Thankfully, the box-office attendant at Grand Action Cinema spoke English and sensed my embarrassment over not having learned to count to two in his language ("Um, two, Nashville, merci?"). He sent us to the "Salle Henri Langlois," an auditorium named after the famed French cinephile and director of the Cinémathèque Française. Plastered across the back of the room is a large photograph of Langlois leaning onto a railing, as if he is watching the film along with you. A French woman picked up a microphone to introduce the film; her introduction was gibberish to us, excepting the heavily accented names and titles ("French French French French Robert Alt-men... French French French French Gosfard Parrk"). Then she finished, and the film began.
I wondered how much of the film would be lost on our fellow moviegoers, as the French subtitles can only translate so much of Altman's famed multi-tracked, overlapping dialogue. I also wondered if it would feel strange to observe this quintessentially American film from the outside looking in. Released in 1975, on the eve of the American bicentennial, the picture opens with the recording of a jingoistic anthem called "200 Years" ("We must be doin' somethin' right to last 200 years!"). It spends a few days in the title city, using the country-music capital as a microcosm for the country, where Altman assembles a large, unruly cast of unforgettable (and indisputably American) characters and caricatures, rotates between them, combines and disrupts them, gathers them together and tears them apart.
The narrative is loosely organized around a series of threads: an upcoming rally for populist third-party candidate Hal Philip Walker (who sounded, in that summer of 2011, alarmingly like Ron Paul), the homecoming of popular but troubled country star Barbara Jean, a BBC reporter documenting the local scene. But as with any Altman film, Nashville is not about plot. It is about moments, moods, emotions, the subtext of a tense silence, the exchange of a loaded glance. It is about the horrible split second when tone-deaf Sueleen Gay realizes that she has not been invited to that sleazy "fundraiser" to sing; it is about the impotent helplessness that Barnett feels as his wife falls apart on stage, the band giving up behind her as she spins off into another pointless anecdote; it is about the terrible longing that married mother Linnea feels as she sits in the audience while Tom sings, it seems, only to her--though a good half-dozen women in the room are sharing the same delusion.
In that moment, Linnea (played by Lily Tomlin, who gives perhaps the finest performance in a film where that is not an easy call) knows what is wrong and what is right--knows how she should act, but also realizes how she will act. Throughout his long and fascinating career, Robert Altman frequently explored the theme of the American identity--how we think of ourselves, who we really are, and the tension between those two notions. With rare exceptions, Altman does not judge his characters for that dichotomy. He loves them both for all they are and for all they wish they were, and he loves them for the space in between. That space is where his films live: The United States of Altman, a wild, eccentric place where the authoritarian establishment was to be sneered and laughed at, where kooks and oddballs were our heroes. It was a vivid, earthy, low-down world, where people talked over one another and the backgrounds were often more interesting than the foregrounds, where women were strong and men were broken, where everything was connected to everything else while simultaneously having nothing to do with anything. He did not stand aloof; he was embedded in that country, invested in it.