Withered Nashville

Two nights ago I watched the Criterion Bluray of Robert Altman‘s Nashville (’75). And guess what? It doesn’t hold up. It’s earnestly dislikable. I wanted to shut it off after the first half-hour. It’s a typical Altmanesque grab-bag of this and that, but it’s mainly a social criticism piece about Middle-American politics, patriotism, pettiness and celebrity. The specific focus is the banal eccentricities and pretensions of the country-music industry, but for the most part the film is snide and misanthropic. Sorry, but I’m removing it from my Altman pantheon. I loved it in ’75 but I’m pretty sure I’ll never watch Nashville again. It’s failed the test of time.

In basic construction terms Nashville is about a troupe of eccentric, improvising actor-hipsters leaning on their default Left Coast impressions of Nashville’s sophisticated-hick culture and dispensing variations on a single dismissive theme: “These people are small and petty and lame and delusional.”

The late Gwen Welles plays a short-order waitress and a completely untalented would-be singer. I’ve known a few mediocre performers in my life (actors, singers…I was one myself when I tried to be a drummer) and the common characteristic is that they’re somewhat talented but not talented enough. But Welles’ bad singing is a patronizing “bit” — an actress pretending to be God-awful. In actuality a singer with a voice this tone-deaf wouldn’t dream of trying to become a performer. But try she does.

Welles’ big scene arrives when she tries singing at a club and fails so miserably that the crowd hurls cruel taunts and insults. Welles is so deflated by the response that she goes numb. Her eyes space out and she starts disrobing because some drunken asshole has yelled “show us yer tits!” or something in that vein. She ends up naked and humiliated, but I, sitting in my living room 38 years later, was appalled. I felt sick. I haven’t watched a scene this ugly in a long, long time.

  • robert jenks

    never understood the love for this snide, kneejerk dismissal of working America.. well, actually it was obvious. glad you finally wised up.

  • Steven Gaydos

    Guess what? That was my review back when it opened. When you understand all the points Jeff made here you understand how Kael was off her Barcalounger on this and at least half of what she wrote and everything you know about cinema pantheons and the canon of “great films” is wrong. Welcome to the liberation.

    • brenkilco

      Kael was a much better writer than she was a critic. She missed the boat on a lot of film makers, latterly the Coens whom she basically dismissed as a flash in the pan. And even when she was right about a director, like Altman or De palma, she almost always oversold him. Last Tango didn’t exactly reinvent cinema, as she predicted it would. And check out her orgasmic review of De palma’s The Fury if you can find it. I mean, I love The Fury, but jesus.

      • Michael Gebert

        She didn’t like anybody whose films were too carefully worked out and storyboarded. So she didn’t like Kubrick and she didn’t like people who liked Kubrick, which the Coens did in spades in their early work (as they acknowledged about Raising Arizona owing so much to The Shining’s Steadicam work).

        So why she loved DePalma, whose films were carefully worked out and storyboarded to the Nth degree, beats me.

        • brenkilco

          Don’t think she saw De Palma as cool and controlled like Hitchcock. More baroque, flamboyant, over heated and over the top.She loved pulp, stuff that got her jazzed up, made her crazy. Plus she was perversely egotistical. Sarris got there first with the auteur canon. She had to go the other way.

          • George Prager

            She loved it when Jim Brown smacked those two blondes heads together in FINGERS.

            • brenkilco

              And the Susan George rape scene in
              Straw Dogs. Very weird.

      • typop2

        I’ve seen this Kael-was-a-better-writer-than-critic notion gaining steam, and it’s just completely wrong. What you mean to say, I’m guessing, is that her opinions were frequently flatulent. But, really, why does that matter? Kael’s magic was to put the movie right onto the page. She did it with “Nashville” for sure. And “The Fury.” And the few Coens movies she talked about. I didn’t share her opinion on too many things, but I knew for sure that I was seeing the movie unfold as I was reading her review. Who else, before or since, has been able to do this? I can think of exactly no one. This is why her word was definitive, not because she was “right” or “wrong.” And this is why she was a great critic.

        • brenkilco

          What she was great at doing was putting her feelings about the movie on the page. All very passionalte,colorful and impressionistic. But she wasnt much interested in or knowlegable about how movies work technically or dramatically. I cant imagine anything she ever wrote helping a film maker to make a beter film. She could be captivating but she was seldom enlightening. I particulary dislike her irrelevant allussions to art and music designed to show how cultured she was. And while she loved to use the word “we” in her reviews, as if her audience were right there with her, her judgments were entirely her own and her critical batting average was pretty poor.

  • http://jessecrall.wordpress.com/ Jesse Crall

    Yeah, I could see how something snide & misanthropic would clash with Jeff’s eminently warm & humanistic sensitivities…

    I dug NASHVILLE when I saw it a few years back but I preferred the more…I dunno, pointed and specific character studies Altman did in that era. LONG GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, 3 WOMEN, MCCABE obviously…they felt more absorbing whereas NASHVILLE unfolded like a big audacious statement, a ‘drawing the audience in Vs. showing the audience a presentation.’ But shit, Altman was on an insane roll and taking a detour to paint on a broader canvas still yielded some very cool moments, especially all of Duvall’s shallow fuckery.

    • patches23

      I would add JIMMY DEAN to the list.

      These ensemble pieces are of necessity broad. There’s not enough time to cover everything, it become a series of events, and it seems like it can get away from a director and turn into an AIRPORT unless it is tightly written and the director and editor are in alignment. Not a lot of room for off the page experiments. And in the end, the best scenes are the close to the heart ones. In NASHVILLE, the best scene for me is in the bar with Keith Carradine performing the song, though that is probably because Lily owns that scene with some help from Duvall for contrast. But that’s not because of any peeling back of persona to reveal character, no great revelations, only a seduction because a person was moved by a song.

  • Joe Leydon

    By sheer coincidence: I screened BREWSTER McCLOUD for students today. Watching it again, I found myself thinking: Damn. They really did do a lot of drugs in the ’70s.

  • The Best Feet

    Never understood the love for this one. It’s no “McCabe and Mrs Miller.”

    • fahrenheit290

      Agree on Nashville. I saw it in 35mm and it did nothing for me. Now where’s the McCabe & Mrs. Miller Criterion bluray? I had to buy the DVD to have a copy since I love that film so much. That ending… Magnificent Julie Christie + Warren Beatty + Altman at perhaps his most inspired = utterly sublime.

      • brenkilco

        McCabe looks better every year. The apotheosis of Altman’s communal style of film making. Expect it will climb into Sight and Sound’s top ten one of these decades. But given Vilmos Zigmond’s penchant for degrading, flashing, filtering and generally murking up his films-all for the greater artistic good- can’t say I’m anxiously awaiting the blu ray.

      • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

        It’s in the pantheon.

        • fahrenheit290

          Though apparently not the AFI’s top 100 list. What a total joke.

  • DimitriL

    Except you’re wrong about Gwen Welles. Ronee Blakley says she really was that awful a singer, that Welles took singing lessons for the film, and it didn’t help at all.

    • DimitriL

      And incidentally, as someone who lived in Nashville for 17 years and worked with everything from the labels to the wanna-be stars, Gwen’s character’s utter lack of talent combined with delusion is not only uncommon there, but isn’t even close to the most horrifying display I ever saw.

      It usually takes the truly deluded about 15-20 years to realize they’re jaw-dropping lay devoid of talent. Then they decide to become songwriters. (And a large percent of them decide to try and hire someone to “turn this here song into a screenplay because I know a producer who’s just waitin’ for it so he can make it a movie.”

      Oh yes, I knew a lot of Sueleen Gays. None of them were strippers, though.

  • cyanic

    You’re coming out as a conservative? I should have saw this coming but I ignored the signs.

    • Steven Gaydos

      Rejecting condescension & demeaning take on working class NOT conservative trait. If anything, anti-conservative.

      • Michael Gebert

        Yeah, right. That’s why lefties in the media have been so friendly to grass roots Tea Party activists.

        • Zed75

          Um, the Tea Party is about as “grass-roots” as the tobacco lobby. Just saying.

          If anything, the role of the Koch brothers, etc has been criminally under-reported by the “lefty” media.

          • DuluozRedux

            Oh for fuck’s sake… No one has more disdain for “flyover” country than Left wing coastal elites. You guys on the Left pretend to care about working people but are aghast whenever you meet one.

            • Zed75

              I grew up in “flyover” country, you cartoonish prick. And by the way, nobody who lives there actually calls it that, which kinda gives your game away.

              • Michael Gebert

                I grew up in Kansas, not flyover country. And on the whole people were pretty decent, and refused to see their lives merely in terms of Marxian economic notions. Maybe someday even Thomas Frank will figure that out. Certainly I would find it very hard to make a serious case that moving to Chicago, bastion of loving caring urban liberalism, decreased the degree to which my life and those of everyone around me was the plaything of the rich bastards who run everything and skim it all off the top.

                But no doubt the Koch Bros. paid me to say that.

              • DuluozRedux

                That’s why I put it in quotes, fuckness, so your little Left wing brain could understand what I was talking about.

            • patches23

              Here we go again. Blah blah blah more Dulouz word salad with no meaning. None. Zip. He’s his typical self, right up there on an intellectual level with Sarah Palin.

              I grew up in flyover country, too. As conservative as it gets. As racist as it gets. And the people doing the work were constantly getting ass fucked by those only interested in power and money. And the whole money is the true religion, power through intimidation, how many people have to die due to lack, thing grows tiresome.

              The tea party is financed by the Koch bros, et al, and are no more representative of working people than the Kochs. They are authoritarians kissing the ass of power, working against themselves, proud members of the cult of the willfully obtuse. Oh, and a D president, especially a black one, is not legitimate, no matter how conservative he is. Go read the comments of any right wing blog. Gee, I wonder why there is hate for that level of moronic bile?

              On the other hand, read what the Pope has been saying, just as one example. And therein lies the difference. Are you capable of this elementary level of understanding? I doubt it.

              • DuluozRedux

                Dude, take a xanax or something, you’re fucking losing it. Put down the DailyKos, it’ll make you feel better, because racism.

          • Michael Gebert

            Um, you’re just parroting stuff you heard somewhere. Just saying.

            • Zed75

              Amazing how, when confronted by things like actual reported, verifiable facts, you guys suddenly turn all relativist.

              Enjoy your fact-free existence.

              • DuluozRedux

                When you decide to share some of those facts, maybe we’ll respond to them.

              • Michael Gebert

                Fact-free? Irony noted.

        • George Prager

          Most “Tea party” people aren’t working class, are they? They may say they are but the movers and shakers, even at the local level seem to belong to the middle class.

          • Michael Gebert

            What’s a guy who owns a small business emptying septic tanks? He’s not exactly the same kind of middle class as a banker– or a TV journalist.

            • VicLaz2

              Are you talking about that Joe the Plumber idiot?

              • Michael Gebert

                No, but you’re validating my point. Any grass-roots movement, no matter how sophomorically numbskulled (Occupy), is a vivid demonstration of democracy at its best– until it’s against what you believe in, then it’s morons who re being controlled by their evil rich puppet masters.

                Sauce for the goose.

                • pizan܍amore

                  GEORGE SOROS ON A TRAIN SAYS….

                  Criss-cross!

                • VicLaz2

                  No, I’m not being knee-jerk here. Joe the Plumber has a well established record of moronic statements.

                  • Michael Gebert

                    As opposed to who, Joe the Vice President? Probably so. Politics attracts a lot of mouths that move with fewer brains attached than they think. Nevertheless, that you feel it necessary to characterize an ongoing strain in American political life– at least as far back as Proposition 13 in the 70s– in terms of schoolyard taunts at its momentary personalities, instead of taking seriously the societal forces that it represents and why they rise at this time, again… makes precisely my point.

                    • VicLaz2

                      You cannot seriously compare Joe Biden with the moronic, homophobic and outright racist Joe the Plumber. I will say he does represent the essence of the Tea Party. I know what societal forces they represent.

                      A predominantly white, conservative, southern based, xenophobic voting bloc based on discredited economic ideas and the premise that white men are under siege by social liberals has been around since the civil war. Call them Dixicrats or Tea Party this thing is not a new rising movement. I take them seriously as a voting bloc but I will not stop mocking their stupidity.

                    • Michael Gebert

                      Everything you say makes my point. Go on telling me how I’m wrong to think your opposition is purely prejudicial, because it’s only natural to hate the very sight of those fuckers.

                    • VicLaz2

                      Tell me where I’m wrong about what the Tea Party stands for. Tell me where I’m wrong about Joe the Plumber. Educate me.

            • George Prager

              There’s always a septic tank emptyer mucking up the works.

        • Charles Peligro

          All these arguments about whether conservatives or liberals hate working class people more, are silly. In my experience, upper class conservatives AND liberals BOTH have nothing but contempt for those they perceive to be beneath them. It’s about class not ideology.

          • VicLaz2

            Yeah those liberals who are despately trying to extend unemployment benefits and move towards affordable or free healthcare sure do hate those working class folks.

            • DuluozRedux

              Liberals stand on their head and tell everyone else they’re upside down.

              VicLaz is a perfect example of the disease. He thinks giving MORE benefits actually helps people, instead of hurting them. He thinks raising the minimum wage is good, even though history says it leads to more unemployment for the very people it is designed to help.

              Typical Liberal ideology: results are meaningless, only thing that matters is good intentions. And they wonder why no one trusts them to do anything right.

        • Steven Gaydos

          As long as there are folks like you who love paying the tax bills for the rich reactionary clowns who use your prejudice and fear as a way to build bigger seafront manses, we’ll always have parasites bleating loudly about “welfare” and “big government” and collecting big paychecks for their con game. Keep playing. It’s a pleasant distraction from the real pain they inflict on the society and the culture.

          • Michael Gebert

            Did you miss the part where I live in Chicago? Thankfully, I am in the very heart of liberalism, and thus utterly clean government which enriches no one well connected at my middle class expense.

            • Steven Gaydos

              I know when I’m beat! You win! If I lived in Chicago I would probably be wearing a Ted Cruz button and a beany cap just out of despair at the ways in which government can fail as monumentally as our capitalist titans. Let’s start fresh by debating movies and leave politics alone for the moment. We’re both doomed.

  • CBJ

    People have always been discounting NASHVILLE as snide, that’s not new. It’s also not entirely correct, as it overlooks dozens and dozens of moments of aching humanity and ambiguity…..oh why bother.

  • Clockwork Taxi

    I’ve always felt, and have never encountered anyone who shares this opinion, that Short Cuts was Altman’s masterpiece. It has also held up VERY well.

    • Michael Gebert

      I don’t know if I’d say masterpiece singular, because I think that’s The Long Goodbye, but I agree that it’s one of his 4 or 5 best and far, far better than Nashville.

      • http://jessecrall.wordpress.com/ Jesse Crall

        SHORT CUTS & THE LONG GOODBYE are two of the best Los Angeles movies, both in setting and attitude, ever made.

    • DuluozRedux

      Agreed. Short Cuts was the culmination of his creative output. Just a brilliant film.

  • George Prager

    Not sure how NASHVILLE was supposed to be about “flyover country”.Anyone who says so is an idiot. If I was reviewing the movie for some hippie alternative weekly back in the day, I would write that it was about a country and a culture suffering from PTSD from the events of the previous 12 years (assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, etc.). And then i would’ve called it a day and went to the bar across the street, lit up a Winston and ordered a Johnny Walker Red on the rocks.

  • George Prager

    “In actuality a singer with a voice this tone-deaf wouldn’t dream of trying to become a performer. But try she does.” I guess you’ve never seen a minute of “American Idol.”

  • MichaelStrangeways

    You don’t know enough live performers…there are plenty of Gwen Welles out there and completely deluded as to the degree of their talent.

    Also: Nashville is still a great film. It’s not perfect but it’s still far more interesting and real than the over praised Short Cuts. It’s just fashionable to hate on Nashville because it used to be a critical darling…happens all the time. It’s chic to hate things that used to be chic. Like the assholes who sniff “Ambersons is SOOOOOO much better/more profound than Citizen Kane….”

    • JoeS

      Exactly, on all points. The MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in particular is the beneficiary of being considered a bowdlerized movie – so the folks who rhapsodize over “what could have been” have a perfect masterpiece in their minds that no mundane actual movie can match.

      • Michael Gebert

        I think Ambersons is pretty perfect movie until about 2 scenes from the end. It’s also about the most depressing fucker made in old Hollywood, which is why I respect Ambersons more than Kane but have watched Kane about 5 times as often.

  • JoeS

    I think I’ll chalk this up to Awards Fatigue.

    For so many here to put down NASHVILLE, one of the greatest films in American cinema there must be an alternative explanation……….

  • CBJ

    I also get the impression that for Jeff “watching” these older films these days means having them on in the background while writing or fiddling around with Twitter.

  • D.Z.

    But how does it compare to ABC’s Nashville?

    • Ray Quick

      Less Panettiere, so Altman comes up short.

  • FrankieJ

    NASHVILLE is one of the greatest and most insightful films ever made and for you to dismiss is pathetic. How sad because tonight I saw the best film of 2013: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and came directly to your site to let you know how right you were. But how painfully wrong you are about Altman’s masterpiece. I just watched the Criterion blu-ray twice over the last 3 days and NASHVILLE is even more stunning and bold then it was when I first saw it–in the late 80s–sorry am not as OLD as you. I would watch it again. Or risk losing respectability.

  • pizan܍amore

    This thread is still going?

    THOM PHOOLERY SAYS….

    Lionel Richie was surprisingly good in this, but it’s just stupid that he got the film’s only Oscar.

    • DukeSavoy

      Shame Richie’s “former slave turned bounty hunter’s assistant” role got cut from McCabe Would have been two Oscars for sure.

      • pizan܍amore

        No doubt. Instead of Leonard Cohen’s “Winter Lady,” the film might have ended with “I’m Freezy.”

  • JoeS

    Pizan+amore, the reason this thread is still going is that many of us consider NASHVILLE not only Altman’s best film, but one of the very finest of the 70s – and, All-Time.

    If you hated NASHVILLE before. Fine.

    But, to go back and say it doesn’t “hold up” is more a reflection of that person, than the film. I hate hate hate the term “dated” when it comes to film criticism. It’s usually a lazy word used by a critic who is too caught up with himself to try and put their minds back to the time when the movie was made.

    Of course, things change. Attitudes evolve. Society morphs. But, you know what? NASHVILLE is still the same motion picture. It hasn’t been re-edited or, heaven forfend, remade. The Gwen Welles scene was always there. The alleged “snide and misanthropic” attitudes were as well.

    NASHVILLE is still NASHVILLE. It hasn’t ‘dated’, your ability to observe it in the proper context, has.

    • pizan܍amore

      Hey, I was just doing the setup for one of my stupid thread-killing jokes.

      For the record: Nashville isn’t one of my all-time faves, but it has a place in my personal collection (right between Narc and Network) and for any film lover it obviously has great historical significance. To be so dismissive of a classic of its stature for being “dislikable” and “snide and misanthropic,” and saying it has “failed the test of time” (as if the films of Kurosawa or Ford don’t need to be met part-way by audiences with contemporary sensibilities) is a myopic – and somewhat baffling – thing for a misanthropic Movie Catholic to say.

    • DukeSavoy

      Think the biggest problem with Nashville is the nearly ceaseless country music. This was a baffling oversight by Altman. A Korngold score and the film is timeless.

    • johnlsullivan

      Applying the Howard Hawks rule: the great scenes in Nashville are:
      “I’m easy”
      Barbara Jean’s breakdown
      The Grand Ole Opry Sequence (Haven Hamilton, Connie White, et al)
      The Airport sequence (a brilliant intro of almost all the major characters)
      Sueleen’s striptease (I wasn’t outraged; it’s a sad, unpleasant scene, as intended)
      The whole incredible finale.

      Can’t think of any bad scenes.

      There’s also dozens of great “mini-scenes”
      Lady Pearl’s Kennedy boys monologue
      Linnea’s sign language with her two kids
      Haven singing 200 years.
      Albuquerque “singing” at the stock car races.