Wednesday, April 29, 2015


There are places in America, whole regions, that exist almost exclusively in our imaginations - until a filmmaker comes along and reminds us that they have substance, that they are actual places with specific dimensions. American film, even now, is almost always located in California or New York City. To filmgoers around the world, the Hollywood hills and the Brooklyn Bridge are as familiar as the places they call home. Only occasionally have filmmakers ventured into that undiscovered country that lies between - to the Nevada desert or the Susquehana Valley, the Great Plains or the Mississippi River. Cities and towns in the Deep South or the Rust Belt, in the Midwest or Southwest, have largely been terra incognita. If you looked for them on the American film map, you would find a great blank zone, with the warning, "Here there be dragons."

While I wasn't exactlt waiting with bated breath to see another film by Alexander Payne, his works is certainly much closer to what I think should be a film's greatest concern: the faces and fates of real people in a world that closely resembles our own. Payne is what one might call a "niche" director. American film has had them before - ones who find a personal subject (aka style) early in their careers and have the good sense to stay there. Woody Allen, despite his once vaunted ambition of becoming an American Ingmar Bergman, is another of the type.

Payne is a native of Omaha, and has placed the action of many of his films there, including - most memorably - About Schmidt. So it didn't surprise me when he made the film Nebraska (2013), which starts out in Montana, where an old man named Woody Grant gets a publisher's sweepstakes letter - as we all have - with his name on it informing him that he has won a million dollars. The attention-getting promise of a fortune in cash is intended to entice the uninformed to purchase magazine subscriptions. But old Woody (played by old Bruce Dern) is convinced that he won the million dollars and all he has to do is go to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect it. When no one offers to drive him there, he decides to walk. It's him we see in the opening shot of the film, stubbornly trudging down a highway. He reminded me of Alvin Straight, who was so determined to visit an ailing brother in Wisconsin that he drove a riding mower all the way there from his home in Iowa. His journey, based on fact, was dramatized beautifully in David Lynch's The Straight Story (2000). In Nebraska Woody is reunited with his brothers in their hometown of Hawthorne.

Eventually, Woody's younger son, David (played by SNL alumnus Will Forte), decides to appease Woody, and they make the long drive from Montana to Nebraska via Wyoming. Distances in these huge states are made to seem worse by the almost total absence of people. I drove across Nebraska in 2001, and, not knowing any of the local radio stations, I had to push the "scan" button several times on my car radio whenever one of them faded out of range. At one stretch, in the middle of the state, I pushed the scan button and got nothing from one end of the band to the other. The radio just kept scanning for - without finding - a single radio station with a strong enough signal. This went on for an unaccountable distance, making me wonder if I'd fallen off the map. 

On arriving in Hawthorne, news of Woody's good fortune gets around the small town. (The film was shot in Plainview, a town whose name says it all.) The local paper, run by an old girlfriend of Woody's, wants to run a story on him. An old drinking buddy (played by Stacy Keach) suddenly remembers a sum of money that Woody owes him and threateningly tries to collect it. When Woody visits his brothers, their two grown sons - who seem to do nothing but claim to drive great distances in unlikely time - conspire to steal the winning ticket from him.   
My sister related to me how our mother, in her late seventies, had been so taken in by a similar letter from Publisher's Clearing House that she was convinced she had won a cash fortune. When my sister told her that it wasn't true, that identical letters are sent to millions of people, my mother broke down in tears. For awhile, a few hours perhaps, she had been swept up in an exquisite dream that, at long last, all her problems, and all the problems of her children, were over. Late in Nebraska, Woody is asked by his two sons what he planned to do with his fortune. "Buy a new truck," he tells them, "so I'll have something to leave you." 

When Woody and David finally arrive at the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, and learn that the ticket is worthless (the woman gives him a hat as consolation prize), David allows him a triumphal return to Hawthorne in a (almost) new pickup truck. It's a muted victory, but the only one this muted film could bear.

Payne's choice of a black-and-white palette puzzled me. Everyone asked Peter Bogdanovich why he used it in 1971 for The Last Picture Show. I don't recall how he responded, but I doubt that his response was good enough. I suppose he was trying to make the film into an automatic artefact, already a thing of the past like the town's old cinema. I seriously doubt that the landscapes in Nebraska would've been enhanced by color cinematography, but neither would it have lessened the film's impact.

But what is the impact of Nebraska? Payne gives us a somewhat painfully accurate portrait of an American family, spread across two or three states, whose members only ever sees one another every decade or so. But About Schmidt did it better. Payne avoids the predictable poignancy of Woody re-visiting his deserted boyhood home. Woody's very reticence precludes any possible poignancy. And the shots of the family all facing an unseen TV screen are, by now, too true to be painful.

Bruce Dern, who made a name for himself playing wackos, was nominated for an Oscar last year for his performance as Woody. He is less of a presence in the film than an absence - like his vacant boyhood home. Will Forte suffers from the same problem that most comics suffer from when they play a serious role (including the late Robin Williams). Everything that came to their aid when they tried to be funny forsakes them when they reach for seriousness. I was surprised, though, when he got up the gumption to punch Stacy Keach in the mouth. The sad element of the film is that David doesn't even know his own father. His long drive to Nebraska with Woody may have brought them closer, but it failed, I think, to contribute to our understanding of fathers and sons.  

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