7 December 2003 | slokes
Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?
The opening shot of "Nashville" shows a van with a loudspeaker offering platitudes from Hal Phillip Walker, Replacement Party candidate for President and the perfect middleman for the movie "Nashville," which like the never-seen candidate offers a series of apparently disconnected vignettes that touch on deeper truths but remain enigmatic and yet, somehow, substantial and truthful.
"Nashville" is the kind of film scholars champion and no one else watches, which is a shame because it has a lot to offer, and not just to pointyheads. I avoided it for years because of Pauline Kael's iconographic reviews in the New Yorker. If she liked it so much, it couldn't be that good. It was a film where Eastern intellectuals took their shots at country yokels like so many fish in a barrel. Boy, was I wrong.
"Nashville" is an empathic, genuine-feeling soap opera set to country & western music, the kind they used to play before Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks revamped Nashville into Hollywood East. The movie takes a while to get started, and viewers are required to stick with a seemingly random group of characters with the most tangential series of relationships to one another. Over time, however, the vignettes gel into a mosaic of related setpieces that seem to move in tandem, until by the end, they gain a sort of terminal velocity that feels almost like destiny.
There are nearly 30 characters at the center of "Nashville." Some are stars, like Ronee Blakley's fragile Barbara Jean and Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton. Some are wanna-bes, like Gwen Welles' desperate and pathetic Sueleen Gay and Barbara Harris's red-dot-fixated Albuquerque. Some are good-hearted, like Barbara Baxley's Kennedy-loving Lady Pearl and Lily Tomlin's sign-literate Linnea Reese. Then there's folks like Michael Murphy's sleezy politico John Triplette, Geraldine Chaplin's sophistic reporter Opal, and Shelley Duvall's shallow and slutty L.A. Joan, whom one wishes weren't more representative of the human race.
The nice thing about "Nashville," actually the great thing about it, is how we see these people in such depth and richness. Haven Hamilton opens the film as a petty dictator of sorts, running his recording studio like a rhinestone Hitler as his eyes flash and roll for signs of petty trespass, but we grow to like his hokey showmanship and his genuine impulse to entertain and, at the end, see to it Nashville does not disintegrate into another Dallas. He's not a bad guy, he just has bad moments, and virtually the same can be said of nearly everyone in this film.
Is "Nashville" a political film? There's Hal Phillip Walker, and a final act of political assassination, but it seems more cultural. Certainly it's not topical, though a Washington outsider did win the Presidency in 1976. We aren't really encouraged to take Walker too seriously, not with those wild-eyed Walker girls waving placards with their frosted Manson-girl gazes. Is it a satire of Nashville, or Middle America? It's far more brutal when it takes on the smarmy Triplette, or the transatlantic twit Opal, who seem the most contemptuous of Southern values. Talk about not having a clue.
By the second half of the film, we are locked into all the personal dramas and moments of revelation, to the point we feel them more than the characters themselves. Like Linnea's moment of truth at a dive when Keith Carradine's Tom sings "I'm Easy" as a desperate come-on to her, while three other women think wrongly it is being sung to them and react in varying degrees of smugness. Tomlin can't sing gospel, and she's not as funny as she was in "Laugh In," but her reaction to his performance in that scene fully merited her Oscar nomination. Her eyes are Garbo-inert, and her head seems stapled to the wall as she wishes with all her heart this cup will pass her by.
I wouldn't say that's my favorite scene. It keeps changing with every viewing. I really reacted strongly to Barbara Harris's culminating performance of "It Don't Worry Me" after watching the film for the first time just after 9/11, though it does seem a trifle more apathetic than defiant upon reflection. Still, it has incredible power, because it's sarcastic, hopeful, and revelatory all at once. It's also a perfect note with which to end a rare film that manages to skewer and honor its subject simultaneously, yet ultimately manages to find the redeeming goodness in the blackest night.