Structurally, Robert Altman's Nashville displays a perpetual convergence that only reaches its collision point in the final frames. I suppose it could be said that it exists in an endless series of convergence and dispersal, the characters somehow all descend on the same location only to retreat back once again to their private worlds, private quarters. This ebb and flow, its rhythms and cycles, with the rhythms and cycles of popular country music, election cycles, days, weeks, etc. strikes at something indescribable about the late 20th century American experience. With Nashville, Altman achieves, like all great works of art, a cathartic moment where all life seems to fall into place and in the instant we attempt to verbalize it, it's gone. With Nashville, through a sprawling canvas made up of seemingly inconsequential moments, Altman is able to constitute the truth that all moments in life share the duality of being entirely irrelevant while carrying deep meaning. The centers of attention, be they celebrities or politicians, and those who vie to be among them, one of them, intermingle around all of the other sights and sounds, the faces, the lives. In Nashville we see an ensemble caught in their own personal streams of thought, occasionally becoming entwined with another, never realizing the consequences that each of their actions will have, good or ill, on the people around them. Mostly self-interested types populate this world of vanity, those who aren't live with an honesty and sense of self that the others can only parrot and mimic.
If there's one thing Altman captures so well among all else it's the sense of desperation in the American psyche that we still retain to this day, clawing at life in an attempt to transcend it and some day reach the Shangri La of the VIPs in whose presence the masses can merely sit, watch and applaud. From all sides, some are down and out, some riding the upward mobility, most are trapped in a state resembling the country at the time, a moment of pause to reflect on the bicentennial with the thought of "now what?". The opening scene of an energetic gospel choir cross cut with the somber march "we must be doing something right to last 200 years", it's a nation transfixed by its own place in the world, looking for meaning in a consumer world. Capitalism, our greatest strength and true national religion had left the populace with little more than "clorox powder and plastic flyswatters with red dots on 'em". The characters do their best to make sense out of it, but their general ignorance of anything outside of popular culture is apparent, what more is there in the land of Coca Cola and McDonalds? The role of the commentator is taken on by the outsider, Opal, a BBC journalist who, like the rest, wanders in and out of the film remarking in wildly off-the-mark generalities in an attempt to poetically dramatize the bizarre hodgepodge that draws the world's attention. The US, as a country, is having the same sort of confused mental breakdown in the spotlight that Barbara Jean embodies, singing songs of simple, down-home logic while living none of it in her current reality. The collective downside of rampant exceptionalism comes to a boil as Sueleen Gay performs for an all male crowd of buttoned-up, would-be donors at a political fundraiser. Their instant disgust with her lack of singing talent quickly spirals into a mob of degradation as they regard her only use as entertainment to be performing a striptease. It's this deep vein of the culture that Altman pierces with sharp observations; the person who receives the coveted spotlight is instantly dehumanized and fodder for the teaming masses in the crowd to unleash scathing attacks, a brief and necessary outlet for their general dissatisfaction with American life that underscores their daily existence. Altman's greatest strength has always been in prompting the viewer along to these realizations with deceptively simple scenarios and characterizations, the complexity is all between the frames. When Barbara Jean hits the peak of her mental breakdown on stage with a series of unrelated tales of her childhood, the response of the audience is unforgiving. After all, they paid good money to see a show. It recalls Gene Youngblood's observations in his book Expanded Cinema, released a few years prior, that any culture so desperately in need of escapist entertainment from their art is the result of "a socioeconomic system that substitutes the profit motive for use value [and] separates man from himself and art from life". Nowhere is this better summarized than in Nashville's parade of trite musical performances, that of a culture in decline feeding off of the brief respite provided by a genre of music that attempts the grand task of crafting the cultural identity for the world's mightiest super-power.
Various social circles, class distinctions, religious denominations and races, in America the only commonality is the lack thereof. One nation, under God, whose only unifying force is their malaise, their interest in popular entertainment and their disinterest in "politics". Secular groups who rarely interacted at first, coming out of their own small world to cross over the lines for perhaps the first time. If the 60's were a wakeup call, the 70's may have been that first sip of coffee, trying to orient oneself and reconcile between the world of dreaming you just left and the world of the waking you're now in. Nashville is one of those perfect films, created exactly at the right place in the right time. The picture it paints reverberates to this day, it's the brief, but fleeting, moment of clarity and sobriety that comes along every so often in an otherwise self-deluded world. Like all performers, the nation does its best to put on a good face, march out on that stage and sing one to the rafters, rarely pausing to ask that most functionally useless of questions; "why?". There is no more sublime convergence than the finale, as Barbara Harris is finally heard by the crowd she dreamed of, "You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me".