If you have seen Robert Altman's film Nashville (1975) and did not like it, do not (do not) tell me about it. I have ended more friendships with people over this movie than I have over politics, religion, or pets. Some friendships survive as mere shells of what they might have been had I never known the person's cinematic tastes. I can think of only one strong friendship that outlasted a difference of opinion over this movie--and, as much as I would like to say I mostly respect this friend for her honesty with me over what she knew was a sensitive subject (I do, I do in a way), I have to admit that, deep down, something was lost that night long ago. If you do not think Nashville is a good movie--let's not even mention its greatness--and you tell me so, then at the very least, the most minimal repercussion will be that I will never give a rat's ass what you do consider a good movie.
I do not relish being a petty man. I feel reduced by my extreme allegiance to what's just, let's face it, a movie. I am even surprised at myself--even now, 36 years into my fandom--when I feel a person's rejection of this movie as if it were a knife wound. I'm not saying I am right to feel this way. I'm not saying it makes sense by any standards of decency or good taste. I'm just saying what happens--and let me say that no reason or excuse ("I respect country music," "The ending's too pat," "The humor seems stale and the timing is off") mitigates the sickening coldness I feel (personally!) at such a rejection.
I must have seen this movie fifty times or more in my life. The first time I saw it was a matinee in Miami with my old friend Luis, who had the good sense to love it nearly as much as I. It was a sweltering day, so we went inside even before the previous showing was over--thus we saw the "surprise ending," seconds after the screen-filling image of the American flag, as seen above, before sitting through the showing we'd paid for, as rapt as if we didn't know what was about to happen. The truth is we didn't. Plot and story arcs are not what the movie is about--and this many years later I still can't tell you what it's about--not with authority. Mind you, I can say a lot about this movie, but nothing--no one thing and no combination of things--entirely explains for me what the movie does for me. After the initial viewing, I came back the same evening and bought another ticket and watched it again. I must have have seen Nashville ten times in theaters in 1975.
I bought the two-tape VHS version when it came out, and the only reason I ever bought a DVD player was that I'd read that a digital Nashville was soon to be released. Over the past ten years, I have thought perhaps my ardor for the film has waned. I have let as much as two years lapse between viewings, thinking, based on memory, that the cinematography is not good, the acting styles clash, there are continuity errors (I have seen the movie enough times to notice them all), so maybe I've been overreacting to what is, let's say, just a very "interesting" movie in a certain style that had its moment back in the 1970s. Admittedly, a good part of it is I'm spooked by my fervor for this movie. I no longer recommend it to anybody. One of my worst moments in teaching was when, in a History of Film class at Savannah College of Art and Design, I tried to show and analyze the film, and some kid in the back row--whom I never liked anyway--said, "So this is supposed to be a great movie?"
Ouch. It still smarts to remember that.
This weekend I found the way to manually control brightness and contrast on my widescreen TV and Blu Ray player to optimize the comparably slipshod (dark and murky in spots) disk Paramount released in 2000, and I watched Nashville again after the longest hiatus yet. I was awestruck all over. Tears come to my eyes--not because it's sentimental (it's not) or sad (it has its sad parts)--but because I am struck (still!) by the sublimity of this movie. I think it was Pauline Kael (who loved the movie and spurred its good reputation among critics and cineastes--a reputation I knew nothing about until well after my first experience of it) who said that once you've seen a movie three or more times, it's not the movie doing the trick for you--it's something inside you that's rising up independent of the movie. Be that as it may, the movie does something to me I cannot sum up in words.
Sure, it elicits memories of Luis and of my being twenty-two. That's part of its appeal for me, certainly. Its portrayal of a reality I knew--particularly the "Amazing Grace" number in a Southern mega-church, just like the one I belonged to--impressed me deeply--and triggered a long process in me that eventually led to liberating advancements in my life philosophy. Its symphonic drawing together of disparate motifs--women, guns, politics, celebrity, automobiles, religion, the seldom-mentioned American class system, music, regional stereotypes, grace, sex, racism, the mass media, money--still amazes me. The many acting styles on exhibit--Henry Gibson, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty, Keenan Wynn, Julie Christie, Lily Tomlin, Ronee Blakely, Timothy Brown, Allen Garfield, Robert DoQui, Geraldine Chaplin, Barbara Harris, Shelley Duvall, Scott Glenn, Barbara Baxley, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Murphy, Dave Peel, Bert Remsen, Gwen Welles, Cristina Raines, David Arkin--from the comic to the tragic, from the hammy to the deadpan--all blended as a kind of Boschian preamble to America's overhyped bicentennial (right after Watergate, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and the first clear signs since the 1930s that the American economy was near collapse).
I have read the books about this movie and enjoyed them, but none of them explained how this movie has come to fascinate me every time I see it. I saw Star Wars twice. I saw E.T. just once. I didn't get Titanic. I couldn't sit through the first Lord of the Rings movie in its entirety even once. I'm not prone to enthusiasm, but Nashville gets under my skin--and though it's snarky, misanthropic, and anything but "feel-good," it elates me every time I see it. It changed my life--and it seems to change it all over again every single time I watch it.