A Meditation On The Enduring Importance of "Nashville"upon the Occasion of Robert Altman's Lifetime Achievment Oscar (part I)
My friend Tim Welch (one of the best American drummers of the last 20 years) makes the claim that Robert Altman's "Nashville" is the finest American movie ever made. I believe he is correct. When he first expressed this opinion I admit I considered it another blustery partial truth typical of a percussionist. "Better than "Citizen Kane?" I asked, better than "The Godfather" or "Bonnie and Clyde" or "North by Northwest" or "The Bride of Frankenstein"?
His succinct answer was: "Definitely."
Over the years I have come to decide that he is correct.
In 2000, before 9/11 made America once again aware of its fragility, a man named Jan Stuart wrote a thoroughgoing essay on "Nashville" in the form of a book called "The Nashville Chronicles," published by Simon and Schuster. Stuart was prescient in the same way Altman was. He sees in the film a veritable Rosetta Stone of information regarding the entertainment and political solar systems that light American society. If the term "American Film" requires, by definition, that the film be not only made in America but also somehow ABOUT America, then Stuart seemingly agrees with Tim. He seems, in his book, to consider "Nashville" certainly the most EXEMPLARY American film ever. And, again, he is correct.
The important points I make here are largely the result of Stuart's research and Welch's love. My own observations on this phenomenal film add a minimal insight that pales in comparison to that of those whose work I've digested.
Let us start with the film's relevance to events of today. Let us start with the cynicism and disillusion that coats our modern politics like an oil-soaked blanket. Let us start with Hal Phillip Walker -- which is where "Nashville" starts. The droning, non-sequitorial voiceover by the invented candidate was actually written by a semi-politically-connected Southerner named Thomas Hal Phillips. Altman was pals with him. His "speech" is the film's frame.
"We have some problems," his deceptively folksy voice intones. "I know something about money because I never had any until I was 27." It's not to difficult to tell that this Altman depiction of Middle America ("the Red States" in today's parlance) is meant to be satirical and comedic; only the dumbest of dumb Americans can fail to see that the film is essentially a joke, a parody. And yet the charicature is so savage that it is easy to see why the good citizens of Nashville were horrified by the final cut and why they felt insulted. The great Wim Wenders (who at one time was married to ) has said that "Nashville" is a film about noise. It's noisy, certainly, but "Nashville" is actually a film about democracy; dysfunctional, messy, democracy.