Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

23 December 2013

A Conversation about Nebraska

Because my friend Brian always posts pictures on Instagram and Twitter of all the movies he's seeing, I knew he had recently seen Nebraska. And because I love any excuse to talk to Brian about movies, I asked him to chat with me about Nebraska and hopefully be nicer/smarter about the movie than I am. Here we are:

Aaron: I thought the movie was pretty funny. Lots of comical stuff that I rather enjoyed. But, like most of Payne's movies, I thought it was sort of smug. It's funny watching this guy pathetically beg his girlfriend to move back in, and it's funny watching this woman harass this old man, and it's funny laughing at these brothers who have nothing to say to one another except to sit around and ask about cars that broke down in 1974. But, I get the feeling while I'm laughing at these situations that I'm laughing at how stupid these people are. Or rather at how much smarter I am than they are. Now, this may just be me – and maybe this says more about my own elevated sense of self-worth or something like that – but I felt like Nebraska just outright made fun of these people. The jokes are at their expense, as though Payne is just a bully poking fun at people who deserve just a little more kindness.

The other thing I want to say is that the movie is a good movie. I saw Nebraska in the same week as I saw Saving Mr. Banks and The Desolation of Smaug, and Nebraska is so much more skillfully made than the other two pictures. It is, in fact, expertly done. But it sort of left me hollow afterward. It hit all the notes it was supposed to hit, but I simply didn't connect with it very deeply. (This is, I think, how a lot of people felt about Haneke's The White Ribbon, to stick with black-and-white pictures.)

Brian: There's one tiny moment in the film that I keep thinking of – one which captures everything I liked about Nebraska.

We've been Woody's hometown for some time now, and we find ourselves again in the tv room at Ray and Martha's. The boys are in their spots, and Uncle Ray's in his. But it's the first time we see Aunt Martha joining them. Martha's sitting next to Ray but, rather than facing the tv, she's positioned to face the profiles of her two sons. See, the oversize sectional is way too big for the room, so they've horned the love seat section into the corner leaving just enough room for Aunt Martha's legs in the gap between. It'd clearly be a fuss for her to get up and out of her seat so, as is her way, Aunt Martha (as played with crystalline clarity by stage vet Mary Louise Wilson) just beams with delight to whoever wanders into the room as she hollers her enthusiastic chit-chattery over the blare of whatever rerun she and her men are watching.
Rance Howard and Mary Louise Wilson are just left of center in the frame.

The redolent layering of precise detail in this tiny moment captivates me and makes me somewhat inclined to defend Payne against claims of smugness. I like the vertiginous intimacy in Payne's work here. Payne forces us to stare long enough for the gaze to double back, in a way. I do remember laughing (fairly frequently) but not at many jokes at anybody's expense. What I mostly remember (aside from a few shocked guffaws) were abject giggles, mostly from my own embarrassment at my own reactions. In the end, I guess I liked how Payne's directorial hand forced me to notice not only the details of each tightly composed scene but also my own moment-to-moment discomfort in staring.

This queasiness might be why, when reflecting on the black and white cinematography, I found myself thinking not of Manhattan but of Night of the Living Dead.

Aaron: I love what you are saying about the specifics in the scene with Aunt Martha and everyone else watching The Golden Girls. This is when Nebraska is at its best: careful detail and intimate character study.

I think the reason I liked The Descendants so much was that I really felt that Payne cared for the characters in a way that didn't come through for me in Nebraska (or, indeed, in About Schmidt or Sideways). In Nebraska I felt distanced from the characters, even Will Forte, with whom I think the film sympathizes a lot. I saw the film as always just a little above that character, mocking him ever so slightly. I think the genuine warmth in The Descendants probably came from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. This isn't to say that I didn't laugh a lot in Nebraska. I did. I just felt a little gross afterward. This is probably exactly what you're talking about.

But I love this Night of the Living Dead comparison. Tell me what you mean. Did you feel haunted by Hawthorne, NE?

Brian: Not so much the haunting. More the abject, looming threat of morbidity. (Death's coming for ya, kiddo, and – blecch – it's nasty even in black&white and, yeah, there's no escaping it! Even in static longshots.) Nebraska captures the weird creepiness of returning to your hometown and lacquers onto that discombobulation the horror of seeing the fact of your parents (and, by extension, yourself) becoming old. I think that's why I keep going back to the metaphors of vertigo and queasiness. They evoke Will Forte's (and by extension the film's) guiding disequilibrium. Forte's David loves his father; he loathes his father. David is mortified by this corpse of a small town; he is fascinated by the clues this town might hold for the mysteries of his own life. He wants to be closer to his father; he is repulsed and repelled by his father. He remains his father's child even as he becomes his father's caregiver. Not unlike Woody's lucidity, the film moves abruptly in and out, with a vertiginous swoop. For me, the black and white permitted Nebraska to amplify the uneasy moral ambivalences that I've found so intriguing in Payne's previous films by placing them in starker and more vulnerable relief.

Mr. Odenkirk, Mr. Dern, Mr. Forte, and Ms. Squibb – a polite family drive

Aaron: The acting is great. I loved Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, especially. But I can't get Bruce Dern out of my head either, and the movie has sort of stuck with me.

Brian: I sorta think the acting (while excellent and masterful and all that) was a bit off. Especially Dern.

Aaron: What do you mean the acting was off? How is it excellent and masterful and also off? Does that mean your favorite performance in the film was Stacy Keach's? Haha.

Brian: Oh. Ack. Stacy Keach. No. I don't even want to talk about that. No, I think the performances I liked best were Rance Howard and Mary Louise Wilson as Uncle Ray and Aunt Martha. Both for their simplicity and precision, but especially for the way their performances bridged the stylistic gap that separated the principals from the bit players in this film world. The principal beef I've always had with Payne hasn't been his by-the-book screenplaying but his seeming disinterest in having his excellent actors find a shared style. Going all the way back to Citizen Ruth, Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz and Burt Reynolds are all great, but they're just not in the same movie stylistically. And I feel I could make that same claim for every Payne movie I've seen since. Payne clearly loves actors, which is great but, unlike other actor-loving directors (like, say, Woody Allen or Mike White or Almodóvar or the Coens), Payne seems a bit overdazzled by these actor creatures, which ends up stymying him in key ways.

I do think Bruce Dern delivers an excellent portrait of a difficult and complicated man experiencing a precipitous cognitive decline. But I'm not sure he was always playing Woody. I mean, I saw Dern  – vividly, palpably – but I don't know if I ever saw Woody. Likewise, I delighted in June Squibb's brusquely comedic depiction of this terrifyingly tiny tyrant. But I didn't buy it for a second that she was his wife or their mother. Or that she used to be a hairdresser. (Indeed, Squibb plays a version this mini-gorgon much more plausibly and to much greater effect in a recent arc on the HBO comedy series Getting On.) Even so, I still say Squibb and Dern each delivered masterful performances but it was the director's job to make sure their characterizations illuminated the story, and I'm not sure Payne held up his end of the bargain there.

Aaron: Ooo yeah. OK. I see all of that. I think the reason I love Odenkirk's and Forte's performances is that they felt like they were really doing things. Really watching each other, really seeing the things you're talking about vis-à-via mortality and son-hood. There's something about Squibb that I found sort of grandstanding, I guess. I mean, she is funny, but she somehow doesn't seem human. This is a part of what I mean by the director not really loving his characters. She is a henpecking old harridan, but I feel like it would've been nice to be able to love her a little bit. I just never felt like I could. Even when she is sort of badass and powerful – when she tells the one sister to go fuck herself and all of that. She doesn't ever feel like a real person to me, only a cartoon version of a person. She's not rudely sketched, but she's caricatured all the same.

The two sons are so much simpler. They had more opportunity for honesty, I guess. (I really did love Dern, though, even if I think you're right about the actors not being a part of the same movie.)

I love reading your thoughts about things like this. You make me smarter. You want to close us out?

Brian: Thanks for the invitation to gab. And, yeah, Call me JanEEce.