It’s said that the residents of the city of Nashville were not exactly pleased when Nashville came out in 1975. Altman’s portrait of the country music capital wasn’t quite what they expected, which raises the question of just what were they expecting? Perhaps they were a little too like the Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) character in the film—the one who knows that Julie Christie is famous and won an Oscar, but doesn’t have a clue what she won it for. After all, a knowledge of Altman’s movies would have offered a glimmer of what they should have expected. Anyone who’d seen his depiction of gaudy, empty, ritualized patriotism in Brewster McCloud (1970) (including Margaret Hamilton literally wrapped in the American flag) would’ve known Altman wasn’t likely to leave the flag-waving, down-home values so frequently trumpeted by country music and the country music scene unscathed.
The fact that Altman’s view of this world is ultimately sympathetic (see pompous Haven Hamilton’s actions at the assassination) or that the sprawling satire was hardly limited to Nashville (see Geraldine Chaplin’s arrogant, ignorant BBC reporter) seems to have escaped certain Nashville residents. Maybe the ease with which some of the film’s characters can be read as certain iconic country stars played into Nashville’s overall reaction (not to mention the apparent ease with which all these Hollywood actors could knock out songs that passed muster as the real thing). Or perhaps what crossed the line was the fact that the film brought the violence of an assassination right to their doorstep. But more likely it was the complexity of Altman’s film that made it easier to focus on these “slights,” rather than process the entire film with its 25 major characters and its less than straightforward narrative.
After all, Nashville was one of the most challenging American films ever made. It still is. The film is almost impossible to synopsize. It doesn’t so much tell a story as it follows a series of seemingly unrelated events over a period of several days—events that finally converge at a political fundraiser. Nashville has been called a snapshot of the era in which it was made, but that’s too limited a description for the sprawling canvas of the film. It doesn’t simply preserve a moment in time; it hints at what led to that moment and suggests where that moment will lead. Even in a filmography as rich as Altman’s, Nashville is a remarkable, towering achievement.