Joyce Lost In Opryland:
Labyrinthian Connections In “Wandering Rocks” & Robert Altman’s Nashville

By Jeff Mathewes

In Richard Ellmann’s highly regarded biography of James Joyce, there are only three direct references in the author’s life to the medium of film. The most well known foray by Joyce into the burgeoning new medium was as official manager of Ireland’s first cinema, The Volta. This episode was short-lived, for within ten days of the theater’s grand opening, Joyce abdicated managerial duties to one of the theater’s financial backers, a bicycle repair shop owner from Trieste. Joyce ultimately intended the venture as a “get-rich-quick” scheme, and the theater, with its film catalog of Italian titles, soon folded. Several years later, Joyce had a brief meeting with Russian film innovator and auteur Serge Eisenstein to discuss the possibilities of bringing a version of Ulysses to the screen. Eisenstein described their conversation as “a ghost experience,” and nothing came of the tentative project (Ellmann, 654). Plans to film “Anna Livia Plurabelle” were also unsuccessful. The final and most manifest film excursion in Joyce’s life was a home movie filmed by Robert Kastor “starring” Joyce, his son George, his daughter-in-law Helen, and the “director’s” wife Margaret (Ellmann, Plate LII). In the final analysis, however, film played only a cursory and tangential role in Joyce’s personal and artistic life. One could easily argue that as he felt about Ulysses, Joyce believed his writings “could not be made into [films] with artistic propriety” (654).
There is no evidence this author could find to suggest that Robert Altman has ever read Ulysses or any of James Joyce’s works. In Patrick McGilligan’s comprehensive biography of the filmmaker, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff (1989), Altman’s two “literary gods” are listed as Tennessee Williams and Norman Corwin, a broadcaster (89). Joyce is indexed only once in the 625 page tome, and this item merely refers to Pauline Kael’s review of Nashville (1975). In her laudatory appraisal of the film, Kael claims that Altman “has what Joyce had: a love of the supreme juices of everyday life” (450). However, Altman’s artistic kinship with Joyce extends beyond his love for the mundane minutiae of the everyday.
As artists, both Joyce and Altman often played the role of architect, designing masterpieces out of raw materials provided by others. Although he made several changes to the final shooting script of Nashville, Altman’s framework was always the script by Joan Tewkesbury. Likewise, Joyce famously employed Homer’s Odyssey to give form to the adventures that make up Leopold Bloom’s day. Nashville’s songs, which Altman used to convey many of the subtle meanings in his film, were composed by the actors who performed them. Joyce kept a stockpile of anecdotes and sayings gleaned from friends to flesh out his characters. In fact, one friend, August Suter, became irate “to see how Joyce seemed to stage-manage conversations as if to use his friends as subjects for experiment” (Ellmann, 438). For both artists, the arranging and deployment of these “raw materials” was fundamental to achieving their final artistic visions. However, neither Joyce nor Altman was blind to the opportunities of happenstance. One of the key sequences in Nashville, Barbara Jean’s breakdown on the Opry Belle, was composed by the actress Ronee Blakely and ran counter to what Altman had originally envisioned for the scene (McGilligan, 411). In concord with Joyce, Altman knew that rigidly following a set pattern could be an artistic catastrophe. Joyce advised a fellow writer “not to plan everything ahead, for, he said, ‘In the writing good things will come’” (Ellmann, 360).
These artistic philosophies connote a very general aesthetic connection between author and filmmaker. However, close examination of Altman’s Nashville in conjecture with the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses will uncover ties deeper and more comprehensive than those usually associated between a written work and a film. By carefully studying these two works in light of each other, we can construct multiple aesthetic bridges between the objectives of the Irish Sphinx and those of the “irascible” American auteur.
Both “Wandering Rocks” and Nashville are multifaceted artworks that illustrate intricate pictures of life. Elements of social satire, tragedy, political commentary, complex romantic drama, and low comedy intertwine to compose rich mosaics in each work. However, the relationship between Joyce and Altman’s artworks cannot be reduced to a catalog of comparable events and themes. What is crucial is the manner in which each artist represents his world. Both the episode and the film present multiple storylines in an apparently chaotic style that, upon closer inspection, is revealed to be intricately and carefully structured. The multi-layered connections between the various characters and events attempt to mimic the pulse of life. In this vision of reality, chance occurrences reveal subtle relations among various subjects that are both enveloping and deep. By comparing Joyce and Altman’s techniques, one can clearly demonstrate a kinship in both their artistic goals and their respective attitudes on the nature of human life.
Both “Wandering Rocks” and Nashville (1975) fit easily within the artistic sub-genre of “city-as-character.” Both concern the activities of multiple characters over a fixed period of time living within the boundaries of a medium-sized city. Joyce confines himself to approximately one hour’s time to portray moments in the lives of more than thirty citizens of “THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS” while Altman’s focus is upon the lives of twenty-four disparate characters over a five day period in the capital of country music. Both the episode and the film give comprehensive pictures of their cities that leave the reader and viewer with a distinct impression of the “lives” of these cities at a specific moment in time. However accurate this genre label may be in certain respects, it is in many ways unhelpful in conveying the complexity of Joyce and Altman’s artistic visions. The label also makes the connection between the two works seem a tenuous and superficial one.
One element that both distinguishes “Wandering Rocks” and Nashville from other municipal sketches and underscores the kinship of Joyce’s and Altman’s artistic visions is their pervasive complexity. Typically, authors make their plans overtly obvious to readers when attempting the arduous task of encapsulating an entire city within a section or chapter of their books. An ideal example occurs in a work published the same year as Ulysses, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. In the fourth section of Chapter Seven, Lewis presents Zenith, USA through several minor vignettes, each introduced with the phrase “At that same moment.” Lewis’ project in the section is to contrast George Babbitt’s idyllic vision of his hometown with its darker realties. By showing the reader all the shoddy events going on “at the same moment” when Babbitt is safe in his bed dreaming of fairies, Lewis implements a straightforward structure that never leaves the reader unsure of what is going on at any one point in the text. Likewise, films typically utilize an uncomplicated montage device to give the viewer a clear-cut picture of a large-scale setting. Short individual scenes are presented so as give the viewer an overall impression of the big picture. In these conventional montages “[each] screen is taken as an element in a system of allusions, and therefore it is the series, rather than the individual, that the film takes into an account” (Keyssar, 142). The viewer is meant to perceive these vignettes only in terms of how they support the overall impression or “point” the filmmaker wishes to convey. In both literature and film, these conventional models stress clarity, and each component of the portrait is important only in so far as it furthers the author or filmmaker’s presentation of a concise theme or concrete sense of place.
Never renowned for a straightforward style, Joyce actively confounds the reader’s expectations in “Wandering Rocks.” Although one can certainly argue that every episode in Ulysses demands the reader’s active participation, “Wandering Rocks” is the one episode where it seems that Joyce is deliberately trying to trick his readers. The episode is segmented into nineteen sections; these sections are interrelated but not in an immediately discernable way. Furthermore, Joyce employs a labyrinthine style that confounds the reader’s narrative assumptions. As Kathleen McCormick suggests in her study Ulysses, “Wandering Rocks,” and The Reader, Joyce forces readers to “use all their ingenuity to negotiate the archipelago of the Wandering Rocks successfully and to escape, exhilarated and exhausted, having found, not the way out, but one way out” [italics are McCormick’s] (15). Joyce’s most disconcerting technique is the insertion of sentences from certain sections into others without intuitive cause. These “interpolations” are disconnected from the action of the episode they intrude upon and appear without warning. The effect upon the reader is jarring, not the least because the intruding line is typically from a section that appears later in the episode.
However, after several rereadings of the episode, these intrusions seem to link the action of one section with that of another in time. The interpolations are performing the same function as Lewis’ “At that same moment”; however, Joyce’s technique does not impart Lewis’ smooth transition. Indeed, a chronological connection is not the only purpose for the interpolations; several more readings reveal they are making thematic connections as well. In section four, Katey and Boody Dedalus are sitting down to a meal of pea soup that their sister has proffered from a nearby convent. At that point a line from section eleven interrupts the text: “The lacquey rang his bell” (U, 186). The action this line describes frames the scene where Dilly Dedalus begs food money from her father. Although the interpolation suggests that these two scenes are happening “at the same moment,” it also demonstrates the thematic kinship between the two scenes – Stephen’s siblings’ want and their attempts to feed themselves.
Joyce will also play with readers’ expectations by giving apparent contextual clues that are really red herrings. For example, Almidano Artifoni passes by “Mr Bloom’s dental windows” in section seventeen. The reader’s initial assumption is that “Mr Bloom” is Leopold Bloom. The “dental windows” seems out of place however. Perhaps, “dental windows” refers to a specific ad Leo Bloom has canvassed in the past. Or perhaps, they are the shop windows for Leopold’s dentist. The truth is that this phrase refers to a second Mr. Bloom, a dentist with no familial ties to Leopold. This is an especially difficult trap for the reader of “Wandering Rocks” to avoid since the mystery is not solved until the “Cyclops” episode later in the novel. To navigate her way through the episode, the reader needs to be an “active reader,” paying the utmost attention to all that passes and drawing her own connections between the various chaotic elements. Each section is just as important as the others. Rather than giving the reader a streamlined, composite portrait of Dublin, Joyce gives the reader a confused, seemingly incomplete picture. In effect, Joyce’s stylistic approach places the reader on the same level as the characters in the episode. They are turning down wrong streets, unknowingly brushing past acquaintances, mistaking strangers for friends and just missing sight of the Viceroy. In many ways, the readers of the episode are stumbling through the same labyrinth as its characters.
Similarly, Robert Altman does not conform to a standard narrative scheme. Like Joyce, Altman often gives us information indirectly or in piecemeal fashion rather than in large chunks of exposition. In “Calypso” for instance, Joyce does not say that Bloom is dressed in black for a funeral; rather, he allows Bloom to tell the reader by means of his random thoughts. After a number of pages, the reader can connect the clues embedded in his mind to reach that conclusion. Similarly, Altman does not let us know the folksingers Mary and Bill are married until three-quarters of the way though their screen time. The viewers may have guessed at the nature of their relationship, but their marriage is not confirmed until Bill introduces Mary as his wife to a third character. Importantly, this introduction to the viewer is not made until after Mary’s infidelity has already been presented.
Most filmmakers impose a kind of tunnel vision upon viewers, keeping the main storyline and characters tightly within frame and bracketing out the world that surrounds these subjects. Altman’s films, on the other hand, remove the boundary lines that set off the conventional primary subject from the outer world through which they move. In his films, “background” action and noise frequently intrude upon the lives of his “foreground” characters. Typically, characters talk over one another in his films, their dialogue overlapping. To accommodate this technique, Altman “invented a new sound recording system, … an attempt to deny that only one character talks at a time” (Ebert). Furthermore, characters are constantly moving from the foreground to the background until the line between the two melts into a “common” ground. An early Nashville scene at an airport demonstrates this common ground. The plane of country star Barbara Jean is landing to great fanfare. Altman’s camera takes due note of the approaching plane but also cuts to scenes in the airport’s parking lot, lobby, and coffee shop that involve characters that are awaiting Barbara Jean’s arrival as well as others who are indifferent to her. Altman does not use the “secondary scenes” in the coffee shop and lobby simply to reflect on the importance of the country star’s arrival home. Nor does he utilize her arrival to demonstrate how “truly” important the lives of these non-celebrities in the secondary scenes are. Rather, Barbara Jean’s scenes are given equal weight with those of Sueleen Gay, the coffee shop waitress who idolizes her. Their respective social stations neither privilege nor denigrate them under Altman’s lens. Altman is not stressing a social or political democracy, only a narrative one. Helene Keyssar describes Altman’s filming style as “promiscuous” in nature.

[T]he camera in Altman’s films is determinedly restless, unwilling to commit its focus to any single relationship to a character, or to yield its attention to an obvious visual or aural attraction. … Promiscuity is a refusal of commitment to any one person or image; it makes intimacy difficult but not impossible. (35)

By removing the conventional narrative boundaries to which filmgoers have grown accustomed, Nashville can have a disconcerting effect upon the first-time viewer. Many may be unsure which character they are to follow, which conversation should be given more attention, and who or what can be ignored. Renowned film critic Pauline Kael summarized the effect of Altman’s peculiar vision: “When you get caught up in his way of seeing, you no longer anticipate what’s coming, because Altman doesn’t deliver what years of movie going have led you to expect” (451). The feeling of disorientation that Nashville gives the first-time viewer resembles the “trapped-in-the-maze” sensation the first-time reader of “Wandering Rocks” experiences, and both jarring reactions have the same root cause. The reader and viewer are confused not because Joyce and Altman are holding back information from them; rather, both artists are “generous with [their] information ... but it takes us time to know how to sort out what we know” (Keyssar, 137).
Although the film as a whole is modeled upon a technique similar to that used in “Wandering Rocks,” an early sequence in the film can be seen as a miniature version of Joyce’s maze episode. As a convoy of vehicles transporting the various characters leaves the airport, they all become entangled in a massive traffic jam. Twenty-two of the twenty-four major characters are present; only Barbara Jean and her husband Barnett are absent. Even though she is not there in the flesh, singing star Connie White is present via an advertisement on the side of a bus. As the accident causing the jam is cleared away, characters wait impatiently in their cars, mill about the roadway, and interact with each other. As in “Wandering Rocks,” characters bump into each another, miss seeing loved ones, converse with strangers, and even abandon their vehicles. The general impression is one of random chaos. However, this sequence like Joyce’s episode is carefully structured to appear chaotic when, in fact, important relationships are being examined and valuable information is being revealed.
Delmar Reese leaves his car to survey the accident and see how long the gridlock will last. A the same time his wife, Linnea, who is also stuck in traffic, is being interviewed in their family station wagon by the “BBC Correspondent” Opal. Although Altman does not give the viewer a scene where Delbert walks past Linnea’s window, it is obvious that they are in fairly close proximity because of the crash, yet they do not see each other. This near miss is underlined by the fact that the viewer only learns later that they are husband and wife. Their miss comments upon their “disassociated” marriage that is evidenced by these later domestic scenes. For instance, there is no scene where Delbert and Linnea realize that they were both stuck in traffic at the same time, most likely because neither has told the other that they were in a traffic jam at all. Similarly, the band members of the folk-rock group “Bill, Mary & Tom” also overlook each other. Their failure to notice each other is rather bewildering since Tom is quite the spectacle, signing autographs from the roof of a pastel-splattered Volkswagen Beetle. As he signs the first autograph, his band’s limousine can be clearly seen behind his left shoulder only a lane away. The fact that Tom is not traveling in the limousine with the rest of the group, coupled with their failure to notice his conspicuous presence on the road, anticipates his departure from the group later in the film. However, the most startling example of characters not recognizing each other is the case of Mr. Green and his niece Martha (although she prefers the name “LA Joan”), who are sitting right next to each other in the same car. She is asking him if there are only country stations in Nashville while he is describing her Aunt’s dire medical condition. Each is so wrapped up in his/her own concerns (hers trivial, his grave) that they fail to see that the other is not listening. LA Joan’s disregard for her uncle and aunt grows only more protracted at the movie continues.
Another kind of mis-seeing is practiced by Opal throughout the sequence. As she interviews Linnea, she learns that Linnea’s two children are deaf. She immediately bewails how “awful” and “depressing” it must be to have two children struck deaf (Altman, 24).[1] Linnea tries to reassure her that it is not horrible and that she has wonderful relationships with her children. Her words are wasted because Opal is no longer listening. Instead of maintaining a professional demeanor and learning something interesting about Linnea’s life, she has completely shut out her interviewee’s words in favor of her own preconceptions. Soon after this, Opal abandons Linnea to climb aboard Tommy Brown’s RV. She recognizes Tommy Brown’s name as that of another country celebrity. She enters the vehicle and discovers that all the people within are African-Americans. She immediately presumes that they are all Tommy Brown’s servants. The man who lets her in confirms her suspicions on this matter and explains that Mr. Brown is in the back “putting on make-up” to prepare for the interview Opal wants to obtain (26). Opal comments that Mr. Brown must be very “liberal” to employ “all you lovely people” (ibid). She is even more astounded when she meets Mrs. Brown who is also African-American. By this point, it is made obvious to the viewer that Tommy Brown is the man who has been talking to her the entire time. Despite all the supporting evidence, it has never occurred to Opal that a country singer like Tommy Brown might be African-American.
The most important events in this early sequence concern two seemingly minor characters: Albuquerque, a run-away wife who wants to be a star and Kenny Fraiser, a young drifter whose car has broken down. Albuquerque sees the traffic jam as an opportunity to fulfill her dream to become a country singer and leaps out of her husband’s pickup truck and takes off on foot for the city. Kenny’s car breaks down, and he opens the hood to see what can be done. Once the radiator boils over, he takes up his violin case, abandons the car, and ends up walking down the same street as Albuquerque. They share some small talk before Albuquerque’s husband shows up, whereupon she hides off the road, and Kenny hitches a ride in his truck. From their brief conversation, the viewer gets a superficial impression of their personalities. Albuquerque seems a tad “ditzy.” Although Altman has given no evidence that she cannot sing, the viewer infers that since she seems scatterbrained, her dream to be a singer is a desperate goal and that she, more than likely, has no real chance to achieve it. On the other hand, Kenny strikes one as being a particularly nice young man. However, a closer examination of their scenes offers different interpretations.
When Kenny asks Albuquerque what she will do if she doesn’t become a star, she reveals a surprising skill. “I’ll sell trucks ... I’m good at fixing motors,” she explains (30). In addition, when one reexamines her “ditziness,” the viewer discovers that Albuquerque is not displaying a character trait so much as her anxiety that her husband will track her down. She is constantly looking over her shoulder. On the other hand, when Kenny’s actions are scrutinized, he does not appear in as good a light. His reply to Albuquerque’s plan to becoming a mechanic is patronizingly chauvinistic. “But you’re a girl. No one is going to buy a truck from a girl” (ibid). His actions on the highway are also suspect. As he is about to leave his car, Delbert Reese approaches him and asks what’s the problem with his car. Kenny replies curtly “I stole it” (23). Kenny could be acting rudely, or he may be telling the truth. This exchange, coupled with the image of the coolant geyser he unleashes, takes on added meanings when he is revealed as Barbara Jean’s assassin at the film’s close. Both his and Albuquerque’s status as marginal characters in the freeway scene signify them in a special way. Their existence apart from the mass of humanity on the highway underlines their separateness from the rest of the characters. They will play the two most important roles at the movie’s conclusion. Kenny will murder Barbara Jean, and Albuquerque will replace her.
Both the episode and the film contain political elements that suggest the social climate of their respective cities. Each contains an overt political element as well as a subversive one. The contemporary political force is in the foreground while the background is haunted by the unfulfilled promises of the recent political past. In “Wandering Rocks” the viceregal’s procession symbolizes and affirms British rule of Ireland. He is “most cordially greeted” by many of Dublin’s citizens, further attesting to the hold Britain has regained on post-Parnelian Ireland. When Mr. Kernan just misses the procession, he is highly disappointed: “Just missed that by a hair. Damn it! What a pity!” (U, 198). Even staunch Parnelite Simon Dedalus removes his hat out of respect. The contemporary political “force” in Nashville is represented by the campaign of Reform Party Candidate Hal Philip Walker. His streamers, buttons, and promotion van seem omnipresent and appear in practically every other scene in the film. However, where William Humble Ward receives warm acknowledgement around Dublin, Hal Philip Walker is largely ignored. In Nashville, political power takes a backseat to the entertainment industry. Walker’s advance men are barely tolerated by the country music elite, a group of potential contributors do not favor his campaign with donations until they see a striptease, and the crowd gathered at his Parthenon rally is really there to hear the performers sing. To further this point, one of the few pieces of Walker paraphernalia that draws notice from a character does so because it has been pasted on a life-size cut-out of singer Connie White. In addition to establishing the political atmosphere of their citizens, these political elements are also employed in the structuring of the works themselves. The progression of the viceregal’s cavalcade is seen obliquely in many of the sections of “Wandering Rocks” and a summary of its journey serves as the coda for the episode as a whole. Hal Philip Walker’s promotion van is ubiquitous in Nashville; it is the first thing the viewer sees as the film opens, and it visits practically every location in the film. It finally rolls to a stop near the Parthenon just before the campaign rally that ends the film.
Joyce and Altman also subtly insert subversive political aspects to their cityscapes. Both artists call up political ghosts who still frequent the minds of certain characters. Joyce’s lost hero is Parnell, and Altman harkens back to “the Kennedy boys,” specifically President John F. Kennedy. In both cases, the urge expressed is one of longing for the recent past when, as old Jack in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” says, “There was some life in it then” (D, 105). Appropriately, both Joyce and Altman introduce their political shades in subversive ways. Joyce suggests the Parnelian era though the presence of Charles Stuart Parnell’s brother, John Howard. Cunningly, Joyce has John Howard first surface in an interpolation. In section eight, Ned Lambert is giving the reverend Hugh C. Love a tour of the old chapter house of St. Mary’s abbey. As the reverend is preparing to leave, Joyce suddenly inserts “from a long face a beard and gaze hung on a chessboard” (U, 190). Although the reader does not learn the identity of the person hanging over the chessboard until eight sections later, Joyce does give clues that the interpolation is political in nature. St. Mary’s abbey, the reverend and the reader learn from Ned Lambert, was the site where “Silken” Thomas Fitzgerald began his failed rebellion against Henry VIII in 1534. Lambert also mentions the abbey was the site of the old Bank of Ireland before the Act of Union in 1800. The act dissolved Irish Parliament, further tightening the grip of British rule, and the bank relocated to the defunct Irish House of Commons. As an English clergyman is given a tour of the site of two Irish defeats, the face of the brother of Ireland’s “uncrowned king” appears like the face of Marley. When the reader discovers his identity in section sixteen, Buck Mulligan is pointing him out for Haines. Haines, the Oxford man, takes a very brief interest in the rebel’s relative before adroitly turning attention back to the bill of fare. Joyce emphasizes the haunting nature of the political past in contemporary Dublin by the word he chooses to describe John Howard’s eyes: “ghostbright” (204). Although Parnell and his movement for independence are dead, the spirit of Irish resistance is still awake. Many readers might see this as the focal point of “Wandering Rocks’” political subversion because it is where Parnell’s brother is revealed. He appears to exist only as a symbol of his late brother’s resistance since, as a character, he does nothing but silently play chess. However, in section nineteen, John Howard does make an approximation of a political stand. We learn from Mulligan in section sixteen that John Howard is Dublin’s city marshal; he is part, albeit a small part, of the British political machinery that controls Ireland. When the viceregal procession passes the restaurant, Mulligan and Haines struggle to see him “over the shoulders of eager guests” who are also straining to catch a glimpse; their shadows “[darken] the chessboard whereon John Howard Parnell looked intently” (208). As a member of the corporation, John Howard should be the first to stand and salute the second earl of Dudley. However, he stays fixedly at his game. Whether John Howard did not stand because he intended a deliberate political slight or simply because he was too engrossed in his game to notice is beside the point. The picture Joyce presents the reader shows “the representative of His Majesty” receiving complete indifference from a man named Parnell (207).
Although Lady Pearl’s monologue to Opal about the late John and Bobby Kennedy seems to erupt out of nowhere, Altman, like Joyce, has been sprinkling clues like breadcrumbs that lead up to this moment. These subtle premonitions will be examined before tackling Lady Pearl’s dense diatribe. The first reference to the Kennedys may avoid detection by veteran and first-time viewers alike. During a scene in Lady Pearl’s club, a portrait of John F. Kennedy can be seen at the far left of the screen, hanging against a bar wall (Altman, 32). The picture is very important because it is the only physical on-screen reference to a politician other than Hal Philip Walker. Furthermore, Kennedy’s picture does not include a legend bearing his name; it is correctly assumed that viewers, as well as guests of the club, will immediately recognize him, and no name is necessary. Conversely, Hal Philip Walker has no face and is not given one second of screen time. Despite the fact that his name is plastered everywhere, he remains “a mystery man,” to quote ABC announcer Howard K. Smith later in the film (138). This status of mystery is not one that leads to trust in a would-be public official. Instead, it connotes “secrecy,” “hidden power,” and an otherwise ominous persona. Kennedy’s smiling portrait, on the other hand, bespeaks openness, and his past political triumphs speak for themselves. It is important to note that this picture hangs in a “hillbilly-ish” club. Most viewers not native to Nashville are likely to assume, like Opal, that people in the South, especially “hillbillies,” don’t like Kennedy. This photo’s placement in the bar suggests the opposite may be true and predicts Lady Pearl’s later revelations.
These revelations are first hinted at during the “picnic” outside Haven Hamilton and Lady Pearl’s home the next day. Triplett is trying to coax Haven to perform at Walker’s rally. Lady Pearl nixes Triplett’s plan by announcing that Haven never openly supports politicians. She adds that she, herself, has never gone “hog wild” for any political candidate except “the Kennedy boys,” but “they were different” (52). There are two things striking about this exchange. One, until this point in the movie Lady Pearl has been seen in terms of the fading, if not faded, Southern belle. Both her perceived persona and her way of expressing herself (“hog wild”) do not suggest liberal political views to the average viewer. Triplett’s answer is also interesting. He lowers his head and acknowledges, “Yes, they were [different]” (ibid). He is acknowledging that Walker is not cut from same quality of cloth as these past political heroes. Despite his position as a “replacement” candidate, Walker is not equal to the heroes of the past. The current political climate does not have the same “life in it.” The first-time viewer may miss this brief exchange because the picnic itself is confusing. Altman’s overlapping dialogue and promiscuous camera, swiftly cutting between different groups of characters, make it easy to miss this important political exchange.
However, viewers cannot miss Lady Pearl’s revelation during “The King of the Road” sequence. Opal notices Lady Pearl’s bracelet memento to President Kennedy and remarks carelessly that she didn’t think, “people in the South liked Kennedy” (78). Lady Pearl explains that in the 1960 Presidential Election Kennedy won the entire South except the states of Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. When she mentions her home state, she breaks down. She begins a diatribe punctuated by sobs that lasts for the remainder of the “King of the Road” sequence. Although Altman continues to cut between other characters, whose voices are often foregrounded over Lady Pearl’s monologue, the viewer is still avidly aware of her speech. The passion she expresses, as she denounces the “anti-Catholicism” in the South, recalls Jack Ruby’s televised murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, and explains how she worked on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, cannot be ignored. In addition, this is the only sequence in the film where Opal is silent and unable to interrupt her interviewee. Not only does Lady Pearl’s monologue fully reveal Nashville’s subversive political theme – the lost promise politics once held – it also hints at the dark political subtext that underlies the entire film: Nixon.
Altman had indeed intended the film to be in part a commentary upon Nixon and the Watergate scandal. According to the film’s screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, “Part of Nashville was because [Altman] hated what Nixon was doing to the country” (McGilligan, 400). Despite the bluntness of Altman’s personal feelings about Nixon, he chooses to express his point of view in the film with subtle and artistic restraint. As Lady Pearl recounts the number of votes Kennedy received from Tennessee, she bitterly relates how many “the asshole” got (Altman, 78). Although his name is never mentioned, Nixon’s shadow hangs over the entire film.[2] The song that opens the film, Haven Hamilton’s “200 Years,” has a decidedly defensive tone. The refrain, “We must be doing something right / To last 200 years” implies that something “wrong” has happened to America quite recently (2). Yet, the song comforts, the nation still has cause to be proud. Importantly, Altman cuts between Hamilton’s recording session and Walker’s promotion van making its way through morning traffic. Walker’s recorded speech, broadcast by the van’s speakers, is overly concerned with reforming America. Walker’s party is the “Replacement Party”; the name itself suggests that there is something terribly wrong in America that needs replacing or fixing. During the Grand Ole Opry sequence, Connie White tells a small group of boys to keep studying in school because “anyone of you could grow up to be the President” (70). The soundtrack records only one audience member’s applause to her pronouncement. Considering the strong patriotic slant of the average Opry audience, the lack of applause this sentiment receives is highly significant.[3] Although Altman has been hinting at it throughout the film, the ominous “something” that is wrong with America is not named until just prior to the film’s climax. As a crowd gathers for the concert/political rally at the Parthenon, the somber song “What This Year Will Bring” plays over the action. It is important that this is the only song not performed “live” or via tape by a character in the film. Since the song does not emanate from any character yet plays over all their actions, it performs the same function as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. This disembodied aspect gives the song and its lyrics a special type of narrative authority. The Elvis-influenced voice sings “Watergate is the sound that rings / I wonder what this year will bring” (140). The apathy that Hal Philip Walker receives from practically every character results, to a large extent, from the generally jaded political outlook created by Nixon’s scandal and disgrace.
The song also plays a key role in the film’s denouement of its various political themes. Just prior to the song’s performance, the viewer hears and watches a commentary on Hal Philip Walker by Howard K. Smith.[4] Smith enumerates Walker’s unconventional campaign, his radical reforms, and his surprising success in the primaries. He goes on to say how a win in the Tennessee primary “would take on added significance” because “only once in the last fifty years has Tennessee not been won by the elected President” (139). This statement should set off red flags for the attentive viewer. As the viewer has learned from Lady Pearl, the only President who did not win Tennessee was Kennedy. The victor of Tennessee was the “asshole” Nixon.[5] If Walker does carry Tennessee, his victory will not align him with the political heroes of the past, but with the political villain of the present. Furthermore, the exact moment that “What This Year Will Bring” mentions Watergate is as Walker’s entourage – two black Cadillac limousines with tinted windows flanked by police cruisers – rolls up to the Parthenon. Clearly, the faceless candidate who promises to “replace” the corruption of the present with the “responsibility” of the future is not to be trusted.
Needless to say, music is very important in Ulysses. In “Wandering Rocks,” as compared to the rest of the novel, music plays a diminished role, yet it still retains a degree of significance. The most obvious example of music in the episode is “The Death of Nelson,” the song sung by the one-legged sailor. This song, like most pieces of music used in Joyce’s works, comments on the character that is singing as well as making an additional symbolic connection to the world he or she inhabits. In this instance the song strikes an ironic stance in regards to its singer. Although the tune celebrates dedication to duty and Britain, Joyce presents the singer as a limping cautionary tale against such patriotic service. The sailor is described as moving about “violently” with “vigorous jerks,” and he “growl[s]” the song “angrily” and “unamiably” (185). The song’s delivery and its singer’s physical condition send a message counter to the song’s intended sentiment. The irony may be lost on the Dubliners who throw the sailor a coin or two; it is most likely lost on the sailor himself. However, Joyce’s portrait of a penniless Irish veteran singing the praises of Great Britain conveys a sardonic yet tragic image the reader does not miss. The sailor’s wanderings also play an interesting counterpoint to the viceregal’s cavalcade. He is a son of Ireland ruined by a country that calls itself his, and yet he receives scant reverence or deference when compared to that received by the royal representative of Ireland’s English master. Joyce underlines the irony by staging the sailor’s last rendition of the tune “at the area of 14 Nelson street” (204).
In the last segment of the episode, Blazes Boylan, rose between teeth, is strutting past Trinity College to the tune of “My girl’s a Yorkshire girl.” Although some college students behind the provost’s wall are singing it, it can well serve as Blazes’ theme music. Joyce gives the reader the song’s chorus that amply expresses a playboy basking in his desire for his “little Yorkshire rose” (209). The line immediately refers back to the rose clutched in his teeth that he is bringing Molly as well as it suggests his amorous humor in general. However, it is the stanzas of the song, which Joyce does not give the reader, that say the most about Blazes. The song concerns two men bragging about their sweethearts. They soon discover that they are seeing the same girl and head off to her house to determine which one she really loves. However, when they ring her bell, the girl’s husband answers the door (Gifford, 286). The song’s theme of adultery implicates both Blazes and the willing adulteress, Molly. However, this reference also has an ironic twist. Whereas the two lovers are foiled in the song, Blazes feels confident that Bloom will not meet him at Molly’s door.
At the end of segment twelve, Joyce uses a song lyric to put the final twist on Mr. Kernan’s historical musings. As he walks contentedly down Watling street, Kernan recalls the escape of lord Edward Fitzgerald, an Irish patriot, that occurred nearby. He continues to praise the rebel at the expense of Francis Higgins, “the sham squire,” who turned in Fitzgerald (Gifford, 135). Yet he concedes that Fitzgerald and his comrades were “on the wrong side,” revealing that he is a West Briton (U, 198). Kernan can justify holding Fitzgerald and his men in such high regard because “[t]hey were gentleman” and not common ruffians. This sentiment dovetails with his low opinion of Higgins who was a false – or “sham” – gentleman (Gifford, 135). However, this class bias is undercut by his fond remembrance of Ben Dollard’s rendition of “The Croppy Boy,” a song eulogizing Catholic peasants who fought for independence in 1798 (Gifford, 275). Finally, the remembered phrase “At the siege of Ross did my father fall” serves as the perfect ironic introduction for the viceregal’s cavalcade that appears in the next line.
In his director’s commentary on the DVD edition of Nashville, Altman calls his film a musical (70). Although it does not fit into the standard Hollywood musical mold – no characters burst into song and are immediately flanked by rows of showgirls – Altman’s states that more than one hour of the film’s three-hour length is devoted to musical performances. Necessarily, this music plays a significant role in Altman’s storytelling technique. Songs in Nashville reflect upon the performers, their relationships with other characters, and the current action that is taking place during the performance. A quick example occurs when Linnea enters the roadhouse to make her rendezvous with Tom. As she walks into shot, the performer on-stage sings, “My woman’s cooking in somebody else’s pan” (115). This rather crude line makes an allusion to Linnea’s imminent infidelity. In addition, lyrics occasionally prove prophetic, hinting at events and character revelations that the first-time viewer cannot anticipate. Altman’s use of music does differ slightly with Joyce’s in that he more often than not must present a song in its entirety to the viewer.
Joyce is dealing with popular songs that his Dublin contemporaries knew by heart, and he could get away with a line or a stanza of a well-known air. In fact, a good degree of the power that comes from Joyce’s use of music is that his brief “sound bites” suggests deeper meanings that would prove all too obvious if he presented the song in toto. Altman, on the other hand, has no choice but to present the entire songs since all of the songs in Nashville were written directly for the film. However, this situation does not suggest that Altman’s technique cannot be subtle. As stated before, Altman’s promiscuous film style always keeps the viewer off-guard or unsure where her focus should be. This style is maintained through the musical numbers as well. Although it is true that “we rarely hear fragments of songs” in the same way as “we ... hear fragments of conversations” in Nashville, our attention is often diverted during a performance to a face in the crowd, an off-stage conversation, or the action taking place in a bedroom across town that has the song playing on the radio (Keyssar, 152). As with most of the information Altman gives the viewer, it typically takes more than one viewing to see all the clues these songs are communicating. On occasion the song a character is singing may convey personality traits that he or she might not otherwise reveal in public.6 In some instances, such a device may confirm what the viewer already knows about the character. When Barbara Jean sings “Dues” on the Opry Belle, the song’s lyrics as well as her deportment of the song betray her true emotional state that contrasts sharply with the kitschy joviality of her Opryland setting. When she delivers the refrain “It hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down / I wanta walk away from this battleground,” the emotion on her face is not mere affectation to enhance her performance (106). From an earlier scene at her hospital bed, the viewer knows that this Nashville “queen” is an extremely unhappy person, and her life as a singing celebrity is akin to an ongoing battle that she is losing. When Barnett accuses her of “having another of your nervous breakdowns” during the scene, the viewer learns that she is a chronically distressed person (74). Her anguished farewell as her husband leaves the room is particularly painful. Significantly, it is after she performs “Dues” that she begins her rambling monologue that discloses her true feelings about her way of life to her audience for the first time. The song’s refrain “It hurts so bad” is the tool that allows Barbara Jean to remove the public mask and reveal the private face underneath. Ironically, the song’s lyrics also reveal something significant about a certain audience member. As Barbara Jean sings, “You’ve got you own private world,” the camera focuses on Kenny, who is seated in the front row (107). The lyric reflects both of their personalities. She is a public person who feels isolated from everyone, and he is a drifter who is unable or unwilling to make lasting personal connections. Altman reverts to a traditional film technique in this scene to make the connection between the two characters through the song unmistakable. He “extends the conventional filmic device of shot-reverse-shot employed to represent the dialogue between two persons ... the constrained tension on Kenny’s face reveals and reflects the pain expressed in the lyrics” (Keyssar, 159). The nature of this emotional association is not clear. Kenny may feel empathy for Barbara Jean, realizing that she is not merely performing. Possibly, the song and her performance have uncovered repressed emotions in him that Kenny would rather keep buried. Whatever the reason, the song forms a foundation for a relationship that will conclude with an assassination.
A song may also suggest a character trait the viewer may not suspect a person possesses. The paradigm for this is Haven Hamilton’s “Keep A-Goin’.” From his first scene, the viewer is given information to dispose her to dislike Hamilton. He is tyrannical with his co-workers, mistreats those he sees as beneath him, and gives off a “smarmy” vibe in general. “Keep A-Goin’,” we learn, is the song that gave him his start on the country music scene and is his de facto theme song. “There ain’t no law says you must die/ Keep a-goin’,” he sings (67). The viewer is compelled to dismiss his song as hollow self-promotion. However, the song’s message surprisingly proves an accurate estimation of his character at the film’s climax. After he has been shot, Haven brushes attention away from himself so that all medical attention can be given to Barbara Jean. “Don’t worry about me, help her, help her” (149). With the bullet wound is his shoulder clearly visible, he tries to calm the crowd and avert further catastrophe. As Pauline Kael writes in her book of criticism Reeling,

Who watching the pious Haven Hamilton sing the evangelical `Keep a’ Goin,’ his eyes flashing with a paranoid gleam as he keeps the audience under surveillance, would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself? (451)

Another Hamilton song proves prophetic for another character. His song “For the Sake of the Children” is so hokey that it is hard not to laugh during the performance.

Unpack your bags
And try not to cry
I can’t leave my wife
There are three reasons why
There’s Billy and Tommy
And sweet Lorelie
For the sake of the children
We must say good-bye
(63)

Since Hamilton is practically inseparable from Lady Pearl, the viewer assumes she is the mother of his son, Bud. However, the viewer learns at the picnic that Bud’s mother is “in Paris.” From this one can deduce that children were not a big enough incentive to keep a marriage together in Hamilton’s real life (51). In fact, the song reflects the one-night stand between Tom Frank and Linnea Reese. As mentioned before, Linnea is in a loveless marriage, and Tom, a compulsive womanizer, has targeted her as his new conquest. Soon after they consummate the affair, she leaves him to return to her home. Unlike the song, there is nothing hokey about their story. Linnea is deeply dedicated to her two deaf children, yet she needs the brief escape Tom provides from her relationship with Delbert. Tom is a sexual predator who might consider himself a “home-wrecker” if he ever gave a thought as to whether his lovers were married or not. Since Linnea is not expecting much in the way of love from her home life, her only motive for leaving Tom is her children. Kael, again, is credited for this discovery. Hamilton’s song acts as a kind of interpolation on Linnea and Tom’s story. Not in the sense that it interrupts their action; their tryst actually occurs the night after Hamilton’s performance. Rather, it comments upon and broadens the meaning of the actions of two characters that seem completely unconnected with its performance.
At a number of points in the film, the song a character sings also reveals things about him or her of which they are wholly unaware. Sueleen Gay is the character who best exemplifies this trait. Throughout the film, she is completely ignorant of the fact that her singing ability is non-existent. For someone who is so obsessed with music and her performance, she is blissfully obtuse in regards to the sound of her own voice. Her most costly mistake, however, concerns her misreading of the effect her lyrics and body language make on a specific audience. Throughout the film she has been accentuating her sexuality in order to sell herself as a performer. As she rehearses before her bedroom mirror, Sueleen stuffs her bra in one scene and punctuates her off-key phrasing with burlesque gyrations of her hips in another (32, 61). The viewer can see that these are not sexual “teases;” rather, they are naïve attempts to mimic professional entertainers. However, placed in the wrong context, her music and gestures lead to disaster. Sueleen has been hired as the “entertainment” at a fund raiser for Hal Philip Walker. She is supposed to do a striptease, but believes she has been hired for her singing talent. Her opening song choice could not be more appropriate for furthering her self-obfuscation. “I Never Get Enough” is probably the least complex song from a lyricist’s perspective in the entire movie, and although Sueleen does not perceive the message its repetitive stanzas are sending, her audience is more than receptive. Sueleen, of course, believes their applause and cheers are for her singing voice. Her song and her suggestive “dance” moves are producing an aphrodisiacal effect rather than her intended aesthetic one. When she attempts a ballad for her second number and adopts a less provocative posture, her voice is all she can offer the audience. Immediately, the catcalls and the napkin wads start flying; only then does the truth begin to descend upon her.
In a small moment, Barbara Jean becomes her own Cassandra as she sings a brief line. As she is leaving the hospital and her wheelchair is being pulled into the elevator, she sings, “goin’ to get myself a pistol” (98). At the time, it is difficult for the viewer to even notice this line. In addition to the overlapping dialogue, the centerpiece of the scene at this moment is a double-decker gurney loaded with the flowers Barbara Jean has received during her brief stay. Even the first time viewer who notices the words she is singing is not likely to see anything odd about them. The phrase is a common trope of country music; as a matter of fact, she is singing the historically first “country” hit, Jimmy Rodger’s “Blue Yodel.” Among other things, the song refers to shooting a trifling lover “just to see her jump and ball.”[7] Taken in context with the film’s violent climax, Rodger’s line of music becomes a chilling harbinger of Barbara Jean’s death.
One of the more complex examples of musical allusion in Nashville is interesting because it also as a linking device between scenes. Near the end of the King of the Road sequence, Connie White is invited on-stage to sing. The song she sings, “Rolling Stone,” plays over the conversations of the people sitting around the stage. The camera keeps returning to the conversation between the folksinger Bill and his driver, Norman. Moments before Connie White begins to sing, Bill remarks to Norman, “This is bad. She’s really late. I mean she’s really, really late!” (76). As the song progresses, we continue to get brief snatches of their conversation. “You know what this is like?” Bill asks, “It’s like when you know something’s up” (78). Altman cuts back to Connie White before Bill can elaborate. The refrain that Connie White has now convinced most of those assembled to sing is “Rolling stone, rolling stone / Gathers no moss / But neither does it gather / Any love” (79). As always, the lyrics convey a message about a specific character or situation; however, at this point, it is unclear to whom or what they refer. As the camera returns to their conversation, Bill admits he believes Mary is having an affair. Norman shakes his head and says emphatically, “You are way off. Way, way off. Are you kidding?” (82). Norman’s words are followed by an abrupt cut to a bed occupied by Mary and Tom. The viewer may hazard a guess at the topic of Norman and Bill’s conversation early on and may even have guessed a likely suspect, but this scene leaves little room for doubt. This cut confirms Bill’s fears.
As the scene in the bedroom begins, the viewer is presented with another song. Tom’s reel to reel is playing one of his compositions, “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Friend?” As the song’s sensitive deportment fills the room, Mary begins to repeatedly whisper, “I love you” to the apparently sleeping Tom (83). However, the viewer notices that her words contain a degree of desperation that increases each time she repeats the phrase. Tom’s “sleeping” expression, on the other hand, remains passive and fixed. Connie White’s song serves as a lead-in for this scene and alludes specifically to Tom. The viewer knows that Tom slept with Opal the previous evening and then summarily kicked her out of the bed the next morning. Now, he is sleeping with his band partner and, as her desperate tone suggests, is completely disinterested in her emotionally. Like a rolling stone, Tom is “gather[ing] no moss” as far as his sex life is concerned, neither is he “gather[ing] any love.” Connie White’s song is ironic here because her song is an admonition to the roving lover that he will not find love, whereas, Tom is more than happy to avoid such an inconvenience. Tom’s song also makes ironic commentary upon the scene. The tone of Tom’s performance of the song suggests an unrequited lover’s plea to the object of his affection. Clearly, the words “Won’t you let me / Try to be your friend” suggest that the singer desires friendship as a starting point for a more substantial relationship (83). Mary is emotionally attuned to the tone of this song. The literal message of the lyrics, however, reveals Tom’s position. He wants to “just be friends,” if that, with Mary – no romantic strings attached. Significantly, this song, unlike most of the performances in Nashville, is a recorded performance. The medium of tape detaches the song’s emotional performance from the scene’s events. In fact, Mary is in love with the sensitive Tom on the reel-to-reel, not the cruel Blazes Boylan beneath her.
Both “Wandering Rocks” and Nashville use “traveling touchstones” to connect the various stories they are trying to tell. By “traveling touchstones” I refer to recurring characters or images that seem to float from one scene to another. They are usually located at the margins of the scenes, far away from whatever action that is taking center stage at that moment. Regardless, their reappearances help convey the impression of completeness and unity to the narrative structure of each work. The blind stripling and crippled sailor are two examples in “Wandering Rocks.” The HELY’S advert men, donning hats with large scarlet letters that spell out their employer’s name when they are lines up properly, also perform this function for Joyce as does the Elijah throwaway. Tricycle Man, who never speaks a word yet rides his three-wheeled motorcycle to practically every scene location, is such a touchstone for Altman. Likewise, Hal Phillip Walker’s red-white-and-blue striped promotion van replete with a megaphone that constantly blares the candidate’s pre-recorded messages seems to be everywhere. The van’s principal utility dovetails nicely with that of the advert men and, to a certain extent, the Elijah throwaway. Like the HELY’S men, Walker’s van is an ostentatious advertising tool that most citizens are pretty indifferent toward. Just as the Elijah throwaway promises the coming of Dr. John Alexander Dowie, “the restorer of the church of Zion,” the van’s megaphone proclaims the imminent arrival of a political reformer, a man who promises a revival of freedom and liberty. Although he only makes one appearance in “Wandering Rocks,” the Man in the Macintosh also acts as a peripatetic touchstone throughout Ulysses, and he might be the double of Tricycle Man. Like Macintosh, no one knows who The Tricycle Man is, but his appearance is too singular to allow him to fade into the background. Although neither Macintosh nor Tricycle Man signifies anything definitive, they do act as signposts that indicate that their worlds, however disparate and unwieldy, are contained wholes.
Joyce in “Wandering Rocks” tests his readers’ ability to “see” by presenting them with several miscues. Joyce knows that his reader is desperately trying to locate streets of meaning that connect one character or event with another. The first step to escaping a labyrinth is to find a path that connects one point of the maze to another. Perhaps this path will join another path and so on until the center (or the exit) is reached. Joyce, of course, presents the reader with numerous dead ends. A recurrent type of dead end takes advantage of name-associations. “Mr Bloom’s dental windows” is a prime example of this. However, these dead ends usually contain an embedded true connection that most readers miss because of the sting caused by the false one. In the episode’s first section, for example, Father Conmee’s brief reflection upon Paddy Dignam’s death sets the reader up for just such a dead end in the section’s sole interpolation. When Denis Maginni passes “the corner of Dignam’s court,” the reader quickly recognizes the name and assumes a connection exists only to realize it is merely a street reference (181). However, as one door slams shut, Joyce quietly opens another. Denis Maginni is walking past lady Maxwell on this corner; lady Maxwell, it is revealed near the first section’s close, has met with Conmee earlier in the day (“But lady Maxwell had come.”) (184).
Altman’s deceptions, on the other hand, have less to do with recognizing a character than with recognizing the character for what he or she really is. For Joyce, a character’s true nature is no mystery because the “Wandering Rocks” narrator is privy to their thoughts. Although his actions seem above criticism, Father Conmee’s thoughts betray touches of pettiness and self-pride. Altman can only reveal his characters through their actions, and their essences often differ vastly from their outward appearances. Viewers’ preconceptions about the characters of Nashville are continually undercut. Lady Pearl’s political allegiance is but one example among many. These false pictures that viewers form in their minds are due partly to their assumptions about narrative structure and partly to Altman’s active attempts to deceive them. Again, Altman, like Joyce, confuses his viewers by revealing too much information, not by withholding it. If an event seems to occur “out-of -the-blue” – Kenny’s assassination of Barbara Jean, a second or third careful viewing most certainly rewards the viewer with omens and evidence that predict the event. Altman, however, provides false clues as well, traps in which most first-time viewers will be caught.
Altman sets these “character traps” with both prominent characters and marginal ones. Private Kelly is just such a marginal character. There are many signs that point to him as a possible threat. The first “clue” is his role as a soldier. During the time in which the film takes place, a uniformed soldier did not carry the best connotations with the general public. On the one hand, he could be perceived as a killer of innocents, or he might be seen as being mentally destabilized by what he experienced “over there.” This attitude is exemplified by Tom who, when he first sees Private Kelly, asks, “Hey, Sarge kill anyone this week?” (16). Later, Opal confronts Kelly with the loaded question, “You’ve been to Vietnam, haven’t you? I can see it in your face” (107). The second potentially threatening thing about him is his silence. We learn what we do about Altman’s characters primarily by what they say. Since Private Kelly stays mum for most of the picture, his character remains a blank spot on the horizon; he is an unknown. Add to this his apparent obsession with Barbara Jean and he becomes the most ominous character in the first half of the film. One scene in particular appears to paint him in this dangerous light. Private Kelly visits Barbara Jean after hospital visiting hours by sneaking past a security guard on her floor. His figure slinking down the darkened hallway is made all the more menacing by the conversation the security guard is having with a nurse at that moment. The guard brags about the power of the firearm he is carrying. This reference casts a dark shadow upon this scene and Kelly, yet Altman cunningly reveals the red-herring nature of the scene. Just before he cuts to the next scene, Atman has the guard admit that he “never has had to kill anyone” with his gun (42). Two days later Kelly reveals the reason he is so intent on Barbara Jean is because his mother saved her from a fire when she was a child and that his mother’s wish is for him to see her. Certainly, Kelly may be lying or insane. However, the child-like grin on his face as he tells this to Mr. Green undercuts this nagging doubt. In fact, the scene with the gun is prophetic concerning Kelly’s fate. Instead of firing a gun, he will act the hero by trying to stop Kenny from firing his gun at Barbara Jean.[8]
Another marginal character that Altman leads viewers to believe she has all figured out is Buddy Hamilton, Haven’s son. In practically each of his scenes, Buddy is presented as a cordial, gentle, somewhat shy young man. After his father peremptorily kicks Opal out of his recording studio, Buddy politely gives her a tour of another studio. He is extremely patient with her and tolerant with her outrageous comments. He also helps set up the flower arrangements in Barbara Jean’s hospital room. The one scene, however, that paints him as the proverbial “nice-guy-who-finishes-last” is his scene with Opal at Hamilton’s picnic. He bashfully admits to her that he has written a song, and, at her insistence, hesitantly begins to sing. Keyssar states, “both the lyrics and the music of the song, ‘It Comes from the Heart of a Gentle Woman,’ reveal his own sweet gentleness and his need for tender affection” (153). However, Buddy’s “sweet gentleness” is drastically undercut later at the campaign smoker. Visibly drunk, Buddy is one of the more prominent revelers at Sueleen Gay’s humiliation. He is shown gawking expectantly before she begins her act, throwing napkin wads as she begins her second song, and clapping enthusiastically as she removes her clothes. Despite her heretofore close, thorough reading of this scene, as well as of the film in general, Keyssar does not mention Buddy’s presence in it. This is quite surprising since a movie still (page 163) that accompanies her chapter on the film reveals that he was present. Buddy’s inclusion in the smoker scene is not meant, I feel, to discredit everything else the viewer knows of him. Rather, this scene paints him as a more complex and more human character.
The prominent character that presents the most dramatic character “trap” is Haven Hamilton. From his very first scene, the viewer is inclined to dislike him. He runs his recording studio like a fiefdom and is jealously protective of his work. His clothes are ostentatious, and his music is arguably the hokiest in the film. He also has the largest ego in town. “Let’s hear a little more Haven on this take,” he barks to his studio engineers (5). His garish and obvious hairpiece proclaims in every scene that vanity should also be numbered in Haven Hamilton’s list of vices. In addition, he is shown to be a particularly smarmy fellow. When he meets the movie star Julie Christie, he immediately draws the attention back on himself by making the nonsensical remark “I was just talking about the Christy Minstrels this morning, and here we have Julie Christie” (77). After she politely declines his offer to sit down, he facetiously praises her career. Later, the MC at the King of the Road announces there is a celebrity in the club; Haven naturally believes he is the “star” and begins to stand up. When the MC announces Connie White instead, the embarrassed look on Haven’s face brings the viewer a good deal of pleasure. All of his previous actions seem to fly in the face of his heroic selfless act at the film’s climax. As mentioned before, Haven shields Barbara Jean’s fallen form with his own body, takes a least one bullet in the arm, and still maintains his composure to calm the panicked crowd.
As Haven rises from the stage to instruct the others to help Barbara Jean, his hairpiece falls to the stage. He immediately bends down to the approximate location of where it fell. The astute first time viewer naturally assumes that Haven is trying to retain his rug so as to maintain his dignity in the face of such traumatic events. Instead, Haven reaches for the microphone and quells the audience’s panic; this act proclaims the dignity that he has heretofore hidden from everyone. Oblivious to his bare skull, Haven is led from the stage with a look of stunned grief on his face. Does Altman provide any clues for the “change of heart”? Indeed, there are some signs that anticipate this brave act. As discussed before, his theme song “Keep A-Goin’“ hints as his ability to handle crises. In addition, there are a few moments earlier on when he betrays his not-so-self-centered disposition. For instance, his approval and pride in his son seems genuine. As he steps to the mike at the Grand Ole Opry, he says, “Thank you and I’m sure you meant some of those applause for my son, Buddy. Stand up, Buddy!” (62). Later in that same scene, Hamilton’s concern for Barbara Jean seems bona fide when he tells the audience about her condition and urges them to write her at the hospital. These residual good points about Haven are like most important clues in Nashville; they are in plain view, but it takes more than one viewing to see them.
The character that is in many ways Haven’s opposite, John Triplett, also acts as a blind alley for Altman. Viewers may have the tendency to identify with Triplett on their first viewing. Much of this sympathy is due to Triplett’s position as an outsider. Unlike most of the characters in the film, Triplett seems “normal.” He is dressed in a tasteful suit, speaks distinctly and without an accent, and appears completely out-of-place among the idiosyncratic populace that litters the film. In addition, he is soft-spoken and appears to be conscientious in his job. However, kinks start to appear in this “nice guy” image. When speaking to Trout about Sueleen Gay, Triplett remarks, “Well, if she is half as provocative as her name, we should be in business!” (40). It is an off-color comment, but the first-time viewer will likely let it pass without condemnation. When Triplett makes jokes about Haven during the latter’s performance at the Grand Ole Opry, he only further endears himself to most viewers. Considering Haven’s personality (or what the viewer has seen of it), Triplett’s mocking question, “How tall is that guy?” seems richly deserved (62). Minutes later, Triplett says Connie White is wearing the same dress as the girl he took to “my junior high school prom” (68). Indeed, Connie White does look as if she is going to a school dance, so Triplett’s barb does not stain his character. However, he follows this comment with an inappropriate anecdote about his junior high date. “The girl fell out of the car,” he chuckles to Delbert (69). When he invites Bill and Mary to join the musical lineup at the concert rally, Triplett’s duplicitous nature becomes apparent. Although he has been ingratiating in all his dealings with the Nashville stars, he confides in Bill that he cannot stand “redneck music,” but is only courting its royalty because “it is real big right now” (92). In spite of this scene, many viewers may still be able to approve of Triplett because part of his job as a campaign organizer is to be all things to all people, and, furthermore, they may share his assessment of “redneck music.” There can be no explaining away his behavior at the campaign smoker, however. When it becomes apparent that Sueleen is unwilling to perform a striptease, Triplett tells her “if you go back and do your show like you told Trout you would, you can sing at the Parthenon with Barbara Jean” (129). Visibly distraught, she asks him if she will be as big a star as Barbara Jean, and he replies that she “can’t miss” although he told Delbert minutes before that “she [was] the worst singer I’ve ever heard” (122). The fact that he keeps his promise does not mitigate the humiliation Sueleen undergoes in the least. Although she may be able to convince herself it is a good exchange, this rationalization is based on Triplett’s lie that she “can’t miss” becoming a star. Triplet knows she will be booed and hissed if she gets to sing at the rally, but his concern for her ceased the instant she agreed to remove her clothes.
Altman’s film also engages in wordplay that displays a Joycean touch. A common word game that Joyce engages in concerns characters uttering statements that have deeper meanings than they themselves are aware. A line from “The Sisters” illustrates this device well. When Eliza speaks of her brother’s “beautiful death,” she remarks, “You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him” (D, 10). This statement suggests that Father Flynn went peacefully. At the same time, it also suggests that the reason why the transition from life to death went so smoothly was because Father Flynn was never really living a life. A prime example in Nashville occurs during Barbara Jean’s address at the airport welcoming ceremony. As she explains that she is going to be performing at Opryland all week she says, “And as my granddaddy always used to say, ‘If you’re down by the river, I hope you’ll drop in’“ (18). Although this rural “witticism” can be taken as an invitation, it can be more easily interpreted as an insult. “If you’re down by the river, I hope you drown” sounds just as – if not more – plausible a translation as “If you’re down by the river, I hope you have a refreshing swim.” Barbara Jean’s ignorance to the saying’s other possible meaning only reaffirms her character’s desperately maintained sense of naivety.
Another type of word play that Joyce uses in Portrait is also mirrored in Nashville. Joyce will occasionally let the speech of a background, tertiary character comment directly upon the actions of a character in the foreground of the same scene. For instance, as Stephen is walking along Sandymount strand in chapter four, he passes by some students horse-playing in the water. The cry of one of the students (“O’ cripes, I’m drowned!”) comments upon Stephen’s desire to leave Ireland upon wings of art (P, 333). The cryptic yelp is a portent that Stephen’s escape will be as unsuccessful as Icarus’ prideful flight. Altman employs similar tactics in the scene where Kenny is speaking to his mother on Mr. Green’s boarding house phone. Mr. Green’s niece Martha is the only other character physically present in the scene. In many ways, Martha is the feminine nymph that counterpoints Tom’s satyr. In practically every scene, she is on the arm of a different man or is in pursuit of another partner. In this particular scene she is flirting with Kenny as he talks to his mother. Kenny’s mother is acting very much the mother hen, giving him rather ludicrous advice. At one point his mother mentions, “there is this parasite you can catch in the South that is very hard to get rid of” (100). At this exact moment, Martha sits down on Kenny’s bed. The parasite reference may connote Martha’s vampire-like nature as well as the inability of Kenny, or any other male character, to shake off her attentions.
In Ulysses, Joyce can make one character’s pronouncement reflect an earlier image or action experienced by another character or vice-versa. For example, Molly calls Bloom “an old stick in the mud” in the “Circe” episode; Bloom tossed a stick that stuck in the muddy beach at the end of “Nausicaa.” As Opal is wandering through the school bus repository, she becomes fixated upon the color yellow. “Yellow is the color of peril, or sickness, ...” she rambles into her ever-running recorder (96). Although her musings are completely nonsensical and quite amusing, they do, without her realizing it, refer back to an earlier scene. Barbara Jean’s hospital room is painted in a very bright shade of yellow. When we first see Barbara Jean asleep in the room, her position in the bed seems unnatural, almost as if she is lying in state. The abundance of flowers that crowd the room and cradle her bed only adds to the “death-scene” ambiance. In this room, Opal’s associations of yellow with “peril” and “disease” reflect the current condition and the ultimate fate of the room’s occupant. Altman also uses Opal’s tirade on yellow as a linking device to the final scene in the hospital. As she is continuing her rant, Altman cuts directly to the hospital’s nurses’ station where Delbert is talking on a yellow telephone.[9] This link also materializes Opal’s comment on illness because this scene that begins with a yellow telephone ends with the revelations that Mrs. Green has died.
One final example of word play that seems especially Joycean involves Delbert. Before the Opry Belle performance, Delbert confidentially promises Triplett that he will get Barnett to allow Barbara Jean to perform at the Parthenon even if he has to “stick to him like a rodent” (103). After Barnett realizes he has been hoodwinked into letting his wife support Triplett’s candidate, he goes looking to exact revenge against Delbert. He taunts, “Where is that rat Delbert? Where are you hiding, you little rat!” (143).
A final important parallel between “Wandering Rocks” and Nashville is they both end in moments of ironic deflation. After crisscrossing Dublin’s small streets and winding alleys, the narrator of “Wandering Rocks” fixes his gaze upon a journey of the nobility. The earl of Dudley and his party can be seen as the counterpart to Jason and the Argonauts, sailing down the Bosphorus between the Symplegades. Like the Bosphorus, Dublin’s streets are littered with perils; however, instead of wandering, smashing reefs, the dangers are posed by members of the Irish middle and lower classes. Fortunately, the cavalcade’s expedition survives the perilous journey between the safe harbors of the Viceregal Lodge and Mirus Bazaar. However, this grand procession does not receive ubiquitous reverence, and the narrator’s report of the royal trek ends on a note of rude indifference. The final sentence of the episode burgeons with high-minded, inflated language that proves to be so much gas and wind when it is released suddenly in the curt closure of a door.

On Northumberland and Lansdowne roads His Excellency acknowledged punctually salutes from rare male walkers, the salute of two small schoolboys at the garden gate of the house said to have been admired by the late queen when visiting the Irish capital with her husband, the prince consort, in 1849 and the salute of Almidano Artifoni’s sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door. (209)

In this sentence, the narrator gives the reader more examples of the Irish’s silent diffidence to their royal master followed by an aside concerning Queen Victoria’s lauded visit in 1849. This pompous build-up is unexpectedly resolved in a pair of trousers. Artifoni’s backside gives the last “salute,” and the maze-like chapter ends not with the discovery of an exit but with the shutting of a door. The narrator’s focus upon this minor side detail undercuts both the regality of the cavalcade, and the reader’s search for the escape of easy answers.
Nashville’s ending is troubling as well. Albuquerque’s rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” at the Parthenon is open to many interpretations. Two of the most prevalent theories are in direct variance with one another. The first theory reads it as a positive ending. Haven Hamilton’s desire to prevent a panic has been achieved, and an aspiring unknown has been catapulted to the forefront of the Nashville music scene. The calming power of music has triumphed and been coupled with a rags-to-riches success story. The second interpretation takes a fatalistic view. Is it disturbing that Albuquerque’s song calms down the crowd as quickly as it does? Despite the horrific scene they have just witnessed and the likely death of one of their most beloved stars, the crowd at the Parthenon reclaims its good humor within a manner of moments. The calming effect of the music could be easily likened to an opiate in this scene. Examining the song’s lyrics does not untangle the controversy either.

Tax relief may never come
It don’t worry me
Economy’s depressed but not me
It don’t worry me
You may say that I’m not free
But it don’t bother me
(152)

They can be read as either dauntless or deluded. Add to this ambiguity the fact that since Albuquerque has replaced Barbara Jean she might also have an assassin in the wings and the ending becomes even more problematic. As he often answers the question why did Kenny shoot Barbara Jean, Altman more than likely would reply to a question concerning the “happy” or “unhappy” nature of his film’s end with a shrug of his shoulders. It is important to note that from the moment Barbara Jean is shot until the film’s end, Altman’s running DVD commentary is conspicuously absent. Whether he intended the ending to be positive or negative, Altman, like Joyce, undercuts the grand statement his ending seems to impart. Although the song is joyfully delivered and the scene has many hallmarks of an epic finale, the scene is grounded by its skewed elements as well. For one, the composition of the scene strikes one as particularly odd. In effect, the scene concerns a skinny white woman in torn nylons and dirty, ragged clothes singing in front of an all African-American gospel choir on a stage at the base of a life-size replica of the Greek Parthenon that is draped with an American flag. One of Altman’s great achievements is to present such an incongruent, ludicrous set of images in such a manner that its patent absurdity does not strike the viewer while she is watching his film. Nevertheless, if the ending is epic, it is mock epic. Furthermore, like Joyce, Altman lets out the gas in his inflated ending with a simple phrase. As the camera begins to pan into the clouds and the choir hits an exhilarating crescendo, Albuquerque takes the opportunity to deliver a message to the crowd. “When we die all that’ll be left is plastic flyswatters and empty Clorox bottles,” she spouts earnestly (154). In this pronouncement by the newly anointed shaman, the viewer can clearly hear the giggling of the godhead.
However, it is the cumulative effect of both “Wandering Rocks” and Nashville upon the reader and viewer that truly expresses the kinship of Joyce and Altman as artists. In comparing Altman’s masterpiece with Ulysses, Kael poignantly states, “[Altman] can put unhappy characters on the screen … and you don’t wish you didn’t have to watch them; you accept their unhappiness as a piece of the day, as you do in Ulysses” (450). The “unhappiness” in Nashville to which Kael is referring is the heart-wrenching scene when Mr. Green inadvertently learns of his wife’s death. The unhappy “piece of the day” in Ulysses to which she refers may, in fact, be the passage in section eighteen of “Wandering Rocks.” In this section the harsh realization of his father’s death mercilessly descends upon Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam. Both works impress upon the reader and viewer a vision of the “pieces of the day” that are both realistic and poetic. The gods of both the Dublin in Ulysses and the Nashville in Altman’s film are hovering just behind the scenes, idly pairing their fingernails. Their analogous artistic conceits infuse their creations with a sense of continuity that emulates the pulse of life.

Notes

This paper was originally a thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts

1. Quotations from Nashville will be cited in the following manner: the director will be credited as the author, and the minute (round off) in the film’s running time when the statement occurs will substitute for page references.

2. Ironically, at one time Nashville was Tricia Nixon’s favorite film. The former President wrote Altman a letter if it were possible to get a copy of the film for his daughter. After Altman sent him a cordial reply, Nixon sent him a signed copy of his memoirs (McGilligan, 535).

3. The audience filmed during the Opry sequence was a live audience, and their reticent reaction to Karen Black’s statement seems genuine. Timing may have had a great deal to do with the scant applause. According to Altman’s film commentary on the DVD version of the movie, the Opry sequences were filmed on August 9, 1974 – the day Nixon abdicated the Presidency.

4. Altman’s decision to use Howard K. Smith as his television commentator does more for the scene than simply add verisimilitude. There is a political relevance to Smith’s presence because he acted as the moderator at the first, and historically most significant, of the Kennedy-Nixon televised debates in 1960.

5. Upon further reflection, Smith’s statement casts even darker shadows upon the “honor” of winning the state of Tennessee. Obviously, it suggests that Nixon also won the state in 1968 and 1972.

6. All of the songs were written before filming began. They were also composed independent of any consideration of when and how they would be used in the film. It is a tribute to Altman’s artistic skill that his placement of specific songs within specific scenes reveals so much about the characters and the world within which they reside.

7. It may be important to note that Jimmie Rodgers is universally recognized as the “Father of Country Music.” “Blue Yodel” is not his only song that bespeaks of shooting women. “Pistol Packin’ Papa” contains many such references with overt phallic symbolism. The historical significance of “Blue Yodel” and Rodger’s place in the country music pantheon may suggest an underlying violence toward woman inherent to country music in general. Viewed from this light, it is not surprising that the first celebrity assassination in America (predating John Lennon five years later) is a female country star.

8. The similarity between Kenny and Private Kelly’s names may very well be an intentional link between these two (ultimately) disparate characters. However, this link is lost on the viewer during the course of the film because Private Kelly is never addressed by name in the film. Only checking the closing credits will reveal this connection.

9. This is another example of a rare interpretive mistake made by Helene Keyssar in Robert Altman’s America. She maintains that Altman underlines the ominous aspect of the color yellow in the film by having Kenny “[pick] up a yellow telephone” (148). In fact, the only telephone Kenny uses in the film is black (Altman, 100).

References

Altman, Robert. Nashville, 1975.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Joyce, James. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” Dubliners. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992. Pgs. 102-117.

_________ “The Sisters,” Dubliners. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992. Pgs. 5-12.

_________ A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992. Pgs. 193-411.

_________ Ulysses: The Gabler Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

Kael, Pauline. Reeling. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1976.

Keyssar, Helene. Robert Altman’s America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

McCormick, Kathleen. Ulysses, “Wandering Rocks,” and The Reader: Multiple Pleasures in Reading. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.


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