For years, when people asked me to name my favorite film, the answer was easy: Robert Altman’s Nashville, the movie that sealed my love affair with movies. I watched it over and over again, not four or five times but dozens, like a ritual, a religious feast, always seeing something new in it, drinking in its mysteries. I have done that, however, with other films since, and as the years went by, and people pestered me with the proverbial favorite-film question (as a critic, you get asked that a lot), my answer began to evolve. Sometimes, it was Blue Velvet or Citizen Kane, or Mean Streets or Manhunter. The whole idea of a ”favorite movie” became specious to me: I had too many favorites to count, and choosing among them would be like picking a favorite offspring.
Yet the death of Robert Altman two weeks ago at the age of 81 made me realize that Nashville, whether or not it is still my favorite of favorites (it depends, I guess, on what day you ask me), will always be the movie that affected me the most, the one that changed the music of my imagination, that showed me everything that movies could be and, in doing so, made me want to become a critic.
I still remember the first time I saw it, at a campus film society showing at the University of Michigan during my freshman year. It was just before first-semester finals, which would have been early December 1976: 30 years ago almost to the day. And I remember the moment that got me, the one where I saw the light, where I said, That’s it! — this movie is remaking me as I’m watching it, and Robert Altman is God.
It was the scene in the nightclub where Keith Carradine, with his then deeply cool stoner-stud sensitivity, is singing ”I’m Easy,” and the camera zooms in, so slowly it’s almost imperceptible, on the face of guilty straying housewife Lily Tomlin, and she looks ready to faint, or cry, with despair and excitement. What made the moment incandescent is that there was so much — so, so much — going on in it. The quiet shimmer of the song; the three other women in the audience (Christina Raines, Geraldine Chaplin, and Shelley Duvall) whom Carradine’s folk singer has also slept with, each of whom believes, at least for a wee while, that he’s dedicating the song to her and her alone; the novel’s worth of heartache and sensuality on Tomlin’s face; and what that camera zoom, that gradual movement from observation to intimacy, really captures — the way that this entire drama is being played out, in the open yet also in deep secret, before a packed audience of country-rock fans where, implicitly, a dozen other dramas just like it are taking place. It was an interlacing of possibilities, a look at how much life is really packed into any one room, any one situation, any one gaze. Altman seemed a magician because he could glimpse the entire world in a moment and reveal it to you.
The experience of Nashville got inside me so powerfully that for the next three or four months (i.e., all of second semester), I literally thought about it every day and every night. It was my Bible, my lullaby, my grand obsession. For years, I watched it every time it played on campus, which was often (this was the pre-video era), and I wore out the soundtrack, but mostly I meditated on this movie that somehow seemed as big and rich and stuffed with life as life itself.
Overnight, I’d become a film geek — which is to say, a person who regards the life on screen, to perhaps a neurotic degree, as an extension of his own. This is not the sort of sensibility you want to carry through the rest of your existence, but college is the perfect time for it. Film geekdom created, in me, an ideal transition from the insularity of childhood to the pleasures and dangers of the adult world, and in the case of Altman, what made that geekiness so consuming is that his films, with their wide canvases and overlapping soundtracks, their exhilaratingly random parades of humanity, really were like a fully stocked alternate universe.
NEXT PAGE: Finally meeting Altman