“THEY WEREN’T JUST THE BEST GIRL BAND; they were the best band.” So says a voice-over near the beginning of Sini Anderson’s The Punk Singer, a documentary about the pioneering feminist musician Kathleen Hanna. The band in question, at this point in the movie, is Bikini Kill, the punk quartet Hanna fronted for most of the 1990s, and as this assertion is made, the viewer is bathing in a manic montage of concert footage. Rebel girl, Hanna is singing, first marching in place on one stage, then pogo-ing on another; in a black lace bra, in a T-shirt and undies, in a dress with a nearly life-size Playgirl beefcake emblazoned on it; rebel girl you are the queen of my world. That song’s appeal has proved amazingly durable, probably reaching more young listeners today in digital form than it did on dubbed cassette and mail-order vinyl when the tune was new. That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood. I’ve got news for you: She Is. The beauty of “Rebel Girl” is that it could be about anyone, a double dare to any listener to live her life so that she’ll be worthy of it, to believe she is the queen of the neighborhood and, believing, make it true.
The queen of the neighborhood in The Punk Singer is unquestionably Hanna, and this loving portrait is as glowing a tribute as any dignitary could dream of. The story—which follows Hanna as she founds Riot Grrrl, titles Nirvana’s breakthrough megahit, creates indelible punk with Bikini Kill, rises to global renown with Le Tigre, and then drops out of sight for years—unfolds through concert tapes, home videos (Hanna was a prolific practitioner of the video selfie avant la lettre), and interviews with a wide range of friends, collaborators, and observers whose reminiscences quilt into a narrative. (Full disclosure: I appear briefly in the film as well.)
“What everybody said about [Bikini Kill],” Hanna recounts, “was that we couldn’t play our instruments. And we said, ‘And…?’” If the first half of this movie celebrates DIY improvisation and exuberance, it’s nevertheless a film about a punk who grew up and made good, and the overall aesthetic is vivid and lush, the colors pristine and the sound velvet-smooth. Hanna looks mesmerizing nearly every time she’s on screen; other interviewees appear bathed in ethereal light. Concert footage splices together multiple performances of the same song, synched to a studio version, so viewers get to witness the kinetic magnificence of Hanna performing while hearing the track’s clearest cut.
In its first half, the film zooms through the eventful first fifteen years of Hanna’s career at a breakneck pace. When it reaches 2005, the year Le Tigre stopped making music, the movie takes a deep breath. Performance montages give way to lyric shots of sun sparking on water. The initial mystery presented in the film—why did Hanna suddenly fall silent?—now takes center stage. Troubling symptoms, an eventual diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease, and a grueling regimen of treatments ensue. In a wrenching exception to all the luminous close-ups, we get an overhead shot of Hanna on a couch, clearly in severe discomfort after taking her anti-Lyme meds. By the end of the film, she is just beginning to make music again.
Feminists have often displayed a special talent for tearing one another down. The Punk Singer, on the other hand, implicitly comes out in favor of feminist hagiography. A bit more self-reflexiveness on this point might have helped make the film’s mission feel more deliberate. But the documentary is apparently aimed at audiences who have only glancing familiarity with Hanna’s work and career—and, given the film’s imminent opening in nearly fifty US cities, it will probably reach many viewers who are uninterested in the nuanced discussions that continue to attend Hanna and her legacy. No band since Bikini Kill has managed to capture quite so archly the furor, defiance, and joy of feminist awakening, and the need for such work is as keen as ever. If this documentary chooses gospel-spreading over fine-grained critique, it’s an understandable choice.
A group of college students recently told me that if they wanted to start a cultural-political movement, they wouldn’t form a band or make a zine; these days, they said, people spread messages by making movies. If that’s true, then perhaps The Punk Singer is exactly what the latest princess-addled generation of young women need to double-dare them into girl rebellion.
Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. Haymitch Abernathy, Peeta Mellark, and Katniss Everdeen (Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, and Jennifer Lawrence). Photo: Murray Close.
1. HIGH SCHOOL IS NOT LIKE WAR. College admissions and the job market are not like war. A reality show is not like war, and neither is love. When books and movies made for teens are recast, by critics, as allegories for teenage life, you know it’s the grown-ups who can’t hack the world as it is. What are The Hunger Games books, and now movies, really about? Exactly what it looks like: war.
2. As The Hunger Games (2012) opened in theaters across a post-Occupied, pre–Obama ’12 nation, we wanted to talk its politics. Those to the left saw the systematic impoverishment of the Districts by the Capitol as a punny economic critique. To the right, many saw the dead-same set-up as one of Heartland values and hard-working families vis-à-vis the effete decadence of “liberal elites” or “big government.” But to choose between these sides is to make no decision at all. Today’s government, no matter its size or orientation, is more tightly aligned with the wealthy and the corporate than with any other group in America. As for Panem, the nation-state at stake in The Hunger Games universe, its risible elites could be the fashionably late-capitalist 1 percent or the Kremlinites in Stalin’s Russia.
The achievement of power is to forget where it came from. This is a prerequisite of force.
3. People say The Hunger Games are “hard to read” or, later, “hard to watch.” I feel that’s not the case. Very little is required of you in your seat. You do not have to wonder, for instance, what kind of man would send seventeen-year-olds halfway across the world to kill other seventeen-year-olds for the sole purpose of upholding one nation’s right to be entertained by death on TV.
In cross-purposing entertainment, there can be revolutionary art. There can be art that intends revolution. But there is no art made in revolution that is greater than the art birthed by war. Picasso’s Guernica. Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam. Chris Burden’s A Tale of Two Cities. These are the war paintings I love. For paintings of revolution I feel mostly… gratitude.
It seems less that war causes art, and more that art is a justification of war. Museums are fortresses we mourn very hard when they fall. Post–World War II, you may have heard, the CIA loved Abstract Expressionists too.
Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. Caesar Flickerman and Katniss Everdeen (Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence).
4. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. Those are just the US veterans. In District 12, a few months after they beat the system to become the first joint winners of the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) find their victory Pyrrhic. They wake with scarifying nightmares. They wake alone.
They’re not the star-crossed lovers they pretended to be—“for the cameras”—in order to win, and in fact they are not even friends. All the same, they will pretend again, because if Katniss can’t convince that kind of man that these two seventeen-year-olds were really madly in love with each other, not just defying the Games, he will kill her to stop the insurrection. Or—worse—he’ll marry her off. Per the new head Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in costume as Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Capitol will broadcast every profligate detail of her wedding, her dress, her cake, while in the Districts the black markets are shut down, the floggings are public, the executions are doubled without a cause.
(As if this worked for the State when the cipher was Marie Antoinette.) (Or Kate Middleton, whose wedding to Prince William took place four months before four days of riots tore the edges of London to shreds.)
When President Snow tells her this, Katniss goes: “Why don’t you just kill me now?” And you believe her.
Meanwhile, Peeta gets abreactive with a paintbrush, turning out garish, realist canvases that mercifully appear much less in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the movie (2013), than they do in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the book (2009). Actually seeing war is not so conducive to making art of it.
5. In order to fight, the soldier must be separated from that which he’s fighting for. His family, his country, and his culture become a flickering series of stock photos. This is one difference between war (brothers in arms) and revolution (brothers arm-in-arm). Revolution is impossible where the ethos is “winner take all,” which is another way of saying “winner leave all behind.” In a revolution you are here to make friends.
6. Two things are certain in America: War and sequels.
7. “The progress of the war in the Iliad is simply a continual game of seesaw,” writes Simone Weil in her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” “The victor of the moment feels himself invincible, even though, only a few hours before, he may have experienced defeat; he forgets to treat victory as a transitory thing.”
While Heavensbee makes the eugenics-y pronouncement that the whole “species” of Victors must be eliminated, Peeta is teaching Katniss to befriend. “You have to know the person,” he tells her. They are on a train speeding through collapse toward the Capitol. Soon they will be called back to the arena, along with eleven other pairs of previous “winners,” for the seventy-fifth annual Hunger Games. For now, still on their victory tour, they see only sparks of revolt: Crowds whistle the song Katniss sang to Prim. Signs burn, becoming symbols. Police redouble. Out the window, a scream of red: THE ODDS ARE NEVER IN OUR FAVOUR. “What’s your favorite color?” Peeta asks. This is how we know the third film will be one of revolution.
8. The signifying difference between The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that when Katniss steps into the arena for the second time, the film expands to IMAX, filling the corners of the screen. The effect of this precession—from unreality to extra-reality—is swift and irreversible. The jungle gulps you whole. You forget there was ever an outside.
9. Or else you’ve become the outside. It’s so bloody hot. In seconds, each of the Tributes is enveloped in 70-Mpix sweat.
Fredric Jameson, writing on science fiction in his Archaeologies of the Future (2005), says:
Heat is here conveyed as a kind of dissolution of the body into the outside world, a loss of that clean separation from clothes and external objects that gives you your autonomy and allows you to move about freely, a sense of increasing contamination and stickiness in the contact between your physical organism and the surfaces around it, the wet air in which it bathes, the fronds that slap against it. So it is that the jungle itself, with its non- or anti-Wordsworthian nature, is felt to be some immense and alien organism into which our bodies run the risk of being absorbed.
In the jungle of the seventy-fifth annual Hunger Games there is no history. There is no determinism. There is only—as Haymitch tells his protégés—“staying alive.” You want to stay alive in the jungle because you are the most alive, in the sense of being animal, you have ever been. Katniss has been degenerating with trauma for the first 110 minutes of the film. Now she looks incredible. In nature, she is a force.
Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman).
10. Only in war and sometimes in fucking can an absence of politics be tolerated. There is no fucking in The Hunger Games.
11. Suzanne Collins does not give many interviews, and when she does, she has the smiling, chin-up demeanor of a media-trained Katniss on tour. Collins reads from the cards. Her inspirations loop: Greek myth; Roman gladiatorial games; “reality television”; her army dad’s stories of the Vietnam War. She is often asked how she can write scenes of such violence between children, and her answers are always humane, reasonable, and short, pacifying the asker.
We want to know that the author condemns her violence. But in The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire both, no blood is willingly shed. The Gamemakers do evil not by endowing children and teenagers with the ability to hurt and to kill, but by stealing from these humans the innate moral ability, and the right, to hurt and to kill for good reason.
Because violence can be angry, it can be righteous. It can be justifiable or not; when used against power, it can be revolutionary. Violence is force with intent. Force is. It just. It is.
“Force in the hands of another exercises over the soul the same tyranny that extreme hunger does; for it possesses, and in perpetuo, the power of life and death,” writes Weil. “Its rule, moreover, is as cold and hard as the rule of inert matter […] The truth is, nobody really possesses it.”
12. There is nothing as amoral as neutrality, except for nature. “Remember,” says Haymitch to Katniss, “who the real enemy is.” Minutes from the movie’s end, she does remember, although she never quite knew, and takes unquivering aim at a force field in the sky.
That the Games are controlled by computers far far away is supposed to make this a futuristic, or speculative, plot. On the ground, however, the combat is still flesh-to-flesh with handheld weapons. This is not much longer the reality of war. Instead, flocks of drones—not good, not bad, not violent—begin to carry out the unequal distribution of terror. The Hunger Games becomes a sweet Baudrillardian nostalgia trip. It succors me to watch it. To think—the stomping boot of history once had a human face.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Mohammad Rasoulof, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, 2013, video, color, sound, 125 minutes.
IT BEGAN WITH AN ABSENCE. Invited to serve as jury president at this year’s DocLisboa, where his new film Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) would close the festival, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof had his passport confiscated by the authorities to prevent him from traveling abroad. This event takes place three years after Rasoulof’s arrest in 2010 for carrying out propaganda against the state. Like many banned directors in Iran, Rasoulof has shot his latest films clandestinely, owing to threats by the ruling regime. Exile used to be the punishment for crimes against the state. As the outside world becomes more accessible, the situation has reversed, with the state serving as a jail for dissident artists like Rasoulof and Ai Weiwei.
In the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it’s a jail that no one ever wants to leave. At least that’s the claim made by the citizens featured in The Great North Korean Picture Show (2013), Lynn Lee and James Leong’s depiction of the elusive country’s film industry, which was micromanaged by the “Dear Leader” and noted cinephile Kim Jong Il until his death in 2011. Though he does not appear overtly in the documentary, his presence is a suffusing force, as all film students in the DPRK learn directly from his propagandistic writings. “It’s not about fame,” explains Un Bom Kim, a young actor training at the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts when asked what makes his country’s film industry different from the West. “We have to serve our Leader. By making him happy, we are happy too.”
That’s not a claim one could ever imagine director Bela Tarr making. Tarr Bela: I Used to Be a Filmmaker (2013) portrays not only the Hungarian auteur and his exacting process as he works on his final masterpiece, The Turin Horse (2011), but also many of those in his extended cinematic family. The desolation and emptiness of the Hungarian plainthe locale for many of Tarr’s filmswhich has been abandoned with the decline of agriculture in that country, serves as a geographical metaphor for Tarr’s withdrawal from the world of filmmaking.
Like Tarr, whose magnum opus Satantango (1994) clocks in at over seven hours in length, Wang Bing makes duration-intensive films that allow viewers the immersive experience of time becoming a space; as such, Wang’s films often force us into occupying discomfiting yet fascinating positions. After Three Sisters (2012), which won the top award at last year’s DocLisboa, Wang returns with ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), a 227-minute feature set in the caged walls of a men’s mental institution in the poverty-afflicted Yunnan Province in southwestern China. All the men we come to meet have been committed involuntarily and live in wretched conditions of institutional abjection that even Beckett could have scarcely conjured. The claustrophobia-inducing effects of the film’s length sicken the viewer, but this seems justified once one learns that many of these men have been locked up in this cage for over two decades.
Of course, certain allegedly advanced societies allow their nuts to apply their time to other institutions, such as public service. Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known (2013) portrays Donald Rumsfeld through its subject’s tormented battles with rhetoric. Throughout the course of a ninety-six-minute interview that forms the basis of the film, Rumsfeld negates the smug and insulting figure he evinced in his tenure with the Bush administration. His post–Oval Office persona showboats the sort of smiling “by-golly” folksiness that forms the middle-American epitome of charisma and sincerity, the same kind that the rest of the world tends to diagnose as a symptom of brain damage. Of course, anyone who can read a liar’s face will easily see the truth in, among other moments, Rumsfeld’s deplorable defense of Nixon and, most creepily, the shit-eating grin he gives when Morris expresses amazement that no one in the White House or Pentagon had any inkling of what might be coming on September 11, 2001. But it is ultimately Rumsfeld’s war with language, quoted from his countless White House memos that Morris has him read aloud, which forms the core of his tragic flaw. Rumsfeld’s efforts to rewrite the dictionary and assert hegemonic control over meaning to erect a justificatory discourse for doing whatever he wants evoke the clear likeness of a man smart enough to know only what he can get away with, but barely.
In its eleven years of existence, DocLisboa has not only been a testing ground for the documentary’s stakes as an art form, but a restless and unyielding forum for philosophical probings on filmmaking in general. The hosting of cinematic visions as unlikely and incomparable as those of Kim Jong Il and Bela Tarr alongside digital activists like Zhu Rikun—a pro-democracy Chinese dissident whose film The Questioning (2013) consists of footage shot from a static camcorder he set up in his hotel room in Xinyu when the local police came to shake him down—gives the festival its rich and varied texture. You might very well bump into international auteurs like Chantal Akerman or local enfant terrible Joao Pedro Rodrigues, yet DocLisboa remains fundamentally anti-elitist in its civic devotion. It is not uncommon for Lisboansthose lucky enough to be employed during this era of financial duressto schedule their annual vacation leave at this time to volunteer for the festival and attend screenings. As the festival slogan has it, “Each October, the whole world fits in Lisbon.” A comforting thought in a world that unceasingly troubles our notions of home.
The eleventh edition of DocLisboa ran October 24–November 3.
“BY 1972 my own Sturm and Drang had catapulted me into a new terrain of representation,” Yvonne Rainer writes in her felicitously titled memoir, Feelings Are Facts: A Life (2006). That year marked the completion of Lives of Performers, the first feature film by the choreographer, cofounder of the Judson Dance Theater, and author of 1965’s “No Manifesto.”
In her transition from dance to film, Rainer said yes: “Having survived my various physical and psychic traumas”—including a suicide attempt in 1971—“and emboldened by the women’s movement, I felt entitled to struggle with an entirely new lexicon. The language of specific emotional experience . . . promised all the ambivalent pleasures and terrors of the experiences themselves: seduction, passion, rage, betrayal, grief, and joy.”
Yet that surfeit of emotion is presented austerely and disjunctively in Lives of Performers, parenthetically labeled “a melodrama” by an opening title card. Indeed, the film revolves around a love triangle, a standard setup of the genre, focusing on a man involved with two women. These romantic entanglements, however, are delineated only after a prologue of sorts, featuring Rainer leading a rehearsal of Walk, She Said, a dance that includes the four main “protagonists” in the film: John Erdman, Valda Setterfield, Shirley Soffer, and Fernando Torm. (Of this quartet, only Setterfield, a member of Merce Cunningham’s troupe from 1964 to 1974, had previous professional dance experience.)
Over this footage, we hear Rainer’s directives: “Foot open, gaze goes to the window, gaze goes to closet.” The audio, save for a few instances, is almost entirely offscreen. Though the performers deliver their lines, as Rainer does, without inflection, their voices are distinct, a mix of accents from the UK (Setterfield), Chile (Torm), and Kings County (Soffer); the few sentences in a buttery French intonation are uttered by Babette Mangolte, the redoubtable cinematographer with whom Rainer would make two more films. (The same year that Lives of Performers was made, Mangolte began another important collaboration in New York, shooting Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre and Hotel Monterey.) We hear the pages of the script being turned, further estranging us from this spartan soap opera about a man who “can’t make up his mind”—though this distancing device never dilutes our fascination with the intensely private moments, sourced from dreams, perhaps from letters or diaries, presented on-screen.
“I remember that movie—it’s about all these small betrayals, isn’t it?” reads an intertitle, a device that allows Rainer to interrupt her film further, including quotations from Leo Bersani (whose thoughts on cliché serve as epigraph) and Carl Jung. But Rainer’s use of intertitles, a contrivance of silent films, two of which greatly inform segments in her project, also reveals her fascination with the lives of performers from another era. Alla Nazimova’s notorious 1923 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, particularly the “Dance of the Seven Veils” scene, was the inspiration behind “Valda’s Solo,” featuring a dramatically spotlit Setterfield, in Rainer’s film. G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), his first of two films with Louise Brooks, is recapitulated in the final fifteen minutes of Lives of Performers as a series of thirty-five tableaux vivants. Seen forty-one years later, Rainer’s film also transports us to another indelible epoch, documenting, in the director’s own words, both “shabby loft living” and “the spectacle of a group of people intensely involved in a kind of work, in the task of performing.”
Lives of Performers screens Tuesday, November 19 at Light Industry in Brooklyn. The film will be introduced by Gregg Bordowitz, and a conversation between Yvonne Rainer and Bordowitz will follow the screening.
THE ENTRY POINT for Amei Wallach’s Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here, a marvelously layered, purposefully nonlinear documentary portrait of the husband and wife team known to the international art world as “the Kabakovs,” is the enormous 2008 retrospective of their work that was mounted in three huge Moscow venues: the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Winzavod Center for Contemporary Art, and the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. It was the first time Ilya Kabakov had worked in the Russian capital since he took advantage of a 1987 travel permit to Austria to flee the Soviet Union, even as it began to crumble. Returning two decades later, hailed as one of the greats of contemporary art, and, in collaboration with his wife Emilia, a dauntingly prolific maker of installations, he worries about how his work will be received. Anxiety, Emilia explains, is his MO, the result of being born in 1933, during Stalin’s reign of terror, to a Jewish family in Soviet Ukraine. It fuels his nonstop painting and also makes him an arresting and sympathetic subject for a filmmaker who cares deeply for his work and his person. An art critic and the Kabakovs’ neighbor on the North Fork of Long Island, Wallach is also the author of the 1996 Abrams monograph, Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away.
Anyone who has entered one of the Kabakovs’ chock-a-block installations, where one’s feeling of claustrophobia is countered by the sense that every object and verbal reference opens onto multiple strata of history—personal, cultural, ideological—and where, as Ilya says, “Irony is the sauce on the sandwich,” will understand the documentary strategy that Wallach and Ken Kobland, her editor and director of photography, adopted. This is no PBS art doc, although there are just enough titles (names, dates, places) to keep the viewer from being totally unmoored. The film moves fluidly—by means of understated dissolves and superimpositions and overlapping voice-overs—from the opening slo-mo close-ups of “Tout Moscow” at the Garage to the Kabakovs in their studio in the US, and from the permanent installation they created at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, of an abandoned Soviet schoolhouse (the realistic detail mixed with fantasy, memory, and color coordinates of abstraction, as Ilya explains) to preparations in Moscow where dozens of separate installations created all over the world are being reorganized for this enormous exhibition. (As an aside, the Garage—founded by Dasha Zhukova, who recently acquired with her partner a collection of Ilya’s pre-1987 work for a rumored $60 million—is housed in the very transportation hub that Dziga Vertov filmed for Man with a Movie Camera [cue the clip].) Among the other sights of the city which needed to be seen as they are today—and as they were in photos and home movies—is the attic art space that Ilya built, where he and his painter friends could escape a society that Ilya describes as “repulsive, dangerous, and destructive,” and fashion their own visions of utopia.
As you can glean, this much-interlocked material could result in a shapeless pileup, or worse, a watered-down show-and-tell. But Wallach and Kobland (himself an accomplished “personal” filmmaker and a red-diaper baby) have made a graceful, enormously moving portrait of a complicated artist and an artistic collaboration. Like the Kabakovs’ installations, it resists its own frame in time and space and invites you to return once and again.
Alexander Payne, Nebraska, 2013, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 115 minutes.
AFTER EXCURSIONS to California’s Santa Ynez Valley for Sideways (2004) and Hawaii for The Descendants (2011), Alexander Payne returns to his home state for Nebraska. Admirers of the director, a proud Omahan who set his first three films—Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and About Schmidt (2002)—in that city, frequently praise Payne’s unerring regionalism. Detractors point to Payne’s reliance on noxious condescension toward his characters, often hypocritically mitigated by sticky sentimentality. Though I don’t consider myself an unequivocal member of either camp—I detest the smugness of About Schmidt but appreciate the complex teenage heroines of Election and The Descendants—Nebraska, despite a few pleasures, strikes me as Payne’s most cartoonish, one-dimensional work.
Payne’s sixth film is the first for which he does not have a writing credit and the second, after Citizen Ruth, not to be adapted from a novel—the script is by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson. It is also his first in black-and-white. (Works named after the Cornhusker State seem destined to be rendered in monochrome; see the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album.) It opens in Billings, Montana, where Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an addled seventy-something alcoholic stripped of his driver’s license, is seen walking alongside the highway in twenty-eight-degree weather. Falling for a bogus sweepstakes announcement he received in the mail, the old man plans to trek all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim one million dollars in prize money. “They can’t say it if it’s not true,” Woody guilelessly protests to the younger of his two sons, David (Will Forte), who tries to convince him otherwise. But David, eager for a respite from his rudderless life, decides to drive his dad 900 miles to Lincoln, with an unplanned stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne (a fictional locale played by Plainview, Nebraska).
The father-son road trip also provides viewers temporary relief from Kate (June Squibb), Woody’s vituperative wife. When not referring to her spouse as “a son of a bitch” or an “old drunk,” Kate speaks as if she were Ann Landers, reprimanding an especially hapless advice seeker in the 1950s; in one outburst alone, Woody is a “dumb cluck,” “stubborn as a mule,” and has “lost all [his] marbles.” Her splenetic eruptions, whether vulgar or cornpone, are played for laughs to increasingly diminishing returns, hitting rock bottom during a scene at the cemetery where many of Woody’s immediate family members are buried: The matriarch lifts up her dress to reveal to a dead would-be swain what he missed out on.
Kate’s bush—or at least the suggestion of it; Squibb is shot from behind—typifies Nebraska’s wearying reliance on unseemly body parts or body types for comic relief. Woody and David hunt for the former’s missing teeth along the railroad tracks in Rapid City, South Dakota; the sheer mass of two of Woody’s nephews instantly signals their cretinism.
Yet there are moments of genuine warmth in Payne’s film. A waitress, one of the many nonprofessional actors the director likes to cast in bit parts in his movies, sweetly reminds the Grants to help themselves to the soup and salad bar. Onscreen for a mere five minutes, a wonderful performer named Angela McEwan, who plays the coproprietor of Hawthorne’s local newspaper and a one-time love interest of Woody’s, sympathetically explains to David the etiology of his father’s dipsomania: “It happens early around here—there’s nothing much else to do.” Her words remain the most gracious and nonjudgmental in a film too quick to clumsily deride.
Nebraska opens in limited release November 15.