In the film classes I take, we are required to write two essays per semester. For the first, we’re given a selection of films and have to analyze a scene from that film. For the second, we pick a different film from the same selection and analyze it as a whole. Sometimes we must use a course reading as well.
I’ve decided to publish the first six essays for the sake of variety in the content here. My first essay focuses on Nashville’s (1975, dir. Robert Altman) ending. I consider it one of the better essays, in part because it’s easily my favorite of the six films I’ve written essays on. When I get to 1975 in the Year in Review project, Nashville wins. Spoiler alert!
The essay itself is unedited from the original form aside from the pictures I added. Unfortunately the bibliography for citing the course reading was placed in the document I used for the proper formatting, which is lost. My apologies to Richard Maltby-consider this an informal citation. It was shoehorned in because I had to use it anyway.
It Don’t Worry Me, But Maybe It Should: Departing Nashville
Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975) covers five days over Nashville’s country music scene during the Grand Ole Opry music festival and in the time leading up to a political rally for the fictional Replacement Party. The movie does not have a protagonist-it focuses on, as the movie itself says in its opening credits, “twenty four of your favorite stars!” [0:50] The film’s concluding song, “It Don’t Worry Me,” is an ending both predictable and completely surprising, as well as both cynical and optimistic, and it illustrates the uncertainty of where all the characters are heading once the credits roll and the movie finishes.
Altman’s cinematographer Paul Lohmann tends to establish scenes in the film by starting from far away-even the indoor scenes feel like they’re being observed from someone squeezed in the corner of a room. As the major events in a scene occur, he gets closer and closer to the action to allow for increased intimacy with the characters. The final day of the film, the rally for the Replacement Party, has almost all of the major characters in attendance in addition to a crowd of hundreds of extras. After a solo number by country star Barbara Jean, she receives white roses from the aspiring politician and fellow country singer Haven Hamilton, then both are shot, which we see in a wide shot of the stage as a gunshot is fired and she collapses. Haven is only hit in the arm but Barbara Jean is shown bleeding and unconscious. As Barbara Jean is carried away by a crowd, Haven refuses help, tells the crowd not to panic-“This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville!”, in reference to John F. Kennedy’s assassination-and demands that someone sing, even when being led away to get medical treatment for himself. He passes the microphone to Winifred, an aspiring country singer who has failed repeatedly at getting a big break.
Winifred nervously breaks into the song, barely hearable, as chaos breaks out-the camera zooms in on other characters, while she is ignored. A gospel choir takes the stage, featuring another important character in Linnea Reese. The band kicks in, and we see close-up shots of the political organizer John Triplette, who organized Haven and Barbara Jean to perform at the rally; and Linnea, where they give looks of confusion at the entire scene. After a brief shot showing the empty space where the gunman, Kenny Frasier, was standing as he fired, Triplette is shown walking off stage looking depressed as the gospel choir, minus a clearly confused and questioning Linnea, provides accompaniment to Winifred. In the same shot after Triplette has walked off camera to the right, Linnea’s husband enters from the right and forces Linnea to leave. She looks at Winifred but otherwise does not resist.
Winifred’s performance remains uninterrupted for a long shot where we clearly see her becoming more and more enthusiastic and involved with her performance, while her hand holding the microphone has the index finger sticking up-in other words, it looks like a gun. She also throws Barbara Jean’s flowers at the audience. After a series of extreme close-ups of audience members singing along, we return to a wide shot of the stage and audience as Winifred performs, and we slowly pan out, before the camera tilts toward the sky and the song fades out.
Even the unfamiliar with the film could probably develop an opinion as to whether the film is hopeful or cynical just by looking at the lyrics to “It Don’t Worry Me,” namely the chorus of “You may say that I ain’t free/but it don’t worry me.” Is it an ode to blocking out the opinions of others or a critique of complacency? Running through the scene again, every little action has two sides to it. Haven’s refusal of medical treatment, comparison of what has just happened to the JFK assassination, and demands for someone to sing paints a complicated portrait. Is he a hero in that moment for thinking of the crowd and Barbara Jean over himself and assuaging their worries, or an arrogant man who never drops his public facade for comparing the death of an entertainer to the death of a President, making a show of getting help for Barbara Jean first, and working the crowd by finding a replacement singer?
Richard Maltby points out in his Narrative 2 essay, using Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) as his primary argument, that its strength of its narrative lies in the structure, which is arranged “in such a way that the movie, while providing plot resolution, neither confirms nor denies either of two entirely plausible interpretations” (488). Casablanca leaves it ambiguous as to whether Rick and Ilsa had sex, why they made some of the decisions they made, and whether Rick and Ilsa will ever meet again. Nashville’s ending is similar-we know that Winifred has finally found success, but what about the other characters attending the rally? Did Barbara Jean survive, and where did the characters who leave the rally go from there? Are we supposed to empathize with or scorn them? Re-examining the sequence starting with the shooting might give us an answer or at the very least, insight into alternative perspectives.
We see Haven and Barbara as two figures from a distance as the gunshots ring out and Barbara collapses (she is dressed in white, the color of innocence, in addition to her white flowers), followed by some members of the crowd grabbing Kenny and others panicking. There has been very little ambiguity about the film portraying Barbara Jean as the film’s one innocent character, but her assassination’s motives are left deliberately unclear, with only small hints towards Kenny’s mother issues and dislike of the Replacement Party being scattered in. As police officers and fellow country stars run to the stage’s center to assist Haven and Barbara, Haven is shown yelling “I’m all right!” and demanding that they help Barbara first before grabbing the microphone out of her unconscious hands (a necessary action or a disrespectful one?) and trying to calm the crowd with his “This isn’t Dallas” proclamation. We cut to a shot of the stage’s side featuring numerous people carrying Barbara Jean off the stage as Haven tries and fails to get someone to sing and Kenny is escorted away by authorities in another shot. As Haven is led off stage, still demanding for someone to sing, he passes the microphone to Winifred, who’s been on the stage just out of desire for stardom and no real connection to anyone performing, peeking out from the corner.
Winifred is a mysterious character, almost always shown barely on the screen, trying to get her big break and even leaving her domineering husband to pursue her dreams. She’s not characterized as untalented and we can see that she can carry a tune, but she’s not a particularly loud singer-her prior performance at a racetrack could barely be heard, and she mumbles the first few lines of “It Don’t Worry Me” to an unhearing, riotous crowd-she’s center stage in one shot and yet the camera zooms so that we can only see her legs and two previously introduced characters, Bill and Mary, fighting over whether to leave or not. She only gains steam and grows more and more involved once the band kicks in. Focusing solely on the Winifred aspects of the sequence for now, her gun-shaped hand is at first glance a prime argument for Altman ultimately having a cynical outlook. The audience reacts viciously when Kenny shoots Barbara, but a gun could be carried around in plain sight and few if any would bat an eyelash. The shape of Winifred’s hands as she holds the microphone definitely matters, but even though it’s not an easy thing to spot, in the last two shots of the performance that feature Winifred, albeit either at an unusual angle or in a wide shot also showing the entire audience, you can make out that both her hands are holding the microphone with no fingers up. The gun is gone, everyone in the audience is fully happy by this point with Linnea and Triplette having left-the nation has moved on from its collective grief over the young star’s early death. Winifred doesn’t leave the film entirely unscathed, though-she’s shown taking Barbara Jean’s white roses, abandoned on the stage, and throwing them at the crowd, effectively wiping away any memory of Barbara Jean, but this too is understandable from the perspective of someone who has even been marginalized by the camera throughout Nashville’s runtime. Maltby also focuses upon narrative closure: “It is important for the audience to accept that these characters have existences before and after this crisis in order for us to feel that this story is in any way significant” (488). Barbara Jean’s story is over, Winifred’s has just begun-do we focus upon the descent or the ascent when we’ve finished the movie?
Heading back to Linnea and Triplette’s reactions and exits, it helps to look at their portrayal in the film’s context. Triplette is responsible for Haven and Barbara Jean being at the rally in the first place, and he appealed to Haven’s political ambitions and Barbara Jean’s husband Barnett’s controlling, greedy side to get them there. He is viewed as fairly rude through the film to the residents of Nashville, but he also tends to spend most of his time associated with characters who are much more difficult to sympathize with in Haven or Barnett. Ultimately, his reaction is clearly the reaction of someone shocked and guilty that they were arguably responsible for all of this, and his exit is clearly meant to make us sympathetic-once he begins walking off, he is completely resigned, hands in pockets, not spending any more time looking at Winifred or the choir’s performance. It is the first sign of empathy we have seen out of him, and while Triplette may be unpleasant, he is not unreliable, and his resignation reflects a state of sadness at the entire affair-but it seems to also be representative of a state of sadness over the way the world is headed too, if we view the assassination and subsequent song as symbolic of something larger.
Linnea’s exit is a little grayer. A white gospel choir singer and mother of two deaf children, she is in an unhappy marriage to a lawyer, Delbert, who cannot communicate with the children and frequently flirts with other women. She has an affair with a womanizing country star who has been flirting with her for a while in an earlier scene but she is never portrayed unsympathetically for it-Altman actually makes her the most reasonable character in the entire movie. Linnea is clearly shocked at the entire affair too-her reaction shot serves as a parallel to Triplette’s, and when he leaves we can see her questioning the other choir members about what is going on. When Delbert enters the scene and forces her to leave, she leaves without a word of protest, but when going off stage, she looks back at Winifred several times. From what we know about Linnea and her earlier confused reactions, it seems like the look of someone who wants to understand what is happening. She is confused, but not judging anyone-she simply wants knowledge of the event and to fully comprehend it. This is a fairly ambiguous reaction, but from what we know about Linnea, it feels likely that if she felt the performance was a sign of something darker, she would be a lot less intrigued and tolerant. It is possible that this could be the reaction of someone who is morbidly fascinated but there are characters in Nashville who are much more likely to react that way than Linnea.
The lyrics of the song are arguably the most argument inspiring aspect of the scene. “The price of bread may worry some/it don’t worry me”: insensitive to the plight of the poor or is the songwriter just not worried about eating? “Tax relief may never come/it don’t worry me”: is it a good thing or a bad thing to not care about taxes? And above all, “You may say that I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me”: an ode to tuning out negativity from others or willful ignorance? It is whatever we want it to be. When focusing on Casablanca, Maltby touches upon classic Hollywood’s fixed conventions of good always triumphing over evil, but “‘sophisticated’ viewing strategies survive within Hollywood because story-telling is interwoven with implausibility, inconsistency, and coincidence. Through these devices audiences and critics can temporarily ‘escape’ from Hollywood’s deterministic moral conventions into a parallel imagined version of the movie, no less implausible than the one on the screen” (489). Nashville does not really take sides and was not forced into a happy ending by a studio, but the point stands-maybe Altman intended the ending to be hopeful, but it can still come across as incredibly cynical, and vice versa.
Lastly, the close-ups of people in the audience singing along, as if in a trance, without a care in the world, despite the presence of the shooter still not being forgotten and even driven home with a shot of where he stood, before the final wide shot that slowly tilts to the sky. Are these people in denial about how horrible this entire event is, or just trying to move on and process it in their own way? Is the upwards tilt meant to show how low the people of Nashville are or is it a form of elevation? It means whatever we want it to mean-Nashville can simultaneously be both, either, or neither a sympathetic look at twenty four of our favorite stars forced to debase themselves and put on facades to reach whatever their ultimate goal is or even just to keep themselves emotionally afloat, or an ice-cold satire of the shallow, ignorant world we live in.