Winter 2016

American Song

Robert Altman’s Nashville, a brilliantly orchestrated tapestry of national malaise, never gets old. That’s why DGA President Paris Barclay has returned to it over and over again—for inspiration and a guide to great directing.

By Robert Abele

DGA President Paris Barclay (Photo:
Jeffrey Mosier)

"I don’t like to be manipulated," says DGA President Paris Barclay as he settles down at home to watch Robert Altman’s 24-character tapestry Nashville for at least the 30th time. "But with this, it was so subtle and so disguised, it was like an amazing magic trick. Every year, I would watch it, almost like making a pilgrimage."

Barclay remembers being 19 in Chicago in the summer of 1975, his first year at Harvard behind him, his older brother having recently died, and the country in a war-and-Watergate funk. He bought a ticket for what he thought was a musical. "What I discovered," he says, "was a musical, and a drama, and a comedy, and an epic picaresque tale of America. Suddenly I realized that you could not only be transported from your problems into other people’s problems, but also be invigorated about life. The whole idea embedded in it, of America’s promise and chaos and how it heals, sometimes too rapidly, was compelling to me."

Barclay says he didn’t know he would become a director when he first saw Nashville. "But I can’t think of a film that has had more of an influence on how I like to direct than this film, which is the idea that you should be the host of a party at which everyone excels."

The action takes place in the five days leading up to a political rally and outdoor concert with the characters following their own, sometimes overlapping, stories. After a fake record commercial with an announcer introducing the actors, Nashville opens with the sonorous voice of presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker blasting from loudspeakers on a van moving down the street. The campaign becomes a scene-connecting through line in the film, though we never actually meet the candidate. "The things this guy says are totally relevant today, very anti-politician, anti-lawyer," says Barclay. "So Altman’s started with setting a political environment, and the message is: Watch out for the politics of what’s going on."

Recording sessions introduce us to the music culture of the city: self-righteous country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson, whose wig a laughing Barclay lauds as "perfectly wrong"), gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin), and chatty British interviewer/hanger-on Opal (Geraldine Chaplin). With Haven’s irascibility, Linnea’s high-pitched trilling amid soulful black choir voices, and Opal’s loony observations, Barclay notes, admiringly, "This movie is off-kilter already." Then Altman cuts to the airport, where throngs await the arrival of angelic, emotionally fragile country music star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who promptly faints. Barclay takes a moment to commend Altman’s longtime assistant director Tommy Thompson. "He actually put together a lot of the stuff you see, like this sequence and the finale. I love ADs who can take over an airport, control it, and help turn it into art."

Right afterward, a multi-car highway accident allows Altman to drop in on all of his major characters as they wait out the traffic jam, using the eight-track sound system he had invented. Says Barclay, "They’re all stuck on this closed highway, and everyone is miked. This was the first movie where Altman perfected the idea of wire-miking everybody, then choosing whom to emphasize at any time. Altman says ‘Go’ and then sees what happens." Likewise, Barclay adds, whenever Altman cuts away mid-conversation, or adds a close-up to break up the wide shots, it’s a form of tension. "He has a great sense of suspense. He knows you’re going to keep watching as long as he keeps you watching, so he introduces the characters by leaving a lot of questions unanswered."

BIG CAST: Emotionally fragile country music star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) winds up in the hospital early in the film. (Photos: Photofest)

Barclay is particularly impressed by how Altman creates suspense and threads it into the story through the presence of two loners. Scott Glenn plays the quiet, Barbara Jean-obsessed soldier, Pfc. Glenn Kelly ("very ominous, he’s watching everything, we’re thinking this guy’s a psycho killer"), and David Hayward plays Kenny, a violin case-toting "clean-cut American kid, very Howdy Doody," says Barclay.

Later, at the home of Linnea, her lawyer husband Delbert (Ned Beatty) and their deaf children—one of whom is excitedly signing and talking simultaneously about his day—Altman presents a marriage divided. "The close-ups show you the triumph of casting here. The kid is impeccable. He’s telling a story about swim class and really enjoying it, one parent is fascinated, intensely watching her son, and one impatiently waits for it to conclude."

When the phone rings during dinner, a stationary camera follows Linnea from the table to the kitchen to answer it. Narcissistic musician Tom (Keith Carradine) is calling, trying to initiate an affair with her. Altman, sensing a psychological turning point, starts a slow zoom in on Tomlin as her moral sense is tested. "He doesn’t do it a lot, and it’s not a fast zoom, just a focus-on-this kind of control," says Barclay. "That zoom also lets the actors do even less, because something about that encroachment on them allows them to just feel their feelings, and let it play in their eyes, as Lily Tomlin does here. I think he zoomed her into an Oscar nomination." Later in the film, when Linnea quietly succumbs to another call from Tom, and Altman slow-zooms once more, Barclay says, "What’s really amazing is that Altman lets [Tomlin] look almost directly into the camera, breaking a cardinal rule in contemporary filmmaking, but it doesn’t quite feel like she’s looking at us. She’s contemplating [an affair]."

For the Grand Ole Opry sequence, in which a handful of songs are performed in their entirety, Barclay points out at least three cameras going, including one facing the stage and one behind the band showing the audience. During Gibson’s second song, "Keep a-Goin’," Altman introduces Connie (Karen Black)—his last major character and this universe’s biggest star—by showing her in the wings watching Gibson but throwing plastic smiles to photographers she senses nearby. Then Altman pans from her to reveal Gibson onstage (his back to us) and a clapping, adoring crowd. "This is just to show you that it’s all happening at the same time, live and simultaneous," says Barclay. "The singing is all done live. He doesn’t want to show you truncated versions of songs. He shows you the whole song, but keeps the drama going within it. It’s one of the things I’ve tried to do with a show like Glee or Smash. You have the song, but why stop the story? Since this is a movie and not a play, it’s very easy to do that."

Connie performs next, and Altman cuts to her despondent rival Barbara Jean in her darkened hospital room, surrounded by flowers, listening to the Opry radiocast with her domineering husband-manager Barnett (Allen Garfield) as she worries aloud what people think of her. It’s a "top five" scene for Barclay.

"I’m convinced this is three cameras: the two-shot, one on her, and one on him," says Barclay. "There’s this nice two-shot, and he’s not going to go into coverage until he absolutely has to. He’s not an over-the-shoulder guy. I think he knows those feel manufactured." Only when Barbara Jean gets up from her bed, throws flowers in frustration, and sinks to the floor does Altman cut to singles of his actors. "He wants to see the tears. But when calm has come, he restores order with the two-shot. It’s a beautifully cut scene. Nothing extraneous. One of the things I try to teach young directors is, your only goal is to put the camera where most of the story will be apparent to the audience. Not where you think it’ll be a cool shot. Altman puts the camera where it needs to be, and lets it happen."

START YOUR ENGINES: (top) Country music hanger-on Barbara Harris performs at a drag strip before her grand, unexpected finale; (bottom) the film opens with the voice of reform presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker blasting from loudspeakers. (Photos: (top) Photofest; (bottom) Screenpull: Criterion Collection)

Altman’s use of insert shots is rare enough that Barclay notices when he cuts from a wide shot of "mysterious boy" Kenny in front of Walker campaign headquarters to a shot of his violin case, which has a cartoon caricature of himself on it. "Altman’s building suspense again. Why does he have a cartoon of himself?" At the hospital, we learn that Pfc. Kelly has a real, heartfelt connection to Barbara Jean. And later we see Kenny in an agitated phone call to his mother. He’s a runaway who gets nervous when his violin case is touched. "Altman’s made these two characters so mysterious, and now he wants to dim the light on Kelly and bring up the light on Kenny. How interesting that Altman shoots Howdy Doody doing most of the phone call to his mother over his back, making him even more inscrutable."

Back at Opryland, a shaky Barbara Jean descends into incoherent patter mid-performance, and Barclay addresses Altman’s unique approach to actors and dialogue. "Joan Tewkesbury [who later became a DGA director] is the credited writer; she created the characters and the structure, but that structure veered off through Altman’s hand. He would tell people, ‘Ignore the script. It’s there for background for your character, for scenes, and where we’re going to be, but say what you want to say.’ Blakley completely wrote this crack-ass monologue herself the night before. She wrote it and memorized it, and the morning of shooting she said to Altman, ‘Do you want to hear what I’m going to say?’ He said, ‘No, I’ll film it, you just do it.’ The only thing he changed was that she used to do it all as one piece, but he added the musicians starting and stopping the song three times, to break it up a bit."

When Carradine performs "I’m Easy"—which won the film its only Oscar, for best song (it was nominated for four others, including best director)—in a club, Barclay notes how instinctively Altman’s cameras capture each of the four women who thinks the song is about her. "The close-ups are varied, by the angle, by size, by foreground or lack thereof," says Barclay. "I’m guessing he did what great directors do, and cut for performance. He’s wider on Lily, with lots of foreground faces. I love that composition. Lily didn’t need a super tight shot to tell you what’s going on with her—the longing, the feeling of someone finally speaking to her heart. Her whole upper body, even how she’s tucked into the corner, helps tell the story."

The "I’m Easy" scene, all about the power of music and performance, is juxtaposed with one of tone-deaf wannabe Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), who is coerced into a humiliating striptease at a political fundraiser organized by Linnea’s husband Delbert. Then, after we see Tomlin and Carradine in bed together, he shows Delbert dropping off Sueleen and awkwardly hitting on her. Combined, the scenes play like a short film on seduction, and Barclay likens Altman’s juxtapositions to how music works.

THE END: (top) Mysterious loners David Hayward (left) and Scott Glenn, and gadfly Geraldine Chaplin, are woven into the fabric of the film; (middle) Henry Gibson introduces Ronee Blakley moments before her character is assassinated; (bottom) Haywood fires his gun at the stage. (Photos: (top and middle) Photofest; (bottom) Screenpull: Criterion Collection)

"The constant interconnection makes the movie feel shorter. Altman likes scenes that have an emotional part that informs the next scene, like leaving Linnea, going to her husband, then back to Sueleen. In music we call it a common tone. He’ll play a C, then change the chord from C to A flat. It sounds different, but it has this common tone. It has this linked feeling."

As crane shots establish the site of the Walker political rally in front of a fake Parthenon stage set, Barclay says, "You definitely feel, OK, it’s the finale. We’re building up to this last moment. All the characters are going to come together." Sure enough, as Haven and Barbara Jean sing, Altman shows them either making their way through the assembled crowd or lingering on the sides of the stage. "It’s a check-in moment. Everybody’s here."

Originally, Joan Tewkesbury’s script had Walker being assassinated at the event, but Altman decided midway through filming that Barbara Jean would be the one to die. During her lilting song, "My Idaho Home," Barclay points out how the movie has drifted into a slower pace. "But watch how suddenly he does this," he says, referring to the impending assassination. As soon as Haven brings out flowers for Barbara Jean, Altman cuts to a high, faraway angle, gunshots are heard, and we see Barbara Jean fall, followed by a close-up of Kenny firing a gun. "It starts in long shot, and you don’t even see it, until you see [Kenny] shooting," says Barclay. Then the shooter is subdued, and a dying Barbara Jean is carried off stage. The wounded Haven takes the mike, insisting someone sing to calm the crowd. There, ready for her big moment, is Barbara Harris, a fringe hopeful, nicknamed Albuquerque, who is lying on the side of the stage. She begins warbling the movie’s closing song, the aptly titled "It Don’t Worry Me."

Says Barclay, "I love that, Haven hands off the mike, and the camera pulls to her. Movies are so good at metaphors. Barbara Jean sang this homespun American song, and Altman decided that was when she should die. The memory of her song is immediately erased for the people who are there by this upbeat song Barbara Harris sings. It all condenses the way we deal with politics and assassination. Horrible things happen, and we move on."

After assorted, documentary-like pick-up shots of real concertgoers singing along with Harris, Altman cuts to a wide shot. "Now he does a nice little zoom out, and then we tick up to a clustered, cloudy sky with just a little break," says Barclay. "Well, it doesn’t get any better than that."

Another viewing under his belt, Barclay remains awed not only by the movie’s prescience about the culture of celebrity, but also by Altman’s distinctive there-but-not-there approach. "Nashville is very meticulously unstylized," he says. "He’s about creating an environment where it’s all about performance and where the direction is invisible. That is so difficult to do, because everything you do with the camera can draw attention to it. For me the ultimate in great direction is to allow the movie to be a part of you. Don’t have the movie over here, and you over there. You shouldn’t be thinking about the director. You should be living in the experience."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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