Call me a heathen. I don’t like Nashville.
Possibly the most celebrated film of the 1970s — at least among film snob circles — Robert Altman’s sprawling case study of five days in the Tennessee city is self-absorbed, overwrought, and dismissive. Nor is it particularly well-made, with poor sound (even after being remastered for its DVD release) and washed-out photography, not to mention a running time (2:40) that’s at least an hour too long.
Not liking country music is probably part of my distaste for the film, but that’s hardly a major point. Frankly, Altman’s opus is so far-flung and random that it simply doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Other critics gush about its little vignettes and how telling they are with subtle glances and nods of the head, but this is shorthand for the fact that the movie doesn’t have much to say. Even its plot — a third-party Presidential candidate descends on Nashville to throw a fundraising bash — is a throwaway. It feels like Altman had to fold in his vaunted 24 characters just to give the movie some substance — something that misses far more than it hits.
Again, its ardent fans will talk of how Nashville is so remarkable for turning its head agains the budding hallmarks of Hollywood: the big action sequence, the leading man, the plot point structure. And Altman actually did manage to throw all that stuff out some 20 years later with Short Cuts, and with dramatic success. But so much of Nashville is frivolous and uninspiring, and there’s just so much folky-country song and dance, that any sense of the auteur in Altman isn’t readily apparent.
I will give Altman credit for absolutely nailing Nashville’s decrepitude and sadness, obsession with Goo-Goo Bars and the Grand Olde Opry (a stage on which I’ve actually performed as a non-country singer, but that’s another story). The political turmoil of the 1970s is also well on display here, too. But you know, the 1970s political unrest movie has been made before. And no one else set it in Nashville, Tennessee.
For good reason.