I watched the film Nebraska a few days ago, hunched in my high back chair, over a 7” flip-up dvd player with ear-plugs plugged in. I know that’s not the way we’re supposed to consume our big screen films, but I kinda like it.
The last time I saw Bruce Dern was in some space epic, the name of which, like most things do Woody Grant in Nebraska, escapes me. Dern the elder, makes an impressive Woody, and since watching him, I have been catching myself out doing the same gormless look, the same awkward, old man’s walk, sporting the same slack jaw and producing the same futile grump’s truculence. Problem is, I’ve not been acting! On a brighter note, I’ve spotted the same traits in my contemporaries too. Dern catches the moment with frightening intensity.
The other characters too, and there are many of them, tell a similarly convincing tale: the feisty old lady, his wife. The comatose older brother. The inanely grinning cousins. The long suffering and essentially decent younger son. This, despite Dern’s character dominating almost every scene, is a mob-handed film.
Films are where stories are shown (as opposed to books, in which they are told), and unlike books everything not only is shown, but rather has to be. Behind every head shot lies the rest of the world. Over every shoulder and through every windscreen and rear window, there it lies. Around and above every farmhouse, down every street, and all the way to every horizon, true or false, the film maker, unless he is playing some surreal fantasy game, is compelled to show you the whole of reality. Not only that he has to make sure the appropriate sounds are audible, at the appropriate volume, be they birdsongs, traffic noises, or voices off.
Nebraska brings all this into still sharper focus by being shot in black and white. Where we have no colours to distract us, the shapes, of buildings, landscapes, and people, become so much more. The graininess, the tonalities, the subtleties of those more than merely fifty shades of grey, demand our attention. Each shot, be it of the Nebraska landscape undulating like a slow sea, or the clapperboard farmhouses with their stands of trees, or the freeways that flow like rivers with their tributaries, is like a perfectly proportioned and posed pen and ink drawting. Even the lines between the slabs of a concrete road become noticeable.
This is a story about a distinctly un-glitzy America; about a culture absorbed in the dull routines of its dying days, and the minutiae of its remembered pasts. Though there is almost no violence, it has all the grittiness of a Cormac McCarthy, and all the social realism of a Grapes of Wrath. Just as the setting provides a background to whatever is up front, the glimpsed lives of the peripheral characters imply a poverty of imagination that their material well-being has been unable to lift them from. Perhaps surprisingly, Nebraska reminded me of the English film Radiator, set in the tiny hamlet of Mungrisedale (and on General Release, I believe, later this year). Nebraska is about an America largely overlooked by the media: the plodding mainstream, the silent majority; the have gots, but only barely enoughs; the ones who are not poor enough for us to care, nor rich enough for us to notice: the people like most of us, at risk of outliving their dreams.