Nashville in Paris: The Quintessential American Film, as Seen Abroad

On July 4, in France, I felt just how well Robert Altman captured our national character.

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Paramount Pictures

It was by coincidence that our hotel in Paris--an aging, dusty place short on electrical outlets and space in the elevator--was a mere three doors down from the "Grand Action Cinema," a two-screen revival house specializing in American films. But I could not have selected a better location, particularly when I glanced at their posted schedule and discovered a screening of Robert Altman's Nashville scheduled for the following evening: July Fourth, America's birthday. One of our traveling companions had never seen it. Plans were made.

We had prepared poorly for our trip to France. There was not a French speaker among us, and when you visit France all but ignorant of the native tongue, you end up saying merci a lot. Merci, merci. Merci beaucoup. Thank you for your patience, thank you for your service, thank you for not laughing at our strained mangling of your beautiful language, thank you, thank you, merci. Luckily, many of the locals speak English. You will ask if they do, and they will say "A little," but then they speak it fluently, beautifully. They're shockingly modest in their bilingualism, or at least were compared to our party, who had learned four words of French and couldn't stop congratulating ourselves over it. Pardon, toilette, merci, merci beaucoup.

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.

Watching Nashville from outside of that country puts Altman's intentions to the test. Perhaps critics like Greil Marcus and Robert Mazzocco were right; maybe he is, in fact, judging these people, pointing and laughing at them, as we snicker when Haven Hamilton sings his insipid ballad "For the Sake of the Children," or when Barbara Jean tees up another down-home chestnut. But I don't think so--I didn't before, and I certainly didn't in Paris, where the French audience seemed just as willing to accept Altman's 24 characters, with all of their faults and flaws, into their open arms. They are with these people, and with the film, and they gasp at its ending (despite all of its broad foreshadowing). When Haven Hamilton picks up the microphone and implores the crowd, "This is Nashville! You show 'em what we're made of," the gooseflesh rises, and it continues through the heartbreaking sing-along of "It Don't Worry Me," as good a choice for an alternate national anthem as any.

The scene does not summarize or explain the three hours that has preceded it; nothing could. But it is a rejoinder to what has come immediately before--it is a chorus of "yes" shouting down a single "no," an honest-to-God display of that hoariest of clichés, "the American spirit," united in the face of tragedy. It's the kind of moment that usually makes us feel sickened or, at the very least, manipulated. Not in Nashville; in Nashville, we are moved, and exhausted, and elated. Most of all, we are thankful--thankful for a film that inspires those emotions, all of those and more. Merci, Robert Altman. Merci.