AFI #59: Nashville

I have a love/hate relationship with the late director Robert Altman. On the one hand, he made some films I really loved including MASH, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Fool For Love and one of my all-time favorites The Player. On the other hand, he also made some piles of dung including Popeye, Dr. T and the Women and Pret-a-Porter. He made Short Cuts, in which he pretty much ruined some of my favorite Raymond Carver short stories and gave us full frontal nudity by both Julianne Moore (thank you) and Huey Lewis (yuck). And then there was Nashville, which I watched for the first time this weekend. Nashville makes the AFI list, as does MASH. How can the AFI be so inconsistent?

For me, Nashville was 159 minutes of WTF! I can’t say I hated it, but I definitely didn’t like it. Again, we find ourselves in the early 70s where for some reason film directors feel compelled to shock and confuse us with so-called art. Nashville revolves around a handful of people in Nashville over the course of several days. The characters are interconnected, but it’s not always clear how or why. There’s the aging country singer trying to stay relevant. There’s a television producer working on a concert for a non-traditional presidential candidate (we see vans for the candidate throughout the film and hear his ramblings over a loud speaker but never see him). There’s a gospel singer with two deaf kids and a husband who has political aspirations. There’s a BBC reporter wandering around town interviewing everyone she thinks is important. There’s a young hippie woman visiting home from Los Angeles. There’s a guy who shows up in town to make it in the music business. There’s a woman hiding from her husband also trying to make it in the music business. There’s a beautiful but untalented singer trying to make it in the music business. There’s a young rock band on the verge of breakup. There’s a famous country singer teetering on the edge of sanity. And of course there’s Jeff Goldblum riding around on a three-wheel motorcycle picking up and dropping people off for no apparent reason. You get the idea — pure Altman madness.

The film shuffles back and forth between the characters and the conversations in dizzying fashion. Random people have sex with each other. There are many painstakingly complete musical performances from the characters (awful if you don’t care for Grand Ole Opry style country music — and who does?). I don’t have a problem with the sort of slice of life style of this film in which the viewer quickly bounces back and forth between scenes, but for me the trouble with Nashville lays in the lack of character depth. I don’t have a clue about the motivations of these characters.

WARNING: SERIOUS SPOILER ALERTS

I don’t know why Barbara Jean is so tortured. I don’t know why Tom wants to sleep with Linnea so badly and I don’t know why when they finally do sleep together she simply walks out afterward and he could give a shit despite hounding her for days to meet him and declaring his love for her. I don’t know why L.A. Joan is in Nashville nor why she doesn’t seem to care that her aunt is dying. I don’t have a clue where presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker stands on issues beyond his hatred of lawyers. I don’t know why Elliott Gould and Julie Christie make random cameos as themselves. I have no idea if Opal actually works for the BBC or if she’s just insane and I don’t know why Jeff Goldblum is riding around on a motorcycle and doesn’t have any lines in the film. And most of all, I have no flippin idea why Kenny randomly decides to shoot Barbara Jean! I don’t even know if she’s dead when the film ends. At least in Days of Our Lives we have some context. This is just random weirdness.

I think AFI has its head up its ass on this one. As for Altman, MASH deserves its high place of honor on this list…but The Player is so much better than Nashville. Not even close. Oh, and the Academy Award judges are clueless as well. Nashville was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. It won for Best Song, a slow little ditty performed by that “well-known musical genius” Keith Carradine. Here, see how much of this garbage you can stand:

Next up: The Gold Rush

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