THE DVD SHELF: Robert Altman's "Nashville" and Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine"

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12 Jan 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This month's column screens Robert Altman's 1975 classic "Nashville" and Woody Allen's 2013 instant classic "Blue Jasmine."


Director Robert Altman had already established himself with provocative hits (like the 1970 "M*A*S*H") when he came up with something new in 1975 with "Nashville" [Criterion]: A sociological epic drama featuring an ensemble cast of two dozen overlapping characters in mixed storylines that merge together, usually in well over two hours. "Nashville" is a country and western-infused tapestry of music, show biz, ego, hedonism, provincialism, political extremism, mental illness and assassination — all of which was very much on America's mind during the winding-down days of the Vietnam War.

Viewed from today, "Nashville" is certainly a nostalgic reminder of its period, with an emphasis on unseemliness. Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury were making a political statement back then, but watching the film 40 years later is like peering into a time capsule — an eerie time capsule, for some of us who lived in a decidedly different America.

"Nashville" is built around a fundraiser for a populist third-party candidate for the 1976 presidential election, which occurred a year after the film's release. (Jimmy Carter won.) The candidate is omnipresent — in the form of posters, placards and a campaign truck with blaring speakers — but unseen. Political operative Michael Murphy canvasses the town for headliners to appear in a major rally at Nashville's Parthenon, aided by Ned Beatty, husband of white gospel singing star Lily Tomlin. Prime catches are Opryland stars: Patriotic patriarch Henry Gibson; singing star Ronee Blakley, in between nervous breakdowns; singing star Karen Black, who hopes to supplant Blakley; Keith Carradine, a member of a Peter, Paul & Mary-like trio  who, over the film's four-day span, sleeps with half the women; and Tomlin.

Also mixed up in the proceedings are talentless waitress Gwen Welles, who is forced to perform a striptease at a political function; Barbara Harris, an unfocused stranger who wanders into town looking for singing stardom, and, in the midst of the aforementioned assassination, finds it; Barbara Baxley, who waxes poetic on the Kennedy boys; and Geraldine Chaplin, an Englishwoman who stalks the streets with a cassette recorder purportedly making a documentary with the BBC. Non-music characters mixed up in it all include a young Scott Glenn, as a private on leave from the war; a young Jeff Goldblum, who enigmatically rides around town on an oversized tricycle in psychedelic garb; an old Keenan Wynn, who frets and fumes; and Shelley Duvall, a music groupie who is the cause of Wynn's fretting and fuming. And plenty more.


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