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Robert Altman in One Shot

New Hollywood director Robert Altman encapsulated in a single shot from "Nashville" (1975).
Carlos Valladares
One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie.
Robert Altman’s cinema, his delicate understanding of losers and outcasts, can be summed up in one shot in Nashville (1975). At the Exit/In club, four women listen to a song they each think they inspired. Three have slept with the sullen, cruel country star (Keith Carradine) whom they think is personally serenading them from the stage. As the boy plays this earworm (the Oscar-winning “I’m Easy”), it becomes clear to his strung-along singing partner (Cristina Raines) and the spaced-out groupie who looks like Olive Oyl of the White Panthers (Shelley Duvall) that he is not pouring his heart out to them but to the gospel singer in white glued to the way, way back (Lily Tomlin). Yet what lingers in the mind is the cosmic reaction of Geraldine Chaplin—as Opal, the star-struck English chatterbox who may or may not work for the BBC. For 99% of the film, she is Banal Media incarnate, a dithering (some say “hollow”) type of a type who has made up her mind long before she raises her microphone to make yet another pretentious observation: “It’s pure Bergman! Of course, the people are all wrong for Bergman…” But in this seven-second shot, a lightning storm of emotions illuminates Opal’s face. She transmits a tear-inducing smile, the kind expressed when you see a shard of yourself reflected in a work of art. She beams, basking in the glow of having felt noticed and elevated. Then, for an eternity of seconds, she is overcome by a serious pensiveness which we haven’t seen in any of her scenes of scablike parody, underlined by one last smirking twitch of the mouth: I helped create this. Nowhere else is Opal’s cluelessness so crushing, so tragic. With the gasp-inducing speed of the greatest actor-artists, Chaplin shades in all the turbulent inner life that might have seemed distant from her leech-like reporter, and Altman in his casual, actor-first wisdom allows this moment to unfold—unheralded, unsignaled, but there—for all of us to relate. Even Opal he can’t let exist as a flat joke. Such is the surprising give-and-take in Altman.


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