Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Short Take: Nashville (1975 film)

Nashville, arguably Robert Altman's greatest film, accomplishes what one would think impossible. It's a successful naturalistic satire. Satirical techniques work at cross-purposes with naturalism: they're rooted in exaggeration, and their aim is to heighten absurdities until they're unmistakable. Altman meets the challenge by centering the film on the outsize personalities of show business, specifically the performers and hangers-on in the country-music capital. The film's two dozen characters include the stars, the wannabes, and the various press and businesspeople who surround them. They're already exaggerated personalities, and as Altman shows, human to the core. The character who's the center of attention is the singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), and she's a microcosm of the film's contradictory approach: warmly observed, deeply sympathetic, and an utterly vicious caricature of country superstar Loretta Lynn. (Lynn, a good sport, found most of the portrayal quite amusing.) Altman's open-minded, improvisatory style opens up a world of possibilities. One feels anything can happen and probably will, from the bedroom farce that climaxes with Keith Carradine's performance of "I'm Easy," to the assassination attempt that uncomfortably anticipates the murder of John Lennon. Several of the actors are standouts: Blakely; Carradine; Geraldine Chaplin, who plays a pretentious, fish-out-of-water BBC reporter; Henry Gibson, as the cantankerous Grand Ol' Opry patriarch; Michael Murphy, quietly smarmy as a smooth-talking political operative; and Lily Tomlin, in a rare non-comedic role as an adulterous gospel singer. Most of the songs were composed by the actors who performed them. The screenplay is credited to Joan Tewkesbury.

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