HAL PHILIP WALKER, ALBUQUERQUE, NASHVILLE AND ELECTION 2016
From the first time I saw it until this moment, two days before what might just be the most important, potentially resonant (for good and ill) American presidential election since the days of the Civil War, no other movie has expanded in my view more meaningfully, more ambiguously, with more fascination than has Robert Altman’s Nashville. We often hear of movies which “transcend” their genres, or their initial ambitions or intentions, and often built into that alleged transcendence is a condescension to said genre, or those ambitions or intentions, as if the roots were somehow corrupt or unworthy, in need of reconstruction. If the form of Nashville transcends anything, it’s the shape and scope of the multi-character drama as we’d come to know it in 1975, which was dominated at the time by disaster movies and their jam-packed casts filled with old Hollywood veterans and Oscar winners. But it doesn’t “transcend” the arena of political and social commentary so much as attempt to fill in the gaps that usually accompany such filmmaking endeavors– movies which can often feel like treatises tricked out in dramatic dressing– with artifacts, reminiscences, instances of exterior image-making and interior conflict, performance, bravado, anxiety, the sort of breathing room that somehow comes to resemble the real world.
I used the term “expanded” to describe my experience with the movie because Nashville’s vision hasn’t seemed to have left anything about its original context behind in the past 41 years—it still reverberates, means something in the context of where we were at as a nation getting ready to celebrate our 200th anniversary. And yet the film seems to have demonstrated a prescience, an ability to reach forward, to expand its glancing observational acuity toward an age that it surely anticipated, where celebrity and politics have become intertwined in unpredictable and often grotesque ways; where the citizenry has become ever more divided in the face of national and global shifts that have taken place since 1975 and which continue to occur; which seems, despite the sophistication of technological innovations like social media, even less inclined toward real community and communication than ever before.
But even the complex canvas conjured by Altman, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and the marvelous actors which bring Nashville to life hasn’t been able to fully anticipate the degree to which the American public would become subject to the cynical manipulation of partisan politics at the hands of politicians, outsiders as well as those inside the beltway. In 1975 fictional candidate Hal Phillip Walker, himself most certainly an outsider to Washington beltway politics, appealed to the everyman intellect in his front-porch approach to political reasoning:
“Fellow taxpayers and stockholders in America, on the first Tuesday in November, we have to make some vital decisions about our management. Let me go directly to the point. I’m for doing some replacing. I’ve discussed the Replacement Party with people all over this country and I’m often confronted with the statement – ‘I don’t want to get mixed up in politics,’ or ‘I’m tired of politics,’ or ‘I’m not interested.’ Almost as often, someone said, ‘I can’t do anything about it anyway.’ Let me point out two things. Number One: All of us are deeply involved with politics whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. And Number Two: We can do something about it. When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that’s politics.”
It shouldn’t be too difficult to remember how such a simplistic rendering of complex issues might have seemed so attractive to a populace, urban or rural, which had seemingly had its fill of a political system saturated with systemic racism and violence, one so quick to exploit a growing generational divide and unembarrassed by its contempt for its own diverse constituencies, one which had just endured a national crisis, a presidential implosion and, as the ultimate cynical kiss-off, a pardon by that president’s ascendant replacement from any criminal responsibility. Who wouldn’t, on one level or another, have been for some replacing?
And Walker’s campaign, gathering steam in small steps in the summer of 1975, its collective eyes on the big contest to come a year later, seems to have been at least initially underestimated. Listen to ABC news anchor and political commentator Howard K. Smith, in the hours just before what will turn out to be a horrifying watershed moment in the Walker campaign, summarize the Walker effect and reflect in a way that, in retrospect, knowing what we know about presidential politics in 2016, can only now seem terribly, quaintly insufficient in its self-satisfaction:
“Little more than a year ago, a man named Hal Phillip Walker excited a group of college students with some questions– “Have you stood on a high and windy hill and heard the acorns drop and roll? Have you walked in the valley beside the brook, walked alone and remembered? Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?” Within a commencement speech, such questions were fitting, perhaps, but hardly the material with which to launch a presidential campaign. Even those who pay close attention to politics probably saw Hal Phillip Walker and his Replacement Party as a bit of frost on the hillside. Summer, if not late spring, would surely do away with all that. Well, now that summer, along with presidential primaries, is heavy upon us and the frost is still there, perhaps we should take a closer look. Hal Phillip Walker is, in a way, a mystery man. Out of nowhere with a handful of students and scarcely any pros, he’s managed to win three presidential primaries and is given a fighting chance to take a fourth– Tennessee. A win in that state would take on added significance, for only once in the last 50 years has Tennessee failed to vote for the winning presidential candidate. No doubt many Americans, especially party-liners, wish that Hal Phillip Walker would go away, disappear like the natural frost and come again at some more convenient season. But wherever he may be going, it seems sure that Hal Phillip Walker is not going away. For there is genuine appeal, and it must be related to the raw courage of this man. Running for President, willing to battle vast oil companies, eliminate subsidies to farmers, tax churches, abolish the Electoral College, change the National Anthem and remove lawyers from government– especially from Congress. Well, at this point, it would be wise to say most of us don’t know the answer to Hal Phillip Walker. But to answer one of his questions, as a matter of fact, Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me.”
Yet in 2016 the man whose image and impact seemed to most accurately reflect the unpretentious impertinence of Hal Phillip Walker, H. Ross Perot, the wealthy businessman who mounted an influential, if still unsuccessful, bid for the presidency in 1992, seems almost like a distant memory. (Almost.) Like Walker, Perot hailed from the South and had a penchant for boiling down complex issues into sound-bite-sized “solutions” that could appeal to those voters whose attention to the wonky minutiae of political logic and practicality was as deficient as his own. “I’ve got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem,” Perot said during one debate during his campaign.
If Perot’s cut-to-the-chase braggadocio sounds familiar it should, echoing as it does from the fictional past of Altman’s movie all the way through to the unexpected steamrolling of the American political process at the (some would say tiny; many people are saying it) hands of Donald Trump. However, the folksy pretense to honesty which links Walker to Perot is inapplicable to Trump. Yes, the same sorts of appeals to his base and potential voters are being made by this year’s Perot, but the key element absent is any sense that Trump, like Walker or Perot, is really “one of us.” The trappings of glamour, wealth, urbanity and grotesque excess that have characterized Trump’s public life, long before he became interested in a presidential candidacy, are many times removed from Walker’s assumed of-the-people stature. We can only guess, given the lack of information in the movie itself, as to Walker’s personal financial holdings, but certainly Perot’s own status as a rich mover-and-shaker was only enhanced by his own inescapable persona as a straight-shooting Texan. Trump has, improbably, extended his appeal to the very sort of voting base who might previously, as in the case of Perot and certainly in the case of Walker, and perhaps in a moment characterized by more clarity and less purposely fomented outrage, have found the self-aggrandizing real estate mogul irredeemably suspect.
Nashville is fascinating not only for what it told us, and continues to tell us, about the way American politics have been altered, the way the idealism of the ‘60s was assassinated and replaced by overwhelming political opportunism, hued by language delivered in familiar cadences and wrapped in the facile trappings of patriotism. It’s also pertinent and enriched by its concern for the people who make lives amid the exuberant chaos of the American landscape, who are indeed often the source of that chaos, who revel not only in the insanity and sometimes unforgiving indifference of that landscape, but also in a measure of hopefulness to which every citizen can, or should be able to lay claim.
Of all of Nashville’s celebrated 24 characters, all of whom dart in and out at one time or another from the periphery and into the center of the action captured by Altman’s camera, the one I’ve been thinking about a lot in these days before the 2016 election is the one that in some ways seems the most peripheral, the woman known only as Albuquerque, played by Barbara Harris. Albuquerque, as hinted at by the name she calls herself, is certainly an outsider to Nashville, but also to the city’s music scene, which she hopes in some way to penetrate on the way toward the sort of career embodied by singers like Barbara Jean and Connie White, women with whom she will share some very significant space over the course of the three days depicted in the film. She’s traveled to Nashville with her husband, Star (Bert Remsen), but somewhere along the way Star has grown impatient with Albuquerque’s relentless fantasies of country music fame and fortune, so much so that Albuquerque has made a break from him and spends the duration of the film trying to avoid being caught by him and dragged back home.
She chatters on about her talent and her desires to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately for her, not too many seem to be interested in listening, so caught up are they in the swirl of their own concerns and interests. She weaves among the cacophonic ambience of Altman’s portraiture of Nashville’s busy world, invaded as it has been by the Walker campaign and its hangers-on. At one point, self-absorbed as always, Albuquerque stumbles across a highway, indifferent to and completely unaware of the traffic accident she has inadvertently caused. While cars crash together behind her and Walker campaign staffers, decked out in red-white-and-blue decorated straw hats, scramble to assist the possibly injured drivers, Albuquerque dithers on. She may be unaware of the chaos surrounding her, some of which she herself sets in motion, but it’s clear that on some level, conscious or otherwise, she thrives on it, which makes her a perfect drifter to navigate, on our behalf, the whims of the wind, to say nothing of the compressed and readily unleashed energy and opportunism floating through Altman’s musical city.
And wherever the talent and the audiences gather, the observant viewer will catch glimpses of Albuquerque perched just off stage, or milling around backstage without permission, soaking up the milieu, hoping some of the good luck that has graced the performers she sees in the positions of prominence they enjoy will somehow be also visited upon her. But in the same way she seems to be able to slip out of the grasp of her pursuant husband, that lucky break seems to elude Albuquerque at most every turn. She can’t even seem to crack the open mic at a club which sets up the spunky charm of a duo like the Smoky Mountain Laurels against the tone-deaf warbling of another would-be star, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles).
And the one gig where we do see Albuquerque on stage isn’t exactly a dream venue. One of my favorite sequences in Nashville is the one which contrasts the various Sunday worship services attended by some of the characters– the sober formalism of the Catholic mass attended by Wade (Robert DoQui) and Star (Bert Remsen), and Miss Pearl (Barbara Baxley) with head covering that looks more like a doily– Sueleen is there too, wearing a fuller mantilla, singing in the choir where she and her musical abilities are finally afforded a modicum of grace; the Presbyterian service where Del (Ned Beatty) brings his kids, a big, ornate Protestant service befitting the mainstream of the Nashville religious community (there’s even a sign language interpreter for the benefit of the many deaf worshipers, the Reese children among them) which sees country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in choral robes, yet no less pompous in this sacred mode– like everywhere else, he’s there primarily to be seen; Linnea sings with the gospel choir (presumably the one she’s seen with at the opening of the film) at a black church– Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) is also there– where the choir provides the background setting for a baptism; and finally, Barbara Jean, seated in a wheelchair at the front of the modest hospital chapel, engaged in a heartrending rendition of “In The Garden” (“Well, He walks with me and He talks with me/And He tells me I am his own…”) while her husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), Pvt. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn) and Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) listen intently.
In immediate contrast to the reverent observance on display in the church sequence, Albuquerque is next seen singing at a car race, to a “congregation” whose lack of receptivity to her message can at least be blamed on the screaming wheels and grinding gears of the culture at large, and not just spiritual vacuity or, perhaps more generously, the potentially hollow habits of worship. But the thing that makes Albuquerque stand out amidst the madness, regardless of whether or not she can actually be heard, and regardless of whether or not she can even sing, is that Albuquerque gives the opportunity and the performance her all. After all, this is, she thinks, her one moment to shine.
As Nashville moves toward its conclusion, the focus shifts to a Hal Phillip Walker rally at the Parthenon, a replica of the ancient Greek structure which stands as the centerpiece of the city’s Centennial Park, the event for which John Triplette (Michael Murphy) has spent the duration of the film relentlessly courting and recruiting the elite among Nashville’s country music stars, including Connie White, Tommy Brown, Haven Hamilton and Barbara Jean. Throughout the film we’ve had glimpses of Kenny Frasier (David Hayward). Like Albuquerque, Kenny is another outsider, a quiet, socially reticent fellow who creeps through the movie, fiddle case in hand, as if looking for a gig he’s already sure he’s unqualified for. But he doesn’t seem to be a musician, and unlike Albuquerque, he makes no attempt to ingratiate himself within the community of musicians and entertainers. He seems to have an interest in Barbara Jean, but his true motivations remain unspoken. And there he is, near front and center in the audience.
Among all those gathered at the Parthenon on stage waiting for the rally to start, there seems to be a certain unease. Musicians and Walker representatives mill about the stage, yet the only person we see exhibiting any sense of seeming natural and in her element is Albuquerque. How she got there is anyone’s guess, presumably slipping in under the relaxed radar of Walker security, but there she sits, poised like the family cat at the feet of other performers like Sueleen Gay (how did she get there?) and that gospel choir, waiting for a crack at the door, another possible moment.
Those who have seen Nashville know that for Albuquerque her moment does indeed come—she finds herself leading a stunned assembly in a seemingly endless chorus of the movie’s signature anthem of blinkered optimism, “It Don’t Worry Me,” after seizing the stage in the aftermath of a horrifying occurrence which seems like nothing if not an unwelcome echo of the senseless political violence of the ‘60s lurching its way into newer, unplowed ground. Screenwriter Matthew Wilder recently wrote that, as Altman’s camera slowly pulls back from this scene and tilts to the sky, it feels like nothing less than the director raising his gaze to heaven in disbelief. And indeed, Altman ends Nashville on a note that is exquisitely difficult to pin down, one of the most gloriously ambiguous refrains in the history of American movies, at once chilling, exhilarating, cynical, defiant and sanguine, yet laced with resignation and apprehension. Which makes it the perfect film to encapsulate the strange brew of corruption, racism, malfeasance, boorish sexism and general upending of decorum and tradition that marks this weirdest of all political seasons. However Nashville ends up reflecting back on the era we’re about to usher in, if the descendants of Hal Phillip Walker have their day or if the Albuquerques adrift at sea in the American political system can seize their moment and make what they can of it, obviously no one can yet say. But as vital as this singular artistic achievement has remained over the course of 41 increasingly tumultuous years, I suspect it might just find some way to sing a uniquely American tune to those who have ears to hear. That, at least, don’t worry me.