Altman's Metaphoric America
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 7, Number 3, September 1977
- pp. 39-42
- View Citation
- Additional Information
(5)Bosley Crowther, Ibid. .p.82. (6)Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film (New York: Columbia University, Teachers College Press, 1967), p. 527. (7)"Dieterle Gives Views/on Historical Movies," New York WorldTelegram, Wed., Oct. 13, 1937, p. 44. (8)The New York Times. May 4. 1944, p. 25. (9)Times Directory. Ibid., p. 75. ALTMAN'S METAPHORIC AMERICA By Leonard Quart Leonard Quart teaches American Studies at the College ofStaten Island, C.U.N.Y. This is his second contribution to Film & Histoiy. With Nashville. Robert Altman has made an epic film using the country music industry as a metaphor for American consciousness and character. Nashville will probably disappoint those who expect the film to shed light on the life of the country musician or the social structure of the industry. For despite Altman's use of Opryland, Nashville's Parthenon, and an occasional real life country music celebrity like Vassar Clements, Nashville's singers are Hollywood actors who write their own songs and never try to convince us that they're even shadows of Hank Williams or Loretta Lynn. A film like Deryl Duke's Payday, with its portrait of a sadistic driven country singer and his self-destructive search for success, comes much closer to the authentic country music ambience than Nashville. But Altman does successfully create a popular culture industry, which reflects, manipulates and pervades American social and psychic reality. In a way, Nashville is a more cinematically complex and subtle Seventies version of Elia Kazan's Face in the Crowd, made in 1956. Kazan's film followed the rise of an Arkansas drifter from jail cell to television super-star and political demogogue. It is a film permeated with the mood of the Fifties-"impotent liberal intellectuals," "a passive, hypnotized public," "desiccated anxiety-ridden ad men," the rhetoric of Joe McCarthy, and television-whose power to sell (without attempting to make any distinction) both dog food, and political candidates and ideologies, is viewed with intense foreboding. Kazan's television industry is open and ready to promote the most dangerous form of demagoguery, and so in the Seventies is Altman's country music industry. Ofcourse, twenty years have brought some changes. The public in Altman's film is more volatile, violent and neurotic and the political ideology being sold is vaguer and more artfully packaged than the right wing pieties that Kazan's demagogue mouths. In Altman's world, the popular culture industry has become more sophisticated and calculating about its self-image. It still uses neo-populist slogans and trades on patriot ism and nostalgia, but its promoters are more 39 self-conscious and cynical, and rarely believe their own sales pitch. Nashville reflects a more alienated , inchoate and urbane society than Face in the Crowd, but some of the same hungers are there. The public craves a tradition, no matter how ersatz) and the performers, success, no matter the psychic cost. And the power of the popular culture endures—even expands and intensifies. The country music scene fits Altman's purpose perfectly. Here is an industry whose invocation of simpler times and feelings has helped its success among people who were never part of its original rural and southern audience. Altman's Nashville turns the need for a past into goo-goo clusters, luxury rustic cabins, and songs filled with false piety and sentimentality. His Nashville is populated by stars, people who want to manipulate them, and those who fantasize becoming them. Most are absurd , self involved, and banal-though at moments even capable ofeliciting sympathy. They are driven by success, empty people obsessed with crowd applause and power. Altman's strength has rarely been in creating complex characters, and here again many of his characters are merely background figures who just blend into the lunacy and pathos, and others are overdrawn caricatures. Still some of the people in Nashville have nuance and depth, and all hold one's interest. Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is insidiously paternal, diminutive and vain, with sequined cowboy suit, passive son in tow and overweening energy and ambition. Barbara Jean (played beautifully by Ronee Blakley, the one performer who can truly sing) is Nashville's heroine, dressed...