Nebraska : a Review

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The poster for Nebraska shows the profile of Woody Grant, the boozy paterfamilias of Alexander Payne’s newest film, lit up like a crescent moon. He looks confused, maybe crazy. His white wispy hair is reminiscent of Einstein and the winter torn terrain of the midwest farmland filmed in crisp black and white. In the movie Woody is frequently paired with this landscape, a pattern begun in the poster with “Nebraska” nestled inside his cranium.

Alexander Payne, who is perhaps best known for moving the wine industry with his 2004 film Sideways, is well practiced in the Midwestern art of stoic disappointment. A son of the cornhusker state, Payne uses their quiet turmoil even when his films are set California and Hawaii as was Sideways and The Descendants, respectively.

There’s some poor acting, accentuated by stilted exposition early on, but after the groundwork is laid the characters tilt at each other in grand Quixotic fashion. Bruce Dern as Woody Grant is wonderful with just the right amount of curmudgeonliness and gruff, if distant, affection. Packed between the wry chuckles are many laugh out loud moments, most of them by Woody’s spitfire wife Kate.

The movie begins with Woody Grant, whose name is no doubt a play on the American Gothic painter Grant Wood, hobbling down the side of the road, bent against the winter Montana wind. He is corralled by a sheriff and his son David comes to the precinct to pick him up. From there we are introduced to his wife, played perfectly by June Squibb. She bursts out of the house and unleashes all manner of abuse on Woody, who, with a deftness well-practices, bends into her scorn as heedless as Wood does the cold.

The reason for Woody’s trek is that no one will take him to pick up the one million dollars from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing he’s “won”. He’s so resolute that David, played demurely by Will Forte, decides to take him all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska. What follows is not so much a road movie as an impromptu reunion, a half-assed intervention, and, above all, an attempt by a son to restart the wrecked relationship with his father. This seems to be the last event between the father and his family before shuffling him off to an old folks home.

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Woody, by all accounts, was no good as a father, no good as a husband and only good to friends and extended family as his money allowed. This partly explains why the prize is important, for he is at the end of his life and has nothing to pass on to his sons, but more than that he is trying to recapture his dignity, thrown away by his own failures. When he arrives at his hometown of Hawthorne and the money hits the rumor mill, all kinds come out to gladhand him. David manages the situation as best he can, but Woody comes alive in the attention. A deeper understanding of his father emerges. David asks how he and his mother were married and what follows is the sort of humor endemic throughout the film:

David: How did you and Mom end up getting together?

Woody: She wanted to.

David: You didn’t?

Woody:I figured what the hell.

David: Were you ever sorry you married?

Woody: All the time. [He takes a sip of beer] It could have been worse.

David: You must have been in love. At least at first.

Woody: Never came up.

He seems as passive as he’s always been, but this response is so mysterious in his current unassailable course of action. Why is the money so important? he is asked and Woody is hardly able to answer. The picture of Woody slowly shifts as Kate arrives and tells her side of their romance. By her account, every man in the county was after her. While it is left unsaid, we get the idea that Woody was quite a guy. It is clear that David’s view of his father shifts, recognizing that the flawed man before him was not always under the thumb of the world. The movie concludes with an act of supererogation on David’s part and the audience is left to speculate whether the lessons learned will transform the family.

Payne’s characters dance so nearly to parody that many think Alexander Payne is having a bit of fun at the cost of his stomping grounds. This is nothing new. Grant Wood faced the same sort of accusations over his American Gothic. Imitation is an element of honor as in mockery, but Payne is affectionate even when he is biting and the movie is a sort of mystery, aptly noir, calling the audience to find, as David eventually does, what makes Woody Grant worthy of the tale.

Post Tenebras Lux : A Review

To review a film by Carlos Reygadas is a dangerous exercise. The Mexican born filmmaker blends his visuals with, as he says, “feelings, memories, dreams, things I’ve hoped for, fears, facts of my current life.” He aims for cinema where reason intervenes as little as possible.

“Real cinema,” says Reygadas, “is much closer to music. Music doesn’t represent anything, it is just something that will convey feeling. It doesn’t mean anything. I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story! The great part of film is to make you feel, not by the narrative.”

This expressionistic style lends itself to a very pure form of criticism, one that relies not on authorial intent, for as Reygadas himself said: “After I make a film I psychoanalyze myself retroactively so that I can give explanations to journalists and film people. But I don’t believe in those explanations myself.”

To the critic this is the equivalent of playing with house’s money, which makes it all the more surprising that critics are hedging bets when discussing Reygadas’ new film Post Tenebras Lux. It seems that most critics prefer to get little wrong and less right than to take the film by the horns.

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The movie begins with a little girl in a field, she wears boots and toddles amidst cows, dogs and mud. The sound of bells, barking and her own delighted yelps of “boca” give the scene a light mood, but as the scene stretches on so does the sky, dappled with clouds and the long hues of evening. A stampede of horses breaks into the scene, the girl approaches a black horned bull, darkness continues to close in on the solitary child. The dogs agitate a stallion, donkeys arrive, the sky, now the color of an ominous bruise, begins to crack and rumble. The child looks upward. After a nervous lowing from a cow the child laughs, but as lightning flashes and the storm untunes, she looks around and emits a worried, “No.” Then cries out for her mother. The child is lost in the black. In between flashes of lightning the title appears, one word at a time: Post. Tenebras. Lux.

The title is Latin for After Darkness Light, a motto of the Protestant Reformation (and perhaps a reference to the Vulgate translation of Job 17:12 which reads, Post tenebras spero lucem, meaning: after darkness I hope for light); and paired with the first scene the title becomes a sort of promise that hangs over the film. The film moves from physical darkness to metaphorical darkness, first in depicting a scene in which a glowing red, goat headed and hoofed figure enters a home with his toolbox. He orients himself, his dragon tail and bare pundendum wagging, and walks down the hall where a boy sees him entering the bedroom of his parents.

This scene is followed by Juan, the father of Rut, the little girl at the beginning, talking with Siete (who, we find out later, is a tree poacher and the owner of the home in which the devil entered). They attend an Addicts Anonymous meeting of sorts, where sins are confessed and accountability is taken. Juan confesses his sins are minor (internet pornography) in light of those he’d just heard, but over the next few scenes we see a darker more grotesque accounting of his deeds.

After brutally punishing one of his dogs, the movie cuts to a sex spa, where Juan shares his wife Natalie with anonymous men. Later he complains about their lack of sex, no doubt the fruit of his wrath and perversion, yet the movie skims over these repulsions as though nothing. No condemnation, no judgment, no hand wringing repentance; in fact when reckoning comes it is not due to any lurking moral, but mere conflict between the upper and lower classes.

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Juan is wealthy and fair skinned, something mentioned in a number of places (Rut even says Guera at the beginning which is slang for a light skinned girl), and on a trip to the beach his house is burgled by Siete and another man. When Juan has to turn around to pick up a stroller he interrupts them and is shot by Siete.

The movie leaps backwards and forwards in time, falling into dreams and visions without clear demarcation. There are a couple of scenes of a rugby game set in rainy England, there is a scene of a full grown Eleazar, Juan’s son, at the beach, eliding into a boyhood memory of the beach and the day’s decline into night. Siete returns home and is greeted by his children, then he returns home and his family is gone. Then the devil returns, walks down the hall, is seen by Siete’s son, older now, and enters the bedroom as he did at the beginning.

It leaps forcing the viewer to remember what comes after darkness. Toward the end the movie has Natalie serenading Juan, who acts as if he is on his deathbed, with Neil Young’s It’s a Dream:

In the morning when I wake up and listen to the sound
Of the birds outside on the roof
I try to ignore what the paper says
And I try not to read all the news
And I’ll hold you if you had a bad dream
And I hope it never comes true
‘Cause you and I been through so many things together
And the sun starts climbing the roof

It is a tuneless, wrenching rendition that ends with a broken duet and Natalie in tears:

It’s gone
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Fading away
Only a dream
Just a memory without anywhere to stay

It’s a dream
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Fading away

Siete comes, possibly to repent and turn himself in, but Eleazar tells him that his father has died. And maybe he did. In a movie such as this, even though we have seen him with an older Eleazar and Rut, perhaps that was a dream and he does indeed die. Siete wanders off and the film cuts to a series of trees falling in the woods. Few sounds are as satisfying as a tree falling in a forest, the tinny snap of branches and the deep earthy thump as it hits ground and we are treated to several falls before Siete wanders into an open field and kills himself as the rain begins to come down, building into a torrent.

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The evil in the film is never exposed nor condemned, but there is an abiding darkness and guilt that clings to the edges of the story, just as the filter used throughout the movie caused the edges to blur. There is the devil, the suicide, the marital difficulties, the slight guilt in porn addiction, and the fact that Juan calls his son “Little Worm”. This may seem nothing at all, but if his son is the little worm that makes him the big worm. Like the title, this may be a reference to the Reformation since Worm Theology is a derogatory term for Calvinism and draws from both the book of Job (25:6) as well as King David himself in Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.”

On what may or may not be his deathbed Juan says, “Today I felt as I did as a little child,” drawing us back to the sense of innocence invoked by the beginning of the film. Reygadas depicts the failings of adults, their wickedness, greed, pettiness and lust, but gives no clues as to any form of redemption unless you count the cleansing rain and the sky who brings it. Grace is extra-narrative and all we can cling to is the hope and promise that after the darkness comes light, but at the very least we can say, as Job did that, “the womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.”

An Experiment in Criticism for Films

C. S. Lewis, the famous Christian writer and scholar, was no fan of the cinema. He once described himself as “rather allergic to films” and after attending one he added in a letter to a friend, “Do not worry it shall not become a habit.” Though he was quick to dismiss films, his fruitful discussion of story, myths and literature is easily adapted to an appreciation of the cinematic art.

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In An Experiment in Criticism, he argues that the distinguishing mark between good books and bad is not how they are written, which can be an arbitrary standard too often marred by personal taste, but how they are read. In judging books by the way they are read, Lewis defines good literature as that which “permits, invites, or even compels good reading”; bad literature being that which cannot bear this burden. The book then goes forward to establish what good reading and bad looks like. It is a tantalizing thesis, that of separating preference from our praising and censoring; to no longer have criticism undermined by the tu quoque of “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” It is also inescapably snobby, for which Lewis, refreshingly, makes no apologies.

He begins his argument by positing two groups, the Few and the Many, his rough and ready term for the serious readers, the former, and the latter who merely read to amuse themselves. The bad reader, or the unliterary, differs from the good reader in the following ways: he never reads anything twice, reading is a last ditch effort to pass time, reading is not transformative and reading is never a matter of thought or discussion. A literary reader is the opposite of the unliterary and further identified as one who “reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, [he] makes himself as receptive as he can.” Being receptive is the primary marker separating the good reader from the bad.
According to Lewis, the Many use art and the Few receive it. The Many find what they want in art (affirming that which they already believe) and disregard the rest. The Few get themselves out of the way, they surrender to the artwork; but this isn’t passive, for, as Lewis says, “His is an imaginative activity; but an obedient one.” Being receptive to the movie is to resist imputing motive or external strictures for the film, to be challenged by its findings.
The hazard for us when we use literature, even to find truths or moralize, is that “increasingly we meet only ourselves.” Rather than be remade, we remake the work of art in our own image. Good books reward an attentive reader, bad books betray close attention to the work as an undue compliment.

This rapid summary doesn’t do justice to the width and breadth of his experiment, and I encourage you to read it, but my concern here is to apply his thesis to cinema. If good literature permits, invites, or even compels good reading, then can this serve as a definition of a good movie? Conversely, if a bad book cannot withstand a rigorous analysis of its words and figures, can a movie that folds under the weight of a serious, critical viewing be defined as a bad movie?

Like Lewis, how a movie demands to be watched is where we begin. Whether a movie rewards multiple viewings, whether it embeds its themes and develops characters through minor details is a major component to a good film. For example, in Chinatown the theme of chaos is conveyed, in one way, through numerous eye injuries (black eyes, crushed glasses); vision is often obscured and darkness constantly sweeps across the scene. In There Will Be Blood, it is no accident that Daniel Plainview, the deceiver from the beginning, is first shown underground and, before the scene is over, is injured and slithers upon the earth. For the rest of the movie he is shown on the ground. Or consider the names in The Truman Show: Truman, the True Man in a false world, lives under the cruel authorship of Christof (both “Of Christ” and “Off-Christ”) whose godlike control installs a fear of water in Truman. The fear is echoed in the names of his chief manipulators: friend Marlon (a variant of Merlin: sea fortress) and wife Meryl (bright sea). Contrasted with this is the name of his advocate and lost love Lauren Garland whose character in the show is named Sylvia, all of which point to Truman’s safe place of the land/forest. These details, combined with many more, build a picture that develops in complexity even as it enlightens, forming a rich and deep experience. Lewis says of words, which we here adapt to details, that they “are more than the clothing, more even than the incarnation, of content.”

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When we come to a movie that is less rigorous in its use of minor details and actions to convey meaning, we scale back our analysis, for we do not want to “munch whipped cream as if it were venison,” as Lewis suggests. In Signs, when we reflect upon the aliens- that they arrive with no discernible plan, naked, without weapons to a planet that is two thirds covered in water when they are deathly allergic to water- we realize we are not in an alien film, but an allegory and therefore must critique the movie as an allegory. We may critique it for presenting itself as something it is not, but we cannot accurately critique it for failing to be the movie we wanted.

So in romantic movies (the offenders are too numerous to snag a single example) when the leading roles are assumed to be attracted to each other for no other reason that they are the most beautiful and the camera lingers upon them the longest and the light flares and movement slows, perhaps a pop song cues up passionate rhythms, we are to adapt, put away our steak knives, perhaps tuck the edge of the tablecloth into our collars and belly-up to a meal of trifles. When at last, having exhausted the critical apparatus at each display of “monstrous psychology” and “preposterous coincidence”, after a parade of incoherence and thin pandering, we may be conclude that the film is bad.

Lewis gives five characteristics to identify the unliterary: 1) he reads only for the Event/ the Main Action 2) he reads without care for the sounds of the words 3) he is inattentive to Style, preferring plainness 4) he dislikes dialogue and 5) he wants a swift-moving narrative with as few “slow parts” as possible. The correlation to movies is easy. Many care only for the spectacle, they must have the action writ large and punctuated with explosions or else they get fidgety and bored. Combining points two and three we note that the fans of popular films do not heed the language of cinema, preferring straightforward storytelling: a heavy use of tropes (things falling in slow motion after a death) and nonplussed attitude toward cinematic cliches (how long must we endure the introduction of a female from the ankles up?). Points four and five skewer the Many’s disdain of “slow films”. Films that require thought and attentiveness are panned, “nothing happened” or “they just talked the whole time”.

Movies, due to their rapidly immersive qualities, can sway us and charm our critical faculties in the moment, but the test of a good film comes in the aftermath and, if worthy, in re-viewings. A literary appreciation of film begins with an openness to the film, to allow it to take you where it is going. A literary appreciation of a film demands that the details presented carry weight, bear the meaning of the film forward. A literary appreciation of a film notes how a story is told as much as what the story itself is. And while Lewis might not appreciate the cinema the way we do, at least he can approve of how we watch.