Saturday, September 9, 2006


The WHC welcomed us back with a Friday night screening of Nashville (1975), my favorite Robert Altman film. I read a bit of Badiou earlier today and I was thinking of his distinctions, when speaking of film, among "the indistinct judgment" (I really like that movie!--personal reaction), the "diacritical judgment" (clearly this is one of Altman's most representative films--an opinion of the film informed by an opinion of the film-maker) and the "axiomatic judgment, what are the effects for thought of such and such a film" (the Idea expressed by the final scene at the Parthenon in Nashville is that America is a land of senseless violence, comic irony, rich pastiche, proud indifference and stubborn resilience).

I'm willing to indulge in all three kinds of judgments in favor of this movie. But I think Badiou is too dismissive of "diacritical judgment" because, as a philosopher, he's in pursuit of the big Idea and not particularly interested, seemingly, in how a film gets made. One of the fascinating aspects of Nashville is that it works at all. This may be the first time I saw the film in a theater, certainly the first time I saw it in a crowded theater, and I kept doubting that the film's meandering, discursive narrative of a series of cameos and minimal interactions could possibly hold the audience's attention, that not one, not two, but three Karen Black numbers were going to send people to the doors, or that the lack of a central conflict/resolution story would bore the young and restless. Scarcely anyone left once the film started.

So what holds it all together? Some might say the music -- and this was suggested by the Whitney kicking off the film with a performance of bluegrass by administrators and instructors at Yale. Yes, there's something heartening about seeing the Dean of the Graduate School playing standup bass and telling us they're going to play "Dark Hollow" the way The Grateful Dead arranged it. And the music of Nashville, in the theater, does have a stronger performance tension than when I watch it on my little screen at home. This is particularly true in tour de force moments like Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy" as he looks past several girlfriends gazing at him to find the new one he's trying to seduce, or every time Ronee Blakely sings with the force of an ecstatic who delivers every word and note as if it would end her being.

There's also the humor. The audience seemed to laugh most at the '70s aspects of the film -- most of the characters look like they could be in a "realistic" TV sitcom from the era and so there's something familiar about them already, some aura of "we've all lived through this" that makes the film part of a collective memory even if many in the audience weren't here in the '70s. But it's also a collective memory that -- particularly in the circulating desire (who sleeps with whom), the circulating longing (who gets to sing where and with whom), and the circulating frustration (who gets to be president, who gets to be famous, who gets shot by whom) -- plays into a collective experience of America as an unpredictable throng of loose ends and a collective fantasy of America as a set of possibilities where the apocalyptic event could come at any moment.

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