Blog Directory CineVerse: From Springsteen to Payne, "Nebraska" is a state of mind

From Springsteen to Payne, "Nebraska" is a state of mind

Sunday, July 26, 2020

By several measures, Alexander Payne's Nebraska is a throwback film: It's shot in melancholy black-and-white; it's a meandering road film that focuses more on characters than plot or narrative payoff; and it's not afraid to spotlight the existential plight of people middle-aged and older. CineVerse explored Nebraska last Wednesday. Here are our takeaways (to listen to our group discussion of this movie, click here):

Films and other works that come to mind after watching Nebraska

  • I Never Sang for My Father
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Harry and Tonto
  • Fargo
  • Nobody’s Fool
  • The Straight Story
  • About Schmidt
  • The Thing About My Folks
  • Don Quixote: Woody and David represent a kind of modern windmill chaser and his sidekick
  • Various American artists, including folksinger Woody Guthrie (possibly our lead character is named after him), writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (the fictional town of Hawthorne could cheer his name), and Bruce Springsteen, whose album Nebraska, also features black-and-white imagery (on the cover) and simple, reflective, and melancholy music

What did you find interesting, distinctive, unexpected, or surprising about Nebraska?

  • It’s refreshing to see a late-career turn by an aged actor known from another era – in this case, Bruce Dern, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance and won the Best Actor Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Rarely are seniors given the top spotlight in a major motion picture these days.
  • The choice to shoot in black and white is spot on. Draining the film of color adds a tinge of melancholy, regret, and loss to the story and heightens the realism. Considering that this is filmed in and around America’s heartland, which particularly suffered during and after the Great Recession, monochrome is ideal here.
  • You could make a case that director Alexander Payne is being condescending to or critical of simplistic Midwesterners and hicks. But there’s an obvious subjective focus on, love for, and reverence toward Woody and his son, whom we follow around on their road trip. And we grow to care about and root for these characters, even if some of the rural personalities around them aren't shown in such a favorable light.
  • The movie eschews overt sentimentality because the past these older characters have left behind doesn’t seem worthy of wistfulness. We aren’t given any “come-to-Jesus” moments, no grand reuniting events, mushy reconciliations, healing hugs, or speechifying from characters, either. This film makes broad statements through small gestures and minimal words.
    • Film critic James Berardinelli wrote: “(Payne is) making a statement about the stagnation of those ‘old-time’ values and the misapprehension that just because something about a bygone epoch that it’s necessarily ‘better.’”
    • New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote: “The chilling implication of this film is not that the old values of hard work, family and community have fallen away, but that they were never really there to begin with. Yet somehow the feeling that lingers after the last shot is the opposite of despair.”

What themes can be mined from Nebraska?

  • The dying or death of the American dream. We see how Woody believes he’s the beneficiary of a large jackpot, almost as if it’s an end-of-life reward for all his suffering, regrets, and hard work. But we quickly learn that this prize is a sham – much as the dream of prosperity and success for many Americans proves to be a fallacy.
    • Supporting this theme are the desolate and ramshackle landscape images the filmmakers provide and the aged and/or down-on-their-luck characters we meet, many of whom are out of work or bereft of motivation or meaningful endeavors due to long-standing poor economic conditions.
  • Reckoning with mortality. This picture reminds us that we are all fated to age and pass away, most of us into relative obscurity except for the degree to which our descendants remember us. At middle age, and again near life’s end, it’s natural to take stock of your wins, losses, regrets, missed opportunities, and legacy.
  • Hereditary existentialism. Taking a road trip with his father, David confronts the truth about his father’s complicated life and the secrets that were withheld from him as a child. We also sense that David is worried about following in his father’s footsteps of futility and frustration and seeks to avoid making many of the same mistakes. But we can be encouraged by the assumption that David is possibly living a better life than his father did. Consider how we hear that Woody would have been whipped if he stepped into his parents’ room, and we know that Woody suffered during and after his service in the Korean War; by contrast, David didn’t have to fight in any war or endure the same hardscrabble upbringing. The takeaway? Each succeeding generation hopefully improves upon the last. This is a movie about what we can learn from our parents and older generations, both good and bad, and using that knowledge to hopefully lead a better life. We, like David, need to put ourselves in our parents’ shoes and appreciate who they are and what they want – warts and all.
  • The corrupting influence of money. Even simple, down-home folk – far removed from the vices of the big city – can reveal their avaricious true colors once the hint of profit and monetary opportunity is sniffed.

Other films by Alexander Payne

  • Citizen Ruth
  • Election
  • About Schmidt
  • Sideways
  • The Descendents

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