Seeing Nebraska in theaters for the first time is one of those experiences I’ll always remember, though not just because I loved the film. Unfortunately, it was another one of those visits to the AMC in Rockford that left a lot to be desired. I’m not bashing that particular theater. In fact, I saw so many movies there while attending NIU (DeKalb doesn’t get many artsy films) that I knew who would be working concessions and who would be selling tickets depending on the time of day. I had been excited to see Nebraska for about a year by the time I braved the bitter cold of the polar vortex in January 2014 to attend the first show of the day on a Friday morning.
The movie was being shown in one of the tiny auditoriums that many AMCs have for low budget or independent titles. I got may usual seat, halfway up and halfway across the main stadium seating section. A couple minutes before showtime, two elderly women walked in and sat at the far right of the room and just a couple rows behind me. They talked through the entire movie. They were paying attention, mind you, because they had discussions at normal volume about every single scene. They loved the movie and were going to recommend it to their adult children and frequently commented on how this character reminded them of someone they knew and that character reminded them of someone that other person they knew was married to. They laughed at all the moments where it was appropriate, and many moments when it was not. They occasionally turned and yelled a question at me or asked for my reaction to something that had happened.
I wanted to find a different seat, but I also knew that in such a small auditorium, it would be pointless. Nebraska is a quiet, dialogue driven film and I just made peace with the fact that I was going to have to listen to this amateur commentary track for the whole film. I’m glad the 10:00 show only cost $5.
What stands out to me about this experience is that, in terms of sheer rudeness, this ranks in the top three worst experiences I’ve had with an audience. Again, there were only three people in the auditorium, including myself. But the core of their discussion, which absolutely should have waited until the movie ended, is something I could identify with because while they saw some of their relatives and friends represented in the film, so too did I.
Nebraska tells the story of a retired veteran named Woody (Bruce Dern) who believes he was won a million dollars and enlists his reluctant son David (Will Forte) to drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the prize. David knows the contest Woody supposedly won is a scam, but agrees to drive his father so the old man won’t hurt himself by trying to make the trip on his own. It doesn’t take long for David to realize that what Woody needs to be protected from the most are people from his past who want to cash in on his supposed fortune.
For the most part, Nebraska doesn’t point to characters and say this person is bad and that person is good. They are all allowed to be likable in some aspects, and in other instances we see them act likes jerks. The exception might be Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who certainly deserves that punch he receives from David (Will Forte). There isn’t much to like about Ed, but he is also someone we all can recognize. He’s that aggressive blowhard that appears to have many friends and can get pretty much anything he wants within the limits of his small town because he knows everybody and has threatened them on a daily basis for decades. There were a couple guys like that in Kirkland, Illinois when I lived there.
Director Alexander Payne, this time not working from his own script, made the choice to convert the film to black and white in post-production (it was shot in color with lighting that would work for black and white) and had to convince Paramount to let him do it. I’m glad he fought for black and white. When I say that I recognize some of the characters in this film, I’m also talking about the cinematography. Films shot in the Great Plains and the Midwest, whether they are set in present day or the past, tend to make vivid use of color in order to mystify the landscapes. Here, the farmland and the main streets of small town USA are still beautifully rendered, but in a humble way. When I think back on my time in Kirkland, what stands out usually isn’t lush or majestic. It’s dust on gravel roads, decaying buildings, economic hardship, attitudes that should have disappeared decades ago but are still clung to, and bluntness. I would use the same words to describe every frame of Nebraska. Of course, when I speak of bluntness, I’m also talking about Kate Grant (June Squibb). There are a lot of solid performances in Nebraska, but Squibb is the highlight for me. The first time I saw the film, I felt sorry for Woody early on for having to put up with her constant name calling. I worried that Kate would be the cliché of nagging wife for the rest of the film. That’s not the case. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Kate is so much more to Woody, and her often impolite words come from a place of loving exhaustion. She’s had to protect Woody from his trusting nature, his alcoholism and his childhood demons her entire life.
Though much of the script is devoted to exploring Woody’s past, Kate gets my favorite scene in the entire film; a crude and laugh filled visit to a family graveyard. I would also have to say Squibb provides my favorite use of the F- word any film the past decade. That little bit of hesitance on her part by dragging out the F sound when she cusses while arguing with Woody’s greedy relatives is perfection. “You can all go ffffff**k yourselves!” That said, for an Alexander Payne film, Nebraska is pretty tame when it comes to profanity, and if not for the MPAA’s odd choice to select one use of “c***sucker” as a hill to die on, this film would be PG-13.
I mentioned earlier that I would have more to say about Payne’s fight to get this film released in black and white. It should not have been an issue. The blame rests on many of us as viewers. I personally look forward to black and white movies and I think it’s a style that should be used more. There seems to be a general attitude among audiences though that black and white films are inferior, or ugly, or cheap, and that’s not the case. It’s a format than can be incredibly effective and it’s not just some outdated technique from the early days of cinema.
Some of you may remember back in the 1980s when Ted Turner attracted controversy for colorizing many classic films. Well, in order to get Nebraska released in black and white, Payne had to agree to Paramount’s demand that color prints also be available for distribution. The studio had several television deals in which they agreed to “color only” stipulations and if Nebraska was in black and white, it would be less profitable after its theatrical run.
Payne discourages people from watching the color print, which has aired a limited number of times on premium channels. I would like to join Payne by asking you please, do not watch color prints of Nebraska and do not seek out colorized versions of black and white movies. It is disrespectful to the artists who worked on the film. It’s disrespectful to the directors who envisioned their films a certain way, and to the cinematographers who went through the work of lighting a film so it would work in black and white. It is disrespectful to the actors too, particularly when it comes to colorization, because it results in unnatural skin tones. They look like talking dolls rather than human beings.
If you haven’t seen Nebraska, check it out and make sure you see it in black and white. I don’t know how easy it is to find the color version but just don’t even look for it. See it the way it was meant to be seen, and while you’re at it, you should watch The Descendants, Sideways and About Schmidt too. I’m not reviewing them for this series, because they are in color, but I’m sure I’ll talk about them all at some point.