The Rules of the Game / Nashville | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Rules of the Game / Nashville

If the incessant drumbeat of publicity surrounding the big showy holiday movies and the pontificating about what tepid current dramas might be yielding Oscars has given you a headache, Pittsburgh Filmmakers may have the cure for what ails you: rare theatrical screenings of two films that time and countless viewers and critics have deemed bona fide classics.

Opening for a two-week run on Fri., Dec. 29, is the 1939 French classic The Rules of the Game. Jean Renoir's scathing critique of contemporary French society on the eve of World War II was met with audience derision upon its release. Subsequently it was chopped up and banned during the Occupation, and only later re-assembled by the director from a few surviving prints. This newly restored print showcases Renoir's well-composed film with its innovative use of deep space and lively camera that at times seems to dash about like one of the story's over-excited party guests.

On one level Rules can be enjoyed as a comedy of manners, set in a country estate with the requisite hallmarks of a farce: the pantomime (complete with a prancing Death character), saucy servants, the hallway of hurriedly slammed bedroom doors. The ensemble cast comprises the wealthy set, with a pair of philandering hosts and their respective lovers; assorted guests; and various servants and caretakers.

It's a self-absorbed society Renoir called "rotten to the core." Rules is the study of that world; there is no central character, and likewise no clearly defined heroes or villains. Everyone is by turns mildly sympathetic, and also somewhat annoying. Renoir, who co-wrote the script with Carl Koch, himself plays Octave, the set's cowardly buffoon, who also proves disappointing.

In this realm of moral relativism, betrayals and cruelties are fine -- as long as all parties adhere to the rules: He who is sincere is not, in fact, playing by the rules -- and must be excised in order to restore the perverse but preferred corrupted order. In a renowned scene, Renoir presages the parties' casual cruelty, during a deceptively simple hunting sequence that still holds the capacity to shock. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Dec. 29, Regent Square.

Robert Altman, the often iconoclastic filmmaker who died in November, once said, "I learned the rules of the game from Rules of the Game." Indeed, aspects of Rules that were groundbreaking in 1939 -- the loose plot shouldering cultural critique, the massive ensemble cast, the overlapping dialogue, criss-crossing storylines and serio-comic approach -- would become touchstones of Altman's style.

Like Rules, Robert Altman's sprawling 1975 dramedy Nashville is primarily about a time and its people. America, on the eve of its 200th birthday, is an uneasy place, battered from social upheaval, Vietnam and Nixon, confused and searching for a leader. Altman sets his film in Nashville, amid the intersecting worlds of country music and politics (two milieus marked by their allegiance to artificial sincerity). Yet Nashville's cheap interchangeable hotel rooms, coffee shops and gas stations also suggest an American Anywhere.

The nearly three-hour film spends a few days in Music City, as seen through a couple dozen residents and visitors. It's an assortment of dreamers, schemers and losers -- country-western singers, political operatives working for the Replacement Party (whose candidate is never seen, but whose speeches are heard throughout) and ordinary families.

It's a funny, sad portrait -- a stew of cynicism, sentiment and wistful hope -- that includes snapshots of America as diverse and legitimate as baton-twirling and a lone-gunman assassin. Despite the period '70s clothes, Nashville's vibe feels uncannily prescient; ultimately, America found that artificially authentic leader in Ronald Reagan, unironically trained to be folksy and paternal by the entertainment industry. And Altman's worrisome satire continues to resonate: Note that we're living through another uneasy period, anxious for a leader, and barely assuaged by rote patriotic bunting and a consuming obsession with celebrities. Mon., Jan. 1, through Thu., Jan.4. Harris

click to enlarge Song for America: Nashville
Song for America: Nashville

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