainstream press in a way that seems inconceivable now: The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with opinions and interpretations for months after the film opened. (The movie’s 25th anniversary isn’t going unnoted. The Times and Premiere have already run major pieces about Altman; Fox Television will broadcast a documentary about him, “Altman: On His Own Terms,” on August 13; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the film on June 22 in Los Angeles, with Altman and various cast and crew members in attendance; and, in November, Simon & Schuster will publish “The ‘Nashville’ Chronicles,” by the Newsday film critic Jan Stuart. Paramount will release the DVD version, offering its proper Panavision screen-aspect ratio, on August 15.)
But it was “Jaws” that captured the mass audience and really changed movies. It wasn’t the first big success of the boomer generation, but it was a hit on a scale no one had ever seen before. (Within a month of its release, the stock of MCI, the conglomerate that owned the film company that released “Jaws,” went up 22 points.) The aftereffects of “Jaws” rattled the world of film from top to bottom: Soon the artists were coming a cropper — Altman spent the rest of the decade creating ever-more-perverse head-scratchers; Coppola spent years on the debilitating “Apocalypse Now,” and seems never to have recovered his energy or concentration; Scorsese tripped himself up making the over-ambitious, epic musical, “New York, New York.” In 1977, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was released, and the intellectual and art side of filmmaking and filmgoing has been scattered to the four winds ever since. Despite the occasional good movie, the news since has all been about technology, effects, gender, race and business.
Through most of the ’70s, Robert Altman ran a kind of medicine ball caravan of an operation, and, following his work, you could feel like a participant in an ongoing party. He was a hip impresario, moving from detective movie to western to gangster movie, tweaking and twisting them, demanding more of these genres than they were used to providing. If Peckinpah was the barbaric, bitter celebrator of boozy grandeur, staking it all on the one great certain-to-lose gesture, Altman played the margins with a slipstream elegance, keeping a variety of bets in play at once. Tall and charismatic, with a goatee and long fine hands, he looked like something out of a Mark Twain story — a frontier campaign manager, perhaps, or a riverboat gambler turned grandee.
He enjoyed shooting his mouth off about the cowardice of studio executives — he always seemed to need an enemy — and about his own preferences in drugs, booze and actresses. He brought to the movies a no-big-deal elegance; a taste for risk, humor and the unhinged; a hatred of rigidity and the overbearing; and an intransigent take-it-or-leave-it spirit. He also had — and still does have — an intoxicating line of California-zen “It’s the art, man” baloney, and a hipster/psychic’s ability to find (and touch) you where, as we used to say, you really live. I once had lunch with him for a magazine interview, and by the end of it was ready to follow him anywhere. It took me a day to come to my senses and realize I’d been snowed.
As an essayist about popular culture, Altman was our Godard; in his view of life as a sad/funny circus, he was our Fellini; in the way he looked for truth in the souls of actresses, he was our Bergman; in the way he always saw people as part of a larger context, he was our Renoir. He’s also a natural joker, a satirist at heart (even as he dreams of tragedy and art), a profane and lowdown American who can’t put on fancy European airs without looking foolish — not that that stops him from trying. (Altman’s an orchestrater and conductor of genius, but as a composer he’s a dry well.) But when he messed with pop and film archetypes — western heroes, frontier hookers, country-bumpkin thieves — he could deliver a many-layered experience.
The jokey babble of “MASH,” the vanishing-before-you melancholy of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the offhand goof “The Long Goodbye,” the from-the-peripheries tone poem “Thieves Like Us” — different as they were — all seemed spun off the same reel. On the surface were familiar, linear story landmarks; beneath and around them burbled impressions and half-formed thoughts, feelings, and perceptions organized according to modernist art principles. Altman often works with what you’re not used to noticing or admitting to consciousness, what you normally tune out: objects and actions at the edges of your vision, overheard sounds, half-formed thoughts, hazy memories. He draws you away from what you usually focus on, and into less-familiar areas. What can’t be transcribed is often the point. A quality of revelation runs parallel to (and intermingles with) the surface throughout; part of the beauty of his movies is the way your attention flickers back and forth between these two levels, often unsure which is which. Some years back, a maker of CD-ROMs told me how eager he was to see Altman’s then-new “Short Cuts”: “Altman was making nonlinear multimedia before the form existed,” he said.
2. America, after the breakdown
There was a third kind of film Altman has made over and over again — films whipped up out of nothing but how he makes movies. Over and over, from “Brewster McCloud” to “H.E.A.L.T.H.” to “Ready to Wear,” they’ve been duds. “Nashville” is the great exception. There’s an exultant quality to it, as though the artist is glorying in his prowess, that can remind you of Picasso once he learned to cut loose with his own language. It’s a satirical musical comedy worked up around the idea that an independent/outsider presidential candidate — calling his new organization the Replacement Party — is coming to town to throw a fundraising (and publicity-garnering) concert.
The film has often been described as a tapestry, and that’s about right. The city of Nashville is used as a nexus or hub; even the people who live there seem like they might be tourists. (The exception is Keenan Wynn, playing a geezer with a small boardinghouse and a wife in the hospital. “What are you doing in Nashville?” a guy asks Wynn genially at a coffee shop. “I live here,” says Wynn. “Oh,” says the guy. It’s a real conversation killer.)
A dozen or so characters are moving through town. A dozen or so others are based in town. Keith Carradine is the sexily self-absorbed star of a hit folk-rock trio; Lily Tomlin is a suburban wife and gospel singer — she has something of the angelic and something of the shellshocked about her — with two deaf children. Henry Gibson plays the oily Haven Hamilton, a specialist in sanctimonious spoken-sung inspirational weepers, and the city’s unofficial greeter.
Geraldine Chaplin is the hopelessly pretentious flibbertigibbet “Opal, of the BBC.” “Un, deux, trois, quatre. Testing, testing,” she murmurs into her mike as she warms up her tape recorder. She’s there as a stand-in for Altman, and for anyone who would breeze into town to make overblown metaphorical points. The central figures — although they get no more screen time than many other characters — are Michael Murphy, as the candidate’s smooth advance man, and Ronee Blakley, playing an emotionally fragile star who’s returning to town after being away, recovering from burns she got from a “fire baton.” (“Nashville” probably took its self-mocking tone, as well as its subject matter, from William Price Fox’s Nashville novel “Ruby Red” and his script “The Great Southern Amusement Company,” both of which Altman had read.)
The film is like a series of overlapping variety shows set in parking lots, airport lobbies, hotel rooms, commercial strips and hospitals, and seen through plate glass and past billboards. It’s a jerry-built world of the disposable and the efficient. Altman gets the look of small-city mid-America: the knee-high socks, the businessmen in their tan suits — a Chamber of Commerce, high-school-athletic-team look.
People who wanted a tribute to the city of Nashville, or to country music, took the film very hard, as though the music and the city needed defending. “Cheap shot,” “patronizing,” “rip-off” — these were some of the accusations thrown at the film. I was willing to believe Altman had been a little rough on his subject until I visited Nashville for the first time, years after seeing the film. I was thunderstruck by how little the film had exaggerated; it had been more of a documentary and less of a satire than I’d thought. There was no escaping the bad middle-range singers, the bored backup musicians, the terrifying big hair, the Goo-Goo candy bars, the homey sentiments, the cranky retirees in cheery T-shirts.
The film comes across as a piece of New Journalism; it’s like Norman Mailer’s reports from conventions and rallies. Altman is using Nashville metaphorically — he’s really talking about politics. I wish he didn’t make that quite so explicit. There’s a reference to Dallas and a few to the Kennedys, as well as some red-white-and-blue visual cues, that the film could have done without. Still, the result is an X-ray of the era’s uneasy political soul.
What it reveals is a country trying to pull itself together from a nervous breakdown. As a young man, Altman had been taken by the Method, and in many of his films he has shown a love of watching women go to pieces. Here we watch not a blond in a slip but the entire country going through a crackup. It’s a country that’s wired up tight with tension masquerading as happiness. In this film about country music, the marketplace has leveled the ground, and there’s only one shot of the countryside. It’s of a funeral — the arc of a life returning to its sources.
Recording and communication devices — wires, phones, intercoms, cameras, mikes, speakers — seem to be everywhere; so does the machinery of publicity and fame. We watch the city recording itself, playing itself back to itself and marketing that image to itself. We eavesdrop on the culture’s conversation with itself. We’re watching people decide how they want to see themselves and how they want to sell themselves. Altman treats Nashville as a provincial New York or Hollywood, as one of the places where the culture manufactures its image of itself (this is Nashville in the early stages of getting slick and L.A.-ified). Altman shows us the image, and what goes into creating and sustaining it. He cuts between public functions and private domestic scenes; he shoots in studios and theaters, from onstage and from behind control booths. We gather that this is a culture that believes that its self-image accounts, or ought to account, for everything. And its image of itself is cheerful, upbeat, carefree: “It don’t worry me,” people sing.
Altman brings us into the space between the culture and its image of itself. We see the determination that goes into containing oneself in the pop image of just-folks. We see the jumpy creature within, and we see how Nashville’s self-image becomes a straitjacket. The songs that the characters sing, sell and buy are about roots and homesickness, and make a great show of being about “real” people and “real” problems. But they’re completely formulaic. The real energy goes into the marketing. There’s a consensus reality that has been created of simple shapes, bright colors and sweetened sentiments. A lot of the humor in “Nashville” comes from seeing how much heightening and industry go into producing this music that has such claims to relaxed authenticity.
The film is also a picture of a populist culture driving itself mad with celebrity. People want in to stardom, as they want in to heaven. And if they can’t get at least a piece of stardom, they’re furious. Altman shows us how we use stars. They give us focus. We tell ourselves their stories, and we organize our mental pictures around them. We want them to be real yet conform to our desires. But as populists, we’re picky about whether our stars are putting on airs (as though that were the greatest sin). We’re even picky about whether they’re just too dang professional. They have to be one of us, yet special, because we want to feel we’re a little special too.
The stages and studios of “Nashville” are full of professionals, but the stars themselves are near-amateurs, or very skilled at playing near-amateurs. Someone who really connects (like the Ronee Blakley character) can be a lightning rod for our frustrations. If there’s a revelation “Nashville” drives toward, it has to do with how attached we are to our fictions and how inescapable we have made them. “How do you get outside?” we overhear a frazzled soul ask at a hospital nurses station. Comes the polite answer: “You dial 9.” We feel starved for contact with the spiritual and the mythic, yet we live in a popularity-game world full of gods and superstitions. Altman uses the kids playing Lily Tomlin’s deaf children symbolically. In this film with the most complicated of all movie soundtracks, they’re the only characters untouched by the clamor and hubbub.
Yet the film is jubilant and festive; a freeway pileup turns into an impromptu picnic. The people are grotesques and caricatures of themselves, but they’re also — even the most flagrant losers among them — wily self-starters. (This seems truer and more accurate — to this Middle American, at least — than does the Raymond Carver view of ordinary Americans as stunted dead-enders.) The film feels like both a piece of drama and a painting with a time element.
In one scene, Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine have just had sex. (A tape of him singing plays on his tape recorder: This seems to be a seduction technique of his — he’s purveying his self-regard.) In bed, relaxing, he has her show him how to say “I love you” in American Sign Language. She smiles happily, then realizes it’s getting late. She straightens her hair and pulls on her clothes, sizing up the damage in a bathroom mirror. Carradine is stung — we’ve seen him with a number of other women, but he’s opened up only with her. You can see him thinking: “People don’t leave me. I leave them.”
He retaliates by dialing up an old girlfriend, working his charm on her and offering to bring her to Nashville in full hearing of Lily. Almost imperceptibly, Lily — a straitlaced mother and wife who has probably never before cheated on her husband — registers how childish and selfish the man she’s just had sex with is; she also registers how badly she must have needed this tumble. She waves goodbye briskly and leaves wearing a different smile than the one she wore in bed; Carradine ends his phone conversation abruptly. He can make any woman in a club think he’s singing a song for her alone, but here, now, he’s frustrated and disconsolate.
With its profusion of wires, recording and communication devices, its mirrors and reflections and its concern with language, playacting, time and revelation, this brief scene is more complex than anything I can think of in the work of intellectual gameplayer-directors like Peter Greenaway. Yet the complicatedness isn’t made much of. We just take in the environment and the characters and what they’re going through. For Altman, this kind of thing happens to all of us, all the time. Signals get crossed, unwanted frequencies come wafting in, reflections we’d rather avoid bounce back at us, ghosts from the past sweep us up and then drop us, and when one thing comes into focus another falls out.
“I’m looking for surprises,” Altman said to a reporter at the time of “Nashville.” “If we had just taken what was in my head and put that vision on film, it would have been a pretty lousy movie. Or at least very, very ordinary. One head, no matter how good — well, it just can’t be the same as everyone bringing something to it.” Over his career, Altman developed a variety of techniques to allow for inclusiveness. The sound systems he developed with the sound engineers Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin let him record and present more ambient and minor-character noise than we’d been used to. With his cinematographers — during this period, usually Vilmos Zsigmond and, here, Paul Lohmann — Altman used multiple cameras and lighted entire environments, not just individual shots. This gave his actors an unusual freedom of movement; it also meant that, since they often didn’t know from which direction they were being filmed, or which angle was likely to be used in the final cut, they couldn’t play to a camera.
Altman often has his actors fill out their characters with their own substance. Blakley, for instance, actually was once burned by a fire baton. An actress might choose her own wardrobe and write her own dialogue; the structure that Altman’s screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, worked out allowed for a great deal of improvisation. The actor’s rapport with his role becomes what we recognize as the character. Here, many of the performers playing singers wrote or co-wrote their own songs. (That’s how Keith Carradine got his Oscar.) There’s always a mixture of real and not-real in what we watch in a fiction movie. Some filmmakers take this to be a problem, and put all their energy into strong-arming you to believe in the fiction they’re presenting. For Altman, a desire to believe is basic to human nature. It doesn’t need goosing, just inviting. And, yes, what we’re watching is both real and not-real. Why not invite both to the party?
He works by crosscutting and parallel action, by implication and suggestion. One of his distinctive camera techniques is to move the cameras and have them zoom at the same time. Cameras in motion add depth to an image. They’re generally used to heighten involvement; they invite us into roundedness and mass. Zooms flatten the image out. They’re usually used to heighten tension: The bomb is in the trunk, the microfilm was left in this drawer. The way Altman combines the two cuts us loose from our lock on the conventional subject, and frees us to rove through the entire image at our own rate. The camera work (like the soundtrack) seems elastic, submarine. It has a Japanese-screen effect; we move back and forth between losing ourselves in abstraction and pattern, and seizing on the concrete and specific.
When he does zoom to pick something out, it’s usually a character trying to decide what response is appropriate. He’s drawn to moments when you can’t figure out how to take things. Altman has his actors reacting to more than they can keep track of. Part of the fun is in watching them try to puzzle their way through a moment. “Truth” for Altman, as for many people in the performing arts, often seems to be what happens when a performance is working. (The one bad performance in “Nashville” is Allen Garfield’s; he overdoes the sleazy pushiness. While everyone else is fitting in, he’s doing his best to stand out.) Perhaps the film’s funniest moment comes when Blakley is singing on an outdoor stage that’s a mockup of a paddle wheeler. She sings beautifully to a relaxed, rapt crowd. Scott Glenn plays a soldier who’s infatuated with Blakley, and he’s staring at her and listening to her, agog. Geraldine Chaplin pushes her microphone in front of him and asks if he’s been to Vietnam. He doesn’t respond; he’s too caught up in Blakley’s singing. “Oh,” says Chaplin, empathizing wildly, “I can see that you have been.” She’s incapable of realizing that there’s magic happening on the stage before her.
Henry Gibson is spectacular as the viciously competitive Haven Hamilton. He’s an imperious cornpone cynic, a virtuoso of sanctimonious boilerplate constantly making appreciative reference to “this business that’s been so kind to me.” He makes his toupee and girdle seem major statements. But it’s with the actresses that Altman shows his best stuff. Watching some movies, you get the feeling that the director is having a sexual exchange with his actresses, and that the film captures a pulsing, we’re-breathing-each-other’s-breath quality. You sometimes see this when D.W. Griffith directs Lillian Gish, Bergman directs Bibi Andersson or when Frangois Truffaut directs Jeanne Moreau.
Altman’s work with actresses is often in that league; in fact, there may never have been another director who has given us such a rich panorama of female performances, or who has delighted in such a wide range of physical and emotional female types. They range from the hard-bitten yet vulnerable examples of Julie Christie (in “McCabe”) and Susannah York (in “Images”) to the high-strung, self-dramatizingly serious women (Blakley in “Nashville” and Sally Kellerman in “MASH”), all forehead and cheekbones, for whom Faye Dunaway might have been a template, to the long-faced, down-to-earth women like Louise Fletcher (in “Thieves Like Us”) and Lily Tomlin to the one-of-a-kind Shelley Duvall (in “McCabe,” “Three Women” and “Popeye”).
From Sandy Dennis in “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969) to Embeth Davidtz in “The Gingerbread Man” (1998), Altman is fascinated by the beauty and power women are capable of, as well as by the potential for destructiveness that coexists with their sense of themselves as vulnerable. In “Nashville,” Geraldine Chaplin is a wizard at archness, missing the main point repeatedly with great wit. In her first film, Blakley gives a performance that’s ridged with emotion. When she isn’t performing, her Barbara Jean, a reigning country queen, is just psychic flotsam and jetsam. When she does perform, all the bits and pieces come into sync. There may not be a real personality in Barbara Jean, but at least it all sometimes moves to the same rhythm. Barbara Harris, a jazzy stylist of instability, never registered in another film as memorably as she does here. Playing a daffy, miniskirted, bleached-blond hillbilly with fantasies of stardom, she’s like a kitten on Quaaludes. When she does get her chance to sing, and she strews leftover flowers to the crowd, it’s as though she’s distributing bits of her ragamuffin heart.
It’s eerie how accurately “Nashville” pointed the way to the future. Here is our coming attachment to the “outsider” candidate, and our tireless hunger for authenticity and sincerity; here’s how feeling good about ourselves and griping about taxes came in the ’80s to take precedence over everything else political. In the film, once the crisis has been reached, every relationship snaps back to its previous state; we’re watching the country try to reaffirm its innocence. It rejects what it has seen of itself; the surface closes over again, like ice over a pond. This could almost be an anticipation of how, during the Reagan years, we acted out a manufactured version of normality and cheerfulness for ourselves.
Altman’s 1970-1975 streak can be seen as an extension of American painting from the mid-’50s on, and of American writing of the ’60s — as an example of pop art. For a couple of decades after World War II, pop — the teen-centered, Imperial America version of consumer culture — seemed young, irreverent and disrespectful of tradition and stuffiness, as well as garish and horrifying. To many artists, it seemed a great subject, source and vehicle for art. Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Terry Southern, among many others, took on pop subjects and worked in pop forms, bringing sophistication and perspective to pop while borrowing back its pizazz and accessibility. In a movie such as “Major Dundee,” Peckinpah dramatized his antagonistic relationship to pop with an abstract-expressionist fury. Altman was cooler, looser and more flexible — Robert Frank as a happy cartoonist.
The outdoor concert occurs at the Parthenon, a giant replica of the Greek temple erected for Nashville’s 1897 Centennial Exposition. (Originally constructed of wood and plaster, it was rebuilt in its present form in 1922.) The reporter Howard K. Smith does an essay on television about the candidate; the Goodyear blimp passes overhead flashing the candidate’s slogan. It’s a cloudy, milky day, but the colors are thick, broad and flat. We watch the stage being built, the traffic jam up and a line of black limos snake through town.
This getting-ready sequence seems straightforward, but it has a fated quality. (Even if you don’t respond to it as I do, it’s still a model of bringing strands together while keeping them all distinct.) I ran it over and over on my VCR, and I still can’t explain why it has the poised yet deranging, hallucinogenic effect it does. When the black limos pull onto the green grass behind the Parthenon, we watch them circle from above, between massive lemon-cream pillars. As Blakley and Gibson swing into a song, we’re above and behind them too. Then Blakley starts to sing about her parents, and we’re watching her from close up and underneath. There’s an immense flag fixed to the pillars behind her. When it billows out with the wind, you’re reminded of a scene earlier in the film. It’s at the airport; Blakley is returning from her convalescence to a city-sponsored welcome that’s like a parade. There are bands, reporters, crowds and marching girls. For a few seconds the sound of the entire scene is drowned out by a taxiing jet with a big “American” sign on its side. The colossal scale of the joke is part of the humor — it’s one of the biggest damn jokes since Buster Keaton tumbled a train into a river in “The General.”
Watching the earlier scene, you giggle. Here, when that flag billows out, you feel like you’re going insane. Blakley’s emotions surge, rise and crest. And amazingly, at that moment the sun — the sun! — comes out. The moment is so intense you don’t know whether you’re in ecstasy or whether you shouldn’t don an aluminum-foil hat to shield yourself from so many vibrations. All that’s on screen is a singer singing, yet — if you respond to Altman as I do — the inside of your skull feels as though it’s being painted on by such “artists of the insane” as Christian Wolfi. The feeling is sinister and beautiful; you feel there’s no turning back. Altman creates disordered, media-overload effects of the sort Thomas Pynchon is often said to create, and he does it without sacrificing aesthetic distance. (Pynchon always seems to me more interested in creating a nervous breakdown than in writing about one.) The center comes apart, and we’ve never felt freer. And we love our affliction.
3. The cinema of information
In the summer of 1975, I was a film student at NYU, and the day “Nashville” opened, I was among the first people in line at the Baronet. (Altman’s 1971 “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was the film that made me fall in love with movies.) Altman walked by with a few people, checking out the business. I ran after him and asked for an autograph. Feeling foolish, dizzy and thrilled, I gave him the only thing I had with me he could sign — a copy, as it turned out, of Karel Reisz’s book on film editing.
It was a cuckoo time. There was an intoxication about filmmaking and filmgoing — a euphoria and a fever. For many people, an interest in movies and movie history provided a way into the arts and a framework for exploring them. Films like “Nashville,” “The Conformist” and “The Godfather” were peak experiences that seemed to bring together all your interests in the arts — high and low, visual, auditory and literary. A figure like Godard or Altman or Coppola opened up new directions and led you into discoveries not just in art but also in your life, in terms of sex, philosophy, love, fantasy and friendship. So these figures meant something to you personally. They transformed you; they made a difference in your sense of what was possible.
By 1980, Altman was unable to find financing for his projects in Hollywood. He directed plays in New York, then moved to Paris and directed opera, TV and small films. He returned to Hollywood moviemaking in 1992 with “The Player.” By then, the baby boomers were running the joint. By now, they have set the tone in the media for 20 years. It’s striking how on-the-money Altman is in “Nashville” about the dark side of the baby boomers. Even when they’re successes, and even when they view themselves ironically as such, they always see themselves as outlaws. The character Keith Carradine plays — in his leather vest, his sun-kissed tresses, his contempt and his sensitivity — rings true in his vanity, his sense of entitlement and his selfishness. A character played by Cristina Raines is so wrapped up in her narcissism and masochism that she can barely bring herself to make baby talk. In the film, the older characters make an effort to keep up appearances. The hip, solipsistic younger people generally just act out.
In American movies, what the 25 years since the release of “Nashville” have brought is an evolution in the direction of selling the story and the hook — the movie equivalent of pop music’s three chords in 4/4 time. It’s as though the goal of filmmakers has become to make the package and the product one — to make the movie live up to its ad campaign. Given this, it isn’t surprising that Altman’s influence has been greater on TV than on movies. A few kinds of new-Hollywood film genres reflect his work: the ensemble film organized around a lifestyle or occupation theme (“Parenthood,” “Pushing Tin”), and the Mad-magazine style movie spoof (“Airplane,” the various “National Lampoon” movies). On TV, his influence can seem to be everywhere. “Hill Street Blues” and its mixed-mode, ensemble-cast descendants (“ER,” for instance) are straight out of “MASH.” The projects that combine story and documentary material in new ways, from the dramatic reenactments on shows like “A Current Affair” to attempts like Court TV and “Cops,” come out of Altman’s experiments in mixing fact and fiction.
In the years the baby boomers have been in charge, I’ve fallen out of love with moviegoing. What American movies deliver now are, on the one hand, Hollywood marketing extravaganzas and, on the other, what’s somewhat optimistically called the “independent cinema.” The extravaganzas are essentially big-budget versions of what were once known as exploitation pictures. The ’50s and ’60s exploitation films were often happy-go-lucky time-wasters and pocket-pickers. You could feel fond of a Roger Corman or a William Castle for aiming so low, and for taking the money and running. You didn’t resent them any more than you did the people who ran a carnival.
It’s hard to feel any fondness for the people behind films like “Dinosaur” or “Gone in 60 Seconds.” These films do the same kind of button-pushing as the old B pictures, and they often give the same impression of being made out of recycled stock footage. But there’s an immense commercial anxiety behind them, and you can sense that they’re basically respectable. (You can feel the careers hanging in the balance.) The people involved don’t seem to be entertaining vulgarians or small-time opportunists — they feel like yuppies taking advantage of our reflexes. Tony Scott, the director of such aggressive marketing machines as “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide,” has had his tasteful, serene house written up in interior-design magazines. And the independent films aren’t any more motivated by aesthetic concerns than the smasheroo studio films. They’re either illustrating a p.c. point or projecting a flip “alternative” attitude. The independent directors and producers often seem to think that the best response to database-driven commercial moviemaking is no technique at all. The result is anorexic filmmaking.
The language developed over a hundred years by such people as Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and Marcel Carne can sometimes seem to be a vanishing thing. I long ago became used to the fact that the movies I love don’t often succeed financially. What’s recently come as a surprise is how many of the films I’ve enjoyed most — from “Devil in a Blue Dress” to “The Last Bolshevik” to “Breakdown” to “Romance” — aren’t even talked about. They’re just ignored. I can’t help noticing that something these low-key films share is that they speak the language of movies. They draw on movie history and respond to it. I suspect that that’s what makes them irrelevant to most people.
In 1975, film was potentially the greatest of all the arts; in 2000, it’s one data stream among many. The hierarchical, centralized culture the baby boomers reacted against could be exclusionary, and its emphasis on ego and on greatness could be annoying. But it offered the possibility of something called “depth,” and it also provided a shared culture and language. The atomized, decentered culture we have now allows for horizontal ranging about; the new digital tools (and media) are irresistible; and the openness to cultural mixing is certainly a relief. But this mix-and-match culture can also seem shallow. If everything’s always available, why bother trying to unearth anything? (If it isn’t on a database, it doesn’t exist.)
A young Ivy League graduate I know made a success in arts journalism without ever having seen a Bergman picture. When she finally caught up with one, she was stunned to realize that there’d once been a time when people went to a movie theater to watch characters agonize and philosophize at each other. She hasn’t seen another Bergman since, and she hasn’t gone on to read any Scandinavian literature, or to search out further examples of Swedish films either. In Altman’s “The Player,” a comedy about what has become of Hollywood, a young studio executive is watching his career dissolve, and recovers his momentum only when he learns to stop worrying about integrity and depth. During my lunch with him, Altman observed wryly that one thing he could say for the executives he’d battled in the ’70s was that they cared enough about the work being done to get angry at you, and to hate your movies. Nowadays, when someone takes an idea upstairs for a decision, there’s nothing there but a computer.
Watched on videotape today, “Nashville” seems in its element in a way many movies don’t. It’s alive, and it doesn’t suffer from the fragmenting effects of stop-and-start, at-home viewing. This may be because Altman is instinctively drawn to multiple points of view and unresolved resolutions. It doesn’t exactly cohere, but it seems to bring our channel-surfing minds and experiences into some kind of loose relationship. It gives the impression of being a video installation rather than a routine feature; you can get the feeling that it’s playing on several monitors at once. Watching it made me think that one way of conceiving of TV is as movies gone to pieces and turned into wallpaper.
It also made me think that an upbeat way of looking at where we’ve arrived is this: We have been freed — perhaps against our will — of our attachment to the idea of art as a rebel activity, a gesture toward freedom made for the sake of the unconscious and revolution. Now it has become simply an activity some people pursue, and perhaps get something out of — as legitimate as (but no more vanguard than) business, cleaning, sports, science and child-rearing. “Nashville,” seen at this distance, looks like a snapshot of the moment when substance began to vaporize into information.
Ray Sawhill works as an arts reporter for Newsweek. More Ray Sawhill.
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