To ponder Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is not merely to examine a profoundly important movie, but to deal with the very birth of a filmic ideal: the thorough gestation of a concept that rings with persistence even in these times of redundant outlooks and simplified meanings. Some have referred to it as the first fully improvised screen endeavor of its kind, but that only trivializes the point; born from a 140-page screen treatment – and one that was famously dismissed by studio heads as an inconsequential exercise – the endeavor reflected the resonant artistic yearning that followed its filmmaker through much of his early career, where narratives became increasingly secondary to behavior and atmosphere. At the threshold of those desires, under the firm hand of his own control, his most famous film found a footing and, in the process, transformed the very cinema that was already knee-deep in irreverence and counterculture. A first-time observer might absorb the images and see only a snapshot of a series of lives as they descend on a single event, but those who contemplate underlying ramifications will recognize almost oracular insights: the threat of political populism, the deceptive lure of entertainment and even the indifference of casual onlookers. No other picture of its kind so accurately predicted the social transitions of the modern age, or did so with such casual assurance.
The gifted Larisa Shepitko was 39 years old, four films into her career and on the verge of more when “The Ascent” first emerged as a blip on the radar, placing her among the most promising new commodities of 1970s Russian cinema. Patterned in the tradition of a persistent arsenal of anti-war hits about the Nazi occupation, hers was an adjunct that also drew upon more precarious sources – particularly the legend of Jesus Christ, who like the hero of her story became a willing sacrifice as penance for the sins of others. Was there a thread running parallel between both that she felt mirrored the context of the war? Perhaps a reasoning, or a justification, for the history we know was to follow? Her protagonist, the stone-eyed Sotnikov, is not exactly a warm and embracing personality, and early on he is handicapped by ailments – and then a gunshot wound – that keep him from more profound gestures. But even as the prey in a doomed hunt he materializes, unbroken in his humanity, as a willing casualty in the jaws of fate, even though the key figures among him seem all too eager to use his martyrdom as their own safeguard.
So many essays have been penned about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” generally considered to be his greatest film, that a barrier occurs in any attempt to say something fresh or stirring about the material on screen. Most conversations tend to begin with the parallels of his life and that of his hero – how a methodical conductor of creative impulses sought so earnestly to achieve a perfect technical modulation from behind the camera that he manifestly wrote his obsessive qualities into the visuals, giving it the dual function of an off-the-record autobiography. But then there is the more secondary consideration of the premise, involving a retired detective who is assigned to follow and protect a beautiful woman before ultimately falling in love with her on the eve of her demise. If less is said about how Jimmy Stewart’s persona endures the curse of his director’s paralyzing vulnerabilities, it is because his predicament was ultimately overpowered by the shadow of its author. The Hitchcock identity carried so much gravity, such dominating influence, that it is entirely possible to see his films for their exhibition of talent and not necessarily for their narrative points. How many still remember “Psycho,” for instance, as being about a man who murders strangers while posing as his deceased mother? Today, is it not more about how a composer of macabre visual symphonies shamelessly inspires hysterics in a subservient audience?
While the seed of Robert Altman’s “3 Women” is said to be contained in “Persona,” the key bridge between them may be “Images,” a daring film he made in 1972 during the pinnacle of his first (and some say greatest) commercial peak. Like those films, it was an experiment that embodied the bold risk of an emerging method of cinema, where a garden of new filmmakers was being driven by themes more than characters or story – and though Altman was still refining his own voice, it presented the sort of audacious challenges that horrified those resting comfortably in convention. Yet today it rarely comes up in a discussion about his most prominent work, other than a vague reference to the confusion it first caused in the film festival circuit; initially, no one could decipher the intricate meanings between the overlapping narrative arcs, and many gave up in frustration too early to realize their concealed resonance. Was it simply ahead of its time? Or did “3 Women” cast a shadow impossible to move out of? Some, fortunately, have kept the material active in discussion despite a trend to elevate the more populist achievements of his early days, and thanks to internet theories and a new digital restoration it can finally be seen with the tool of modern hindsight, where its power becomes obvious.