On this long-awaited DVD, director Robert Altman talks about the making of an American classic.

Published January 3, 2001 7:04PM (EST)

Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Lily Tomlin, Michael Murphy, Ronee Blakely, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Geraldine Chaplin, Karen Black, Keith Carradine
Paramount Home Video; widescreen (2.4:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director commentary, short interview with Robert Altman, trailer

It's a blast to see "Nashville" again in the widescreen (Panavision, in this case) in which it was conceived and filmed. Many filmmakers use the format to capture nature at its grandest; Robert Altman, for his most praised film, used the space for a different purpose entirely: as a metaphor for the scope of the human panorama the film captures.

Altman's characters number a full two dozen -- the stars and would-be stars, the agents and managers, the malcontents and miscreants haunting the titular city cum state of mind. They all whirl around a slightly off-kilter center: a wraithlike superstar, Barbara Jean, played by Ronee Blakely. Meanwhile, a faceless but implacable political candidate wages a guerrilla-like campaign for the state's presidential primary.

And assassination is in the air. Altman and his screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, use this setting for nothing obvious: "Nashville" is not patently about the political gullibility of Americans, their taste in pop culture, the fecklessness of the South or a culture of violence. But you can read all of that into it and more. In the plight of Keenan Wynn, an older gentleman bereft at the death of his wife and aghast at the unfeeling antics of his groupie niece, Shelley Duvall, for example, we sympathize with a generation's dismay at another.

"Nashville" has become an American film icon; the commentary by Altman should have been a great contribution to our understanding of it. Instead, it's just mildly interesting. Altman is proud of his film, but prouder of the technique he used to make it. He sent Tewkesbury to Nashville and told her to write what she saw. Then, as an overlay, he created the political campaign and told an organizer to attack the filming guerrilla-style. He assembled a cast and had them write their own songs. With those elements in place, Altman decreed a number of set-pieces in concert halls, bars, hospital rooms -- "events," he calls them -- and filmed the result, documentary-style.

The rest of his commentary is rambling compliments to his actors; ultimately, it's unfulfilling. This is a case in which it might have been nice to have an interviewer focus the discussion. Altman also reflects on the film's unexpected denouement; the target turns out to be not the never-seen political candidate but a celebrity -- Barbara Jean. "Nashville" has been called a potent foreshadowing of the killing of John Lennon some half a decade later. "I don't think we've seen the end of it," Altman says portentously.

Fortunately, events have not borne him out. Altman is more compelling when he speaks, modestly, of his film's origin and intents. "It didn't occur to me we were breaking new ground," he says at one point. "I was just making the film that occurred to me at the time."

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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