An American Listening Crisis, in Nashville

Kyle Smith

Robert Altman’s artfully entangled epic of the ordinary Nashville is one of those “What the hell is going on here?” films. It beguiled critics in 1975, but if anything it’s better suited to today, when audiences are used to being presented with cinematic challenges that may strike ten different viewers ten different ways. What is this film? A “bone-dry political satire that feels like a documentary” is one standard answer. But I think politics are secondary to Altman’s Nashville vision, an effect rather than a cause of (some of) our troubles. Today the film is labeled prescient for the wrong reason: It’s not the presidential contender who seems up to date but the way everyone around him gets caught in a highway pileup of miscommunication. Nashville is closer kin to Babel than Bulworth.

Spoilers follow. Playing on the big screen at New York City’s Film Forum from September 20 to September 26, Nashville casts its eye over the mostly nonpolitical habitués of the country-music scene as Tennessee prepares for a presidential primary amid excitement about a third-party candidate who has won three states already. At the time, Tennessee was a swing state and a bellwether; we’re told, accurately, that only once in the previous 50 years did it fail to vote for the winning presidential candidate. (In 1960 it went for Nixon over Kennedy). In 1975, Tennessee was Florida.

The film’s mysterious, unseen populist candidate of “the Replacement Party” is Hal Phillip Walker, whom we meet only via a van that blasts out his strange ideas over loudspeakers. Over the years, the Left has chortled that Hal Phillip Walker anticipated Sarah Palin, Ross Perot, or (of course) Donald Trump, but Walker’s platform is a kind of left-wing anti-elitism for which it would be difficult to cite a real-life analogue. As a newscaster puts it, Walker wants to “battle vast oil companies, eliminate subsidies to farmers, tax churches, abolish the electoral college, change the national anthem and remove lawyers from government, especially from Congress.”

The National Anthem? “Let’s consider our national anthem,” Walker says. “Nobody knows the words. Nobody can sing it. Nobody understands it . . . . I suppose all the lawyers support it because a lawyer wrote the words and a judge wrote the tune . . . change our national anthem back to something people can understand.” Walker’s just-this-side-of-insane ruminations are some of the funniest moments of deadpan humor in the movie, which veers from comic to mortifying to comic to violent in the manner of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, from Altman’s disciple Paul Thomas Anderson.

On the surface, Nashville seems like a cabal of smug Hollywood smartasses having themselves a good laugh at middle America, with its tacky hair, moronic country-western lyrics, and mindless populism. Yet the supposedly sophisticated outsiders in the movie — Michael Murphy as a slick, condescending political consultant from California, Geraldine Chaplin as the clueless BBC documentarian Opal — come off even worse. A case could be made that Opal, an aristocratic Brit who is played by an actress whose father was Charlie Chaplin and grandfather was Eugene O’Neill, is the single biggest fool in the show. Possibly the worst person in it, except for the assassin, is a cool folk-rock singer from New York City played by Keith Carradine. When Altman turned his attention to Los Angelenos, in his even better film Short Cuts (1993), his portrayals were equally harsh. Altman, who died in 2006, was a double or maybe triple outsider: He came from the Midwest (Kansas City), and when he flunked out of showbiz in his twenties he spent years making industrial films, which is why he was relatively old (44) when he finally made it in Hollywood, with M*A*S*H (1970).

Along with Walker, the other central figure is Barbara Jean, a spoof of Loretta Lynn played as an exhausting drama queen by Ronee Blakley (who received an Oscar nomination). It’s a comeback moment for Barbara Jean, who was (this may be the funniest line in the movie) “tragically burned in a terrible accident involving a fire baton.” No doubt she received a sympathetic note from the family of Fawn Liebowitz. Her real problem is that she’s nuts: She comes unglued in a concert that devolves into her loopy ramblings. Her addled monologue — again, just this side of sane — is the connection between her and Walker, and these two are indelibly linked when, while performing in front of a large banner promoting Walker’s candidacy, she is shot by an assassin. It’s unclear whether her murderer hates her or Walker; maybe they’ve become joined in his mind.

Walker isn’t so much a satire of populist inanity as he is of what Altman and his screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury pinpoint as a great American vice: People talking without listening. Altman’s trademark was to hire a sprawling cast and set them to talking over one another, but in Nashville the point to this is expanded beyond mere naturalism. Again and again, his characters speak to nobody (Opal does the most hilarious job of this when she wanders a car graveyard and a school-bus yard composing mad soliloquies) or don’t let others speak (the assassin’s mom’s yakking on a phone call, which causes him to hang up on her in frustration, seems to set him off), or go unheard, or fail because they don’t listen. A series of musical acts find themselves performing right next to an active racetrack, so nobody can hear them, and they probably can’t even hear themselves. The frightful singer Sueleen (Gwen Welles) gets humiliated when, failing to hear her own terrible voice, she doesn’t understand that she has been hired as a stripper, not a singer. Mary (Cristina Raines), the rock singer who is cheating on her colleague and husband with the third member of their trio, Tom (Keith Carradine), says, “I love you” repeatedly to him when they’re in bed together, but he is either asleep or pretending to be, and in either case not listening. Linnea (Lily Tomlin, also Oscar-nominated) is perhaps the most dedicated communicator in the movie — she works cheerfully to make connections with her two deaf children via sign language and speech coaching — but her kids are the only ones who aren’t deaf to her needs. Nashville is a portrait of a country where people make all sorts of sounds but nobody is hearing anything.

As for Hal Phillip Walker, at no point does anyone appear to be listening to his nutty ideas (“You ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he?”) To underline how little his words matter, when his van pulls into a garage and the door slams behind it, his voice just keeps going. Is it Walker’s ideas that have appeal or merely his existence, his attitude — what today we’d call his “brand”?

Unusually for an auteur, Altman was the opposite of a control freak: To explore cacophony, he created one, not only by having everyone talk over one another but by having his actors write their own songs and improvise much of their dialogue (which is why Tewksbury’s contribution to the film tends to be underplayed). Opal’s mad monologues are improvised, as are Pearl’s thoughts about why she voted for JFK: Evidently she is Catholic, and she considers those who opposed him bigots, but in the same breath reveals she is equally bigoted against non-Catholics. The pretzel logic of hate — I hate you because I assume you hate me — is very 2019. Can she even hear herself? Can any of us? Nashville thinks our political quarrels are downstream of a listening crisis.

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