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By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 4/15/2009

It's hard to imagine a work that better captures the weird cultural ennui of the mid-1970s than Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville. After a full decade of presidents who were more feared than liked, the country had Gerald Ford, mocked as a buffoon on Saturday Night Live. The radical pop experiments of the movies, music, and art of the counterculture were all but over, with some of its brightest flames--Jean-Luc Godard, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol--having moved on to quieter work.

In Nashville, Altman finds, as Christopher Lasch might call it, a haven in a heartless world, a home for a native American culture that had been left behind so long that it appears to be fresher and newer than it really is, made all the worse by its sad preparations for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Breaking from a reliance on hoary genres like the detective story (The Long Goodbye), the crime film (Thieves Like Us), and the western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Altman is finally able to make a story about his true loves, places and people.

From its opening minute, there's no doubt about where we are. In a movie that runs for almost two and a half hours and boasts no fewer than 24 characters, you can't help but hold on to the cultural signposts for dear life. In the first shot, we see the headquarters of a presidential election campaign--Hal Phillip Walker of the Replacement Party--with a throw-the-bums-out platform and an aw-shucks style that resembles Ross Perot's ill-fated 1992 bid. A campaign car, offering bromides by loudspeaker, serves as a time keeper and reminder of our national sadness.

If the campaign helps us keep our place in the movie, the music reminds us what it is about Nashville--and, by extension, America--that defines and divides the country. Despite the attempts of Gram Parsons and Willie Nelson to make country cool again, the industry hadn't been able to attract new fans without alienating the ones they already had, making them ever more reliant on old stars and older audiences, which only accelerates the separation between the old and the new.

While the grubby campaign managers, aspiring musicians, and general wheeler dealers make Nashville a rich text for soaking in what it felt like to live among the hustlers, its the music, all original songs that mimic the worst of Nashville's tendencies, that makes it so memorable. The lyrics of a song like "Keep A-Goin'" (It ain't no use to sit and whine/ 'Cause the fish ain't on your line/ Bait your hook and keep a'tryin'/ Keep a-goin'), performed by Laugh-In's Henry Gibson, are funny, but there's too much sadness in the movie to laugh for very long. The song's message may sound optimistic, but it feels like desperation.

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