Finally, it’s time for a return to my look at movies on Sight and Sound’s most recent Top 250 All-Time Greatest Films list. Yes, it’s been awhile since we’ve visited the list, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been watching them, just that I’ve had other things going on that have kept me from writing about them. So I’ve actually got quite a few that I’ll be trying to get written up over the next little bit. Anyway, today it’s #77, Robert Altman’here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, just head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up. Trust me, if you’re not following one or the other (or both), you’re not getting the full Durmoose Movies experience.
There can be, of course, a huge gulf between appreciating the technical aspects of what makes a movie “great” and actually enjoying the experience of watching the film itself. After all, opinions about any given movie are probably as diverse as the number of people that see them. That’s why lists like this are made in the first place, and why they are often quite hotly debated among those of us who love movies, especially when it comes to those top few spots and which movies should or shouldn’t occupy them.
Maybe that’s also why, when I find myself in such opposition with the critical (and apparently popular) opinion of a movie like Robert Altman’s Nashville, I feel some intimidation and wonder if perhaps I just don’t “get it” from either a technical/critical viewpoint or from one of “liking” it.
Okay, that’s actually not quite true, but I’ll get to the one thing that does work in a bit.
So let’s get a few caveats out of the way that may also add both some color and perspective to my viewing of this movie. First of all, yes, I am a native Nashvillian. When this movie was released in 1975 I was a not-quite teenager so I (honestly rather vaguely) remember some of the hubbub that accompanied both the shooting and the release of the movie.
There are of course scenes in the movie that were contemporary at the time but now provide a mini time capsule look back at the Nashville that was.
Yeah, some of the street scenes show places that used to be and give a sort of “Oh, yeah, I remember when that used to look that way” reminiscence to someone like me, but unfortunately the shots like that are few and far between. Instead, Altman chose to shoot most of the movie indoors in places that, while they are certainly a part of the Nahville-at-the-time (the Grand Old Opry House, the Exit/In, etc.) really could have been anywhere that served up country music at the time.
And as far as the music goes, well… in a way, I feel like the less said, the better. This is a film the features over an hour of musical numbers, many of which I understand are there to provide atmosphere and a few of which actually do serve to move what little plot there is along, but most of which are also very, very bad. By allowing the actors to write their own songs Altman does achieve… well, something, I’m sure, for the sake of argument let’s call it a level of veracity, but beyond that, considering the immense number of actual songwriters to be found in Nashville, this seems like a truly missed opportunity. Plus, because of the poor quality of these songs, there’s at least thirty minutes worth of these numbers that could have been cut entirely from the movie without it losing anything at all, and that tightening would definitely have helped the film.
Actually, that’s really my major complaint with this movie from both a critical and audience-member perspective. To put it bluntly, Nashville simply rambles too much. Yes, I understand that this is a part of what marks a Robert Altman movie as an Altman movie, but it’s also part of why I feel like maybe Altman’s movies just aren’t for me. It’s actually the same feeling I had while watching The Long Goodbye. (A film I felt was quite aptly named because if it was anything, it was far too long, and it too felt as though it was taking far too much time before getting to its final “goodbye”.)
Anyway, this is where we get back to the opening of this essay where I noted that I acknowledge that it’s possible to recognize the expertise of a movie without necessarily appreciating or enjoying it. I’m definitely willing to admit that I see what Altman was going for here, that he was trying to use these musical scenes as atmosphere while the rest of his players furthered the plot through dialogue taking place alongside them, and that’s something that I can appreciate in theory, but in practice, at least in this movie, it just doesn’t work for me anywhere near as well as it should.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the music that rambles, nor the dialogue. There are also characters, such as Jeff Goldblum’s tricycle-riding magic man, whose existence in the movie I could forgive if he actually served the purpose of progressing the plot along at all, providing some kind of commentary on the city, or even represented some type of character that might have actually been found in the Nashville of the time, but none of that really is the case. Instead he simply seems to be there as an indulgence by Altman as someone he wanted to throw in. The same seems true of Geraldine Chaplain’s BBC reporter character, who really is simply given far too much screen time than her importance to anything else happening in the film can excuse.
Okay, at the first of this essay I also mentioned that there was one part of the movie that does work well for me, and I promised I’d get around to it. So what is it?
No, although I can see why you might expect it given what I’ve written so far, I’m not going for some kind of snarky “At least it finally ended” comment. The truth is, I felt that the ending of the movie was not only perfectly timed, but was completely in keeping with the type of climax that we see in so many other films of the time.
As a matter of fact, it was so spot on that as the movie was unfolding, my thought was “This had better be the last shot of the movie”, and it actually was.
I’m not going to give away the ending of the movie here, but I will simply say that although I can certainly see why some viewers would be left with a feeling of lack of closure or full explanations of why certain characters act the way that they do, that is actually one of the things that makes this feel similar to other movies released during that period of time that I tend to refer to as the decade of the “70s movie”, though it really begins for me roughly in 1968 and ends in 1977.
But that’s a digression for another time. For now let’s just say that taken in that context, the ending of Nashville is just what and where it needs to be.
I just wish it had been a lot less of a slog to get there.
Here’s a trailer: