08 February 2014


Nebraska is where you go to find out that the dreams you think you can realize turn out to be just an advertising ploy to deceive you into buying something else. Nebraska is the place you go where you hope towards the end of your life to achieve some gloryfalse as that glory may bebut on the road to that hope you have to first pass through the past that appears so barren, bored and boring.  Nebraska is where you have to go to discover the family from which you came and along the way experience the family that you made yourself; on the way to Nebraska, they learn to experience great affection for you. Nebraska is the illusory pot at the end of the very bleak road, and after you’ve arrived there all that you get is a shiny used truck purchased for you by your child, and the opportunity to drive it down the bleak main street of the town in which you grew up—a town that wishes you well but contains some different memories of your past in it and images of different lives that you might have lived. Nebraska is where when you go there the secrets of your past get uncovered. Mostly you aren’t surprised by the secrets, embarrassing though some of them might be, but by the revelation of them in the present. Nebraska is where you go to see a life that might have been yours had things occurred differently. Nebraska is where you go to revisit the dead and remember that you are alive.
            I have screened Alexander Payne’s Nebraska twice now, and it has affected me in the manner same each time: I have laughed and I have cried. Until his son accedes to drive him, Woody Grant (Grant Wood painted American Gothic) is walking to Nebraska to retrieve the million dollars the promotion company has promised him if his number matches the winning number. It is the ubiquitous Publisher’s Weekly scam, but Woody, maybe in his weakened mental condition or in his hopeful illusions, takes the promotional flyer as fact. Woody hasn’t lived an exemplary life, he is suffering from an onset of dementia, but he believes that he holds the winning ticket and that the million dollars will allow him to buy a new truck, a vehicle he cannot drive, and a new compressor, a device he will not use. The rest, we learn at one poignant point, he means to leave to his sons, one of whom is struggling to become an anchor on a local TV news show in Billings. Montana, and the other is a struggling salesperson in electronic, big box equipment and who cannot make a commitment to marry his significant other and thus, loses her. Woody is marching to Nebraska to collect his winnings. The Mid-West is metaphor for the emptiness of lives as it presents itself elsewhere, in places we head to other than Nebraska, for many of us. It is Woody’s wife, May, grounded in reality as is no one else in the film who in one hilarious scene at the graveyard she notes all the boys who tried to have sex with her, offers us a Woody against whom she had done nothing but rail throughout the film. She pulls up her dress before the grave of one of a thwarted lover and teases him that this is what he might have had access to had Woody not swept her off her feet. May provides insight into a reality that the town’s stories about Woody obscure. She offers a different Woody than either the one we see or the one that is spoken of by others, sometimes by even herself! As she says twice in the film, “Woody couldn’t say no to anyone,” and that the illusory prize money that everyone wants a piece of was more than returned by Woody’s generosity. As Woody lies in the hospital resting from apparent exhaustion, May’s gentle kiss to his cheek expresses the voiceless sound of her deep affection for the husband about whom she has railed throughout the film.

            There is nothing for Woody in Nebraska, but there are a great many things to see and to learn on the way to and from it. I suppose we all have our Nebraska. They are sad places filled with some joy.


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