Altman's finest makes
by Geoff Pevere
If anyone but Robert Altman had made the fashion-biz farce Ready to Wear, the disappointment would not be nearly as acute. To be fair, this high-fashion door-slammer is an aptly giddy and facile send-up of a giddy and facile industry. But it isn't merely that the masterfully ambiguous Altman has made such a simpleminded romp that galls. It's that the romp itself keeps begging punishing comparisons to the movie, made 20 years ago, that still stands as one of Altman's—and possibly postwar Hollywood's—towering achievements: Nashville.
Similar to the 1975 movie, which followed two dozen disparate (and desperate) characters over five days in the country-music capital, Ready to Wear adopts a seemingly random dramatic structure based on divergent characters caught in the blinding orbit of public spectacle. Like Nashville, it begins with a traffic jam that sets the tone for the delirium to follow. Moreover, both are rife with instances of signature Altman "technique": multi-tracked sound, restless panning, space-expanding zooms and jarring shifts in focus. And like the earlier film, Ready to Wear (formerly titled Prêt-à-porter) is about the ruthless hierarchies that support the machinery of celebrity. Both movies even employ bimbo journalists—Geraldine Chaplin in Nashville, Kim Basinger in Ready to Wear—as reminders that the only thing more vacuous than popular entertainment is the kind of "news" it generates.
But to be reminded of Nashville by Ready to Wear is like dwelling on lost love during a one-night stand. The result can only be perverse, self-defeating and bound to disappoint. At the end of Nashville, after an assassin's bullet has killed one country superstar and wounded another, the survivor cries in mortified indignation: "This isn't Dallas! This is Nashville!" At the end of Ready to Wear, feeling similarly wounded, one feels inclined to stand up to scream: "This isn't Nashville! This isn't even Popeye!"
Not that Robert Altman, 69, hasn't disappointed before. In fact, just as he was preparing to shoot Nashville in 1974, he'd succeeded in disappointing just about everybody in the business in which he had been toiling since the mid-fifties. Not for lack of talent, but for a legendary surplus of single-mindedness. Following two decades of professional obscurity, Altman had tapped the countercultural wellspring in 1970 with a glibly cynical service comedy called M*A*S*H. Recasting Vietnam as Korea and American soldiers as the unholy offspring of Bob Hope and Lenny Bruce, the movie made a mint, and suddenly Altman found himself swamped by studio offers to make more movies to smoke joints by. He refused, and embarked instead on one of the most rigorous explorations of American movie genres since the heyday of the French new wave in the late-fifties.
Collectively, the post-M*A*S*H movies represent a breathtaking dismantling of most of the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. Detective stories (The Long Goodbye, 1973), gangster movies (Thieves Like Us, 1974), westerns (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), buddy comedies (California Split, 1974), psychic melodramas (Images, 1972)—Altman took them all apart and rebuilt them in startling new configurations. While the films certified both Altman's critical reputation and his legendary cantankerousness, they failed to turn a buck, which left this almost 50-year-old maverick with nowhere to turn when he wanted to realize his most expansive vision yet: a multiple character study of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-normal America set in the ideological heart of conservative U.S.A., namely Nashville, Tennessee.
Undeterred, he did what he'd always done, and would continue to do until The Player put him back on the Hollywood hot sheet in 1992: He formed a company and set out to make Nashville himself.
Working from a script by Joan Tewkesbury, Altman set the stage for precisely the kind of production that had earned him a reputation as the director most actors would kill to work with. Giving his large cast of performers (who included both veteran collaborators—Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen and Michael Murphy—and newcomers like Lily Tomlin, Jeff Goldblum and Ronee Blakley) the sparsest of directions, he let them rip within the loose parameters of Tewkesbury's scenario. Risky as the method was, it never yielded more magic than on the set of Nashville.
Altman once recalled preparing for the scene in which the fragile superstar Barbara Jean (Blakley) collapses into psychic shards before a large audience. Things had been going badly on set, and the director was in a mighty grim humour the day Blakley approached him to suggest that she babble incoherently before being led offstage. He told her to stick to the script—"You fainted before," he recalls telling a disappointed Blakley, "why don't you just go catatonic?"—only to indulge the actor at the last moment.
The result is one of the film's most wrenching scenes, and Altman nearly didn't let it happen. "I damn near blew this," he told author Judith M. Kass a few years later. "I just damn near sat there and did not listen to this. I came that close."
This faith in spontaneity, an Altman trademark, never paid off quite as handsomely as it would in Nashville. Remarkably, while the film contains two dozen actors bustling through short scenes in the five days leading up to an apocalyptic political rally at the Nashville Parthenon, it has some of the director's most vividly drawn characters. Though we meet them ever so fleetingly, many of Nashville's inhabitants make indelible impressions: Keenan Wynn as the man whose wife is dying in the Nashville hospital; Lily Tomlin as the white mother of deaf children who sings in a black gospel choir; Gwen Welles as the talentless singer forced to strip at a political "smoker"; Barbara Baxley as the Kennedy-obsessed mistress of country top gun Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson).
This creative generosity is precisely what deflates the oft-levelled charge of Altman's "cynicism." Had he been truly so, he, like Kubrick or Hitchcock, would hardly have allowed his performers such freedom to flesh out these sparsest of types. Instead, his faith in improv is what invests these characters with an emotional depth that elevates Nashville from the realm of cartoon diatribe to a heartfelt portrait of America in a state of ideological civil war.
"The mosaic, or the mix," wrote David Thomson recently of Nashville, "permits a freedom and a human idiosyncrasy that (filmmaker Jean) Renoir might have admired." "There are no real denouements," wrote The New Yorker's Pauline Kael, in her gushiest endorsement since Last Tango in Paris, "but there are no loose ends either: Altman doesn't need to wrap it all up, because the people here are too busy being alive to be locked in place."
Nashville is thus that rarest of satires: Its anger at American culture is always rooted in its profound empathy for the individuals within it, at what happens to people when a national mythology can no longer salve the wounds of a battered collective consciousness. And this is exactly what Ready to Wear, for all its farcical adriotness, sorrily lacks.
In the realm of fashion, Altman finds nothing but characters whose dimwitted vanity he predictably detests, and who thus deserve all the cruel stereotyping at his formidable disposal. In Nashville, his contempt was never permitted such abstraction from basic human concern, and empathy transformed that contempt into something righteous, urgent and, strangely, even reasonable. The achievement that is Nashville merely grows in stature as time passes, rendering even the most flagrant forms of hyperbole as simple statements of fact. "If there is a most important film of the 1970s, it is Nashville," wrote Helene Keyssar in 1991 in her critical study, Robert Altman's America. Of Ready to Wear, two things can be said with similar certainty: It is unlikely to be remembered as the most important film of the nineties, and it sure isn't Nashville.
Originally published in The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 7 January 1995, p. C7.