One of the ways I consider a movie to be a success is if a character from the film is able to be so fully defined and interesting that they stay with me well after my initial viewing of the movie. There are certain films where the character is so well developed within the world of the film that you can't possibly see them existing anywhere except in the confines of that story. Some of my favorite examples of this include Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Even genre films can be elevated to higher levels by featuring an iconic character for the movie to lean on, such as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Joker in The Dark Knight. For Nashville, that iconic character is the city for which the movie is named.
Robert Altman's Nashville is like taking a peak into a world that you believe existed before the movie began and continues to exist long after the closing credits. The film boasts a roster of over twenty characters, but in all honesty the only one that matters is Nashville itself, along with the music that is the slow and rhythmic heartbeat of the city. In fact, one benefit of having so many characters is that we never spend too much time with just a single person to really get a full handle on their inner thoughts and motivations. Instead, by keeping a bird's eye view of the proceedings, we are able to simply watch these people live their lives over the span of a few days. Focusing on one character would be the equivalent of walking up to a beautiful clock and only admiring a small little cog within it's inner workings.
That's not to say that there are no interesting stories being told. In fact, I believe Nashville can work as a litmus test for someone's personality based on who they consider to be the more interesting characters. For me, I found myself mainly invested in the story of Mr. Green, as he dealt with his dying wife while trying to reign in his visiting niece from L.A. (played by Shelly Duvall in what was for me a fairly confusing "I can't tell if I'm attracted to her or not" role). It may be that I'm a sucker for a movie about old love near the end of life (typing this makes me think of the opening montage from Up, which in turn makes me want to cry) but it was this character that I felt led to the most emotional response in the movie, which is when he finds out his wife had died overnight in the hospital. For a movie that up to that scene had rode the line between broad comedy and slightly serious drama, it helped solidify my feeling that this was less a film with a definable genre and more a sampling of life itself.
I'll admit that the runtime of Nashville was a bit straining at times, especially for someone who did not enjoy most of the country music that takes up a good amount of screen time. But by having the movie feel like a series of vignettes with intertwining characters, I was never bored or disinterested for long. Going in I had hyped the movie up as a seminal classic and will admit that during the first half of the film I was growing slightly annoyed at how uninteresting the movie actually was. But as it moved along towards the finale, I slowly began to realize the purpose of the film and what makes it so important today. The movie creates a documnentary-like feeling by having the city seem like a living, breathing creation that we have the pleasure of watching for a few hours. By not ending the movie on any real resolution for any of the characters, it creates a heightened feeling that these characters continued on well past the point of our departure as viewers. Whatever those characters are up to today, I just hope it involves Jeff Goldblum's character still riding around in that amazing motorcycle.