Sunday, December 15, 2013
I saw Alexander Payne's elegaic "Nebraska" (2013) in Rochester, Minnesota with a small crowd of viewers not unlike many of the people portrayed in the film. In the Men's Room, two old guys stood at the urinals commenting on the film: "Didn't spend much money on sets, did they?" one guy said. His friend replied: "Nope, they didn't." This commentary is a typicl example of a backhanded Midwestern compliment -- the men's words were a tribute to the film's astounding realism. Indeed, in many ways, "Nebraska" carries the concept of realism in film to its logical, and, even, faintly absurd conclusion. Payne's actors seem to be local people and their language, at least as scripted (delivery is another matter) is pitch-perfect to the way that people talk on the high plains on Montana and rural Nebraska. The locations where the film was shot are precisely accurate to the small-towns dying in the heart of the great mid-continental prairies and the interiors, mostly bars and cafes and little houses decorated in a style that was archaic when I grew up in the early sixties are so exactly evocative as to be stunning. The audience at the screening that I attended, mostly elderly people (I count myself among their number) left the theat er in a sort of benumbed silence: I imagine that this was how people left showings of Lumiere brothers "Actualities" in 1896 -- amazed, that is, at seeing a reality that they understood and have experienced portrayed with loving precision on the screen. The ancient audience that supposedly leapt with fear at moving images of a train pulling into the station probably was frightened, not by the picture of the locomotive, but by the peculiar melancholy that we experience when we see ourselves and our peers and our world frozen in time when projected through a strip of celluloid -- the experience is a confrontation with our mortality: we understand that what we have seen will never change nor will it age, while, of course, we are always dying and will perish, leaving behind nothing but our shadows flickering on the screen. Of course, my reaction to the film is probably particularly intense because the movie's characters are specific and integral to my own life: my parents, who would be the age of the main actors in "Nebraska," were born and raised in central Nebraska and, when I was little, I often visited the little village where they had once lived and where our relatives were still farming -- even in the sixties and seventies, those little towns were terribly lonely and doomed, filled with old people too proud and stubborn to leave, but devoid of anyone young. If you had brains and ambition, you fled those places and left them to the kind of losers that populate Payne's film, at least as it depicts the next generation after the sons of theold pioneers and founding entrepreneurs. Some aspects of Payne's film strike so close to home that it is difficult for me to comment on them: a scene, for instance, in which an old woman provides a profane tour of an austere small-town graveyard, commenting particularly on the dead children and the traffic fatalities, replicates with extraordinary exactitude my own experiences -- elderly female relatives, usually a grandmother or an aunt, strolling from gravestone to gravestone, all the while providing ribald and tragic commentary on the deceased, a sort of perverse "Spoon River Anthology", and a catalog of scandal, calamity, and tragedy that always struck me as both tragic and, vaguely humorous. In fact, the cemetery is identical in all of its features to the place where my father is buried in Albion, Nebraska. "Nebraska" is a road picture. An old man, played by Bruce Dern, believes that he has won a sweepstakes and will be paid a million dollars if he can reach Lincoln, Nebraska. With his youngest son Davy driving, the old man, a lifelong drunk, sets off for Nebraska. Most of the narrative takes place in a tiny, desolate town called Hawthorne, the old man's ancestral home, and the location of an impromptu family reunion. The people in Hawthorne believe that the old alcoholic has, in fact, won the sweepstakes and this brings out both the best and worst in the villagers. Dern's character is dying and possibly suffering from dementia but he is stubborn and insists upon completing the trip to Lincoln. In a little office, a receptionist gives the old man a hat that says "PRIZE WINNER." The old man's son, Davy, asks the receptionist if this happens often -- that is, do people make the pilgrimage to Lincoln to claim prizes that, of course, they haven't really won? "Sometimes," the woman says. "Mostly old people. Does he have Alzheimer's?" "No," Davy says, "he just believes what people tell him." This exchange epitomizes the brilliant screenplay -- many films would stage the scene in the sweepstakes office with outrage and the screenwriter might devise a lengthy, and poetic, speech about trust and honesty and the guilelessness of the "Greatest Generation." Payne eschews this for a Midwestern and laconic response that is stoic and all the more devastating for its Nebraskan understatement. At the extreme limits of realism, a film like this will be tested, and evaluated, by its audience in exactly those terms -- it is hyper-real and, accordingly, any mis-step, any note of falsity, is weirdly amplified by the fact that most of the picture feels completely authentic. A couple of scenes are too aggressively emphatic -- this includes a sequence in which Davy, the son, punches a small-town bully in a bar. The dialogue is so precisely Nebraskan that it seems a shame that many of the players, all of them drawn from the small-towns where the movie was shot, aren't quite up to the challenge of authentically delivering their lines -- many of the bit parts speak like Community College actors, in voices just a tad bit too chirpy and over-inflected. There are several dissolves that belong in another film -- three dissolves in the pre-title sequence that felt subtly wrong to me and two dissolves that I thought were too showy, and too "filmic" in an otherwise almost perfect sequence in which the family members visit the old home farm. The ending of the movie is slightly contrived, although it feels satisfying -- I just wonder if the sense of satisfaction is honestly earned. My daughter and several other audience members didn't like the fact that the film is shot in very controlled and beautiful black and white. I am a member of dying generation of cinesthetes who feel that black and white adds to the realism of a film. To me, black and white is not subtracting something from the image, but, in fact, adding an additional element, a kind of warrant of photographic truth. But I must concede that many intelligent filmgoeres today experience black and white as a deprivation, as removing something significant from the image. I will defend Payne's black and white with two arguments. First, the black and white is justified by the way that it causes us to experience Will Forte's performance as Davy in the film. Forte is a famous comedian and well-known from an extended stint on Saturday Night Live. Here he is cast against type as a sad-sack loser, a man whose huge melancholy eyes tell an indelible story of defeat and failure. In color, the actor would be Will Forte -- this is because we have always seen and imagined this comedian in color. But in black and white Forte's features (and this is true of Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, playing the menacing small-town bully) don't stand out -- he doesn't seem to be a movie star or a celebrity; his hangdog expression and drooping face fit in with the other faces that the film so lovingly presents to us. Second, black and white film is about light. Conversely, color is, of course, about tint and hue -- that is the way colors appear to us in the film's design. "Nebraska" is about a landscape in which the light is gradually dying-out -- it's about villages and empty plains and barren roads where the light is failing, where everything is descending into the darkness. Thus, the scene in which Will Forte's character drives his gravely ill father to Norfolk, Nebraska for medical treatment is staged as a trip toward blurry lights, standing out in an obscure pattern in the darkness. On the great plains, the light is going out. Thus, Payne's imagery of Bruce Dern's halo of white hair rim-lit and glowing and the repeated shots of dawn, the sky washed-out and vaguely bright while the earth looks cold and dark, are programmatic -- the film's use of bright and dark stages a sort of elegaic rage "against the dying of the light," something that I think would not be as effective if the film were shot in color.