“There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.” — Buffalo Springfield

In many ways, American filmmaker Robert Altman was America’s Fellini. You’d have to be a film buff of my age, and a fan of both, to know what that means. It’s about faces, visual nonsequiturs, like watching Ronald Reagan and Nancy dining, and suddenly Jimmy Kimmel sits down.

But we’re here to talk about “Nashville,” opening tonight on the big screen at the brand new Waterville Opera House. It’s a party, 2.5 hours of nonstop faces, most of whom you probably think are dead. The sad truth is, many are.

But this is not a wake. This is a party.

The late, great American film critic Pauline Kael reportedly said about Robert Altman’s “Nashville”: “This is what America is, and I’m part of it.” Of course, she was right. Altman is as America as Fellini was Italy. Both filled their screens with the essence of their national souls, and it worked. It’s America, and we’re part of it.

Altman’s “Nashville,” centered on the country western heart of America, is a film some genuflect in front of, some sniff and walk away from, some throw rocks at and others light candles around. Those are the kinds of reactions that tell you something big is going on, and they’re right.

I have seen almost every Altman film, and “Nashville” is not my favorite, but it’s there like the Grand Canyon, and must be viewed simply because it is. I love Altman, but in many ways he drives me crazy.

I go all lyrical and start throwing metaphors around like confetti. But that’s what Altman and Fellini do to you. They keep you awake, twisting your head to the right and left and then scratching it. That’s why we’re still talking about them and not about Lloyd Bacon. Sorry, Lloyd.

Things were simpler for me in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “The Long Goodbye.” Cowboys and private detectives. What could go wrong?

 “M*A*S*H” and “The Player” both were events I was personally involved in, Korea and Hollywood. But “Nashville” is something else.

I can’t give you much here. Reviewing “Nashville” is like trying to review the 1968 Democratic convention, or a Southern church picnic, a destination wedding or Warner Brother’s annual barbecue, where so much is happening you can’t take it all in one sitting.

There are 25 different characters and 25 stories on each. Altman flits from one to another like a fly at an outdoor wedding dinner. First he’s sampling the berries, then the watermelon, the shrimp platter and then over to pies. Just as we are really getting into the appetizers, he takes us to the salad bar in a bedroom.

One minute we’re watching a famous country singer having a nervous breakdown on stage; the next we’re watching Lily Tomlin in her bra and slip, making love to Keith Carradine. Lily Tomlin? OMG.

Suddenly it’s like a Vanity Fair after-party time warp: Holy cow! There’s Elliot Gould, Ronee Blakley, Barbara Baxley. Is that Henry Gibson from “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”? Scott Glenn from “Silence of the Lambs,” looking 16, and Jeff Goldblum doing magic tricks? You’re kidding.

Don’t go to the shrimp table; Geraldine Chaplin and Lily Tomlin are being catty about Karen Black’s last year’s red dress. Karen, by the way, really can sing. Did you know that? And we learn that Keith Carradine really deserved that Oscar for “I’m Easy.” You’ll start humming it again.

Hold on. Is that Julie Christie? Yes, it is. Now she’s gone.

And there’s Michael Murphy, the movie and television premier “Everyman.” Michael, with Woody Allen or Altman, makes every scene he’s in look so real you think it’s MSNBC.

From the opening scenes in the airport at Nashville, you get the feeling that something great is going on, but what?

It’s best summed up by Buffalo Springfield’s “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.” And yes, there is a man with a gun over there.

“Nashville” is in town and the gang’s all here. It’s red, white and blue with sparklers, choirs, country western singers, great and terrible. There is something happening here, and it’s more than perfectly clear.

Robert Altman brings you America.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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