Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mr. A


Eleven years ago today I got to wish director Robert Altman a happy birthday while he was shooting The Gingerbread Man in Savannah.

I was teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design at the time, and catching sight of the film crew assembled at Forsyth Park after class one day, I stopped at home and picked up my puppy, Ripley, for a walk in the park and a look-see.

Half of the park was cordoned off for the day's shoot, but one of the security people saw Ripley (cutest puppy in the world) and let us slip by the yellow tape. Successive circles of human insulation gave way to the charms of the puppy, and before long I was up close to the action, where Altman was directing Kenneth Branagh and Robert Downey Jr. in a scene.

The assistant director approached me and asked whether Ripley could catch a Frisbee, as two teens playing Frisbee were background extras in the shot. Sadly, my dog was not ready for a screen appearance, but I asked whether I could hang around for a bit more because I was a big big big big big admirer of Altman's films. She said, no problem; Ripley and I could sit right behind the director's chair.

Just then, Altman ambled by, and geeky fan that I am, I said, in as matter-of-fact a voice as I could muster, "Happy birthday, Mr. Altman." He turned to look at me, said thank you, and we shook hands. I said, "Your films have meant a lot to me." He smiled and thanked me again, and moved back to Branagh and Downey.

For another hour or so, Ripley and I sat in the grass behind the director's chair and watched the rather boring process of shooting a scene.

It was a moment I will treasure forever.

"Your films have meant a lot to me." With a word change, it's the same thing I said to Don DeLillo a few years ago: "Your books have meant a lot to me." But the compliment was sincere in both cases.

Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville changed my life in ways that I cannot possibly count. It is the only movie I ever saw more than five times while it was playing at theaters. Admittedly, it loses a lot of its impact on TV; even the DVD version is a bit disappointing, but the DVD is the only reason I now own a DVD player (though I do have a fairly ample collection of other films now).

Why do I think so highly of Nashville? Let me, in honor of the late director's birthday, at least offer a few of my reasons.

I love Nashville because it seamlessly combines disparate genres: musical, documentary, epic, social critique, political prognostication, and comedy.

I love Ronee Blakely, Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Chaplin, Barbara Harris, Gwen Welles, Shelley Duvall, and Barbara Baxley, each deserving of the Supporting Actress award only Blakely and Tomlin were nominated for (losing to the equally marvelous Lee Grant for the nearly as marvelous Shampoo).

I love the songs in Nashville, much reviled though they were by Nashville music people and critics at the time. They were composed by the actors who sing them (one, "I'm Easy," won Keith Carradine an Academy Award, the film's only win). Ironically, today the soundtrack album is held in some esteem by performers and fans. Particular favorites are Blakeley's "Dues," "Tapedeck in his Tractor," and "My Idaho Home."

I love Nashville because it captures a specific moment in time (what was then the present, of course) more faithfully and critically than any other movie I have ever seen. Every detail is not only perfectly accurate, which, I suppose, is equally true of any documentary and of many other documentary-like story films, but also clearly judged for what it says about American culture, ca. 1974/75, and integrated into a complex, coherent whole.

I love that Altman set up this complicated narrative (scripted by Joan Tewskesbury) by asking his actors to take up residence in character-appropriate suburbs of Nashville and shot the movie with virtually a documentary film crew. Local non-actors add to the authenticity of the film--the leering crowd of men who cajole Gwen Welles into a strip tease were, in reality, members of the city's Chamber of Commerce. Altman pulled in Elliott Gould and Julie Christie (who appeared in some of Altman's earlier films) to play themselves as disheveled, somewhat callow Hollywood types slumming among their less-hip Nashvillian counterparts.

Of course, when I first saw the film, I was unaware of the techniques behind it, but I certainly felt the effect.

I love the vulgarity of Nashville--which is the vulgarity of American commerce and hype.

I love Nashville because it captures a key moment in American history--post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, pre-disco, pre-neocon--when American show biz was converging with American politics. A time when I was coming of age.

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