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Criterion Collection: Nashville | Blu-ray Review

Robert Altman’s Nashville Criterion Collection Blu-ray coverRobert Altman’s Nashville resurfaces for the home video market in a nicely packaged DVD/Blu-ray combo set from Criterion. A Best Picture nominee from 1975, this sprawling satire both lampoons and laments the American Dream, which was beginning to show signs of serious leakage – if not outright rupture – by the mid 1970s. An American president, who two years earlier had been reelected by one of the largest margins in the nation’s history, had just resigned in disgrace while a long, bloody and bitterly divisive war had been revealed as corrupt and pointless. Yet, to the array of hopeful goofballs in Nashville, America was still the land of opportunity; its dark and dank country music venues the key to quick fame and easy riches.

As conceived by Altman and writer Joan Tewksbury, everything about Nashville is larger than life. From its massive melange of roughly two dozen principle characters to its firmly tongue-in-cheek hillbilly anthems to its 160 minute running time, the film’s contours present a distinctly Americanized vision of Grand opera. Nashville’s loosely spun web of plots and subplots, narrative motifs and leitmotifs, establish, develop and turn back on themselves like a slow motion kaleidoscope of post-Vietnam Americana. In Altman’s oeuvre, there are no such things as starring or supporting roles but rather a swirl of eccentric egalitarianism, with box office heroes sharing full screen time with below-the-line nobodies. This populist approach extends to the storytelling as well, as tales of the rich and famous fully commingle with the lives of lonely drifters and talentless wannabes.

In the early reels, Nashville’s hulking batch of characters and leisurely, off beat rhythms create a delightful sense of disorientation; like a Godard film from the 1960s – complete with a massive traffic jam – relocated to a red state. But viewers will soon find themselves seduced by Altman’s sprezzatura, for within the complex narrative juggling there are comedic joys aplenty. In grossly oversimplified terms, Nashville eventually settles down to the story of a political operative (Michael Murphy) attempting to sneak some celebrity endorsements for a shadowy third party presidential candidate named Hal Phillip Walker.

Meanwhile Walker, who is never seen, rides around town in a van equipped with loudspeakers espousing his unique political philosophy; an odd sort of liberal libertarianism. Within this construct, characters and story-lines flow in and out of the film’s meandering currents. There’s an established Loretta Lynn-esque superstar (Ronee Blakley) on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a dodgy BBC journalist (Geraldine Chaplin), a visiting self-absorbed rock star (Keith Carradine) who pursues the wife (Lily Tomlin) of another Walker operative (Ned Beatty). Also in the mix are a mysterious fiddler from Ohio (David Hayward), an aging crooner (Henry Gibson) who doesn’t realize he’s over the hill and a tone deaf waitress with dreams of stardom (Gwen Welles). And that’s barely scratching the surface.

If Altman was intimidated by the sheer enormity of his canvas it doesn’t show. To simply derive a coherent movie – much less a splendid one – from this mountain of material is an example of consummate filmmaking skill. Aided greatly by his patented technique of overlapping dialogue, Altman was able to create characters of depth and richness in relatively short scenic bursts. Truth be told, Altman’s audio layers have often been more impressive technically than aesthetically; the process allowing actors to indulge some of their worst instincts. But the world of Nashville exists in such a skewed corner of the universe this barrage of banter has an authentic buzz. The outsized but needy egos that haunt Music City never listen to anyone else anyway.

Disc Review

While never a visual feast, Nashville looks quite good in Blu-ray. Criterion’s 2.35:1 transfer is clean and sharp with a suitable amount of grain for a mid-1970s color negative. Shadows are bit closed off and murky, but that was also the case on the original release prints, so obviously the issue lies with the source materials. There are a lot of low light scenes and night exteriors and overall the colorists have retained a good balance while finessing these contrasty settings.

A 5.1 track has been created for the disc; a logical decision given Altman’s love of complex audio. The experience is immersive without drawing too much attention to itself. Considering all the sound elements in play, the mix works well at keeping important dialogue front and center at all times.

Audio commentary featuring director Robert Altman
Recorded in 2000, the late director’s commentary doesn’t go deeply into Nashville’s sociological significance, favoring instead a nuts and bolts look at the daily challenges faced by the production. Altman saw Nashville chiefly as a musical, and he discusses the importance of finding good actors with musical talent. With critical help from the mayor’s office and local TV stations, Altman was able to have a virtual free reign over the city, filming at any locale that caught his eye. He discusses in detail the lives and careers of his principal actors, many of whom he had known for years and considered them his stock company. Altman describes his sometimes difficult relationship with Barbara Harris who, after a screening of the dailies, declared Nashville “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” The commentary offers insights aplenty on the perspiration vs. inspiration side of filmmaking, and anyone interested in pursuing a career in this area will benefit from Altman’s anecdotes and experiences.

New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with actors Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Allan Nicholls, and Lily Tomlin; screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury; assistant director Alan Rudolph; and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed Altman
The magnum opus of the supplements, this 71 minute analysis will give viewers a thorough grounding in the creation, production and legacy of Nashville. Centering on the recollections of Tewkesbury, the film’s unique genesis is presented, including a number of trips she made to Music City to research the ordinary lives of its citizens. Several of the actors discuss their relationship with Altman and some of the techniques he used to help them establish character. Interview footage is interspersed with scenes from the film, creating an involving and well paced program. The supplement ends with thoughts and impressions of Altman from the interviewees, and it’s clear the director’s passing has left huge and poignant voids in their lives. This supplement is highly recommended.

Three archival interviews with Altman
These interviews from 1975, 2000 and 2002 touch on many aspects of Nashville and other works from Altman’s filmography. We learn that Nashville was nearly scraped after Thieves Like Us flopped, but Altman bravely ventured on, acting as his own producer. Eventually United Artists, who had just purchased a country music record label, became involved in hopes that the movie would be synergistic with their new endeavor. Altman discusses Lily Tomlin’s Oscar nomination and his admiration of her abilities, along with many others in his stable of actors. With a combined running time of 48 minutes, there’s a lot of overlap and redundancy in the three interviews. However, in a priceless moment, Altman cogently describes while he never pursued big budget films: “When you go after big money, you have producers all over you like flies. I never wanted to be covered in flies.”

Behind-the-scenes footage
This video only segment consists of what appears to be Super 8 footage of Altman and his crew filming the traffic jam and Parthenon scenes. The images are soft, grainy and not particularly pleasant to look at. The supplement runs 8 minutes and most viewers will find it of little value.

Demo of Carradine performing his songs from the film
Recorded at Altman’s office in Los Angeles, this supplement features Carradine performing three songs from the film on solo guitar. A selection of still images from Nashville accompany the audio. 12 minutes.

A booklet featuring an essay by critic Molly Haskell
Haskell’s essay entitled America Sings builds a compelling – if slightly overstated – case for Nashville’s place among the great American films. The 16 page booklet also includes credits and notes on the transfer, all presented in a Jasper Johns style pop art design. This Blu-ray edition also includes the film on two standard def DVDs packaged in an attractive gift box.

Final Thoughts

In 1975, the scruffy, bourgeois burg of Nashville, Tennessee could be reasonably considered America in microcosm and, as Robert Altman intended, an excellent setting for a satirical skewering of our national foibles. Sadly, that is no longer true. The red/blue divide of America has widened and deepened in the intervening years and, viewed with today’s eyes, Nashville seems more like a quaint capture from a time before paranoid anxiety overcame so many of our southern politicians. But the film still works as a highly entertaining human spectacle, which was also Altman’s intent. After the film’s violent, all-too American climax, the great Barbara Harris leads a large crowd in singing “It Don’t Bother Me,” a bluesy ode to obliviousness. In today’s 3-D, zombie crazy world, a movie like Nashville would likely never be made. And that’s something that really should bother us.

Film: ★★★★ Disc: ★★★★

David Anderson is a 25 year veteran of the film and television industry, and has produced and directed over 2000 TV commercials, documentaries and educational videos. He has filmed extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean for such clients as McDonalds, General Motors and DuPont. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Reygadas (Silent Light), Weerasathakul (Syndromes and a Century), Dardennes (Rosetta), Haneke (Caché), Ceylon (Climates), Andersson (You the Living), Denis (35 Shots of Rum), Malick (The Tree of Life), Leigh (Another Year), Cantet (The Class)

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