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 …

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