How did these great United States come to elect a bright orange jerk-off?
The Film(s): A double feature of arthouse Americana
The Potable: One six-pack of imported Heineken
Here at Three Reels to the Wind, I originally intended to avoid doubling up on directors too early on in the game. There are tons of brilliant filmmakers out there, all of whom deserve to be a part of my bacchanalian movie nights. But if I’m starting early, one could choose worse than Robert Altman as a first repeat. In the wake of the election, still in search of answers, I turned to a pair of his most acclaimed pictures, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville.
In his 1947 book analyzing what prewar cinema revealed about the rise of the Third Reich, Siegfried Kracauer argued that evidence of the country’s trajectory could be found in the defeatist narratives present in German Expressionist films made after World War I.
A smarter, soberer blogger would have just watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and applied its lessons to today. But good God, I’m depressed enough as it is.
The most obvious criticism here will be, “Wait a minute, you drunk bastard. These movies were made 45 years ago.” This is true. These are not exactly contemporary films. But, released in 1971 and 1975, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville came out around the same time that President-elect Donald Trump was being sued for housing discrimination. These seeds were planted long ago. The second criticism: “Trump isn’t Hitler. Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?” Maybe, but just blame the Heineken.
Altman described McCabe as an “anti-Western,” and right away I am in tears. It opens with the titular Warren Beatty riding into the mining town of Presbyterian Church to the tune of the late, great Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song.” I poured one out, cleaned up the carpet, and pulled myself together.
McCabe is a gambler, a mysterious outsider, and a smooth talker. Rumors swirl that he is a crackshot gunslinger. He is not, McCabe couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn door, but his combination of charm and machismo is enough to win over the townspeople. “You know how to square a circle?” he begins. “You shove a 2×4 up a mule’s ass.” An ailing community, Presbyterian Church welcomes the conman with open arms as he starts a brothel business.
Already I am seeing real life parallels that seem too obvious to point out. A snakeoil salesman waddles into prototypical America and, relying on a disenfranchised white working class, stumbles ass-backward into a role of authority.
But, surprise surprise, McCabe isn’t exactly the businessman he made himself out to be, and doesn’t know shit about running a country, erh, brothel. Enter Mrs. Miller, a British opium addict with all the knowhow. She recognizes that running a successful bordello requires more than just sex. You need the right lighting, the right furniture. You need accommodations like warm baths and a cigar lounge. You need, in other words, to make of your brothel a brand. Classy. Very classy. The best.
Any number of aides, confidants, or GOP enablers could be a real world stand-in for Mrs. Miller. With no obvious parallel, I choose to take her nationality and run with it: she is Nigel Farage, and thank Christ the sex scene is discreet.
Religion certainly plays a role in the film, but what both McCabe and the Trump victory reveal is that America may not be as deeply religious as we’ve always thought ourselves to be. Christianity is a useful McGuffin, politically and cinematically, but the brothel-going public of Presbyterian Church would likely look the other way for a pussy-grabber, as well. Religion is an identity, not a bedrock. Helpful when convenient, but not something to get in the way.
Needless to say, despite the business partners’ early success, things begin to go south. Rival interests come along, and without giving too much away, it’s the townspeople, not McCabe or Mrs. Miller, who are left to extinguish the flames of the burning church from which their town gets its name. Presbyterian Church sacrificed its morality for prestige and realized its error too late.
Of course, the pitfalls of capitalism and the accompanying existential emptiness is only one piece of the puzzle. Moving on.
My immediate question with Nashville: Who is Hal Phillip Walker? The politician’s campaign van serves as a connecting strand between the film’s various storylines, yet we know so little about the candidate. An anonymous figure, simultaneously Democrat, Republican, and, I guess, Libertarian, Walker neither wins nor loses. Consequences be damned, one gets the sense he will be elected. As the opening song says, “We must be doing something right to last 200 years.”
Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t very long at all.
The film begins at an airport, where the film’s large cast has gathered to witness the arrival of the city’s country music star darling, returning from rehab. We’re introduced to everyone. Blue dog Democrats, a milquetoast guitarist, a floppy-hatted BBC reporter, a douchie Keith Carradine, a motorbiking Jeff Goldblum, and a young, sexy Lily Tomlin, hubba hubba. Rushing from the airport after our country star collapses, the whole lot gets stuck in a traffic accident.
Nashville is, first and foremost, a musical. The songs may be inviting, at times satirical, but they ultimately serve to explore the film’s principal theme: fame, and it’s place in American life.
With such a sprawling set of storylines, nothing in Nashville is more consistent than the image of one performer standing on stage for the admiration of others. Do these celebrities deserve idolization? Yes. I regularly find myself humming “Tapedeck in His Tractor,” nearly fell trying to dance a jig in the shower this morning. They’re fine singers, but I wouldn’t trust them much more beyond that.
Except we do. We all do. We watch a spray tanned reality show host five nights a week for years and we form a connection to him. He’s brusk, kind of a dick, honestly, but he’s in our living rooms. We watch him with our children, and when they go to bed, we watch him on Saturday Night Live. How bad could he be?
The familiarity that causes dozens of strangers to show up at an airport to greet an ailing songstress is the same familiarity that allows individuals to rationalize comments about Megyn Kelly’s period and the mocking of a disabled reporter. The rest – intimidation of journalists and peaceful protesters, pledges to resume waterboarding and “much worse,” calls to ban an entire minority group from the country – don’t even register because it’s all entertainment. A candidate can be dangerously unprepared, but on some level, we trust it all to be scripted.
Nashville may predate Trump’s inauguration by 41 years, but it was released just six years before America elected a Hollywood cowboy to its highest office.
The film ends with our cast brought together for one final concert, held in support of presidential hopeful Hal Phillip Walker. A disaffected young man, present in the margins throughout the film, shoots the singer on stage. One vocalist down, the city patriarch ushers a second into the spotlight to sing “It Don’t Worry Me.” Twelve years after the Kennedy assassination, the patriarch shouts “This ain’t Dallas. This ain’t Dallas,” and the audience, shocked, gradually begins to sing along.
I’ve gone back and forth as to how this ending should be interpreted. An earnest attempt to depict how we collectively heal after tragedy? A caricature of American naivete and our callous need to numb ourselves to reality? Probably a little of both. Or neither, what do I know.
Two movies can’t cover everything. I have, admittedly, overlooked the role of gender, a theme certainly addressed in both films, but better explored in Altman’s 3 Women. No film of the time can properly account for the tailored media environment brought about by the internet.
These movies do not address race, multiculturalism, or creeping white nationalism.
Having watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, do I feel better equipped for the next four, eight, or God knows how many years of the coming administration? Not really. I still feel trepidatious, concerned for the status and safety of minorities in this country, the durability of our democratic institutions. Worried about the state of the entire Western liberal order, quite frankly.
But as long as he doesn’t reinstate prohibition, I guess I’ll be all right. “It Don’t Worry Me,” right guys? “It Don’t Worry Me?”
Verdict(s): here we go