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Review: Altman's career summit revisited

The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece
By Jan Stuart
Simon & Schuster, 368 pages

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In this story:

'One, I Love You'

'It Don't Worry Me'

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- No doubt, there's a lesson for today's younger generations in watching Robert Altman's 1975 film "Nashville." A 24-character mosaic, the movie was widely hailed on its release as a metaphor for America -- land of opportunity (read: fame); land of politics; land of public murder.

Set in Music City's burgeoning 1970s country scene, the film follows fictional stars, hangers-on and media to create its message. But its enduring power is its prescience. "Nashville" mixes the roles of celebrity and presidential candidate, ending with the startling death of a country music sweetheart. Five years later, life would imitate art in the murder of John Lennon by a deranged fan. Today, certain levels of celebrity ultimately lead to sincere questions about running for office.

Robert Altman wanted his cast -- which included David Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Jeff Goldblum, Ronee Blakley and Gwen Welles -- to become the characters, prodding them to ad-lib ideas from their own lives.

Of course, young viewers raised on "Jurassic Park" might be bored out of their minds with the relevance of "Nashville." The film fits into modern movie genres like Elvis in a tuxedo.

Still, it's relevant enough to warrant a new book -- Jan Stuart's "The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece."

Stuart, a film critic for Newsday and The Advocate, aims to resuscitate the film by following it from its off-center inception through its wild, free-form production, to its widely praised release and nomination for a best-picture Oscar. But unlike "Nashville" killer Kenny Fraiser, who takes aim at American celebrity, Stuart doesn't score a direct hit on his target.

'One, I Love You'

"The Nashville Chronicles" opens where "Nashville" begins. Stuart reports that the movie was inspired by two songs that actor David Carradine performed during a Sunday break in production on Altman's 1974 "Thieves Like Us." It's a nice reminder of a post-'60s era, when music still inspired grand schemes and a filmmaker didn't have to throw in a high-concept twist to sell it.

With this, Stuart winds his way into the world of Altman movie-making, using his own interviews with most of the "Nashville" cast and crew -- Altman included -- to help color the story.

The development of the script, written by Joan Tewkesbury, is particularly enlightening. A metaphor in her own right, Tewkesbury was a divorced mother enjoying newfound freedom when she traveled to Nashville on a research trip for Altman and discovered most of the inspirations for her characters.

Stuart seems to have trouble separating his obsessive knowledge from the reader's lack of it. He often refers to actors by their screen name, buying into Altman's logic that the actor becomes the person they're playing, and vice-versa. With 24 actors and 24 characters, readers might spend too much time turning back to previous pages to recall who said what, and when.

As Stuart points out, just about every female in the film has some trait that's indicative of Tewkesbury's generation of women seeking respect in a male-dominated world.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Which film do you consider to be Robert Altman's career masterwork?

"Nashville"
"Three Women"
"Pret-a-Porter" ("Ready To Wear")
"The Player"
"Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"
"M*A*S*H"
"McCabe & Mrs. Miller"
"Fool for Love"
View Results

But it's the production of "Nashville" that still sets it apart from other movie-making adventures, and makes it worthy of a book. Stuart takes great delight in pointing out Altman's dislike for following the herd. At the filming of "Nashville," in fact, Altman already had established himself as a darkly original -- yet successful -- director with 1970's "M*A*S*H." But "Nashville" would take his from-the-hip style to new horizons.

From the start, Altman had his cast and crew read Tewkesbury's script -- some actors memorizing their every line -- before gathering them at a pre-production party and telling them that the script wouldn't be followed word for word. Instead, they would create as they went. Altman wanted his cast -- which included Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Jeff Goldblum, Ronee Blakely and Gwen Welles -- to become the characters, prodding them to ad-lib ideas from their own lives.

This, obviously, is a high-risk form of filmmaking, not intended for would-be auteurs who likely will pore over the book. Stuart gladly takes readers on this journey.

graphic

'It Don't Worry Me'

There are vivid moments that make "The Nashville Chronicles" an entertaining read: Altman's odd casting habits; the recollection of the live Opry performance by the actors in front of a capacity Nashville crowd; the creation of an actual presidential campaign that had orders to invade the set when actors least expected it; the crew's bonding over dinners and the theft of a large restaurant decanter; the media sniping that followed an early New Yorker review of "Nashville" by Pauline Kael.

Stuart deserves credit for his research. He leaves no stone unturned, regaling readers with everything from gossipy snippets about who was ogling whom, to contract specifics of actors, to mundane details about sound techniques used to capture the meandering dialogue of multiple characters.

Where the book falters is in its writer's over-enthusiasm for the film. Stuart seems to have trouble separating his obsessive knowledge from the reader's lack of it. He often refers to actors by their screen name, buying into Altman's logic that the actor becomes the person they're playing, and vice-versa. With 24 actors and 24 characters, readers might spend too much time turning back to previous pages to recall who said what, and when.

There's no doubt that Stuart is a fan of "Nashville." He finds plenty of opportunity to praise Altman's work, ultimately calling him a filmmaker with "the aura of a prophet."

Stuart's writing style also gets in the way. While it might carry a flavor of Nashville itself, ultimately his voice is reminiscent of that of a genteel Southern gentleman who likes to hear himself pontificate at dinner parties. Stuart basks in mouthful phrases like "a flair for flimflammery" and "citified, loss-of-American-innocence agenda." After a while, you'd just like your dinner party guest to stop talking so you can eat.

But it doesn't happen. Taking on the subject matter all these years later, Stuart's progress goes serpentine as if he's avoiding an assassin's bullet, himself -- never resting long enough with one story to let the reader enjoy an unhindered view.

  MESSAGE BOARD
graphic What goes into a great filmmaker's career? Can Robert Altman be ranked, as a careerist, with Alfred Hitchcock? Martin Scorsese? Steven Spielberg?
Tell us what criteria you'd say are required for a movie-making career to be called "great."

 

One perks up when reading about the pot-smoking parties and barbecues at Altman's rented Nashville home, when reading about Altman's affair with scotch, when reading about how classic scenes came to life in the maelstrom of improvisation. But most of it reads like official versions of the events. Stuart teases and skips away.

For instance, as President Richard Nixon resigns from office during the production of "Nashville," readers might anticipate an off-the-set subplot that surely existed: actors and crew debating the politics of Tricky Dick. But after teasing the subject in the subhead of a chapter, Stuart only dredges up three-quarters of a page on the event that transformed the '70s as much or more than any movie could.

There's no doubt that Stuart is a fan of "Nashville." He finds plenty of opportunity to praise Altman's work, ultimately calling him a filmmaker with "the aura of a prophet."

The book's concept is worthy. Like the film itself, it attempts to capture dozens of voices to create a cohesive work. Unlike Altman's "Nashville," it doesn't quite reach its destination.

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RELATED STORIES:
A physician heals himself in chaotic film
October 10, 2000
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September 7, 2000
Review: 'Magnolia' -- in Robert Altman we trust
December 17, 1999

RELATED SITES:
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