The 1970s were a time of counterculture, radical individualism, and poignant reflections on the past. It was a decade filled with global turmoil, the rise of rock music at the behest of disco, and a newly emerging type of cinema — cinema that concerned itself with the failed notions of the American Dream. The dissolution of this once-revered concept was the result of the political distrust of the sixties seeping into Hollywood filmmaking in the seventies. For Bogdanovich, it was The Last Picture Show: a slow-burning tale of adolescent tribulations, indifference, and an abundant lack of desire to move forward. For Altman, it was Nashville: a lively, eccentric, but dark take on Tennessee’s music scene. Harboring new filmmaking techniques and similarly daunting atmospheres, The Last Picture Show and Nashville both imbibe a new understanding of American values, proposing America as a malleable idea rather than a simple historical reality. Both of these works use nuanced disaffection to confront and criticize the American Dream while maintaining an all-American front.
Both Nashville and The Last Picture Show take place in the American South: Tennessee and Texas, respectively; however, they exist within different generations. While Nashville takes place in the seventies, both when it was shot and released, The Last Picture Show is set in the fifties. Nashville was made with political scandals like John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Watergate still in its purview. Naturally, these chaotic events sent a surge of paranoia into the American public, creating an overarching and alarming lack of control amidst the people. Individuals struggled to trust their government and many altogether turned on these institutions, giving rise to anti-war protests, social movements, and political disarray. The appeal of films like these, presented during historically uneasy moments, is that they confront extensive and complex topics in a way that incites audience participation. Essentially, they provide some semblance of control where the government cannot. Unlike their Classical Hollywood predecessors, neither of these films tell you exactly what to feel; the real commentary exists in the pauses, gulps, and glances of it all.
The intersection of politics and the American Dream stands at the forefront of these two works, showcasing how the American Dream was a false promise made by the United States, and it ultimately collapsed after the Vietnam War. These persistent invocations of violence prompted moviegoers to reject the idealism that this dream bolstered. This was a pivotal time for filmmakers, who were driven to now make films for the disillusioned that effectively mocked the American Dream. This is immediately evident within The Last Picture Show, where the first piece of dialogue reads “You ain’t ever gonna amount to nothing,” after a long take of an identifiably American town in Texas. It also arises frequently within Nashville, where viewers encounter several characters that ultimately aspire to make it in the music industry, but are working menial jobs.
As mentioned, perhaps the most noteworthy difference between The Last Picture Show and Nashville is the time period in which each is respectively set. The Last Picture Show pulls together a quaint but frail image of a nameless 1950s Texas town that is slowly unraveling. From the very beginning, it is abundantly clear that this story exists on the cusp of something, seeing as it takes place as the major characters are graduating high school. With a 1971 release date, a major advantage of this setting is hindsight — the decision to set a seemingly simple story twenty years in the past, with the knowledge of its future, is not only ambitious but allows for the application of new techniques to distinguish the story from the films of that time period. The standout films of the 1950s (think Rear Window, All About Eve, and Some Like It Hot) all feature plots are driven by passionate intent, something that is greatly lacking in the seventies. The reason that The Last Picture Show is still revered today is its ability to not feel tied down to the time period in which it is set. Through this, Bogdanovich applies the overwhelming apathy that is characteristic of the 1970s to an entirely different environment.
Being at the height of counterculture, there was a desire to watch protagonists rebel against, and violate, the implicit order of the time (think Five Easy Pieces or The Graduate). Sonny, the protagonist of The Last Picture Show, is often frustratingly complicit in everything that happens to him and those around him. He never initiates action; instead, the whole story comes to him. For instance, in the case of Sonny’s trysts with Ruth Popper, his coach’s wife, one could reasonably expect an affair like this one to be even mildly passionate, but much like that of Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson (The Graduate), it was utterly despondent. The same can be said for Sonny’s job. After a boozy few days in Mexico, Sonny stumbles back into town only to find out that Sam the Lion died, and he has been left his pool hall. Soon after, viewers see Sonny tending to the business, now making it his primary focus. It is as though whatever is presented to him becomes his reality. This is not to say that Sonny does not care; rather, it seems like he would care more if he could just escape his hellish, claustrophobic hometown. The moments in the film where Sonny appears the most enthusiastic are those that he is away from the town, like his weekend road trip to Mexico with Duane (a young Jeff Bridges!) or the car ride to Lake Texoma with Jacy. Sonny is constantly breaking rules and deviating from the norm, but he does it so passively that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a rebellion.
Being that the audience is most often aligned with Sonny in the confines of this characteristically American setting, it is only natural to view him as an extension of this world. Lacking the motivation to become anything substantial, Sonny acts as a purposeful absence of the American Dream. But in terms of breaking the 1950s mold of “appropriate” cinema, Jacy seems to be the most ill-fitting character of the time. She makes constant efforts to rebel against the authority in her life, from sleeping with her mother’s lover to insisting on staying with Duane against her family’s wishes. Jacy’s choices are abrupt and rarely succeed at granting her the satisfaction she craves. However, a woman in the 1950s making these irresponsible, and often seedy, choices would be an anomaly within this era, and in turn, makes for a retrospective take on the material from a decade where this was not heavily barred from production. This rebellion against older cinema is furthered in a pool party scene that features several topless women, including Jacy. Nudity like this was unimaginable onscreen until the 1960s, so this was a clear act of disaffection from the past.
Conversely, in Nashville, viewers encounter an overwhelming number of characters within the film’s lengthy 160-minute runtime. No one character’s interiority is ever on display for the audience. The screen is plagued with fast-paced camera movements, and Altman’s constant democratic voice, where characters constantly speak over each other and the dialogue becomes muddled. However, a majority of the characters assert that they wish to become singers, and even those that do not are still fixated on the famed Barbara Jean: a picturesque representation of that world. The fascination with that industry, and the ability to both lionize and despise it, is exactly what the American Dream fosters — that if one puts in the time and effort, they are sure to succeed. Perhaps the most interesting character in Nashville is Opal, an obnoxious British reporter who aims to dive into American culture, and constantly criticizes them and their practices. Allowing Opal, an outsider, to voice these opinions leaves Altman in the ideal spot of suggesting these anti-American themes to his audience without outright stating them.
A filmmaker’s intent is often most apparent in their choice of ending, and Altman’s endings are especially effective in conveying a message. As every character is convened at Walker’s gala concert awaiting the coveted Barbara Jean, Nashville’s jarring and disturbing ending may appear hopeful at first glance. The situation quickly turns chaotic as an audience member shoots her mid-performance, resulting in a momentary panic that is quickly followed by the crowd joining together in song. This chorus of hopeful voices can be seen as an invocation of American resilience, but soon afterward, any semblance of optimism quickly dissipates to reveal a much darker meaning. Moments after a horrific attack, the witnesses have willfully ignored the matter at hand and began to sing above it, completely in denial. After panning around the now enthusiastic crowd, the camera pulls back to show a large American flag. This signifies both how America covers up its atrocities with superficial gimmicks in hopes of uniting its people, as well as the ultimate passivity of these anthems.
Nashville is less about the power of music to unite and more about its use as a tool for manipulation. This theme is prevalent throughout the film, for instance, when Sueleen resorts to stripping in order to secure a slot at the gala, or when Haven urges the distraught crowd to sing because “this isn’t Dallas!” (Someone could write a dissertation on this line alone). These moments that appear to be spelling out an unjust industry are really showcasing a poisoned American system, where everyone aspires to greatness but few actually manage to attain it — similar to the abundant opportunity and social mobility that the American Dream promises. With this in mind, Kenny shooting Barbara Jean could even be seen as an invocation of lower-class revolt against the elite.
The Last Picture Show’s ending is much more subdued, but harbors a similar tone. Sonny passively listens as Ruth yells at him, only to finally extend his hand to her: an entirely empty gesture paired with his emotionless face. Upon doing this, Ruth forgives and consoles him, saying “Never you mind, honey. Never you mind.” The issues Ruth so irately defended only moments prior become irrelevant as soon as he appears to care for her once again. This is very much in keeping with the performative aspects of government, which while Sonny seems to resist, he can not help but represent.
In the end, the American Dream, a concept that many argue to be the foundation of the United States’ cultural identity, is stripped of its importance by Altman and Bogdanovich. Both Nashville and The Last Picture Show’s palpable cynicism allow for deeper analysis into America as a social construct — one that can be broken down just as it was built up.