Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Dern good

If Alexander Payne's Nebraska were made up only of  the footage featuring all the small towns and empty landscape passed along the way, shot in stark black and white, I'd call it a great film, easy. The transitional sequences play onscreen the way the transitional passages played on the pages of War and Peace (if Tolstoy had left out all the fighting and set it in rural America)--a cumulative panorama of endless grass, straight-ruled blacktop, rusted stop signs and decayed storefronts, an epic poem as expansive if not more so than the foregrounded drama. 

And the black and white photography is essential--in color all that empty space surrounding all that dilapidated clapboard would feel so oppressively real the film cannot possibly succeed as a comedy (you see a pedestrian shuffle down a sidewalk, but so seldom that on the rare occasion he or she stands out like a diamond in a coal seam). Black and white helps stylized the bleakness, locate it a remove away from grim reality, allow enough aesthetic distance to appreciate the rust and cracked concrete as poetic rather than realistic detail. 

As a wordless movement through nearly a third of the continent's width (roughly eight hundred and fifty miles, from Billings, MT to Lincoln, NE) you can't find a less pretentious, more eloquent testament to the size and scale of this vast nation, in stark contrast to the relative meanness of its citizens' hardscrabble lives, a contrast so disproportionate it's dizzying. The film I imagine would play in an endless loop in some public space where people can sit down, watch a while, munch popcorn or slurp soda or noisily make love in the rearmost seats, leave, maybe come back to watch (or make love) some more. 

Meanwhile Payne has decided to water down this great work with people, acting out a script intended to be a comedy.

As scripts go (this one by Bob Nelson) it's not bad, the first Payne ever directed where he had no hand in the writing himself, but which so thoroughly plays as his brand of comedy it's hard to see the difference (the character of Woody Grant, perhaps? Or Woody's unnamed former love, played by Angela McEwan?). Woody (Bruce Dern) believes he has won a million dollars in prize money, and is determined to travel nearly a thousand miles to collect; his family tries but fails to talk him out of it, and looks to his son David (Will Forte) to act as driver, companion, and guardian. David agrees, hoping to spend some quality time with his father and--hopefully--keep his father out of trouble.

The film succeeds largely in terms of poetic imagery: again and again Payne  shoots Dern in full-frontal close-up, his white hair like an aureole round the head--if this were a religious film, you would be forgiven for mistaking Dern's Woody as some obscure patron saint of the American Great Plains. 

Then again, who's to say this isn't a religious film, with Woody as Payne's holy fool sent on a mission to separate true believers from foolish skeptics? Among the believers count David, his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody's wife Kate (a funny June Squibb), and the aforementioned McEwan; skeptics include David's dim cousins Cole and Bart (Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll), and an unsettlingly assertive Stacy Keach as Woody's old friend Ed Peagram. The believers are sorely tested, the skeptics are--well, not exactly brought low, but Payne is careful to write and shoot them as sniggering hicks who drool greedily at the prospect of knowing someone with a million bucks, despite David's warnings of a scam (Ed gently reminds Woody of money owed him, while the cousins are, well, more physically insistent). If we were to think this a religious film (and who's to say it isn't?), Payne makes it clear who has a shot at reaching heaven, who deserves to broil in hell.

It's the film's strength and limitation, I think--it has the energy and force of a faith-based film (Hail Woody!), along with said film's simplistic thinking (the world divided into two types and two types only). Keach at least has some unruly energy to him, a bit of the bottled danger you once sensed when he played Frank James in Walter Hill's The Long Riders--you chuckle, but at a respectful distance. The cousins and their family on the other hand could be zoo animals kept in cages clearly labeled and ringed with railings, behind which we can safely point and howl in delight.

As the film's icon Dern is a magnificent cinema subject, with his rimless glasses (a symbol of guileless helplessness) and old-geezer plaid (aren't saints clad in humble robes?). When he has everyone's--including the camera's--attention he freezes, allowing us to better admire the geography of his face (the crags and hollows of nose and cheek, the lush northern forest of snowy hair); when everyone's attention is elsewhere, he makes like a miracle and moves--before you know it, he's out on the street, making his slow yet stubborn way to Lincoln to collect his winnings. It's a slyly comic, star-making role, the kind that grants many a Hollywood veteran his second wind (and, though it's hardly relevant to me, his strongest Oscar nomination to date), and Dern is more than up to it--he's been playing psychopaths and eccentrics for decades, practically his entire career, and having for once been offered a role this juicy his hunger has been honed to the point that it's indistinguishable from Woody's. 

Woody probably has many literary antecedents, anyone  from Jack and his precious Beanstalk to Prince Mishkin, but what I had in mind was Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool. Everyone took advantage of Gimpel but by story's end Singer grants us a privileged peek into Gimpel's mind, and against expectations, his heart is not filled with resentment and hate: "I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make?" Gimpel's way of thinking not only transcends the wrong done to him, it renders any idea of being wronged irrelevant--he has other priorities, other things to look forward to. So it is with Woody, if not with an equivalent force or moral clarity--he can't let skeptics slow him down; he has better things to do.

First published in Businessworld, 2.20.14

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