written by Jan Stuart
FFC rating: 8/10
by Bill Chambers Jan Stuart makes it look easy. If that suggests a backhanded compliment, what I mean is that his book, The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece, born of his passion for said "masterpiece," reads so smoothly and is so engaging that your first instinct upon completing it is to run down the list of your favourite films and call a publisher. Stuart has interviewed, with few exceptions, all involved with the 1974 production in some capacity (associate producer Scott Bushnell declined comment because her words have betrayed her in the past; indeed, if The Nashville Chronicles has an antagonist, it's the Lady Macbeth-like Bushnell), and with their quotes he has compiled a linear oral history that begins long before the location shoot (Altman's time in the service) and ends long after: Stuart concludes with his own critique of the screenplay to Nashville 12, the aborted sequel that would've reunited the entire Nashville cast save Keenan Wynn (dead), Dave Peel (born-again), and Scott Glenn (written out because his Pfc. Kelly had such an opaque personality). And that's not wishful thinking, either: The actors were bought and paid for, but creative differences between Altman and producer Jerry Weintraub, aggravated by a contract dispute with Lily Tomlin, won out.
Despite Stuart's early tendency to canonize Altman's every word (he scrounges for this quote regarding Altman's brush with death as an Air Force squadling in WWII: "I heard from people that when something is inevitable, you kind of giggle and give into it"), what emerges is a balanced portrait of the director, whose voice fades into the chorus as the book progresses. (It is, therefore, not superfluous next to the Nashville DVD released by Paramount in 2000, on which Altman delivers a feature-length commentary track.) A bond with Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury seems to override Stuart's Altmania--The Nashville Chronicles stops romanticizing Altman the second his narrative arrives at a crew party preceding the first day of principal photography: "'There's food and drink,' he said with a papa bear smile. 'Meeting's over. You can throw away your scripts. You won't need them.'" Stuart describes Tewkesbury's heart performing "a back flip" at that moment while everyone else "cooed with delight." This was no hackjob script but rather the culmination of months and months of research, blood, sweat, and tears--mostly on the part of Tewkesbury. As usual, Altman dismisses screenplays as "just a blueprint," as if a blueprint isn't a rigid document that outlines, in painstaking detail, the entire structure of an edifice.
What you don't get in this book is much insight into Stuart's adoration of the film. He loves it, loves it period, can rattle off every character's name in his sleep, I'll bet, but late in The Nashville Chronicles, when he calls One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest "rabble-rousing but distinctly lesser" (the Jack Nicholson starrer trounced Nashville at the Academy Awards), it's pure sour grapes; he's not a critic at that moment, but a fan. On the other hand, his judgment isn't so clouded that he's above muckraking--the book positively shines when it pokes holes in the sacrosanct legend of Altman's rapport with actors.
Celebrated for shunning auditions and making the cattle-call as casual as possible, Altman's casting process comes across as truly idiotic in The Nashville Chronicles (Glenn is cast upon telling "Papa Bear" his favourite for the evening's football game) and lives to bite him in the ass, professionally-speaking, in the cases of Allen Garfield and Barbara Harris, both of whom give Altman nothing but grief throughout the shoot. (Same goes for Ronnee Blakley, though it's a given that Nashville hinges on her somewhat brilliant turn as the doomed Barbara Jean.) Altman is also plain cruel to Timothy Brown, who had one of the picture's only speaking parts for a minority in playing a country-western singer modelled on Charley Pride: After seeing that his screen-time has been diminished to almost nothing, Brown confronts Altman and is told, with cryptic contempt, "Well, now you know who makes you or breaks you in this business."
The Nashville Chronicles will be of passing interest to Nashville's critical detractors for a terrific discussion of the ethics of breaking studio embargoes. Pauline Kael's notorious rave, based on a viewing of Nashville's rough cut (which ran 171 minutes, twelve minutes longer than the end product), was printed in THE NEW YORKER four months prior to the film's theatrical debut. Altman's blessing notwithstanding, Kael was taken to task for the buzz-building essay by her jealous peers: Vincent Canby retorted with a piece that pre-emptively assessed movies that had yet to be shot and Rex Reed reserved some of his most acidic bile for Kael in the press.
Where the story behind Nashville is possibly short-changed is in post-production. The mock political campaign that becomes the picture's major motif--engineered off-camera by the miracle worker Thomas Hal Phillips--is discussed at length, yet of the cutting of Nashville, we learn that plans for duelling, concurrent versions (Nashville Red and Nashville Blue) were scrapped, as well as that editor Sidney Levin was axed for having the temerity to challenge Altman's repeated screenings of work-in-progress versions to audiences recruited for their sycophantic pliability. Over fifteen hours of raw material was generated for what became a two-hour-and-forty-minute exercise, and how did that work? Even more frustrating, a television miniseries was to be prepared for ABC by reincorporating the deleted footage--what were some of the potential restorations? I guess it doesn't matter when all's said and done, and to Stuart's credit, there are very few other questions you can ask about Nashville that The Nashville Chronicles can't or doesn't answer. I hope the bug to document a cherished film bites Stuart again, soon. Originally published: January 25, 2003.