Monday, January 12, 2015

Je Suis Charlie -- Blues and the Politics of Insanity

Actress Barbara Harris as "Albuquerque" in Robert Altman's Nashville. Image courtesy 

Je Suis Charlie—Blues and the Politics of Insanity

By Carl L. Hager

This will probably read as a cross between social commentary and musical analysis for most readers, but for quite a few it will also read like a film review of Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville—which it also is. For those who don’t like to predict the end of a film, yet don’t like to be shocked by it, or who are surprised when Muslim radicals kill journalists whose provocations offend them, my instinct is to issue a spoiler alert here. If you don’t mind being utterly confused by what I have to say, feel free to ignore the commentary in the embedded videos, but you would be wise to consider each as an integral part of the essay and watch them. They won’t spoil the impact of what Pauline Kael described at the time as “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.” The film was made 40 years ago. If you didn’t see it coming, you’ve got to ask yourself the question Robert Altman poses: why didn’t you listen to the warning?

To say that the radical approach Robert Altman pioneered early in his career was non-linear doesn’t even begin to describe his hyperextended naturalism, the disorienting real-time chaos of overlapping dialog and simultaneous live-action. The camera’s point of view is that of someone crashing a party, not the traditional one of being formally introduced to each, one at a time.  His films are such an acquired taste that I, an ardent fan, have to re-acquire the taste whenever I watch them. But I do, and the two I return to watch most often are M*A*S*H and Nashville.

M*A*S*H is probably the best known of all of his films. Not because that many people have seen it, but because of the subsequent television show that reduced it to Alan Alda doing an endless stream of smirking frat-boy jokes. M*A*S*H, the movie, bore no resemblance to the swaddled primetime gauze-and-bandages reality, but was instead one of the harshest, bloodiest, most unforgiving anti-war films ever made, disguised as a Korean War-era black comedy—and made in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam war. It was anti-war in the same sort of apolitical spirit of conscientious objection as Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. If most sacred cows were tucked into bed by the end of one of the subsequent TV show’s episodes, the original film left the viewer in a hellish cloud of slaughter and burning flesh.

As well it should have. No rational human being loves war. No rational human being loves an indifferent and desensitized bureaucracy so out of touch with the real world that it values its sprawling playbook of rules and speeches and political poses over lives.

Neither does any rational human being deny someone the right to fight back. Dr. Martin Luther King—who spent a lifetime encouraging non-violence in seeking justice and civil rights, warning against the perils of using the eye-for-an-eye retribution of the jungle—applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon in 1956, after his house was bombed.

The discussion gets a bit tricky at this point. But all moral outrage and ideological self-righteousness aside, calling a madman or a terrorist anything but a madman or terrorist doesn’t make it so, even if it makes you sleep better at night.

You might just get away with inducing a deep, deep sleep and plunge into a long winter’s nap. But as the thousands of napping French security forces discovered recently, waking from the coma of denial comes with a nightmare.

Nashville, the Movie Not the TV Show

In his film Nashville, Altman takes on the American Dream (which arguably amounts to an amalgamation and distillation of the Western world’s dreams—where do you think “liberté, égalité, fraternité” comes from?) Perforce, this includes the American Nightmare (and the West’s). Of necessity, it means the film is not only about music and musicians, love and deception, talent and dreams; it’s about lawyers, guns and money. There are so many stories and so many levels of myth and mythology in Nashville, it would be a daunting task to catalog them all. It would also be pointless, because the story line is factually comprised of all the stories. But there’s no denying that the history of the nightmare of the West, whether the discussion is of western Ukraine, western Paris, or the wild, wild West of America, is the history of those myths—plus lawyers, guns and money.

It’s a big story, with dozens of narrative threads. Altman’s approach in Nashville, as with most of his other films, was to tell many separate, single stories, and let them all tell the bigger story. This was much like the approach Miles Davis used in guiding the musicians who played in his various assemblages of personnel (instead of prescribing a key or specific notes, his single piece of advice to a recently-hired Chick Corea just hours prior to the pianist’s first gig—no rehearsal, no sheet music, no nothing—was to “play what you hear”). Altman cast his film with actors who came with stories ready to tell, in need of a place to tell them.

The evolution of this script may or may not have begun with Altman’s hearing Carradine sing the signature tunes at a party, as the actor offers, but there’s no question that his subsequent use of them as the building blocks was an essential aspect of the organic growth that began with Joan Tewkesbury’s diary and early script. Altman’s ingenuity in letting the actor/musicians tell the story of Nashville through the music they performed lay in his faith in the process, just like with Miles’s simple introduction for Chick on his joining the world’s most acclaimed jazz band. Letting the music, or anything else, speak for itself, is almost contrary to what a crafter of movie fiction is all about. Even a documentary film only has a limited range of interpretation. A Hollywood producer’s instinctive urge to make a single, easy-to-understand dramatic conflict swirled together with a standard-issue love interest the central themes, is thwarted by the facts before he even starts. So he just makes up a story line and hires a screenwriter to cobble it all together into a commercially viable film.

It is a fairly common practice nowadays to cast actors who are musicians to play musicians—such films as Beyond the Sea or Ray would not have stood a chance without Kevin Spacey or Jamie Foxx—and it was Altman’s 1975 film that paved the road ahead for them. But actors as songwriters?

It can’t be overstated that it was the process and multifold involvements that Altman engaged in the development of Nashville’s script/story line that made it capable of being much more than a movie about country music. Not only did Altman create the role of a politician for his film, he had writer Thomas Hal Phillips create a mythical one, a politician who spoke to Phillips, one who addressed what he personally would want to hear from a presidential candidate, and thus be a genuine grassroots candidate who could by extension connect with the filmgoer. (As an example, though Altman doesn’t speak of it in this video clip, Phillips includes a plank in the Replacement Party—his fictitious presidential candidate’s—campaign platform that calls for a law disqualifying any lawyer from holding public office, a populist view if ever there was one). With the Grand Ole Opry as a backdrop, and an assortment of musical talents more variegated than the population of the Star Wars cocktail bar, the film gradually builds into an epic metaphor for the egalitarian ideals of the American experience.

The script called for a role, as yet uncast when the filming started, of a celebrated superstar country music singer along the lines of a Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton. Altman and his team were already on location in Nashville to begin shooting, when he learned that a singer/songwriter he was purchasing song rights from, Ronee Blakely, was in town performing. The master of organic chemistry went to work.

I don’t know precisely what Robert Altman should have said in response to the Washington Post reporter. His film was certainly not responsible for Mark David Chapman murdering John Lennon. What Altman did go on to say about Nashville a generation later, in the commentary reel for Paramount’s DVD release, was: “The statement here is, these people are not assassinated because of their ideas or what they do. They're assassinated to draw attention to the assassin. And in political assassinations, in their sort of warped minds, they know that they are going to have a certain amount of people who said 'that son of a bitch [the politician] should have been shot,' because there's such heat about it. But actually what they are doing is killing somebody who's in the public eye and is some sort of an icon. Because this feeling that by, doing that, committing that assassination they draw the attention to themself, and they make themselves consequently important. Ah, and it's no surprise to me, the Lennon assassination, because this is what all that is, and I don't think we have seen the end of it either."

We All Come to Look for America

And so the story goes. By the time it all came together, Nashville wasn’t really a musical in the classic sense of a stitched-together libretto used to glue a series of musical numbers into a whole. In fact, the reverse is almost the case, especially in scenes liberally improvised by the actor/singers. The film, like a few others of Altman’s, defies category. There were twenty-nine songs included, many of them full performances, and a large percentage of them were written and/or performed by the actors themselves. Many in the Nashville music establishment at the time took umbrage—but that they had missed the point of the movie, that the entire spectrum of humanity represented in Nashville is indeed what Nashville is, what the world is, and that Nashville’s microcosm includes a psychopath with a gun in his guitar case—eventually dawned on most of them. It is an incontrovertible but very uncomfortable truth that 2 or 3 out of a hundred human beings sharing this planet with us are stark, staring mad. How could the Queen of Mean, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, have found humor in such a blood-curdling look at America? I guess you’d have to see the film.

Nashville received nine Golden Globe nominations, the most  one film has ever received. It also set the record for the most-ever nominations for a single acting category, when Ronee Blakely, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Harris and Geraldine Chaplin were all nominated for Best Supporting Actress Golden Globes. Roger Ebert wrote that “...after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser. It’s that good a movie.” It also received five Academy Award nominations (including Ronee Blakely and Lily Tomlin, again, for Best Supporting Actress). But out of all those nominations, the sole winner turned out to be the music. Keith Carradine won the Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as the Golden Globe for Best Original Song – Motion Picture, both for his song “I’m Easy.” 

As it should be. And since you have kept reading this in spite of my earlier spoiler alert, I’ll tell you why. “I’m Easy” was written, sung and acted by an actor who despised the character he was portraying—a heartless, gutless, dishonest, serial womanizer, and killer of souls. The critical scene in which he performs his song takes place in an intimate nightclub setting. Seated at different tables, and utterly oblivious to each other, are four different women he is currently sleeping with. Each listens intently as he warmly seduces them with his voice and guitar, emotionally moved and blissfully unaware that he is, at the same time, cuckolding each of them and wantonly destroying each of their lives.

Psychopaths come in many guises. The most dangerous are the ones we fail to see until we find ourselves swept along in their destructive wake. Politicians. Lawyers. Lovers. Folk singers. Sweet-faced young jihadists. Even U.S. Army veterans (Nashville’s disturbing antagonist wears an olive-drab military jacket similar to the one worn by Travis Bickle, who didn’t appear in Taxi Driver and our cultural consciousness until a year after Nashville was released. Oddly, Army surplus stores could barely keep them in stock after that.)

Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

Due to good luck and nerve, one evening in 1991 I had the opportunity to hear the story of Altman and crew’s masterful interweaving of art and artifice from one of Nashville’s key participants, actress Karen Black. I was having dinner alone at the Lek Café, a tiny Thai restaurant on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood that, while it lasted, was a classic hole-in-the-wall place that served spectacular food at modest prices. I was eating my longstanding favorite, fried garlic shrimp on a bed of lightly pickled cabbage and the only perfectly-prepared brown rice I’ve ever found—when, who should I see but a pair of women seated on the other side of the dining area, one of whom was unmistakably Karen Black.

Who, dear reader, you were just listening to Altman describe as “...the biggest ‘star’ we had in the movie...” (with recent films like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Portnoy’s Complaint, et al.), and his use of her acting skills in the role of country star Connie White, as “on-the-nose casting.” I’d vacillated a bit about whether I wanted to make a star-struck whistle stop by her table as I exited the place, when she happened to look up from her food and catch me gazing in her direction.

Then she smiled. Just like in the movies. Karen Black’s smile was not the usual look-at-my-dental-work, imagine-me-twenty-years-ago smile. Karen Black smiling was like the sun coming up over the horizon on a clear summer morning. I immediately crossed the room and did just as I’d planned, and thanked her for her tremendous body of work. What I had not planned for is that she would invite me to sit down and join them. I did, of course, without hesitation, and for the next hour or so we talked about—what else?—movies. When we got to her work in Nashville, we talked in greatest detail about the very same experience Altman described earlier in the video (you’re watching them now, aren’t you?) about casting her.

In the world of Robert Altman’s cinematic maelstrom of counterweights and balanced forces, “casting” took on additional meaning and was evolving with the needs of the personalities of the actors, as we witnessed in his casting of actor/singer/songwriter Carradine against type, and against the actor’s own wishes. Or in his starting the filming before an actress had been selected for the pivotal role that was ultimately key to the denouement in the last reel. Then there was the day the heterodox Altman set attracted the happy happenstance of Elliott Gould and Julie Christie coming by for a visit and making two fortuitous cameos, as themselves... in Nashville. But earlier than all of that, in the film’s beginning stages of development, after Altman had used a pair of Carradine’s songs to sell the movie project to ABC but before the song performances had become the structural focus of the film, Karen Black had walked up to him at their initial meeting with three songs she had written. Through a combination of intensive script study, ESP, espionage and perceptive vision, she had decided that she wanted the role and determined how to cut to the chase. She showed up, rehearsed and ready, and sang her three songs to him. By the time she had performed the last of the three for the director, she had the job.

In one final act of life imitating art imitating life before I left the Lek Café, Ms. Black gave me a script she’d stuffed in her purse, and asked me if I’d engage my fleeting interest in screenwriting and look at what might be done to fix whatever it was that was wrong with it. I read it over several times, but never did figure out the script or how to help her with it. But I had learned a lesson from the great actress—that a real artistic genius needs to be a provocateur, not an assassin.

Je suis Charlie? 

Je suis.

But it’s pretty obvious that journalists are still learning the difference between provocation and assassination. Imagine being asked by a reporter whether you feel responsible for John Lennon’s murder. The term describing this craven, unethical approach to investigating a story or idea is the unfortunately apt phrase “loaded question,” for the obvious reason that responding to it in any way at all could be lethal. The representative of the Washington Post who asked Altman the question is one of those 2 to 3 in a hundred human beings who have determined that their daily survival depends on keeping the other 97—everyone else in the world—nice and quiet, under control, cowed, heads down and sweating for fear of thinking a stray thought or disturbing “the peace.”

When those 2 to 3 people in a hundred are in positions of authority, whether in spheres of government or electronic media or army surplus chains or arts & entertainment, they like to maintain their positions by convincing you and me that we need them and can’t live without them. Without the IRS, how would we ever manage to pay for all the (fill in the blank) that the U.S. government provides us? Without an agent taking 20% for directing our affairs, how could we ever survive the plummeting CD/movie ticket/book/magazine/fine art/photography sales? Without VA psychiatrists medicating returned veterans on regimens of Xanax-and-Abilify cocktails like they’re herding cattle, how would the GIs ever get through another day without being depressed by the world they’ve come home to? Without the plethora of 24/7 news coverage promoting ideological prescriptions for correct thinking, how would we ever know how to deal with the tidal wave of bad news they flood into our living rooms? Without the masters of war, who would build the big bombs?


The Blues

My brush with stardom and stardust aside, I think that greater even than the casting coup of getting Karen Black for the role of country music queen Connie White, was Altman’s casting of Barbara Harris as Winifred, or “Albuquerque.” Harris was a veteran character actor with great chops, a Hitchcock favorite, but not so well known to 1970s audiences that anyone was prepared for her tour de force in the final act of the film.

Because one of the lessons we have learned by the time the Nashville credits roll, is that if we are ever to get to the point of dealing with those 2 or 3 out of a hundred assassins, politicians, jihadists or cuckolds, we are going to have to lighten up and see the forest for the trees. We are going to have to learn to tell the difference, and discover that 97 of the hundred people we know or meet are our friends. Musically, the time-honored way of dealing with the politicians and jihadists, the bad roads and bad weather, the pain and the sorrow and the tragedies we inevitably face, is to embrace it all enthusiastically and then throw it as hard and as far away as possible. Pick it up like Chief Broom wresting an ECT machine off the floor of an Oregon state hospital, and throw it as far as you can. You put your arms around it and then sling it. In musical terms, you sing it. You sing the blues.    

Technically—if you are addressing a musicologist (!)—there is just one type of music that qualifies as The Blues. Some of the better-known practitioners of the different blues forms have been Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles. And more recently, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton.

But that’s the narrow view. If you are not addressing a musicologist, count yourself lucky, because now you can count every symphony in history, every song that’s ever been sung. It’s all blues. It’s ALL blues. Blues plus jazz, too. And bluegrass. Opera. Country. Hip-hop. Folk. Rock‘n’roll. Washtub bass and a comb. It’s all blues. It all serves the purpose.

The more it kicks your ass, the better. The more it makes you cry, the better. Because the more it makes you cry, the more it will make you laugh about it all later.

Barbara Harris was cast for the Shakespearean finale of Nashville for the simple reason that even though there are musicians who can act when they're called upon, and actors who can sing, well... in some cases you need someone who was born to do both. There’s a lot of truth in the saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover.

When the situation calls for some soul-deep blues, you need someone who can sing it.

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