I Saw the Light (Hank Williams) and Janis: Little Girl Blue (Janis Joplin)—Popular music and its discontents

By David Walsh
3 October 2015

This is the third in a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-20). The first part was posted September 26 and the second part October 1.

Country music performer Hank Williams (1923-1953) and rock and roll singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) were both significant figures in the history of American popular culture. Williams died at 29 and Joplin at 27. Each is the subject of a new film. I Saw the Light (Marc Abraham) is a fictional account of Williams’ life; Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amy Berg) is a documentary about Joplin.

The gifted British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and also creditably sings his songs (musician Rodney Crowell worked with Hiddleston for a month). I Saw the Light follows Williams’ life from his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama in 1944 (the owner is also a justice of the peace) to his death, from alcohol and pill-induced heart failure, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light

Abraham’s effort is a fairly standard film biography. It treats some of the ups and many downs in Williams’ life. The singer drank heavily, between occasional periods of sobriety. He was often in pain because of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the outer part of certain vertebrae is not completely closed. He and his wife frequently fought, over money, over her desire to sing, over his affairs, over her affairs. They eventually divorced, and shortly before his death, Williams married again.

I Saw the Light

Williams had his first big hit with “Move It on Over,” about a man in trouble with his wife, in 1947. In fact, it is an early rock and roll song, one that unmistakably reflects the postwar atmosphere. After a successful stint on the Louisiana Hayride, Williams first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, where his “Lovesick Blues” was a triumph. The glory did not last long.

He was eventually fired from the Opry for alcoholism in 1952 and his famed producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford in the film), stopped working with him. His life went from bad to worse … It did not help matters that a quack, who had obtained his “Doctorate of Science” for $35 began prescribing amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate and morphine for the ailing and addicted singer. I Saw the Light fleshes out these various episodes. Hiddleston, Olsen and Cherry Jones as the formidable Lillie Williams, Hank’s mother, all do well. The film avoids painting any of the characters as yokels, but it also avoids saying much of anything about them. This movie is not an immense step forward from Gene Nelson’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, the 1964 film with George Hamilton as Williams and Susan Oliver as Audrey.

Williams was a remarkable singer and songwriter. His lyrics are clever and insightful about everyday life. His liveliest songs “swing” with confidence and swagger, finding a large audience in a population that had endured the Depression and the war and now, with jobs and with some money in their pockets, had no intention of returning to the darkest days of the 1930s—“Move It on Over,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “Why Don’t You Love me,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and more.

In one of the better scenes in I Saw the Light, Williams-Hiddleston is in New York—where he feels like a fish out of water—for the Perry Como television show in November 1951. He speaks frankly to a reporter from a big city newspaper. “Everyone has a little darkness,” he says. Williams refers to the anger, misery, sorrow and shame that everyone feels. “I show it to them [the public]. … They think I can help.”

In another comment, cited by Colin Escott in his biography of Williams, the real-life singer told an interviewer (perhaps the one fictionalized in the film?) in 1951, “Folk songs [which are what he termed his own music] express the dreams and prayers and hopes of the working people.”

This element seems deliberately played down in I Saw the Light. Perhaps Abraham was frightened of making sweeping and too easy generalizations, and unsubstantiated generalizations should obviously be avoided. But Williams was born in immense poverty in rural southern Alabama and grew up during the Depression. His father was a terrible drunk and his mother was not an easy person. He drank, and ultimately took pills, all his brief life to alleviate physical and psychological pain. But his songs reflected something more than merely his own personal distress and striving. Their rhythms and words tapped into the sentiments of large numbers of people.

The film convincingly recreates the physical look of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but pays little attention to the larger forces at work that shaped and propelled Hank Williams and country music in general. One does not really obtain a sense in I Saw the Light of the quality and character of everyday life out of which his songs emerged.

Country music, including its very name, is full of contradictions that deserve to be explored. Like Williams’ family, which moved from rural Butler County to Montgomery, Alabama, a city of 70,000, when the future singer was 13 or 14, the genre was created and developed for the most part by those who were, in fact, leaving the “country.”

As historian Rachel Rubin notes: “In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind as both black and white Southerners fled the rural South for the promise of good jobs in the city.”

Neither is the question of Jim Crow segregation touched upon in the film. Abraham’s may have had the healthy notion that I Saw the Light should not become prey to contemporary identity politics, but simply sidestepping complexities is not helpful either.

One of Williams’ earliest influences was the African American street musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who apparently showed the eight-year-old how to improvise chords on the guitar. Williams had many African American fans. The final shot I Saw the Light is newsreel footage from the day of Williams’ funeral in January 1953 in Montgomery, and one sees many black faces in the crowd milling about on the street.

Claudette Colvin was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was arrested for opposing segregation on Montgomery’s buses in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was taken off a city bus by police, sparking the famous boycott. Speaking of her childhood, Colvin told her biographer Philip Hoose, “I listened to the Grand Ole Opry, too. The star of the show was Hank Williams, a famous country singer from Montgomery. When he died, his funeral drew the biggest crowd in the history of the city; Hank Williams’ wife invited the black community to attend since so many of us liked his music, but Mom wouldn’t let me go because the funeral was segregated.”

These are the sorts of fascinating dramas and conflicts that a more serious work on Hank Williams’ life and times might have raised. As it is, I Saw the Light is a pleasant film that does not go terribly deep.

Popular music has played, and continues to play, an immense role in American life. There are many reasons for this, including the extraordinary heterogeneity of experiences, traditions and nationalities that jostle against one another in America and seem worth calling attention to. But is it not possible as well that a population so politically disenfranchised and excluded as the American people must find some outlet, which social democratic, “Communist” or labor parties have provided to a limited extent in other countries, for its feelings and sufferings?

Janis Joplin

Amy Berg is making a name for herself as an interesting documentary filmmaker. Her Deliver Us from Evil (2006), about a Catholic priest who admitted to molesting and raping 25 children, and West of Memphis (2012), about the frame-up of a number of young men for the supposed “satanic” murder of three eight-year-old children, were both systematic and compassionate.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Berg turns to the life and career of singer Janis Joplin, who was immensely popular for the last several years of her life until her tragic demise from heroin and alcohol in October 1970.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a sea port on the Gulf of Mexico and at the time the center of a large oil refinery network. Her father was a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. In high school, as Little Girl Blue details, Joplin felt persecuted and an outcast.

The civil rights movement and the social developments of the late 1950s and early 1960s were obviously critical to the course of her life. One of her first musical memories, Berg’s film notes, was hearing folk singer Odetta’s version of “Careless Love.” Joplin tried folk singing in Austin, Texas, before first moving to San Francisco in 1963, where she sang but also developed a methamphetamine habit and became “skeletal.”

After a brief period back home in Port Arthur, Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 and became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a “psychedelic rock” band. A major breakthrough took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first of the large, well-publicized music festivals, in June 1967, where she sang a memorable version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Berg’s film follows the vicissitudes of Joplin’s professional and personal life. She left Big Brother in 1968 and went out on her own as the leader of her own bands. She continued to use serious drugs. A friend says blithely, “We shot heroin for fun.” She eventually took for Brazil to clean herself up, where she fell in love with an American tourist.

Janis Joplin in 1970

Berg treats Joplin’s life with a great deal of sympathy. The singer, who exuded confidence and bravado on stage, was beset by anxiety and insecurity. She told a Montreal reporter in 1969, “Send me your review. I agonize over all of ’em. Man, I’m really neurotic. I really want people to love me.”

Joplin’s recordings are not generally as good as they could be and she tended, as filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker remarks, to “shout and scream.” It will elicit cries of outrage from some, but, in my opinion, there is very little of the “San Francisco Sound” that stands the test of time: too much self-indulgence, too many drugs, too much self-delusion.

However, anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it. This writer saw her in concert three times in 1968 and 1969, including on a bill with B.B. King only a few hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.

Her last boyfriend David Niehaus comments in Berg’s film that Janis “could feel everybody else’s pain.” She could not be oblivious, Niehaus explains, to suffering, her singing represents an “entire honesty.”

Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’ younger siblings, participated in the making of Berg’s film and are interviewed in it. They were present at the public screenings in Toronto. Each makes a highly favorable impression. They spoke with considerable affection, four decades or more later, about their elder sister. Laura described Janis’ emotional life as a “roller coaster” from early on. She made clear that her sister hated “racism” (Port Arthur had an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s) and felt strongly about “integration” and “equality.” Footage of Janis’s mother, after Janis’ death, reading one of her daughter’s letters, is also very moving.

The final and most apt comment in Little Girl Blue comes from John Lennon, on a talk show following Joplin’s death. Lennon observes that no one is asking the most important question, why people take drugs in the first place. He suggests that it comes from a “problem with society. People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.”

Gillian Armstrong’s latest film

Australian film director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, High Tide, Oscar and Lucinda) has made an intriguing and original documentary, Women He’s Undressed, about the legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly (1897-1964), born Orry George Kelly in Kiama, New South Wales.

Women He’s Undressed

Armstrong has actor Darren Gilshenan portray Orry-Kelly in various slightly camp reenactments of episodes from the designer’s life. Sent to Sydney by his parents in 1917 to study banking, Orry-Kelly developed a love for the theater, before emigrating to the US in 1922. He shared an apartment with the future Cary Grant, then Archie Leach, in New York City, where they sold ties together.

Orry-Kelly moved to Hollywood in 1931 and eventually found work at Warner Brothers. In the end, he had 300 film credits, including as costume designer for such films as Juarez, When Tomorrow Comes, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, The Little Foxes, An American in Paris, Oklahoma!, Auntie Mame, Sweet Bird of Youth, Gypsy and Irma La Douce. During certain periods, he worked on as many as 50 films a year.

The talking heads include Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda and award-winning costume designer Ann Roth, all of whom speak about Orry-Kelly with great respect and affection.

The designer, who was gay in what he described as a “homophobic city” (Hollywood), never found personal happiness. He drank a great deal, and when drunk was apparently “foulmouthed” and “mean.” Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards for his design work (the most won by an Australian until costume designer Catherine Martin surpassed his total in 2014).

Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, is a biographical film about the trials and tribulations of American screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), blacklisted and sent to jail in 1950 as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” screenwriter and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Roach is best known to this point for directing the Austin Powers series of films with Mike Myers and the Meet the Parents series with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. He also directed the execrable Borat, with Sacha Baron Cohen. None of this is very auspicious or seems a serious preparation for taking on one of the most complex and fraught political periods in American history.

One’s misgivings are largely confirmed. More can be said about the film when it eventually comes out to the movie theaters, but Trumbo represents the writer (played by Bryan Cranston), a Communist Party member from 1943 to 1948, as little more than a tepid liberal. Granted, the Stalinist party presented itself during this period as the most fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the war effort, but there was more to Trumbo and his adherence to the CP than that. His 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, about a shell-shocked World War I veteran, was a quite ferocious attack on imperialist war and its horrors. In any case, Trumbo is a weak effort.

Sunset Song

More should also be said in the future about Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, based on the well-known 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Davies (The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth, Of Time and the City) is an immensely sensitive filmmaker, but his adaptation of the novel is oddly dissatisfying.

The story, set in the early 20th century, involves a farming family eking out an existence in northeast Scotland. The patriarch (Peter Mullan) is as hard and unsympathetic as a closed fist. His wife, worn out by painful births, eventually takes her own life and those of her two youngest children. Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the eldest daughter in the family, is deserted by her beloved brother, the victim of their father’s brutality, who takes off for greener pastures in Canada.

After her father’s death, Chris marries Ewan Tavendale, a young farmer, and the pair spend some happy time together. However, the shadow of World War I falls across this isolated region too. Under the pressure of public opinion and against his better judgment, Ewan enlists and is sent off to France, where he experiences the horrors of trench warfare. When he comes home on leave, he is a transformed human being. One tragedy follows the other. Sunset Song is a lovely film, but its focus and center are not at all clear. The first line of the film, spoken by Chris to a school-friend, is this: “Is your father a socialist?” And a discussion of equality and the French Revolution soon takes place. However, much of the film is devoted to the sadism of Mullan’s character, which the actor, frankly, overdoes and which becomes a bit tedious.

World War I, a central fact of the story (and the period!), one would think, comes in rather late—almost as an afterthought. When a WSWS reporter asked Davies, who seemed somewhat demoralized by the state of the world, at a public screening whether his film was intended to be taken as an “anti-war” statement, the filmmaker looked bemused and replied, no, no, it was merely about “forgiveness” and such. Something is muddled.




Re-released after 40 years: The strengths and weaknesses of Robert Altman’s Nashville

By David Walsh
30 September 2015

Robert Altman’s film Nashville has been playing in movie theaters across the US recently to mark 40 years since its original release in the summer of 1975.

Ronee Blakley in Nashville

The nearly three-hour work follows two dozen characters over the course of several days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, the official capital of country music. As was his wont, Altman created a rambling, improvisational film, which includes a number of intertwined storylines.

Psychologically fragile country music star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is returning to the city and its cutthroat music scene, accompanied by her gruff, controlling manager-husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), after a somewhat mysterious stay in hospital. Various hangers-on and admirers orbit around her. The dreadful Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a veteran country performer, presides over the Grand Ole Opry (a weekly country music concert and radio program broadcast since 1925) and the city’s music industry with an iron fist.

The members of an “alternative” folk-rock trio are in Nashville to record an album. Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), the group’s most prominent figure, pursues or is pursued by several women, including a garrulous British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin), a local matron, gospel singer and mother of two deaf children (Lily Tomlin) and the female singer in the trio, Mary (Cristina Raines), who is currently married to the group’s third member, Bill (Allan F. Nicholls).

Lily Tomlin

A presidential election campaign is underway. The voice of the candidate of the newly founded pseudo-populist Replacement Party, Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), is heard throughout the film, as his campaign van broadcasts his empty, platitudinous message on the streets of Nashville. Two of his representatives, the oily John Triplette (Michael Murphy) from California and local lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are making efforts to line up support in the music world for their candidate. A large outdoor rally for Walker, at which all the singers are set to perform (Barbara Jean has more or less been forced by circumstances to show up, others have been bribed), forms the denouement of the film.

Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce various other personalities in Nashville, including Barbara Jean’s bitter rival, Connie White (Karen Black); a Vietnam veteran still in uniform (Scott Glenn); an older man (Keenan Wynn) whose wife has been hospitalized and his niece, a would-be “groupie,” visiting from Los Angeles (Shelley Duvall); a waitress and aspiring singer, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles); an African American short order cook (Robert DoQui); an estranged husband and wife (Bert Remsen and Barbara Harris); and a young man from out of town (Kenny Frasier) who carries a violin case and seems infatuated with Barbara Jean. The young man turns out to be her assassin.

One of Altman’s innovations, which has its positive and negative sides, was to encourage his actors to write and perform their own songs in the film (and also contribute lines and entire speeches). In fact, in the end, the best of the music is the most compelling single element in Nashville. The emotion and beauty of certain songs is the strongest proof of the enduring quality of popular music, including country music.

Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines

Altman’s work was shot in the summer of 1974. The resignation of President Richard Nixon took place during the filming. Nashville is permeated, among other things, with moods produced by the Watergate scandal, part cynical, part hopeful. In fact, the film was released in the wake of explosive developments in American life extending back fifteen years or more: the civil rights movement and inner city rebellions, a series of assassinations of major political figures, the Vietnam War and the mass protest movement it provoked, the strike wave that engulfed American industry in the early 1970s and more.

Altman and Tewkesbury set their sights on the emerging celebrity culture in America, a crass and vulgar culture that was reducing country music and politics alike, in the director’s words, to “popularity contests.” At its best,Nashville sets its struggling and often bewildered, but well-meaning, human figures against the hollowness, cruelty and greed of the existing set-up. Altman had his definite weaknesses as an artist and a thinker, but his instincts in regard to authorities of every kind were invariably hostile.

There is a certain prescience in the film, in its attention to the rise of Nashville and the Sun Belt more generally, with their association with “free market economic thought,” parasitic economic activities of various kinds and the move away from industrial production. One commentator notes that the “Sunbelt boom of the late 1970s paralleled the popularization of country music and auto racing [also present in Nashville] … In sum, the Sunbelt became fashionable in the 1970s.” The 1976 election of Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, the first Southerner since before the Civil War who had come to the presidency by election, seems presaged by the film. Moreover, when John Lennon was murdered five years after Nashville’s release it seemed to many horribly like life imitating art.

The director, an inveterate gambler and, at the time, heavy drinker, adopted a semi-anarchistic approach to life and to filmmaking. Actors were brought in at the last moment for key roles. Altman often wrote dialogue for a given scene the morning it was to be filmed. He devised a means, with the help of technicians, of recording the voices of various characters and even “extras” speaking simultaneously. The resulting overlapping dialogue in the final film is a trademark of his. The result, at its best, is a chaotic, amusing tumult in which the many-sidedness and even absurdity of human behavior finds expression.

Certain sequences and personalities stand out. Lily Tomlin’s Linnea Reese conveys sympathy and dignity at every point. It is a remarkable moment when Tom (Carradine), in a crowded club, attempts to reach her over the heads of three other women through a seductive and, presumably, honestly delivered song. A few minutes before, Mary (Raines) has belted out a song, expressing her own feelings for Tom. Critic Andrew Sarris suggested that Tomlin, Raines and Carradine “turn a smoky café into an arena of yearning sexuality.” Later, in bed, Linnea teaches the self-absorbed Tom sign language.

One remembers, with chagrin and pain, the hapless Sueleen (Welles) perform a striptease before a crowd of hooting male spectators at a Walker fundraiser on the promise that she will be allowed to perform with her idol, Barbara Jean, at the upcoming concert.

Henry Gibson

Above all, there is the performance of Blakley as Barbara Jean, in the words of critic Molly Haskell, “a white-clad Ophelia whose psychic disorder is expressed in those odd, uncoordinated hand gestures.” Her on-stage breakdown (based in part on singer Loretta Lynn’s problems) is poignant and believable. The immense, unbearable pressure of “show business” claims another victim. Nothing is more destructive in America than success.

As noted above, the music, intentionally or not, is Nashville’s most enduring and endearing feature, and Blakley, a songwriter and singer, provides the best of it. Along with Carradine’s “I’m Easy” and the trio’s “Since You’ve Gone,” Blakley’s “Tapedeck in His Tractor,” “Dues” and “My Idaho Home” are to a large extent what draws one back to the film time and time again.

Altman and Tewkesbury are quite sharp about certain things. They may have been somewhat easy targets, but the noxious patriotism and piety of the country music establishment were in considerable need of a vehement attack. Haven Hamilton (inspired by the figures of Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, among others), who performs wretched songs about America’s greatness and the virtue of perseverance in public, is behind the scenes a hypocritical, conniving, Machiavellian scoundrel, with considerable political ambition.

The filmmakers were no doubt aware of the warm welcome Acuff, for example, had given to President Nixon on the occasion of the opening of a new, suburban home for the Grand Ole Opry in March 1974, a few scant months before the latter’s departure in disgrace.

Altman’s film came in for fierce criticism in 1975 from right-wing sources. The ideological pedigree of many of those who pretended to be speaking for supposedly caricatured Southerners and the abused country music scene was extremely dubious. Those claims blended in with a general chorus of abuse from openly reactionary defenders of the status quo, deeply offended by Altman’s blows against some of the American establishment’s sacred cows. George Will, already turning out his reactionary rubbish, rejected Altman’s work, with its criticism of “callousness, exploitation, [and the] failure to communicate,” as “not a close approximation” to American life.

Right-wing columnist Patrick Buchanan (a former adviser and speechwriter in the Nixon White House) also denounced the film, for, among other things, depicting country music’s “public patriotism” as “false and phony.” Buchanan argued that Nashville was “a slander on America; it is a notion that lives only in the jaundiced eyes of men like Robert Altman and the artistic and intellectual community that endorses and applauds what he is saying about the United States.” One obviously has to defend Nashville against these claims.

All that being said, and Nashville’s sporadically extraordinary qualities having been recognized, a re-viewing of the film today brings home two central facts: first, that if it was Altman’s intent to create a panoramic view of modern American life, his effort was audacious and entirely creditable; and second, if such was his intent, that he failed, perhaps inevitably, in the effort.

The numerous exaggerated claims made for the film over the decades, that it is “a masterpiece” and “an epic pronouncement on the state of the union,” that “it might just be the greatest American film of all time” and so forth, need to be set aside. Nashville is not a great film; it is one with a good many strengths and a good many weaknesses. It contains intriguing and insightful moments, along with much sloppy, careless and irritating material. Of course, the film’s sharp and persistent contradictions need to be seen within the appropriate context. Altman’s limitations were not entirely of his own making; they were bound up with the state of political and intellectual life.

In any event, too many sequences and characters in Nashville go nowhere. Its first hour meanders somewhat tediously. The satire in the early airport and traffic accident sequences is rather heavy-handed. The film is stretched too thin in its initial portion for the demands being made on it by dozens of characters and situations.

Bert Remsen, a fine character actor, has nothing to do but look grumpy. Until the final scene, Barbara Harris is also essentially given little to do. Jeff Goldblum’s silent Tricycle Man is a mystery that does not interest one. The relationship between Keenan Wynn and his niece never fully convinces. Altman makes Chaplin’s journalist, critic Robin Wood noted, “as idiotic [and annoying] as he can.”

Altman never worked out his attitude toward society and human beings. He passed back and forth, often in the same work, sometimes in the same scene, between compassion and rancid misanthropy. Wood describes Altman’s all too frequent “smug superiority to and contempt for [his] characters.” In Nashville, one is often left uncertain precisely who and what are being satirized and from which point of view. The problem extends to the music. Carradine and Blakley simply go ahead and perform the songs they want to sing, with sincerity. Other numbers, however, hover confusingly (and ineffectively) somewhere between camp and genuine commitment.

As we noted two decades ago, “Unpredictability, instability, the working of chance, spontaneity, arbitrariness, the lack of logic in the universe—these make up Altman’s sensibility.” In contrast to the many stultified products of the Hollywood system at the time, this sensibility opened the filmmaker up to sides of American life—in The Long Goodbye (1972), Thieves Like Us (1974) andCalifornia Split (1974) in particular—that were unavailable to more staid figures.

But all of this had a limit. And when Altman attempted to make a grand statement about American life, to use Nashville and the country music world “as a metaphor,” he inevitably faltered. Nashville demonstrated the limitations of a far too heavy reliance on artistic intuition at the expense of conscious understanding. One cannot stumble upon the truth about a society and its prospects by accident, nor does a major work, as Hegel points out, come to the artist “in his sleep.”

The failure expresses itself in his ambivalent (at best) attitude toward the American people. One has the definite sense that Altman, like many radical intellectuals at the time, blamed the population for Nixon’s electoral victories (especially for the defeat of liberal George McGovern in 1972), and for the general shift to the right taking place by the mid-1970s.

Asked in a 1975 interview whether there were any political figures or movement with which he could identify or sympathize with, Altman replied, “I’m a Democrat, if anything. I supported [Eugene] McCarthy, McGovern, [probably Robert] Kennedy. I was very, very angry from the beginning about people like Richard Nixon. I don’t like [Ronald] Reagan or [George] Wallace.”

He went on, “I think change is going to come through social pressure. The anti-materialist movement [“counterculture”] that took place in the sixties is certainly an expression of that.”

A banal outlook, common to the garden variety American intellectual of a certain type. The difficulty, and it is not Altman’s personal difficulty, is the sharp decline by this time already in the influence of left-wing thought and analysis. The Cold War purges, the alliance of American liberalism with ferocious anti-communism, the decline of the labor movement, combined with the crimes of Stalinism that did so much to damage the standing of socialism in the eyes of millions, all this had taken its toll.

Unlike artists of an earlier age, who followed events with an eye to concrete social relationships, to class association, Altman speaks largely in abstract, vague generalities. He proceeds to blame the population for apathy and for its supposed lack of understanding. “The majority of the people … have done what they have been told they were supposed to do.” He speaks rather contemptuously of those who have “worked for their new Chevrolet every two years and they’ve got their house and their barbecue and they’ve sent their kids to college.” Later he suggests, “That’s what the picture [Nashville] is about, really. The whole point of making political analogies to the country-western stars is the fact that people don’t listen.” This is the language of the middle class radicalism of the time, including the New Left, which wrote off the working class in America as hopelessly backward and inert.

In fact, the American working class had just passed through one of its most militant and combative phases in history. The General Electric strike of 1969-70 lasted 122 days and involved 133,000 workers. In March 1970, 200,000 postal workers walked out, in the first national strike by public employees. In the fall of the same year, some 400,000 General Motors workers stayed out for 67 days. In 1970 alone there were some 5,600 work stoppages and 6.2 million lost worker-days.

The chief difficulty in the 1970s was not apathy, or an unwillingness to do what people were not “supposed to do,” but historically accumulated political problems associated with the continued alliance of the trade unions with the Democratic Party, the very party in which Altman continued to have and to sow illusions. The enormously militant movement of workers reached a dead end because it remained within the confines of capitalist politics and capitalist economics. This gave the powers-that-be a breathing space and made possible the vicious counter-offensive against the working population that began in earnest in the late 1970s.

This historical and social analysis was a closed book to American filmmakers. Behind Altman’s claim, in the same 1975 interview, that he has “high hopes, great expectations,” one feels rather, as Wood describes it, that his “gestures toward a progressive viewpoint thinly conceal despair and a sense of helplessness.”

Nashville is a work full of strikingly, almost provocatively unresolved contradictions, some of them more intriguing and richer than others. Whatever its serious failings, however, one cannot come away from a viewing of the film, and of its climactic assassination scene in particular, without a sense of deep social and moral malaise, of a troubled and tormented society headed, sooner or later, for a breakdown. In that general intuition at least Altman was unfailingly correct.



How Pope Francis Undermined the Goodwill of His Trip and Proved to Be a Coward

Posted: 09/30/2015 12:39 pm EDT Updated: 2 minutes ago

After first refusing to confirm nor deny it, the Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis met with the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where Davis’ attorney — who made the news public after the pope’s trip ended — said Francis told her to “stay strong.” And that simple encounter completely undermines all the goodwill the pope created in downplaying “the gay issue” on his U.S. trip.

The pope played us for fools, trying to have it both ways. As I noted last week, he’s an artful politician, telling different audiences what they want to hear on homosexuality. He did that in Argentina as a cardinal — railing against gay marriage when the Vatican expected him to do so — and he’s done that since becoming pope, striking a softer tone on the issue after Benedict’s harsh denunciations were a p.r. disaster for the Catholic Church in the West. But this news about Kim Davis portrays him as a more sinister kind of politician. That’s the kind that secretly supports hate, ushering the bigots in the back door — knowing they’re an embarrassment — while speaking publicly about about how none of us can judge one another.

I would have more respect for the pope if he had publicly embraced Kim Davis and made an argument for her, as he did in his visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are battling against filling out a form to exempt themselves from Obamacare’s contraception requirement, claiming that even filling out the form violates their religious liberty — even though I vehemently disagree with the pope on that issue. I’d have more respect if he boldly, explicitly made a public statement (not the vague, general statement he made on his plane on the way home only in response to a reporter’s question about Davis), as he did in trying to stop the execution of a Georgia inmate who was put to death this morning. But by meeting with Davis secretly, and then at first having the Vatican neither confirm nor deny the encounter — and now having the Vatican say it “won’t deny” the meeting while it still won’t offer any other details — the pope comes off as a coward.

He shows himself to be antithetical to much of what he preaches and teaches. He talks about dialogue and having the courage of one’s convictions and the courage to speak out. But he swept this Davis meeting under the rug, seemingly ashamed and certainly not wanting to broach the subject. Even Davis’s supporters should find that insulting to them.

We all knew Francis was playing a p.r. game, and we were fine with that. He was focusing on climate change, immigration and other issues passionate to him — and certainly I, and I hope everyone, still welcome whatever influence he can have on those issues. And it appeared he viewed the LGBT rights debate as a distraction from a focus on those causes. He even told U.S. bishops in a meeting during his trip that they should stop complaining about it and turn their attention to other issues. The sense was that he was probably not passionate about gay rights, but not passionate about attacking them either.

But by telling Davis that she should “stay strong” — if her attorney’s account of the encounter is to be believed — the pope is only encouraging the bigots, even if he’s doing so quietly. We don’t know all the details yet regarding how Davis came to meet Francis — if, for example, it was one of the more vocally anti-gay U.S. Catholic Church leaders who brought her along, or if the Vatican invited her.

But the optics of it are bad no matter what. Rather than moving us forward on LGBT rights ever so slightly, as many viewed the pope as doing, he now, with this meeting, emboldens the haters in the church who will be pushing to make sure church doctrine continues to call homosexuality “intrinsically disordered.” And it sends a message to all those people who’ve experienced anti-gay discrimination — like the Catholic school teachers fired from their jobs in the U.S. simply because of who they are — that this pope is not going to end that discrimination any time soon. Rather than stopping that discrimination, he welcomed, with open arms in the Vatican’s own embassy, the bigots who promote that discrimination but who’ve turned themselves into the victims.