Robert Altman's satirical Nashville is presented the way it should be
The DVD of Nashville is a godsend, the first time it has been available on home video in its original widescreen aspect ratio. The VHS and laserdisc were not widescreen -- they were emasculating pan-and-scan -- but after 25 years, the DVD format finally restores the films integrity.
In June 1975, Americas two most popular news magazines ran cover stories of two films that were competing for the direction American movies were going to take. The cover story of the June 23 issue of Time was devoted to Jaws, a new kind of blockbuster, and a week later the cover story of the June 30 issue of Newsweek was devoted to Nashville, an idiosyncratic, personal film.
Recently, a film professor I know of showed both films as the final two films in his course. His students loved Jaws; they hated Nashville. They thought the latter was slow and boring. Why did they debunk this film, once regaled on the cover of Newsweek and nominated for an Academy Award as best picture?
Nashville is a political film, and times and politics change. In the present stewardship of George W. Bush, it may be hard to relate to a film that came out of a fomenting, chaotic, combative time. In 1975, political assassination was a stinging memory in America.
The Robert Altman film is a satire, and in 2001 satire is a form that has been overwhelmed. Can satire even exist in a world of "Survivor"? Nashville is a panoramic vision of America and its values represented by 24 fallible characters who are seeking fame and fortune in the "Athens of the South."
It is multi-layered. The conversations -- many brilliantly improvised -- drift and dart and collide. Altman forces the audience to be active, to listen and interpret. In almost every frame, there are multiple discussions going on that invest the film with meaning. There are jokes that are so quick and audacious, they are gone before we laugh. One of these occurs at a raceway. Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) has watermelon in his hand and Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) has lettuce in hers. Black singer Tommy Brown reaches for the lettuce, not the watermelon.
The DVD has a 12 minute interview, and a running commentary, featuring Altman. In the interview, he singles out Geraldine Chaplin, who plays the fatuous correspondent from the BBC. "I'm madly in love with Geraldine," he enthuses. "I have been for years." Altman also says when John Lennon was shot, he received a phone call from the Washington Post asking him if he blamed himself for Lennon's death since Nashville had ended with the assassination of a singer. Altman says with a slight smile that he answered, "You might blame yourself for not listening to me."
The commentary's most touching moment is when Altman talks about how Tommy Thompson, an assistant director on Nashville, had died suddenly the day before finishing Dr. T and the Women, on which they both were working. "It was a big, big blow. He was my closest friend," he says sadly. "There's nobody like him."
The DVDs format is widescreen anamorphic -- 2:35:1. The interior scenes are extra dark. The definition is not ideal, but it never was with Altman. The sound has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and conveys the music effectively, though the dialogue overlaps and often is not distinct, but that is Altman's technique. One of the most useful things about the DVD is the subtitles in the black under the picture accompanied by Altman's running commentary. They clarify the song lyrics, the overlapping dialogue and a candidates political speech that comes from a soundtrack throughout the film.
The DVD verifies that Nashville is a classic. Robert Altman's unique voice and widescreen vision prevail.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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