Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, is on the short list for an academy award and has received six Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best feature and best director. The star of Nebraska, Bruce Dern, won the best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Dern, age 77, played Woody, the father, and Will Forte, age 44, played his son, David. Dern, as an actor, is the consummate psychopath and Forte the adorable comedian. The contrast between them is the precious perfection that helps to make the movie. Woody’s lack of communication is frustrating to both his son and the audience. What is he thinking? What are his motivations? The movie tries to answer these and the boy, the sweet boy child played by Will Forte, is the key to this movie. It’s the interaction between them. The character played by Forte is far nicer than I could ever possibly be. He is understanding and patient. I’d have been “out of there” in many of the scenes. His patience is phenomenal. His big open innocent eyes and softly cast features are perfect. No irritation. I think I missed that in him. Where was his irritation? He was being tried way beyond what most people could take.
The situations were uncomfortable which is a tribute to both the writer and the director. When David first meets his hick cousins they take the first possible opportunity to make fun of him about how long it took him to drive there. I felt it, the it being the frustration of being put down by family and friends who can only feel good about themselves if they make fun of others. Poor David sees it for what it is and just smiles. Just like me. That’s what I would have done. The scene of the men of the family watching the game on television was a great visual joke although Payne pushed it hard. All those men just sitting there, beer in hand, caught in the lethargy of there being nothing else to do. Limited resources, limited hopes, limited lives. I felt dreary with it. It was forced. Critics often say my writing needs to be “tightened up.” That’s what I think was needed here. It was great stuff but it needed “tightening up.” The scenes sometimes went on too long. They made their point way before they ended. For example, hunting for the teeth. A few pokes by the railroad track would have been enough. It went on too long. Ditto with the dinner scene. Ditto with the graveyard scene, the newspaper office scene, and the restaurant scene.
What was bad? It was way too long. At the end, the ride down the Main Street birth canal to death in the big, bad truck where an admirer calls out “Looking good, Woody” and a former sweetheart looks on with anguished frustrated adoration at the big old guy driving by was great but it took too long. It seems to me that it is this ending that the rest of the movie was aiming for. I mean, to be clear, the ending probably came first and the rest of it was set up for the ending. Well fine, but it took too long. It could have done with some tightening up. I may have not been so sleepy throughout the beginning and middle. Perhaps subplots would have helped. What was good? A whole bunch was good but Nebraska is much more fun to analyze than watch. Maybe that’s why the critics all liked it.
A couple of quotes from Payne.
On metaphors and meaning. “The first thing, job one, is making sure that on the immediate, literal level, the story works. But if the story has some resonance or has some meaning, it might have those metaphors or symbols or representations that I am aware – I hope that they’re there, but I don’t have to voice them to myself, necessarily. For you it’s different, but for me, it was a little bit about a guy fixing to die. By the end of this film, for me it’s kind of existing on an oneiric, a dreamlike level, where he’s going through a type of birth canal driving down that main street, and it seems literal, but for me it’s not. The public acclaim — “Hey, Woody! Looking good!” – says goodbye to him, a sense of his enemy, or conflict, perhaps a materialism, waves goodbye, and love waves goodbye, and now he can die. That’s kind of what it does for me, but I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to get that out of it. I’m not even saying I entirely do. They’re just feelings. They’re not so much intellectually expressible thoughts, they’re feelings on my part at the time.”
On Balance. “It’s all of those things. So it’s just a question of taste – it’s a question of who you are. I personally like to stay on this side of the joke, and keep it real. I’d rather have a certain percentage of the audience miss something than have everyone get it. And I think you have a spectrum of jokes, from the broadest, the naked man chasing Paul Giamatti toward camera, to the subtlest – jokes or plays on words that maybe only five percent of the audience might get, that guy in the corner. But you have to have jokes in the film that only he gets. But just a taste – I prefer my humor the way I like my martinis – d-r-y.” I agree with that. I like my martinis dry too.
The cinematography had a somewhat plastic effect to it. Each pixel was separate, viewable and distinct but there was a grain to it like an old film. It’s always exciting to me to realize that I noticed something that was done on purpose. A quote from the cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, sums up what he did. “We used the digital Arri ALEXA camera with Panavision anamorphic lenses. It was an older set of lenses, the C-series originally assembled in the ‘70s. The older glass helped the look of the movie, since they don’t necessarily resolve as sharply as more modern lenses would. The ALEXA records in color but our dailies were transferred to black and white. In this case we added actual film grain so you have the texture of film. You shoot film grain off a grey surface and you capture the film grain movement. You put a layer over the digital image, which is very clean and has no movement.” Beautifully done. I haven’t appreciated the work of cinematographers in the past being willing to accept it as a part of the whole. In this case, without the grainy black and white a lot of the atmosphere and this IS an atmospheric movie, would have been lost. Also, it was filmed in color then transferred to black and white. Texture was added to make it appear to be shot in film. That’s cool somehow.
I was wondering about the casting. His casting director was John Jackson. Payne began casting a year in advance but they picked the extras the day before the scene. Payne said “the lead actors have to act a little flatter, in the way that people are in real life, not too dramatic.” I wonder what that means.