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Letter from Nashville

Dear——,

I’m afraid I’m not the man for Nashville. Maybe it’s because Robert Altman isn’t really my kind of director. Of course he’s very appealing right now—sort of the Woody Allen of drama—but I think that’s so only because he represents a certain failure of nerve. He has a feeling perhaps about the hopelessness or aimlessness of the world which we’re all aware of but can’t quite articulate. Yet I think he glamorizes that failure, makes the crack-up of Middle America, say, as he does in Nashville, more palatable than it really is, almost as if it were a kind of insider’s joke. Nashville, though panoramic, is an extremely cozy film—but never intimate. Even its exposé of the Country Western scene is just that—cozy. Or party-time. That must be what the ads really mean when they say this is a movie “for movie lovers.”

I suspect that the whole Sixties atmosphere—the camaraderie and ideals and moralism and rebellion—come to a strangely indefinable dead end in his films. And because of that he’s probably the most representative Seventies figure that Hollywood has produced. The Seventies more or less opened with M*ASH, anyway. And over the last five years most of his films seem to me to have had an easy insolence, a daring and spunk, an absurdist geniality that are no doubt certainly very tempting to those who’ve soured on the Movement or can’t really connect with politics or changes any more, but who nevertheless don’t want to lose their cool. His films, I feel, tend to float along on an all-fucked-up-but-that’s-all-right-with-me air of self-congratulatory befuddlement, which may very well be what our era, or the last stage of humanism, amounts to. If that’s so, then Robert Altman is right on target. Still, no depth…

His style, I think, is essentially that of realism—though a decadent realism. Gamy and gaudy and finely detailed or textured, but hollow at the center. His employment of that style is done mostly through improvisational tricks and turns (at any rate some of his best effects, especially the comic ones, occur almost effortlessly in that mode; and of course he’s a whiz with actors: loose and intuitive, he always lets them do their thing). But it is improvisatory without a real slant. Altman has no opinions, and certainly no “ideas,” and his concerns, whatever they may be, are buried deep down away from us somewhere in his fantasy chambers. Most of the social and emotional contradictions that animate Nashville are elementary—or gratuitous. Take away the punchy “realism” of some of the scenes, and look at the situations in themselves, and you’d be back with the afternoon soaps on TV. His stories, in general, strike me as merely the old Hollywood romances turned upside down. Inverted clichés. Doctors as bunglers (M*ASH), gamblers as free spirits (California Split), hard-boiled detectives as soft-headed goof balls (The Long Goodbye)—just to mention three of his earlier films which, in many ways, are far better than his latest….

Now I don’t want to come down too hard on Nashville. In fact, if it weren’t getting the hysterical acclaim it is getting I wouldn’t even talk about it. Certainly it is Altman’s most fluid film: here he really does live up to his ideal and lets the film “wash over” the audience, so that we can groove with it and not become introspective or furrowed. It’s staged with bite, has great visual flair, lots of “human interest.” Altman doesn’t climb every mountain in sight. He keeps to a certain beat and usually there’s a great deal of spontaneity about it. But mostly, though, only in the sense that it’s as if you were watching the whole satiric or shmaltzy business as a Special News Event with hidden microphones and cameras capturing the natural reactions and uncensored comments of the protagonists involved. Or as if you had a snoopy reporter really letting you in on the dirt behind the “Glenn Campbell Good Time Hour.” But the dirt in Nashville is so nothing. And as a dramatic device—first the “image,” then the “reality”—it seems to me to have been done to death many times over. By now it would be more of a coup, I think, if you had a film showing us that the “Glenn Campbell Good Time Hour” is the same off stage as it is on stage. That at least would be more shocking.

Ronee Blakley, portraying the darling of Country Western, is more or less the Altman heroine. She has ribbons floating in her long raven hair, wears some sort of white nightie that makes her look like Joan of Arc, and is casually menaced by her fat slob of a husband who looks like the second worst bad guy in an old Tex Ritter horse opera. (This part, incidentally, is brilliantly performed by Allen Garfield, every inch the sadist with a mushy heart. “Don’t tell me how to run your life,” he says as he pokes in his little white basket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Seems to me I’ve been doin’ pretty well so far.”)

Anyway, at a high point in the film, Ronee Blakley is having a breakdown after singing too many songs about mommy and daddy who taught her right from wrong, while her cretin-faced audience, young and old, is getting nastier and nastier, because while they don’t quite dig what’s happening up there on stage, they do know that little Barbara Jean isn’t acting the way she ought. Well, naturally, the juxtaposition of Ronee’s fragility against the brutishness of her fans does have a crude Tennessee Williams flavor, is both bizarre and touching. I thought at any moment Ronee Blakley would become Blanche Du Bois and begin speaking of Belle Reve, the old plantation the family lost. But like so much else in Nashville (and this is indeed a Hollywood film regarder avec méfiance) I just couldn’t take it seriously—the scene was not “real,” it was an effect, an “act,” a show-stopper—and that both literally and figuratively.

Geraldine Chaplin is also around as a dizzy broad from the BBC, the typical affected English intellectual or pseudo-intellectual, apostrophizing to Eternity in an automobile graveyard (symbol of the American Death Wish) or wandering among abandoned yellow buses (symbol of the Yellow Peril). This characterization is drawn extremely haphazardly, indeed farcically, and meant no doubt as a send-up—or should have been if it wasn’t—of trendy London journalism about “alienation” in America. But again it’s trite. The college humor of the Firesign Theatre is wittier by far than most of the boffo “topical” moments in Nashville. Also it’s as if Altman were saying to his audience that of course the downhome folk we’re watching are pretty silly, but look-a-here at these “effete intellectuals.” Now, man, they are really weird…

The film has two interesting counterpoints…if you can call them that. The first is the presence—or actually non-presence—of a nutsy neofascist presidential aspirant, a grass-roots reactionary, the man with his balloons in the sky and his loudspeakers on the road and his “horse sense” about “the red tape and black tape government” and the old truths that never die, e.g., that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This fellow is a sort of phantom political hopeful, I suppose, à la George Wallace. And also a comment perhaps on the absentee politics we now have in America or a suggestion of the “faceless” media-made candidate carried to its ultimate absurdity, since, as I say, this mysterious head of the “Replacement party” never puts in an appearance on film. Just his artifacts are around. Counterfeit representative of the people. Perfect for the forthcoming bicentennial flipflop.

And then of course there’s the extra counterpoint of the Country Western songs, in shiny pop arrangements, highly praised by almost everyone—some quaintly banal, some abysmally banal, a few spirited or sassy, against which the dramatic events circulate, so that we encounter in the stories the opposite of the sweet-as-sugar values the singers are supposed to be espousing in their songs. This is known as dramatic irony. But since the protagonists are mostly the performers themselves, and since, by and large, they seemed to me to be nothing but slick hillbilly narcissists, I found it difficult to become interested in their various plights. Though I suppose it is something to watch Karen Black handing out pennies to her freckle-faced admirers and saying, “That’s what’s so great about America, everybody can grow up to be President,” just as it’s something to watch Henry Gibson as a pint-sized patriarch of Grand Ole Opry singing a little ditty about adultery—“For the sake of the children we must say goodbye”—as if he were bringing his audience the word of God.

Somewhere in Altman’s conception these characters are meant to be “authentic” little people, “sincere” Middle Americans, and yet I had no sense that they had any real understanding of—or even respect for—what they were doing. Except of course respect for being a success, a “performer,” or for going along with their “aw shucks” act. And yet in fact they really do have no other “values” than those they sing about. I mean that’s the only philosophy they know: they are so bereft of ideas, of an inner life; and that sort of poverty, I’m afraid, is a lot to put up with for almost three hours. Barbara Baxley, for instance, Henry Gibson’s “partner,” growing tearful between drinks over the Kennedys (“ain’t been the same since”) simply does not demonstrate any profound emotion. Though indeed she seemed the most thoughtful character around.

You don’t get this, I think, in the “little people” of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Lewis’s Main Street—you don’t even get it in the “mass yearnings” of the old folks who flock to the retirement paradise of Southern California in The Day of the Locust. In his novel West speaks of the “dream dump,” the discarded sets and dresses of the old films which haunt the studio back lots, and it’s through that perspective that the San Berdoo and lizards and oranges and cock fights emerge. What the Altman crew represents—and what Altman wishes us to be beguiled by—is in a sense the dream dump itself—ersatz Americana, Nashville as a “product.” But in order for caricature to work, to engage our sympathy, you have to have a firmly established and different other world for it to be measured against, so that the mockery hits home, the pathos makes sense. But Altman’s world is instantaneous—bright lights and Hush Puppies, guitars and empty people, bits and pieces of psychological traits, stereotypes, in short, that are meant to evoke the way we live now, the contemporary scramble.

This, however, is a false worldliness. And most of the opening stretches of the film reminded me of nothing so much as the New Journalism, kaleidoscopic sweeps and overlapping chatter à la Tom Wolfe or Rolling Stone, while the intermediary close-ups of the performers suggested a kind of La Dolce Vita of the Nashville set, concluding with an operatic ending in the guise of a political allegory that made me think of A Face in the Crowd and The Parallax View and Medium Cool, the film Haskell Wexler made about Chicago. Pauline Kael says that Altman has the most glancing touch of any director since Lubitsch. Glancing is right—glancing at other people’s styles, and glancing at life.

One of the odd things about Nashville is that it has no echoes of the traditions that made the town what it is, no mementos of Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams or Minnie Pearl or even Eddy Arnold. Nothing of the hobos and train rides and loners in the night and prairies and brawlers finding God in barrooms and apple pie. Most of country music, as I understand it, is about losses and coping, about the migrant sorrows of those who left and the feistiness of the others who stay behind and try to make the best of what they’ve got. It’s certainly corny stuff, and I rarely listen to it if I can help it, but at least one always imagines it to be heartfelt. Life, such as it is or was, matters. I don’t get that flavor from the Altman film. Life there seems to be just one more media fantasy. Nobody is vulnerable in any serious way. (Except perhaps poor Keenan Wynn, whose pathetic cocking of his head as dogs do when they can’t quite grasp what’s being said to them made him seem an intruder from another tale.) Altman’s Nashville often struck me, frankly, as being closer to LA than to, its putative locale, the denizens of LA masquerading at a blue grass freak show.

In the theater an elderly lady sitting next to me was asked by an elderly gentleman sitting next to her, “Did you see this picture?” “Why, yes,” she replied hesitantly, “but I didn’t understand it. Something about the South, I think.” And yet that lady I’m sure was thoroughly familiar with the clichés and stock situations she’d been watching, except that in Nashville the clichés and stock situations are turned against themselves, and that must have been what was so puzzling to her. The gospel-singing cheating housewife (tenderly portrayed by Lily Tomlin) doesn’t go and get all gooey with guilt because she’s having an affair, and the invincible stud and cavalier recording star (Keith Carradine) doesn’t have a crisis of conscience because he’s laying everything in sight. And the waify waitress (excellently done by Gwen Welles) who can’t sing a note but believes she can wow the world if only given her golden opportunity, gets her golden opportunity at a political smoker, but is reduced to taking off her clothes to hold her lecherous audience’s attention. And the neurasthenic songstress (Ronee Blakley) who thinks she’s headed for disaster really is headed for it—in fact, she’s shot in the climax that brings the Altman revelries to their conclusion.

The instrument for this state of affairs, however, turns out to be a cliché that remains a cliché. For once again a momma’s boy who can’t tell his momma he really loves her goes berserk and kills a beloved figure at a political rally. Then a stunned and wounded Henry Gibson is led trembling from the stage whining incredulously, “This, is not Dallas, this is Nashville. This kind of thing can’t happen in Nashville.” By which time the wonderful Barbara Harris, with her spellbinding legs and intense pudgy face, grabs the microphone and begins singing the rousing lyric, “You may say I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.” She quells the consternation of the crowd. In fact, they are mesmerized. And then they too join in: “I ain’t free, I ain’t free…it don’t worry me.” It has a joyous sound. But what did Altman mean by this provocative coda? Did he mean we may now await the man on horseback?

Well, enough of this quarrelsome letter. Obviously I’ve been impressed in some way by Nashville, and I’m probably overreacting to it. Certainly it has moments of tremendous vitality—and you can’t resist that. The effect of some of the scenes is like striking pay dirt at Vegas—the big winners being paid off right on the spot. Altman, moreover, has a terrific talent for picking out the perfect physical characteristic to grace a particular character (Tomlin’s husband, paunchy Ned Beatty, all sweat and worry and Southern bonhomie), or for the right slip of the tongue at the right moment, or for the telling gesture or raucous laugh (catch Karen Black’s comment on Julie Christie, for instance, in the nightclub scene). But I still insist that he has no real individuality and surely no inner vision. And I still think that all the vitality up there between his frames is simply a failure of nerve. The failure being in the essential frivolousness of his portrait of an overly extraverted milieu careening to nutsville. America may be full of emptiness, full of tinny, soulless people—but it’s a lot more complicated and unnerving than that. And infinitely more disturbing. Nashville, I suspect, is an artificial high—a symptom of the disease and not a diagnosis of it—as artificial as Ford’s current popularity. Consider a land where until the Mayagüez incident. President Ford was noted for only two things, the real goods—his stupidity and a depressed economy. Now he’s a thomping hero.

I keep hoping, I suppose, for something new and fresh. As far as movies are concerned, anyway, I think we’re really back artistically where we were in the early Fifties, when the people around Cahiers du Cinéma and elsewhere were forming and beginning to say that the emperors have no clothes. Only the emperors now are the sharp new “iconoclasts,” most of them refugees from TV—though to elaborate on that would require another letter.

Best,
Robert Mazzocco

P.S. Just returned from the Stones concert at the Garden…. They have never had the timing of the Beatles, which was always miraculous, both in their publicity and in their songs. And they never had the Beatles’ sweetness. What the Stones went after was vibration—that’s what gave them their own sound. Even so discreet a miniature as “Lady Jane” has a certain buzz in the air. But the days when the Stones were pissing on alley walls and talking about being street fighters are gone. And the anarchic spirit, even the satanic one, is gone too. The raunchiness is still around, of course, only Sunday night it seemed to me more a spectacular frolic than anything else. The choreographed violence of the blazing finale, “Sympathy for the Devil,” for all its cast of thousands (Caribbean blacks), its special appearance (Eric Clapton), its confetti and fireworks, had, nevertheless, a nostalgic mellowing—rather close, as well, to the costume ethic of Cooper and Bowie and Lou Reed. During the “Starfucker” performance, for instance, there rose from the stage a gigantic wavering silken cock, which Jagger kicked and hugged and rode, then sent back down the shoot like a crumpled mail bag.

Of Jagger, Christopher Isherwood wrote: “He mimics, screams, camps, and carries on. And yet, at the same time, the minute you’re alone with him, he’s a very mature person…very interested in Hindu philosophy. I was really quite charmed.” So indeed was the audience. What fantastic rapport exists between Jagger and his fans! The tribal chants echoing from the seats were always fitting accompaniments to Mick’s grunts and wails and hoots. One couldn’t hear the opening lyrics, though, except for the old number, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” By then Jagger had warmed up and was at his best. He suggests a flesh-and-blood struggle with something—maybe himself, maybe the audience, maybe just the antagonistic beat of his songs. Organ, percussion, drums, guitars, amplifiers—everything is driven into that droning omnipresent beat, which grows louder and harsher the older he gets. (Lennon’s “All We Want Is the Truth” has the beat too—but it’s modulated or muted in a way Jagger obviously would never respect.) It’s strange to think that this dainty dynamo, pushing thirty-five, with his pantaloons and lavender jacket, will at forty still be baring his chest, shaking his ass, lifting his leg, and then walking real straight to let you know he’s a toughie at heart. Immortality, I guess, is a serious business.

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