Payne’s Nebraska: The Sad, Old, Boring Life

I’ve been interviewing rock bands for The Reader going on 20 years now. Whenever I do a phoner with a touring rock band coming through town for the first time, I ask the interviewee to list his/her preconceived notions of our fair city and Nebraska in general.

The five most common misconceptions about Nebraska:

1. It's flat
2. It's barren
3. It's boring
4. It's one gigantic Boys Town
5. It's flat (again)

Anyone who lives in Omaha knows that the town is anything but flat. The fact that out-of-towners think it's flat is a cruel joke come wintertime when we’re trying to make it up a sheet of ice driving west on Dodge Street at 30th, or in the summer riding a bike west from downtown faced with one back-spasm-inducing climb after another.

How the myth got started that Omaha (and Nebraska) is flat is something of a mystery. The only cultural reference I know to Omaha’s perceived “flatness” is an ancient episode of WKRP in Cincinnati where intrepid news reporter Les Nessman croons, “Ooohhh, Nebraska. I'd love to go to Omaha. It's one of our nation's leading pork packing centers. The terrain there is so level, so flat, so relaxing..,” -- a line no doubt written by someone who had never stepped foot in Nebraska.

Alexander Payne has no such excuses.

With the release of his film, Nebraska, we’ll be faced with a whole slew of new stereotypes to battle about our state. I caught a late-night sold-out screening of the film last Saturday at Film Streams as a sort of research project since I’ll be attending this Sunday’s Feature V presentation at The Holland Center where Mr. Payne and members of the film’s cast will be interviewed on stage by SPY Magazine founder Kurt Anderson (Yes, I know Kurt also hosts Studio 360 on NPR, but it’s SPY and his novel Turn of the Century that I first admired).

My capsule review: I liked the movie more than The Descendants but less than Sideways. The basic plot is a benign contrivance involving a Publishers Clearinghouse-style direct mail contest that the protagonist — Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern (Who we all remember as the main bad guy in John Wayne’s The Cowboys) — purposely mistakes for being a real winning million-dollar contest ticket (even though later in the film the word “if” clearly connotes that Woody didn’t read the certificate very carefully (though his wife says he memorized the letter. I told you the plot was contrived)).

But the plot is merely a device for the actors to dance around for a couple hours, and oh what a dance they do. McGruber’s Will Forte, Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk, and best of all Dern, whose deadpan portrayal of a senile old man who doesn’t comb his hair is bound to earn him his first Oscar, guaranteeing that Nebraska will be seen by millions of filmgoers forever and ever amen.

Which brings us back to the topic of how Mr. Payne portrayed The Good Life state.

Payne’s Nebraska is a cold, barren, lonely world inhabited by bored, confused older men whose lives have been sapped of all color, presumably from sitting in front of a television for hours at a time. I guess it’s fitting that Payne shot the film in black-and-white.

It’s a world where laughter results only from ridicule, where men rarely smile, and Dern’s Woody never does. The citizens of mythical Hawthorne -- population 1,300+ (though it looks smaller than my hometown of Ft. Calhoun, population 600+) -- are as gullible as they are poor, desperately believing Woody won a fortune even after being told by his children that the whole thing is a sham. Yeah, I know they want — no, they need -- to believe, because Woody’s good luck is the only shred of hope left in their hopeless lives.

This is how the world will now perceive Nebraska.

I realize Payne didn’t set out to make a documentary.  But like I said, I’m from rural Nebraska and the one portrayed in this film doesn’t even vaguely resemble the one I grew up in.

I kept thinking while watching the droll proceedings that my people are funnier than these a-holes. That they’re more skeptical and definitely smarter than this.  And that their lives, while mundane, while (yes) fueled mostly by television and beer and football, are more interesting than the lives I was seeing up on the screen.

That’s the most disturbing stereotype of all: That rural Nebraska is a colorless, boring world made up of colorless, boring, stupid people. And anyone who’s lived there knows that’s far from the truth.

But it doesn’t matter. It is, after all, only a film, right?

Still, the next time I interview a traveling rock star and ask what his/her preconceived notion is of our fair city and Nebraska in general, I’m bound to hear:

It’s flat.
It’s barren.
It’s boring.
It’s just like that Alexander Payne film.
It’s flat (again).

And it’s shot entirely in black and white.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 08:46 am
on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

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