Nashville (1975)

Robert Altman | 2hr 39min

It is difficult to think of a film as organically structured as Nashville, with its gentle progression from one narrative thread to the next carrying the impression that Robert Altman could point his camera in any direction and still find just as equally fascinating characters as those who make up his main ensemble. On the surface, the only thing that these people might have in common is their connection to the city’s country music scene, though as each storyline is teased out and interwoven around others, we discover a unifying motivation emerge in each of them – a simple yearning for recognition, whether through fame, respect, or love.

The concept of sprawling narratives that follow concurrent plot threads between large groups of strangers was still in its relative infancy in 1975, as it wouldn’t be until a few decades later that it would be dubbed hyperlink cinema, with the impact of the World Wide Web extending our understanding of lives beyond our own. Not only is Altman’s interpretation of this narrative structure fully matured before its rise in popularity, it also makes for a perfect fit for his own style of filmmaking, where the individual lines of dialogue matter less than the impression they collectively form in overlapping others. We can choose which conversation to listen to at any time, and his camera zooms often helps us in this decision as it pans through crowds and pushes in on individuals to pick out some above the others, but it is more often the holistic blend that gives each scene its own unique acoustic texture.

Altman capturing large ensembles in his shots, overlapping conversation to create an organic environment where everyone wants to be heard.

The impression we quite frequently get from this is chaos, though never to the extent that we doubt Altman’s loss of control. It hits us right from the first few seconds when a radio announcer begins reading out the opening credits over the top of several country songs fading in and out, mimicking the sound of a radio flicking through stations, each one a taste of what is to come. And true to its musical commitment, Nashville affords us the time to listen to each of these country music pieces in full, at times leading from one right into another like a concert. Not one to micromanage his cast, Altman let many of them write their own songs, allowing an authenticity into their performances that turns each number into a natural extension of their characters.

Patriotism and music so tightly bound up together all through Nashville. It isn’t the first movie you think of when the musical genre is brought up, but by definition it most certainly fits in, and is one of the best.

The most prominent of these country ditties is one that is formally repeated several times through the film, until it becomes an anthem for the city itself. “It Don’t Worry Me” is an assertion of freedom and the right to stay cool in the face of adversity, sung as a gentle reassurance in quieter moments, and every so often marking a significant disaster. Its first appearance follows a car pileup on the highway that we can assume almost certainly results in serious injuries, though as it plays in the background our attention remains on those who are only tangentially affected by the incident. BBC journalist Opal uses it as an opportunity to interview locals, in search for a decent story. Kenny Frasier, a mysterious traveller carrying a violin case, hitches a ride with Star, whose wife, Winifred, has taken the chance to run off, resolved to pursue her singing ambitions. All through the film, there is a pattern of unifying events like this, frequently bringing characters together in concerts, church services, and unexpected disruptions. It is within them that Altman’s editing is at its most finely balanced, relishing the interconnectedness of each individual narrative thread.

Winifred and Kenny briefly meeting following the highway pile-up, just one of many narrative threads transiently crossing over in Nashville.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of seeing these characters evolve through shared experiences is realising how much these incidents take on separate meanings within each story. When Tom vaguely dedicates his song “I’m Easy” to “someone who might just be here tonight,” L.A. Joan, Mary, and Opal quietly smile to themselves, teasing the notion that it could very well be them. For gospel singer Linnea, who has been slightly more resistant to his charms, it becomes a sensual seduction. As she sits at the back of the audience, Altman slowly zooms into her mesmerised gaze of guilt, disbelief, and adoration, picking her story out above everyone else’s as the one worth paying attention to.

Altman has always found great use for his zoom lenses, and although they aren’t quite as wild here as they are in MASH, they bring such remarkable visual dynamism and a sense of wandering curiosity to the film.

And compared to the rest of this wild ensemble of musicians and super fans, Linnea may be our most quietly grounding force. In the case of Sueleen, a humble waitress with a terrible voice, it is crushing to see her degrading humiliation in a room of chauvinistic men, who force her to strip when her singing proves unsatisfactory. In Barbara Jean, who represents the sort of musical success that so many other characters aspire to, we observe the pressures of fame crack open that charming sweetheart image she has spent years cultivating. The celebrity worship culture that pervades Nashville projects an idealism that almost every character is blinded by on some level, and through his ensemble cast Altman comes at it from several angles, trying to get at the social problems it smoothly glosses over.

Perhaps then we might find some sense of reality in the disembodied voice of presidential hopeful Hal Phillip Walker that echoes through the streets from a campaign van, although even his politics appear to be defined by the same populist appeal as that which underlies Nashville’s music scene. He promises a vague sort of change and throws out catchy slogans, but not once in the film does he make a physical appearance. As such, he might as well stand in for the city itself in all its cultural idealism.

Great narrative form in constantly returning to Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign van, tying Nashville’s music scene closely to the political turmoil of the 1970s.

His fundraising gala concert thus sets the perfect scene for Nashville’s epic finale, whereby each storyline arrives at a single location to find their resolution. Though we have followed the mysterious Kenny since the start, it is still a complete unknown as to why he chooses to shoot Barbara Jean. Perhaps he is seeking his own sort of fame, or maybe he harbours resentment towards the culture she represents. But Nashville is not the place to investigate why such bad things happen. The focus must always be on the aftermath. Not just in the rebuilding of this community, but in recognising how each affected individual in some way finds their own meaning in the tragedy.

Altman setting up the perfect final set piece of the film, where each storyline collides beneath a giant American flag.

There is an amusing irony that the last time we see the story-seeking journalist Opal she is asking around about what just happened, having missed the incident entirely. Meanwhile, Barbara Jean fan Pfc. Glenn Kelly is the first to disarm the shooter, Sueleen is fortunately denied the opportunity to embarrass herself again, and country superstar Haven quells the disturbance in the crowd, angrily affirming that “This isn’t Dallas!” In this sly reference to the assassination of JFK, still fresh in the minds of these Americans, there is also a reluctant acknowledgement of political woes existing out there in the world. But of course, Nashville is a city of music, and any politics that makes its way in must be filtered through its culture of bright idealism.

Within the chaos, it is Winifred who somehow ends up with the microphone and is told to calm the crowd, fate finding its way into her arc just as it does the others. Perhaps if we had heard her sing earlier in the film, we might have been able to guess that she would become the new Barbara Jean. In holding out until these final minutes to take on the final rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” though, the song arrives in its entirety for the first time with both a fresh revelation and a biting indictment, cheerily underscoring the revolving door of celebrities that has now revealed a new idol to replace the one who died just mere minutes ago. Altman doesn’t cast heavy aspersions here, but whether we read this uniquely Nashvillian brand of optimism as the bedrock of a thriving community or a mass delusion, it still remains a powerful force of culture-defining magnitude in this sprawling city.

A brilliant wide shot and a tilt upwards as a new star emerges, bringing the film to a magnificent end.

Nashville is currently available to rent on iTunes, or to buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Video.

Love and Death (1975)

Woody Allen | 1hr 25min

Two years before Woody Allen left his immortal mark on the romantic-comedy genre with Annie Hall, he pushed another set of narrative and film conventions in Love and Death. Early 19th century Russia is his chosen setting, and those great Russian novels by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are his inspiration, but this is no insipidly self-serious period piece. Anachronisms abound here, as playfully irreverent as they are pointed in their satire, targeting the quaint pretensions of this era with rapid-fire repartee and a good deal of meta-humour.

Subjects of enormous weight treated with such hilarious flippancy, as Boris apathetically goes to commit suicide and then decides against it when he is already hanging.
Anachronisms everywhere – Love and Death pushes narrative and formal boundaries in every scene.

Allen continues the trend of starring in his work in Love and Death, playing the part of a Russian literary protagonist reluctant to take part in his war-bound destiny. Boris Grushenko might as well stand in for Allen himself in all his contemporary sensibilities, as he gleefully belittles those around him while suffering the consequences of his own hubris. The Groucho Marx influence on his work has always been evident, but rarely has it been so palpable as it is here in one of his earliest films, when in the most dire of circumstances of being challenged to a duel he continues rattling off quips with all the speed and impudence of a man who possesses both great intellect and great ego, and can’t help letting both show.

“My seconds will call on your seconds.”

“Well, my seconds will be out, let them call on my thirds. If my thirds are out, go directly to my fourths.”

Quite unusually for Allen, slapstick rules alongside verbal wit in Love and Death, though once again such a smooth integration of both high and lowbrow humour comes back to his love for the Marx Brothers. A sophisticated conversation over moral imperatives is deflated in an instant when Boris and his wife, Sonja, pause mid-way to hit an unconscious Napoleon Bonaparte on the head with a wine bottle, underscoring the incongruency between the lofty philosophical questions and life-or-death scenarios often presented side-by-side in Russian literature.

A sly reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in the editing and imagery, with a cheeky visual metaphor thrown in there for good measure.

Even as Love and Death is drenched in jokes and references to classic novels, Allen’s focus remains on the cinematic applications of his satirical commentary, further building out his movie into a pastiche of European arthouse films. The montage editing of a battle deliberately evokes the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin right down to a shot of broken spectacles, though when Allen cuts to the view of the war from the general’s perspective he amusingly slips in a shot of sheep running together in a flock. Meanwhile, a white cloaked figure representing Death acts a direct allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, even as its austere presence is undercut by Boris’ flippancy, considering his own mortality as little more than an inconvenience.

“Boris! What happened?”

“I got screwed.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Some vision came and said that I was gonna get pardoned, and then they shot me.”

“You were my one great love.”

“Oh thank you very much, I appreciate that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m dead.”

In his fourth wall breaking voiceovers and facetiously subversive attitude, Allen smashes through cultural, narrative, and cinematic convention, fashioning an entirely new kind of artistic statement out of the fragments left behind. Though there is a cerebral and ironic detachment in his attacks upon old-fashioned ideals, it does not possess the sort of savagery that he reserves for his own self-criticisms. Ultimately, it is in that combination of the two where Love and Death reveals itself to be just as much a pointed comment on the way haughty academics and artists interpret history as it is a critique of the foibles of history itself, all the while wryly refusing to take itself seriously on any level.

Dancing off into the distance with the white cloaked figure of Death – an irreverent play on The Seventh Seal.

Love and Death is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Youtube, and Google Play.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick | 3hr 5min

Stanley Kubrick has never been one to engage empathetically with his characters and their deep sentiments of love and pain, but it is ironically in his single most focused character study (at least on par with A Clockwork Orange) that he expresses his utmost disdain for humanity in all its self-aggrandising monuments and traditions. The ironic detachment with which he approaches Barry Lyndon is several layers removed from any genuine attempt at historical appreciation of the man himself, or the high society surrounding him. After all, this a 20th century film adapting a 19th century novel that narrates fictional events from 18th century Britain, and much of the text as written by author William Makepeace Thackeray is preserved in the form of narration, archaic and reserved in manner. It warns us of narrative developments before they occur, keeping us from identifying too strongly with any characters, and yet even this filter through which we interpret the past is rendered entirely obsolete by its own self-importance, and its desperate attempts to insert itself where it is not needed. Just as the voiceover will often speak over character dialogue, so too does Kubrick fade out its rambling into silence as Barry Lyndon approaches its intermission, condemning it to its own antiquated spot in history for matching the vapidity of its subject of interest with its own equally insipid musings.

One of the greatest opening shots of any film. The layering within the frame, the distance from which we observe the action, the natural lighting and earthy colours drawing our eyes around the composition – and of course, the inconsequence with which we watch the death of Barry’s father.

Barry Lyndon was not a well-loved film upon its initial released. Begrudgingly respected, perhaps, but ultimately condemned for its self-conscious arrogance and emotional distance, the exact same qualities that were celebrated in previous Kubrick films. Perhaps it was the glacial pace that frustrated audiences, combined with its colossal three hour run time which was typically reserved for epic, action-packed Hollywood blockbusters like Ben-Hur. Or perhaps it was the tension between Kubrick’s astonishingly beautiful visual compositions and his scorn for the subjects of these cinematic paintings that rubbed people the wrong way.

The greenery, the clouds filtering through natural light, and low framing of Barry in these stunning Irish landscapes.

If anything though, this grating contrast only lends itself to his wickedly dry sense of humour. Whenever Kubrick cuts to a new scene, we are often immediately struck by the sheer artistry of the frame, whether we are laying eyes upon the green, rolling hills of Ireland, shaded and textured as if gone over with a fine brush, or the interior of an exquisite manor lit entirely by candles, adorned with giant paintings stretching across walls as magnificent backdrops. The camera’s stiff, controlled movements are as equally rigid as those formations in which Kubrick blocks his cast, maintaining a stillness that turns each scene into oil paintings, much like those hanging in the characters’ chambers and galleries.

The use of actual paintings as backdrops also makes for magnificent period decor – and builds up the self-import of these characters.
A countless number of perfectly composed images in Barry Lyndon. When Kubrick isn’t throwing soft natural lighting through windows, then he is using an abundance of candles to light his interiors and give them the look of oil paintings.

Often the only movement to be found is in a slow zoom out from a close-up, this specific aesthetic device not only keeping intact the two-dimensional, painterly quality of each image that an alternative dolly shot might destroy, but also physically expanding Barry’s world around him, revealing immaculate compositions that appear almost too perfect to be real. But then, every now again, there are small breaks in the performances – Captain John Quin’s attempt to charm a woman through a ridiculous dance, or Ryan O’Neal’s meek line delivery of “I’m not sorry”, feebly asserting Barry’s refusal to back down from courting his own cousin.

It is towards this conflict between the perfectionistic standards of British high society and the messy, flawed beings who built them that Kubrick angles his most significant cultural critique of humanity in all its inflexible customs and traditions. It isn’t that he can’t engage with Barry emotionally, but why should he when it is evident from his behaviour that he is not a figure worth taking seriously on any level? As a young man, Barry’s cocksureness and imprudence are qualities which allow him to work his way up the ranks of aristocracy, engaging in fights and duels bound by rules which attempt to boil down the savage human instinct for violence into civil demonstrations of strength and marksmanship. He joins an army of redcoats in the midst of the Seven Years’ War, and as these stoic Brits march defiantly towards the enemy’s ranks and are picked off one by one, they maintain their worthless honour even in the face of certain death. Fortunately for Barry, he will only play the part for as long as he is held accountable for it, and with no sense of loyalty to any nation, leader, or woman, he finds himself rising up this dishonest society as a con artist.

Tremendous staging of large ensembles, especially as the redcoats march in passive defiance towards the French infantry.

It is here where Kubrick bisects his narrative right down the middle in a show of great formal ambition. Where Part I is named “By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon”, Part II is titled “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon”. His new stepson, Lord Bullingdon, is the first person we meet to call him out on being a “common opportunist”, but before we attach to him for his apparent insight, Kubrick is sure to identify him as simply another fop caught up in a pallid social hierarchy. It is a little surprising that Barry is earned a shred of our sympathy in the way he lovingly interacts with his biological son, Brian, though even this relationship gets caught up in questions of how it simply propagates his own empty legacy, and one that he nevertheless has some part in destroying through his own coddling and overindulgence. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,” recites a priest at Brian’s funeral, though it might as well be a summation of Barry’s own life as he continues into this downward trajectory, finally ruined by his own hubris, gluttony, and cowardice.

Once again, natural light shining through slits in the walls in this final duel. Also fantastic form in narrative – three duels, each one decisively affecting the course of Barry’s life.

The fight that earned him respect in the first half is mirrored here with one that reveals a degrading loss of control, and just as he once came out on top in an earlier duel, here a similar conflict marks the loss of everything he had remaining – his title, his home, even one of his legs. How cruel it is as well that this duel might have actually gone his way thanks to the same random chance that lifted him up the ladder of success, had he not chosen that moment to do the first noble, fair thing in his life and let his opponent shoot again. In a final display of acerbic irreverence, Barry is sent off on his way out of high society with a zoom into his behind, and a freeze frame immortalising this image of him as his final appearance. The narration does not get the last say either though, but rather simple some plain text reading:

“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”

If we were to entertain the slightest notion that Barry or this empty culture he lives within possess any substance whatsoever, Kubrick cuts it down at the stem with this derisive jab. Like the voiceover fading into obscurity, the pomp and circumstance of these histories and cultures fade over time, unable to live up to the impossible standards of perfection set by humanity’s own foolish ambitions as displayed here in Barry Lyndon.

Not just disconnection, but complete callousness in all these relationships, especially as they are reflected in the blocking.

Barry Lyndon is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

John Huston | 2hr 9min

In an era when American directors like Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman were pushing the boundaries of cinema with the cynical and risqué artistic expressions of New Hollywood, John Huston was still finding joy in the classical Technicolor adventures that were more popular in the industry’s Golden Age. At the same time, it is important to note that this particular adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King could not have been made under the censorship of the Production Code, especially given the debauchery and outright irreverence of its two central characters, Daniel and Peachy. On page, neither are entirely likeable in their overt representations of imperialistic British hubris, and yet the performances of Sean Connery and Michael Caine tactfully draw out the self-deprecating, even endearing foolishness of both men, setting up a pair of boisterous egos we wouldn’t mind seeing knocked down a few pegs.

John Huston has never created anything this epic before, making superb use of long shots for these magnificent set pieces.

After being mistaken for a god by the locals of a Kafiristan village, Daniel quickly latches onto delusions of grandeur, becoming a literal manifestation of British colonisation that asserts itself as superior to those foreign cultures they invade and dominate. The greed of men has often been a primary preoccupation of Huston throughout his oeuvre, but never has he expanded it to the large-scale, godlike proportions we witness here, matching the epic historical backdrop against which it is set. Huston has rarely ventured so far into such pure, cinematic spectacle, using sweeping long shots to isolate Connery and Caine upon the snowy Khyber Pass, filling his frames with extras in kinetic battle scenes, and later, simply letting us gaze upon the holy city of Sikandergul, sitting high up on the peak of a rocky mountain range. With the whole world laying itself at their feet, Daniel and Peachy quickly grow carried away with megalomaniac aspirations of wealth and power.

“The two richest men in England.”

“The empire.”

“The world.”

The world falling at their feet, an image of ego and megalomania.

But just as we observe, the path to glory is through a precariously stacked tower of falsehoods. At Daniel’s wedding to a beautiful local woman he barely knows, Huston builds a frenzied pace in his cutting, reminding us of a holy statue’s all-seeing eye caught in intimidating low angles, all the while the percussive beats played by black-clad musicians build to a feverish crescendo. We fully expect the artifice to come tumbling down around them in this moment, but given the light, reckless tone with which Daniel and Peachy have ripped through these foreign lands and cheapened cultural customs, we aren’t prepared for the heavy weight of the comeuppance when it finally arrives, revealing the true devastation which Daniel and Peachy have wreaked in their careless endeavours.

A brilliantly edited sequence, building to a climax through the percussive beat and rapidly accelerating pace.

In a moment of poetic justice, the tearing down of Daniel’s greatest infrastructural achievement during his time as King brings about his own personal, literal downfall as well. Huston offers some sympathy for the death of this rollicking friendship between two arrogant, irresponsible adventurers, though he has no misgivings regarding how it came about. The men and women of Kafiristan may have dealt the final blow, but the fault lies entirely at the feet of these two pompous Brits who believed the world was theirs to own.

The Man Who Would Be King is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.