Robert Altman Tag

Review: Nashville

Nashville (1975)

Shot in a city meant to be a not-too-flattering microcosm of the whole of American society on the cusp of the country’s Bicentennial and released during what should have been a celebratory but turned out to be a very flat and bitter, still hung over from the ‘60s, year, everything about Robert Altman’s Nashville screams that this is supposed to be an important film—which is deeply ironic since Altman was rightly known as an iconoclast who openly mocked the idea of important films. And yet he succeeded mightily in creating a movie that was, and remains, important without succumbing to any of the lazy pretentiousness of Oscar fodder.

 

Given all that, Nashville needs to be approached on its own terms; and within the context of the country at the time; and, maybe more importantly, from the vantage of the state of the country today. And that all needs to be done without turning this

review into a scholarly essay.

 

The widescreen (2.35:1) aspect ratio says this is supposed to be an epic, but any action that approaches the epic is treated ironically, and the framing is mainly deployed—similarly to The Long Goodbye but on a much more ambitious level—to capture intimacy; the chaotic intimacy of people alone in groups, but also of people just alone.

 

Altman saw the country rapidly devolving into individuals encouraged to fetishize their own importance, leading to what the French philosopher Paul Virilio called, awkwardly, totalitarian individualism—an overinflated, ultimately fascist, sense of self that at the end of the day only reinforces how unimportant each individual is. This is probably the strongest through-line in Adam Curtis’s documentaries, that Americans keep confusing narcissistic indulgence with freedom—something corporations are happy to exploit because vanity makes people easy to sell to, and that 

NASHVILLE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman’s intimately epic look at the state of society c. 1976, filtered through the lens of the country-music scene. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K HDR transfer restores much of the subtle vibrancy missing from earlier home-video incarnations but is occasionally a tad saturated.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1 mix doesn’t do much to add separation to Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue but does give a nice sense of presence to the frequent performance scenes.

political groups ride just as hard because it creates the illusion of free expression while stifling meaningful dissent in resentment and rage.

 

All of this was just beginning to coalesce at the time Altman made Nashville, with corporations groping toward figuring out how to channel the earnest childishness of the ’60s, guiding it through things like EST, Scientology, Ayn Rand, and Tony Robbins so that when people looked around, all they saw were themselves. Altman got a lot of this right but missed one crucial thing—like a lot of others, he assumed the Carterian malaise would lead to the emergence of a viable third party. What it got us instead was Reagan.

 

Every character in the film reinforces this theme of crippling isolation—and it’s a massive cast—but there’s no redundancy. Instead, each portrait contributes to a mosaic that, when you step back and consider the whole, is devastating. On an emotional level—in a film about the death of emotion—the two key characters are Gwen Welles’ endlessly pathetic Sueleen Gaye and Keith Carradine’s promiscuous troubadour, Tom. Sueleen, hopelessly naive—and dumb—is imperviously optimistic, while the sociopathic Tom exploits the Romantic notion of the wandering minstrel to bed down every woman he encounters. They represented the two poles of American existence at the time, positions that have only become more entrenched, grotesque, and infinitely more dangerous since.

 

Stepping to one side of all the sociopolitical stuff for a second, you have to marvel at the consistency of the performances Altman was able to draw from such a sprawling group of players. It’s almost impossible to single anybody out because everyone gets their standout moments, but it’s worth focusing in particular on Ronee Blakely, Ned Beatty, Keenan Wynn, and the always underrated but strangely compelling Henry Gibson. The weakest link is David Hayward—and it’s not really his fault because he did the best he could with what he had to work with, but Altman’s conception of the lone gunmen was stuck in ‘50s psycho-dramas so he failed to grasp how non-human these emptied-out souls tend to be—ironic since he accurately sensed the same thing in Carradine’s Tom.

 

Nothing in this film is supposed to be beautiful—not in the gauzy Geoffrey Unsworth style admired at the time or the kind of relentlessly smart-ass and ultimately trite compositions we’ve come to idolize since. Like in The Long Goodbye, Altman is going for a deceptive flatness, a grittiness, relying on telephoto lenses so he’s more spying on the characters, having them reveal themselves, than framing them. The “pretty” shots are deliberately vicious, and always tied to Geraldine Chaplin’s clueless documentary for the BBC—the masses of parked school buses turned into a kind of refugee camp and the truly gorgeous in its grunge shot of the crushed and mangled junked cars.

 

That last shot is a good way of judging the quality of the 4K HDR transfer, which for the most part seems faithful to Altman’s visual plan but occasionally wanders off the reservation—especially early in the film, where some of the shots look a little

oversaturated, so traditionally pretty that they border on cartoonish. Not that Altman ever made this easy for anybody, constantly looking for ways to approach the idea of Hollywood movies from the obliquest possible angles, so anyone not completely on his wavelength is inevitably going to make mistakes transferring his work. But the material is compelling enough that you don’t notice the visual stumbles unless you seek them out.

 

Altman was notorious for his overlapping dialogue, which could occasionally lapse into mannerism but works for the most part here. That approach has been so widely adopted since that it really shouldn’t throw anybody coming to the film at this late date. But the 5.1 mix doesn’t seem to do much to improve the separation between the voices. The music is well, but not spectacularly, presented—but that was part of Altman’s point, that feeble, desperate tunes like these are just crap meant to be born off by the wind.

 

I’m probably making Nashville sound heavy and brooding. It’s not. But it’s not exactly light and fluffy either. Altman does a great job of keeping things moving and of creating a pleasant enough surface for people who want their movies to be nothing but bright and shiny distractions. But everything just beneath that surface is troubling, and piercing, and disturbingly prescient. This isn’t the whiny kiddie

Nashville (1975)

darkness of contemporary film. Altman saw how truly dark things were about to become and recorded it all as faithfully as he could. Nashville is a document of a past lost and a future more than earned.

 

I can’t wrap this review up without talking about the ending—not that anything I, or anyone, could say could do it justice. All I can do is point toward it and say that no one has ever presented something this clear-sighted and brutal before or since. Altman managed to perfectly sum up the entire film there—not really narratively, but thematically, aesthetically, and emotionally. It’s all very wry and detached but it had to be because, without that distance, it would be impossible to bear.

 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is one of the best films of the 1970s—maybe the best—and one of the most influential. That last part is ironic, in a way Altman would have appreciated, because there’s no way it can be in any legitimate sense true. Altman and Kubrick created films that came from such an intricate and hermetic personal aesthetic that it’s impossible to build upon them without having the effort result in tone-deaf travesty. That doesn’t mean legions haven’t tried, but all have failed.

 

I asked Altman once what he thought of the fact that The Long Goodbye closed almost as soon as it opened but has become possibly his best-known work. He deflected, with a purpose, saying that his Philip Marlowe fell asleep in the early ‘50s—the 

era of Chandler’s source novel—only to wake up in the early ‘70s, finding that his sense of chivalry was no longer in fashion and could only lead to disaster. Altman’s Marlowe would quickly become suicidal if he found himself transported to our sociopathic present.

 

The Long Goodbye both is and isn’t a detective movie; is an unforgiving evisceration of Chandler’s work and a very heartfelt tribute. It’s so cynical it verges on nihilism while it openly tries to figure out which values, if any, still have meaning. And because it lives both in and outside genre, it gets to feed from both worlds, very much like early Godard. There are very few films that feel this much like a movie.

 

Altman, of course, makes none of it easy, constantly toying with the audience like a sly, somewhat sadistic, cat. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did everything they could to make the film gritty, flashing the footage, flattening 

GOODBYE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman uses Philip Marlowe to take aim at post-Counterculture LA in what might be the best film of the ’70s.

 

PICTURE
The wall-to-wall grittiness of the film’s subversive beauty 
is retained in this Blu-ray-quality HD download.

 

SOUND     

The stereo mix does just fine with Altman’s layered dialogue and John Williams’ laughably good score—this movie doesn’t need surround.

the palette, pumping up the grain. The result eschews superficial prettiness, which tends to be fleeting, to tap into something much more sublime.

 

This is John Williams’ best score (no, I’m not being facetious) exactly because it’s so awful. Williams isn’t known for having a sense of humor so I have to wonder if he didn’t just write a bunch of straight cues, not fully aware of how Altman was planning to deploy them.

 

And then there’s Elliot Gould’s almost non-existent range as an actor, which Altman turns to the film’s advantage by making his Marlowe continually spout lame, often improvised, wisecracks. Altman has everything around Gould do the acting for him, which results in Marlowe coming across as a smug but ultimately lost figure.

 

To add irony to all the other irony, The Long Goodbye probably holds up as well as it does both because it’s Altman’s most genre-driven movie, and because enough of what’s best of Chandler’s work manages to survive the merciless beating it receives here to permeate the film and give it a resonance unique to Altman’s canon.

 

And if all of that is just a little too high-brow for you, watch this movie just to revel in the secondary casting. Sterling Hayden is still astonishing as the washed-up writer on a fatal binge. Just as nobody seeing him as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle could have anticipated his performance as General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, nobody seeing those two earlier films could have ever seen his Roger Wade coming. And yet there’s something at Hayden’s core that creates a through-line that joins those characters in a way that goes well beyond their having been played by the same performer. 

And nobody seeing Henry Gibson on The Dick Van Dyke Show or Laugh-In could have anticipated his Dr. Veringer in a million years. Gibson and Altman conspired to pull off a tremendous practical joke that’s simultaneously, when seen from just the right angle, chilling. It’s that he’s the least likely villain ever that makes him so apt.

 

As for the presentation: How do you judge the image quality of a film that went out of its way to not look very good? To reference my earlier thought, there’s that beauty that comes from aping the styles of the present, which rarely ages well, and then there’s the beauty that comes from staying true to the demands of the material, even if it takes you to deeply unpleasant places. The Long Goodbye is gorgeous exactly because it’s lurid, and because it’s as lurid in the heart of the Malibu Colony as it is in a decrepit city jail. While there’s plenty of Southern California sunshine in evidence, it’s always accurately shown as monotonous or piercing, never pleasant.

 

This Blu-ray-quality HD download does a pretty good job of honoring what Altman and Zsigmond wrought, and you can’t help but recoil in horror at the thought of some culturally myopic tech team scrubbing it free of grain and trying to expand 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

its dynamic range. Still, matching the movie’s original resolution would likely yield huge improvements, and a deft touch with an appreciation for grunge could conjure up something amazing.

 

In a similar vein, should an upgrade someday come, someone should post a sign reading “Hands Off the Soundtrack” on the mixing-room door. This film would not benefit from a surround mix—stereo suits it just fine.

 

The Long Goodbye is the kind of art that appears when you just don’t care at all but can’t help but care a lot. It feeds from a wellspring of paradox and, while it wraps things up, it never really resolves a thing. There are no reliable guideposts. Nothing triumphs; nothing is vanquished. That constant troubling creates an energy that keeps Altman’s film vital and relevant, and impossible to dismiss as simply smart-ass. The result is nothing but a mess, but a strangely elegant one that somehow still rings very true. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.