London Journal (including an interview with Geraldine Chaplin in Britanny about NASHVILLE) [1975]

From Film Comment (September-October 1975). Some of this article, especially the early stretches, embarrasses me now for its pretentiousness, but I think it still has some value as a period piece.

A few brief footnotes to my interview with Chaplin: (1) We shared a joint at one point while doing it; (2) her comments about working with Rivette made it seem a lot less fun and more difficult, at least for her, than working with Altman (she described it at one point as having to show Rivette various kinds of acting like a rug merchant to see which one he liked); and in fact (3) a few decades later, when I met her again at a film festival, reminded her of our interview, and asked her what she thought of Noroit, she told me that she’d never seen it. — J.R.

London Journal

Or should I call this my NASHVILLE Journal? On March 19, I saw a monaural print in London at a private screening. Writing over three months later, shortly after its New York opening and a projected five before it’s supposed to surface in the rural West End, I can only wish it well on its way. Regular readers of this column may froth at the mouth if I drag Tati and Rivette into the case once more; in that case, froth away, folks — I’m sorry, but it’s Altman’s doing, not mine. In one fell swoop, the fleeting , juggling, and fluctuating visual reference points of PLAYTIME are echoed — in the extraordinary highway pile-up sequence, at the airport and in the nightclubs, among other places — while the shifting relays between two dozen characters who are simultaneously “connected” and estranged, interrelated and unrelated, are similarly reflective of OUT 1: SPECTRE.

Reflective, yes, but far from identical, and there is certainly no doubt that NASHVILLE is infinitely more accessible than either of my favorite movie hobby-horses. Many people who can’t profitably sit through PLAYTIME or SPECTRE even once will likely be returning to Altman’s movie several times, and the last thing I want to do is be a spoilsport about it. Indeed, next to the shallow, two-dimensional pyrotechnics of THE PASSENGER (literally shallow, if one measures its uncomposed freize-like surfaces against the brilliantly balanced choreographic play between background and foreground in early Antonioni), where everything — Borgesian ambiguities, Third World generalities, graceful time-shifts, seven-minute Michael Snow simplifications, and blindman parables alike — is virtually pre-interpreted before an audience can even begin to sink its teeth into it, NASHVILLE represents something new and alive in the commercial cinema because you have to play with it in your own sweet way, stake out your own points of entry and intersection and your own kinds and degrees of response.

Altman gets away with this on a box-office level by spacing out his exquisite uncertainties with flourishes of climactic rhetoric — the somewhat platitudinous American flag flashed on like a visual aid in the last reel, as well as the wonderful songs — that can absorb, distend, or emotionally dissolve these question marks with an illusory sense of collective certainty, the very stuff that Hollywood dreams are made of. (PLAYTIME uses some of that rhetoric, too, but in long shot rather than close-up, meaning that one can “identify” with it only on a philosophical or metaphorical level; SPECTRE goes in the opposite direction, finally settling on an undifferentiated, anti-rhetorical street corner that screams as loudly as Altman’s overdetermined American flag — but only as a consequence of its semantic function in the overall design, and not through any intrinsic significance of its own.) At its worst, NASHVILLE overreaches itself by implying that its songs and flag emblem can explain and encompass all the rough edges and loose threads in its fabric — kaleidoscopic joys which need no justification, and ideally could have run on for days. At its best, it combines its shifting emphasis with its rhetoric — as in Keith Carradine’s nightclub performance with three or four of his ladies in attendance, when his song becomes the catalyst of our restless focus, subtly changing its meaning each time it becomes juxtaposed with a different listener.

Will the English go for this marvelous hootfest? There will likely be some annoyance felt about Geraldine Chaplin’s highly improbable “BBC reporter,” although on reflection I find that the relative “unreality” of her part in contrast to many of the others (such as the remarkable Lily Tomlin’s) is partially indicative of what makes NASHVILLE such a heady mixture. Much as Rivette in SPECTRE and CELINE ET JULIE VONT EN BATEAU effectively explodes conventional barriers between “good” and “bad” acting by forcing together seemingly incompatible playing styles and then watching them crackle, much of the excitement in THE LONG GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, and NASHVILLE comes directly from the messy overlaps and overflows, the things which irritate and “don’t fit” as well as the things that tickle and do. What matters most of all are the processes and unforeseeable movements of this magical universe, as its dancing parts converge and disperse, cohere and divide, clash and synthesize, always expanding.

To presume that this plenitude of privileged moments all has to mean something (and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER apart, God help us all when Altman thinks he knows what that something is) is to hustle the director into an auteur theory where he clearly doesn’t belong, except as a kind of personalized clearing house. An “Altman movie” is pre-eminently a matter of the ringleader’s capacity to animate, measure, and mix the creativity of other people, along with certain bright ideas of his own, in a series of evolving yet perpetually unstable balances — just like most other movies, only more so — and “personal vision” is a question of seeing and hearing, not a state of being or a Chinese fortune cookie designed to supply movie critics with their leads. In this respect, Altman firmly belongs to the Renoir tradition, asking us to respond to his movies like human beings, not university professors. The same goes for his actors: the world as show-biz is a conceit that can be sustained only as long as its perpetrators really believe in it (cf. THE GOLDEN COACH, FRENCH CANCAN), rather than propound it like a thesis.

“Rivette can learn a lot from Altman,” a friend of mine remarked, “but Altman can’t learn anything from Rivette,” and I know exactly what he means. It’s precisely Altman’s theoretical innocence that gives him such an openness of response, a largesse that can enclose a multitude of contradictory stances and stresses without any intellectual self-consciousness; at least until he arrives at his would-be Fellini codas, which contrive to inflate his termites into white elephants — a feat which Rivette and Tati, unlike Altman, have the equipment to bring off. As for the coming-out of the movie’s closet assassin, Parthenon and Greek chorus (“It Don’t Worry Me”) notwithstanding, I’d rather regard him as nothing more than yet another unforeseen and magical explosion, like the orange-throwing madwoman at the race track in CALIFORNIA SPLIT. And I’ll gladly stick with the Altman termites as long as he trusts his instincts and keeps them around, hoping that he’ll lease out his elephants (if and when he finds them) to Messrs. Kubrick, Coppola, Schlesinger, Bogdanovich and Co., who’ll certainly know what to do with them and feed them all the hay necessary to keep them alive and overbearing.

April 13, Paris: Eighteen months and ten issues ago, I reported in these pages that at least one or two more viewings of Orson Welles’ F FOR FAKE is a function of the virtual infinity of editing possibilities that it revels in, all of which are brought to bear on how we value and evaluate what we see and hear — a question which relates to Welles’ rhetoric no less than the forgeries of Clifford Irving and Elmyr de Hory (not to mention the rumblings of film critics and other “experts”). By continually undermining and displacing the illusionist trappings of his own arguments, Welles is able to exercise his intelligence on matters great and small until it becomes a disembodied presence of its own, weaving through a mosaic of image and sound like a flighty moth that refuses to be pinned into place; in keeping with the darker strategies of Arkadin, it remains perpetually six steps ahead of the game while simultaneously defying and cajoling us to keep the chase and pursuit going. People who find the film’s ideas glib or banal are more than likely taking them only at face value, i.e., as the “argument” itself, independent of its expression, rather than as the remarkably energetic and multi-faceted demonstration that accompanies its bald exposition.

Once again, it’s a matter of process more than postulate -– form as a verb and not as a noun. Wisdom in its conventional forms is generally thought of in terms of stasis, like Altman’s American flag or a motto to hang on the wall. Welles’ version takes the formof tracing his postulate through a series of changes so rapid that our acceptance and our refusal of his ground rules are being challenged at every juncture. Even if you disagree, I hope you can see it, ride on Welles’ whirligig, and judge for yourself.

June 29, St. Cast, Britanny. While visiting the shooting of LE VENGEUR [eventually titled NOROIT], the second of four projected average-length features being directed by Jacques Rivette under the general title of LES FILLES DU FEU, I have a chance to talk to Geraldine Chaplin -– one of the three lead actresses, along with Bernadette Lafont and Kika Markham. Bearing the glad tidings of Newsweek‘ s enthusiastic feature story on NASHVILLE, which she is avid to read, I discover that she saw the film herself at the same March 19 screening in London: Altman had phoned her in Madrid to tell her about it, she flew all the way to London to see it, and wound up being asked to play Annie OakJey in Altman’s BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS,which starts shooting in Canada in August.

Rather than attempt to reproduce our lengthy conversation here in extenso, I thought it might be useful to transcribe just a few of her comments as a sort of practical follow-up to some of my meanderings above:

“When I went into NASHVILLE, I already knew Joan Tewksbury, so she wrote the character thinking a little bit about me, but also about a person Joan had met in Nashville — this horrible snob who’d say, ‘Oh, that reminds me of when I was Fellini’s assistant’ and all these other things that no one could possibly do in an entire lifetime, but who has done them. I think she was English, or else pretending to be English.

“We went to Bob’s house in Nashville for a meeting. We thought it was maybe for a reading, so we all brought our scripts. I was shaking, I was so nervous, and he said, ‘Okay, you can throw away your script if you want. If you want to keep them, and stick to the dialogue, you stick to it. The only thing I’m going to tell you is that none of you can go wrong — the only person who can go wrong is me, because you’re all acting out parts which are basically yourselves. So don’t come and ask me how to react. . . .If you want to write dialogue, fine; if you want to invent it, invent it.’

“I was supposed to be a great snob about places — not a name dropper but a place dropper. Every place was supposed to remind me of somewhere else. Bob started that: in one scene that was improvisedwith Lily Tomlin, when I was interviewing her, she asked me at one point, you have such nice jewelry, where does that come from?’ And I said, ‘This is the symbol of the English empire, it’s a Victorian jewel that was given to me’ — which in fact was true –‘and these are turquoise that I got in Lebanon.’ Afterwards, Bob thought that was so funny he said, ‘I want you to do that every time you have an interview –- name a place where you’ve been. He picked that out. I wouldn’t have remembered it.

” . . .I hated seeing NASHVILLE in England because my accent in it really isn’t an English accent at all.”

I cite a problem alluded to earlier. “Some people, including myself, have had some trouble believing that a character like that would work for the BBC.”

She laughs. “But Opal doesn’t work for the BBC. She couldn’t possibly! That’s one of the things that was cut out — one of the millions of things. There was a moment with Michael Murphy, when she said, ‘Well, uh, I’m, I’m not, l don’t really, uh, work for the BBC — I mean they’re interested in the film I’m going to do, but I’m not under contract with them.’

” . . .We used to see the rushes—two hours every day, and everyone came, had a drink, had a joint, and watched the rushes. It was like seeing a movie because everyone would laugh and applaud. And Bob would sit at the back like a great pasha and Big Daddy, and watch over everyone . . . There were so many good things that got cut out!

“I’ve never worked on a happier film, ever. Karen Black was the only person who wasn’t there the whole time because she was making another film, so she only came for three or four days in August. After her three days she was crying, she didn’t want to leave. And she said, ‘Gee, Bob, you sure throw a good movie.’”

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