Robert Altman's "Nashville": From boom to gloom

As I read Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class I have been watching some of the movies he mentions. My review is largely informed by the historical presentation in his book.

Submitted by Comrade Motopu on June 30, 2019

Robert Altman's 1975 film "Nashville" features an ensemble cast and an abundance of social commentary. It deals with the end of 60s social idealism, the erosion of the Leave it to Beaver nuclear family, commercialism, and patriarchal objectification of women (including from the sexually "liberated" characters). Disillusionment with the Vietnam War simmers dangerously along side a half-hearted but ubiquitous conformist nationalism, and the George Wallace campaign is taking root in this context.

Wallace, called "Walker" in the film, was a politician who appealed to voters insecurities about tradition, outsiders/immigrants, and the break down of law and order. He was most known for his "Segregation Forever" stance. He used cultural appeals to white workers to override the concerns highlighted by the old New Deal Coalition, which promised basic workers' rights (more for whites than POC), and a middle class lifestyle, provided that labor peace was kept (management in charge, workers compliant). Wallace was a shaping factor in the 1968 and 1972 elections and the move from meat and potatoes issues to cultural issues, like race, nation, tradition. In many ways, Wallace was a key precursor to both the neoliberal "triangulation" of the Clintons' (appealing to business while using rhetoric that appeases workers) and the rise of Trump style populism, utilizing racism and a promise of a return to the golden age to win small business class (Trump's real core constituency) and working class votes.

This cultural focus would be part of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" to pry unions and blue collar workers from the rolls of the Democratic Party to build a "New Majority." By the time of Carter's presidency, this, along with the solidifying realities of the end of economic post-war boom times, was a limiting factor on the Democrats' willingness to see themselves as representing the interests of the working class. Cowie lays out how Carter completely abandoned the core goals of a piece of legislation called the "Humphrey-Hawkins" Act that would have put in place provisions strengthening unions and guaranteeing full employment. Democrats and Republicans alike faced a situation of stagnating wages and simultaneous inflation, which according to economists was not supposed to happen. That was "stagflation." Recession wracked the US economy, and oil shocks in 1973 and 1979 led to higher prices for many commodities. For the political and business class, they saw strong unions and high wages as the "cause" of inflation and recession, so conquering inflation became the priority, and that demanded austerity.

In the movie, like in real life, conservative politicians wanted to use the country music scene to give their campaigns, and anti-worker programs, a gloss of down-home authenticity to appeal to "normal folk." Many of the managers and political operatives are just mining the cultural terrain of the country music industry like prospectors, stripping as much value as possible with little concern for the music, culture, or people involved, musicians or fans. The campaign managers show open disdain for the people of the South, thinking they can buy or trick them into a political cause. Many of the musicians, fending for themselves in a highly competitive industry, are little better, narcissists preying on others to feed their egos or hide from their own sense of emptiness.

The film captures an uncertain moment of transition out of the post war boom in the US, and there is a sense of unease and loss, of deadness, of approaching collapse, with solidarity giving way to lower expectations and a retreat to individualistic striving over community. People self-medicate their pain with delusional dreams, escapism, or alcohol, as expectations of deep social connection fall away. The insecurities undergirding most of the character's psyches look to be manifesting as various symptoms of mental illness.

The song "It Don't Bother Me" will stay with me for a while. It serves as a kind of "there's nothing we can do about it" anthem of doom at the film's end. Things are getting uglier and everyone is just sort of in denial.