Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum
CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.
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Works discussed in this column:
Nashville (1975), directed by Robert Altman, written by Joan Tewkesbury (Paramount Home Video)
Tanner ’88 (1988), directed by Robert Altman, written by Garry Trudeau (HBO Home Video)
Tanner “Fireside Chats” (2004), (The Sundance Channel)
Secret Honor (1984), directed by Robert Altman, written by Donald Freed and Arthur Stone (Vestron Video)
The Nashville Chronicles, by Jan Stuart (Limelight Editions; http://www.limelighteditions.com)
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“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
—Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver
“New rule: You can’t be an outsider if you’re already president.”
Was it Richard Nixon who invented the outsider in American politics? Nixon, the festering Quaker, who so resented the Kennedys, the liberal Harvard elite, the charismatic cabal of ineluctable privilege, that he made his presidency an armed encampment, and codified his enemies into the world’s most exclusive guest list?
Before him, the century’s presidents were patricians and gentleman intellectuals, academics and company men, generals and crooks and tentacled leviathans rising from the Senate. Aprés Nixon and his designated stand-in Ford, we got Carter, the peanut farmer-nuclear physicist; Reagan, the rancher-statesman, and his stand-in Bush; Clinton, the wonk-lothario-honorary black president; and now Bush Redux, the Jim-Bowie-at-the-Alamo president. Trailing behind them was a comical retinue of apron-clad inepts and third-party spoilers—H. Ross Perot, the Weenie King from Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story; Ralph Nader, the stooping Jimmy Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Their only thing in common was that they were somehow outside the institutional cesspit of D.C. power–“in,” but no longer “of.”
Nixon was certainly the unsung inspiration for ’70s cinema, the flailing windmill against which the disaffected tilted. It’s not just that the ’70s were the ’60s on film, the natural bridle of adolescence against authority. The decade is a bell-shaped descent converging on the vortex of Watergate and Nixon’s flight from power in 1974. A Shakespearean figure who screened Patton repeatedly the weekend before he ordered the bombing of Cambodia, Nixon was the role model for Michael Corleone in the Godfather Trilogy, the dissembling mayor in Jaws and the Emperor in Star Wars, and the literal heavy of Hearts and Minds, Medium Cool, Shampoo (staged on the day of his reelection) and All the President’s Men. His tenure directly inspired the agitprop of M*A*S*H, Catch-22, Coming Home and Apocalypse Now; the political paranoia of Taxi Driver, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man; and the institutional corruption of Serpico, Chinatown, The Conversation, Sugarland Express, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Night Moves and Network. But no more political allegory survives the decade than Robert Altman’s Nashville—conceived during the Watergate hearings, filmed during Nixon’s resignation and released in time for the Bicentennial.
In honor of the election year, Altman’s six-hour miniseries Tanner ’88, originally made for HBO with Doonesbury satirist Garry Trudeau during the 1988 election, is currently being rebroadcast on the Sundance Channel, complete with recently-filmed one-minute “Fireside Chats” with the original cast to accompany each episode (which hopefully will show up on the rumored Criterion DVD due this fall). But Nashville, available in widescreen format with plenty of extras from Paramount Home Video, is where the director first explored the nexus of politics and celebrity. Altman’s putative masterpiece is contractually the story of the country music capital of America, although like Taxi Driver, it is revealed in its final moments to be a pathography of political assassination. In Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles (Limelight Editions Books), an artfully researched volume of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and historical context, Altman calls the film his “Grand Motel.”
Coming off of Thieves Like Us in Northern Mississippi, Altman sent writer Joan Tewkesbury to nearby Nashville to sop up the city and keep a rigorous journal. Working from instinct, Tewkesbury charted two dozen characters on a grid and compiled a 175-page script, which despite numerous memorable lines (Ned Beatty’s Delbert, the local fixer, tells Michael Murphy’s John Triplette, the oil-slick California advance man, “Well, I admire your optimism, I was just wondering if it was regional.”), Altman tossed in the air, hoping through improvisation to hew closer to an America they all felt was about to redline.
“It was set up like a rug,” remembers Tewkesbury, “like you were weaving a rug. And when he told the actors to throw away the script and forget the dialogue, there were actors who did every stitch of dialogue as it had been written, and then there were others who had this magnificent other stuff. What you find out is that the words are nice and dialogue is great in plays and on television, but what these kinds of films really are about is tone and behavior. And so the words, in a funny way, are like clues. But you cast for behavior and cast for tone, or against it, to bring it to life.” (Tewkesbury is currently a consulting producer on CBS’s The Guardian, which is doing some interesting stuff under the radar.)
The finished film follows Tewkesbury’s script scene for scene, beat for beat, and she constantly worked with the actors to keep their improvs on point. Altman, who had hired real Vietnam draft dodgers living in Vancouver to populate the mining camp in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and who would use ex-addict Synanon members as casino gamblers in California Split, packed real country-music fans into every frame, and added session players like fiddle phenomenon Vassar Clements for, in Tewkesbury’s elegant phrase, “unencumbered authenticity.” And politics, which hung like an ominous cloudbank, seemed to infuse everything. Tewkesbury patterned Triplette after John Dean and other Watergate witnesses, which Murphy expanded to include a college acquaintance who became a ratfucker, one of Nixon’s dirty tricks team. Music City patriarch Haven Hamilton (initially written for Robert Duvall), based on country-music titans like Hank Snow, Conway Twitty and Tex Ritter, was played by Henry Gibson based on Henry Kissinger, for the power, and Bob Hope, for the longevity. It was Gibson who, wounded in the final assassination scene, improvised the line “We’re not Dallas.” (Murphy starred in Tanner ’88, and both actors showed up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia as an Altman homage.)
Looking for a way to unify the film’s emerging politics, Altman added third-party candidate Hal Phillip Walker, whose radical platform is voiced via a loudspeaker mounted atop a campaign van that segues between scenes. To handle the rhetoric, narration and logistics of the campaign, Altman approached Thomas Hal Phillips, a novelist who had been invaluable on Thieves Like Us as the head of the Mississippi Film Commission, and whose family was heavily involved in state politics. Phillips identified himself as an FDR Democrat, but had run his brother Rubel’s campaign for governor of in 1963, which virtually invented the Mississippi Republican Party. Once on set, his family’s political connections proved invaluable: He pulled strings so the British Chaplin could get her work visa, got permission to close down Interstate 65 to film the opening traffic jam and recruited extras for the political smoker and striptease (and confirmed that such things occurred when cast and crew were horrified by the reaction). With Denver political operative Ron Hecht, acting on Altman’s instructions to “invade my movie,” he set up an actual campaign office and strategy in the midst of the primary election for Tennessee governor.
With a voice like warm syrup, in the manner Shelby Foote or David McCulloch (the Ken Burns/Seabiscuit guy), Phillips recorded his voiceover in a single 18-minute speech–which, in some sort of karmic transfer, is the exact length of the missing portion of the Watergate tapes. Full of folksy palliatives and Old Testament constructions like “It is the very nature of government to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel,” his declarations were considered extremely prescient when Jimmy Carter mounted a similar down-home populism to win the Presidency a year later. Consequently, many interpreted it at the time as Altman’s cynical jab at soft-headed demagoguery. Yet, viewed three decades later, in once again newly politicized times, Walker’s platform seems to push Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinich-style progressivism toward a new militancy, in a way that is less modest proposal than common sense. His call to ban lawyers from Congress may be a legislative stretch. (“A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only: To clarify, that’s one; and to confuse, that’s the other. He does whichever is to his client’s advantage. You ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he?… Congress is composed of 535 individuals; 288 are lawyers.”) And replacing the National Anthem with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” might border on the comical. But taxing the churches’ “vast holdings of land and corporate investments” or abolishing the Electoral College is long overdue.
Those parts of the speech excised or indecipherable in the film itself, but included in the full text available in Tewkesbury’s published script, make the point all the more:
“With proper leadership and effort, we can wipe out crime as surely as this country wiped out polio or smallpox… Today in America, with its unmatched resources, it is exceedingly ridiculous, a total absurdity, that any citizen with any ailment, mental or physical, should go medically unattended… Can it possibly make sense to regiment farms and farmers when people are ill-fed, if not downright hungry?… To tax the salaries of people on poverty-level incomes, then turn around and give back in food stamps twice the amount of the tax?… Every community needs special programs for the mentally ill, the aged, the retarded, the handicapped. To fall short in these areas is to bring disgrace on all our houses.”
Tracked down at his rural home in Corinth, Mississippi, Phillips, now 80, claims he was totally sincere.
“I more or less believe what I wrote,” he says. “I don’t know where they got that, because I had my whole heart in it. It was different, but we were running a different race. The things that I believe in, a Republican or a Democrat could both say them. Carter hadn’t come on the scene yet, but that was what I was thinking of. And I really took it seriously, that any candidate that would come out and say some of those things would get a lot of attention.”
At Altman’s behest, Phillips revived the Walker character once more in 1987’s O.C, and Stiggs, but by then he had slipped into parody, more Wally George-style Orange County wrestler-Republican than aging idealist. Walker just published his first novel in two decades, Red Midnight, and claims he’s a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008.
And Altman and Nixon’s paths crossed once more, in Secret Honor, a one-man play starring Philip Baker Hall as a paranoid, suicidal Richard Nixon with raccoon eyes and Eddie Munster hair who looks like Robert Blake in Lost Highway. Nixon’s “secret” is that he faked the Watergate tapes “to lead Congress to the tip of the wrong iceberg,” hiding the fact that his superiors planned to keep him in the White House for eight more years and the war going indefinitely, ensuring a steady flow of heroin to the Mob and kickbacks of U.S. aid from Saigon into CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
These days, they just give the money back in tax cuts and cut out the middleman.
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DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.