(Alexander Payne, USA, 2013)
In a recent interview, Alexander Payne referred to his first six movies - including this one - as "études." That's classic Payne - humble, even self-deprecating, but with a whiff of sophistication, and the subtle implication of rather large ambitions. Payne might be my favorite misfit director, although I'm not sure who else I'd include in such a group. His body of work is one of the most consistently satisfying in contemporary American cinema, but there's a sense, in the man and in the films, of a certain dissatisfaction. Certainly, the stories he tells deal explicitly with disappointment. His heroes are sadsacks and losers. Their few triumphs are pathetically minor and are often bleakly overshadowed by their failures. But on an aesthetic level, Payne the cineaste exudes confidence, intelligence, wit, and feeling. He's managed to sustain a career in the unforgiving climes of Hollywood, where you're only as good as your last movie, and "independent" has become a largely meaningless term. By any sane measure, then, considering what he's up against, Payne's story has been one of resounding success. He's one of a virtual handful of directors who gets to make his movies, his way, for decently sized budgets (in the low-to-mid ten millions).
So why the remark about études? Why is he so quick to characterize his life's work (so far) to a string minor exercises, given the relative creative freedom and success that he's been afforded? What, to him, would qualify as a symphony? As a fan of the director, these questions strike me as urgent. While I applaud his apparent ambition, I'm troubled by his willingness to minimize the accomplishments he's made so far. Election, besides being hilarious, was a magnificently sharp satire of the American tendency to substitute pageantry for politics, illuminating beautifully (and brutally) the way in which public life is
driven, and distorted, by private desires. The same could be said about Citizen Ruth. About Schmidt was remarkably clear-sighted about aging and regret, just as Sideways was about friendship, disappointment, and sex. It was only with The Descendants that Payne seemed to actually earn his aw shucks attitude towards his own work. While still a smart, carefully crafted film, it seemed toothless and tame - not deep enough to rise above passable drama, and not sharp enough to match his former satiric edge. And still, I had to give it to him - the performances were great, and he was able to pull heartstrings with the best of them.
All the same, when it comes down to it, I can't entirely disagree. They're not great movies, in the capital G sense. There is an element to his approach that is undeniably admirable, in the sense of the cineaste as smuggler - how much intelligence and nuance can somebody squeeze into a movie that still has to play well in major markets? And yet this is precisely the wrong way to look at it. And I wonder if Payne's attitude - his willingness to equate scale with significance - is to blame for the works' shortcomings. Even at his best, there is a sense of Payne playing it safe - of deliberately applying the brakes, dampening the more mercurial, dark, and dangerous aspects of himself for the sake of safety, or worse, propriety. It's not as if Payne's work doesn't suggest greater things. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he were to one day release a magnum opus of social commentary - no other director is as acutely aware of the way most Americans live and behave as Payne. His realism, while tinged with a certain theatricality, is often brilliantly lucid.
Nebraska allows Payne to depict, in a manner that is both direct and diffuse, his homeland. He's set his movies in the Midwest before, but here he shows the landscapes in all of their glory, lovingly capturing the way that the even light plays upon people, trees, streets, and houses. But he's also interested in the ugliness: strip malls, roach motels, the indifferent and inhuman edifice of industry, the chilling monotony of a land gridded with highways. And more than ever, what we notice is absence - of memory, of community, of comfort, of purpose, and even of hope. Payne's Nebraska, like his Billings, Montana, is a place of ruined dreams.
Part of this is appropriate for the story. Beneath the comic bumbling of Bruce Dern's Woody, who ambles through his life in a cloud of half-coherence, is a man who is stunned by how little he has amounted to. He affects indifference, hiding behind his age and the apparent indifference of others, but secretly, as we find, he does have an inner life, and it's choked with anger and sadness. He hasn't been totally drained of yearning. His quixotic quest for the bogus winnings is about more than a truck and an air compressor - he sees what might be his very last chance at a legacy, at something to leave his sons after he's gone. Much of the movie's plot is concerned with an excavation of Woody's past, as seen through the eyes of those people who have been peripheral to him, up to and including his own sons, for whom he never had much in the way of affection or responsibility. Unconsciously, Woody has found himself drawn into his own history, and what was supposed to be a last ditch attempt to alter the future turns into a walk backwards in time, much to his chagrin.
Dern throws himself into the role, and the results are wonderful. His flowing nimbus of hair, his wet, wide, pleading eyes, his glowering voice, and the burdened, unsteady gait - it's a brilliant performance. But it's done a disservice by Payne's unwillingness, or inability, to locate the heart of Woody's pathos, and by extension, the pathos of the world that he so sharply photographs. There is mention of Woody's benevolence as a younger man, and the toll taken by his experience in the Korean War. But this remains frustratingly tangential, a sideline to the more blatant tendencies in Payne's stylistic playbook: insistent musical cues, casual close-ups, the feeling of staginess in many of his scenes.
Although the entire premise of the movie rests upon the illusion of sudden wealth, it's in the issue of money that the film seems most deficient. It's not that economics is the hidden, missing subject matter of the film. But money represents the context in which the cultures being depicted have been formed. Payne is too quick to paint his characters as stooges.
I have never held with those who've accused Payne of condescension to his characters. But now I'm beginning to wonder if the affection he professes for them isn't tinged with just that quality. To condescend implies a mistaken sense of knowing; we condescend to children because we've forgotten what it's like to be a child. For all of his closeness to Nebraska, I came away doubting that Payne really understood these people. Sure, he might like, them, might even admire them for their cordiality, their simplicity, their good humor and fortitude in the face of seemingly difficult conditions. But does he really understand them? Does he know where they came from, what they lost along the way? After all, these are people in a kind of poverty. Some of them get by all right, but the bigger deficit in their lives is spiritual. Does Payne understand that? Or does he simply shrug it off, like so many modern would-be artists, as an unavoidable fact of life?
What I'm asking for is a sense of history. This isn't entirely missing from Nebraska, which is what makes it all the more frustrating as a film. It's there, in the reference to Korea, in the reference to older generations. But it's relegated to the background; it never grows in resonance. Too many of the characters are presented as rubes. I'm grateful that we have a filmmaker who is so willing to go out into flyover country and tell stories about people, using some of those actual people, who live in the great forgotten middle of this country, a land of unimaginable fecundity that has been so terribly worn down by two solid centuries of abuse. But just showing up isn't enough. There is much more to tell, and Payne has only begun to scratch the surface.