Nebraska is in black and white. Even the studio logo is black and white. The first shots are of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern’s character) walking down the side of the street. Since Pi is really the first movie I saw in black and white, that’s the first thing that came to my mind.
Of course, that feeling quickly went away.
Alexander Payne doesn’t make action movies. That’s not to say he doesn’t know how to shoot an action scene because he does. The getaway scene from the motor-home park in About Schmidt is as fast-paced and riveting as one could ask.
However, normally Payne directs like John Steinbeck writes. The story is good, filled with layers of meaning that say more than just the story being told on the screen. But, it’s not really about the larger story. We read Steinbeck, and watch Payne’s movies, because of the way the story is told. Steinbeck uses words, Payne, pictures, moving pictures.
Payne is a master at camera placement and movement. For Nebraska, he spent quite a while driving around the northern states of the United States, location scouting, and that work shows on screen. Many of the shots could easily be still photographs, works of art, complete in themselves. That ability to make each shot be beautiful enough to be a still photograph that the best example I can think of is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
And, while the Nebraska is shot in black and white, black and white is really about the grays that make up the picture. Here’s where some of the layers of meaning come in.
By choosing what is a clearly anachronistic technique, Payne is asking us, meaning everyone who doesn’t live in northern Montana or Nebraska, to stop and look back at the way things used to be, and not merely in some nostalgic sense. He’s asking us to look at Woody’s character and not to see a decrepit old man, who may or may not be losing is mind. He’s asking us to look at a life: the gray scales of his history, that he’s a human being and he has lived life Nebraska is saying that life has value beyond what one might suspect at first glance.
Is Woody crazy? Maybe. Is he naively hopeful? probably. But, do those things make him a bad or worthless person? No. He’s a good man because he has lived a good life. Yes, he’s made mistakes, like all of us. His life, like so many of us, hasn’t ended in a mansion, surrounded by servants.
So, where is Woody’s value to us? It’s in being with Woody, seeing him, losing presuppositions and actually seeing him. And in seeing him, we see our future. But, we also change how we interact with others.
Like any great work of art, there’s some human universals woven in. These aren’t subtle metaphorical layers. Instead, they’re right out there. We all age. Many of us have parents who are aging, and having symptoms that are common to old age.
As society changes, the elderly sometimes seem like they’re from a different era… because they are. Like Payne’s use of black and white, like his slow story-telling that isn’t about boobs and explosions. Nebraska is a movie from a different era, made for people in the present era. Nebraska is easily, my favorite movie in Alexander Payne’s filmography, so far.