Friday, February 28, 2014

I'm way behind #17: Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Nebraska is Alexander Payne's best and most satisfying film since 1999's Election, and his most visually expressive. I've enjoyed his other four features (Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), with reservations both minor and major depending on the project, but Nebraska, like Election, strikes me as an almost wholly successful marriage of content and form, character and story, and personal point of view and its visual expression.
While Nebraska sees Payne return to the familiar territory of his home state (and mine), in most other ways the film is a step away from his comfort zone. It's his first film in black and white, his first to be shot digitally, his first film not based on a novel since his debut (Citizen Ruth) in 1996, and, perhaps most importantly, his first film without a credit as one of the screenwriters. (His first four films were written with Jim Taylor, and his last with the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.) Though it may seem an odd statement coming from a guy who prefers directors who also write their films, I sometimes think filmmakers can benefit from taking a step away from the writing process once in a while as a way to change stale patterns, take on new challenges, and devote more time to the visual, structural, and performance aspects of their work. Payne made huge strides as a visual stylist with The Descendants, but the screenplay was mushy. Here, working from an original screenplay by fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, Payne reconnects with the foundational aspects of his body of work and its subjects and obsessions.
A father/son road trip movie that takes its two leads from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska but spends most of its time in the fictional rural town of Hawthorne (several small towns near Lincoln provide locations), Nebraska is either a comedy made from the parts of drama, with the humor coming from nearly every character playing the straight man, or a drama carved out of the inherent comedy of human wants, needs, and behavior. Payne's actors nail the tone, and they actually look and sound like people from the Great Plains chunk of the Midwest (well, some of them really are). Payne was pressured by the studio to put big movie stars in the film and make it in color, which would have turned it into a cartoon. He stuck to his plan, though a color print was also struck to keep the studio off his back. (Payne says he hopes that version never sees the light of day.) Instead of bright, shiny movie stars and their gigantic personality machines, Payne's leads are veteran character actors Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, given deservedly meatier parts than they've had in years, and comedic actors Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in straightforward, serious performances where the laughs mostly come from their practical responses to ridiculous situations. Payne also brings back June Squibb (About Schmidt), a stage actress whose film career primarily consists of bit parts, as Dern's foulmouthed wife. A mix of character actors and nonprofessional locals make up the smaller parts.
The fictional town of Hawthorne, in size, demographics, and conversational preoccupation, is very much like the rural Nebraska town where I spent the first 18 years of my life and very much like the nearby town where my father currently lives. So much of what I see, and never see in movies, when I go back home is depicted accurately in this film. A scarcity of young people, a handful of businesses, distrust of foreign cars, conversations about how long it takes to drive to different places and quibbles over mundane details about fellow townspeople past and present in front of television sets, newspapers run by elderly couples, bars full of people in their forties, fifties, and sixties, the simple pleasure of sitting in the front yard watching cars go by, the inflated value placed on exaggerated hypermasculinity by the young men who stay in the town, restaurants with no decor, the cordially friendly distrust and mutual suspicion between Catholics and Protestants, the ghosts of prosperity and the small-farm era, the uneasy balance between gossip-fueled judgment and kindhearted neighborly community, the unadorned beauty of the country.
I've read critics from large cities and both coasts who think Payne is laughing at the expense of his characters, and I can understand that misconception. As someone intimately familiar with what Payne (from Omaha, but interested in the entire state) and screenwriter Nelson (from South Dakota, but raised in rural Nebraska) are showing in this film, I don't see that condescension or elitism. There is a sadness, an unintentional humor, a dignity, a pettiness, and a ridiculousness all sharing space in the lives of any human being, but small, rural towns have their own highly specific version of this combination. Payne nails it visually, and Nelson writes it as only a native could. It's almost never captured on screen, and the fact that it has been captured here is valuable to me, and I hope to others who share my background. Small towns in films are usually depicted as havens of cornball virtue, backwoods horror shows full of inbred cretins, or conventionally strange suburban-sanitary fantasylands populated by harmlessly "quirky," nonthreatening eccentrics. This one rings true.
If the film were just an accurate portrayal of a segment of small-town life, I wouldn't be praising it quite so highly, but it's equally impressive in its visuals and narrative structure. Payne here has captured some of the feel of a black and white John Ford film in a modern context, as well as Peter Bogdanovich's Ford-influenced black and white 1970s films, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. (Before any cinephiles jump all over me, I'm not suggesting an equivalency. John Ford is a master and Payne is simply a really good director, but if the reputation of William Shakespeare can survive all the comparisons to Oliver Stone (gag, vomit) when Nixon was released, the reputation of Ford can handle a comparison to Payne's film.) Ford's films often portrayed uncertain journeys undertaken by stoic men of few words, with deceptively simple shots and camera movements that contained great thematic weight and visual expressiveness. In Payne's 2013 update, the journey is uncertain, the men only say what they have to say, and the camera is deceptively simple yet expressive and tied to the narrative, but Ford's wagon trains, army camps, shanty towns, Monument Valley rock formations, teepees, rivers, and Western towns have been replaced by cheap apartments, small Midwestern houses, a speaker store in a strip mall, bars, pickup trucks, and nondescript restaurants and karaoke bars, and his outdoor vistas and horizons have been replaced by the faces of Dern, Forte, and Keach. And in using Dern and Keach and echoing Bogdanovich's echo of Ford, Payne also reminds us of how influential the key American films of the 1970s have been on his own work, and how that influence haunts the current cinema's CGI/teenage boy fixation like this film's setting and characters are haunted by their pasts. Dern and Keach never went away, and always do great work when they get the chance, but they got their best opportunities in the last decade when mainstream American films took chances and went after adult audiences: the '70s. (Since The Sopranos, television has since picked up the slack.) That history is all over their faces, and it adds a layer of authenticity, lived experience, thematic weight, and authority to what was already a very fine film.

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