One of the greatest gifts of the medium of film is the ability to create fictional worlds so filled with texture, personality, and character that they seem almost enterable. Your first thought might be of something like, say, Star Wars, and that is certainly a fantastic example, but this applies just as well to real world places: Bedford-Stuyvesant in Do the Right Thing, 1940s New York in The Godfather, Casablanca in, well, Casablanca. Despite being in the same country, the city of Nashville, Tennessee seems as alien to me as Star Wars’s Mos Eisley, but one of the great wonders of Nashville is how, by the end of its 160 minutes, the city feels as familiar as home.
It’s impossible to assign Nashville any sort of specific “plot.” The film follows 24 different characters (yes! 24!) over a course of five days, connected through subtle strings, the most prominent being the campaign of Hal Philip Walker (never seen on screen), a third party candidate who recalls the spirit of every third party in America’s history. Walker’s campaign organizer John Triplette (Michael Murphy) is trying to bring together a country music concert featuring all the city’s biggest stars, and it is in this way that director Robert Altman leads us from character to character. A lesser director would have made this an obvious stylistic device, an opportunity to show what a talented director he is, but Altman does it with such subtlety that the effect is naturalistic; he makes us feel as though we’re experiencing real life.
Calling Nashville “character-driven” is an understatement. There is almost no plot, nor real plot points (I can think of two, maybe three significant things that “happen” over the course of the movie), but this is not bad. In the absence of any plot to make characters grow and change, we are presented with a film that is essentially a character study of 24 characters (with varying levels of depth, of course). If you’ve ever been bothered when a movie tries to develop a character before their initial personality has been established, this is the movie for you. By rejecting a conventional plot, Altman is able to show us the depth of his characters just as they are.
And what characters they are! The characters in Nashville hit the perfect balance between eccentric and human, making them both fascinating and sheer fun, but never break our suspension of disbelief. Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a rigid, smarmy old country star who looks like he raided Vegas-era Elvis’s closet. Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is a country superstar who presents herself as the epitome of the friendly, lovable, pop star, and is constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her husband, Barnett (Allen Garfield), is her opposite; brash, short-tempered, and the absolute wrong kind of person to handle her private outbursts, but reveals his love for her over the course of the movie. This is how Altman builds interest despite the minimal plot; the characters (except for one) do not change, but our perceptions of them do.
There are others: Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) is a waitress dreaming of becoming a country singer, despite the reality that she is a very bad singer. An insufferably condescending reporter from the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin) orbits around significant events, and is often inadvertently responsible for drawing out the inner feelings of the characters she interviews. The folk rock trio Bill, Mary, and Tom (Allan F. Nicholls, Cristina Raines, and Keith Carradine, respectively) are a bit out of place as the only non-country band in the area, but that is the least of their problems, as Mary is cheating on Bill with Tom. Tom, on the other hand, is cheating on her with several different women, but he is in love with long-suffering housewife and occasional gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin). You see how complicated this gets. But don’t worry, names aren’t important. By the end of the movie, I knew practically none of the characters’ names, but it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment at all.
Robert Altman emerged as part of the “New Hollywood” movement that also produced greats like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. Altman created films filled with uniquely memorable characters and unmatched atmosphere. There is a slew of directors famous for being domineering, demanding, and outright cruel to their actors, but Altman is famous for being unusually kind; it is said that throughout his career, he never got angry at an actor. Only a man with such an unbridled love for humanity could have made Nashville.