In a recent video blog post, my colleague Dr. Chris Wielgos has said that the 2014 Academy Awards is a story of two films, the evening’s big winners. Gravity, a high-tech outer space adventure, hauled off most of the awards in the technical production categories, while 12 Years a Slave, a faithful rendering of a slave narrative, garnered the Best Picture award as well as Oscars in the Best Supporting Actress and Screenwriting Categories. In the selection of these two films, the Academy did what it often times does. It heaps kudos on films set at times quite distant from the present: meaningful historical dramas (like Titanic) or, less frequently, futuristic or parallel world stories (like The Lord of the Rings) with contemporary implications.
Nominees for best picture have frequently included stories in a past not so distant (like Argo, last year’s winner) that are mined for political truths, often in a semi-humorous way. It is interesting that three of the nominees this year were “period” films set in the last decades of the 20th century. These are films that depicted outlaw-conmen based on real life individuals. The Wolf of Wall Street (the 90s), American Hustle (the 70s), and The Dallas Buyers Club (the 80s) were all excursions in the underbelly of American life. Wolf presented us with a portrait of a hedonistic master of the universe willing to do most anything to feed his appetites. American Hustle presented us with a sleazy flim-flam man recruited by the FBI to entrap American politicians. The Dallas Buyers Club offered the story of a homophobic rodeo bull rider who, once diagnosed as HIV+, smuggles restricted drugs across the Mexican border for himself and other victims. These films offered little consolation that problems of reckless market manipulation, homophobia or political bribery had been diminished. Despite the horrors that it depicts, this year’s best picture, 12 Years a Slave, offered the Academy Awards members and us the easy satisfaction that slavery has been eliminated, but British director Steve McQueen reminded us often that he was driven to do the film by the knowledge that human slavery still exists.
I am generally resistant to making quick claims about what roughly 20 motion pictures tell us about the current American zeitgeist. Yet I would like to suggest that another story of this year’s Academy Awards is the story about two other much less successful films. Both of these films won not a single academy award, though they were nominated for seven altogether. You might say that Nebraska (five nominations) and Autumn: Osage Country (2 nominations) were among the big losers. Perhaps these films set in the present lost because they offer us unsettling visions of the state of the union, or at least of a huge geographical swatch of America.
In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, political commentator Thomas Frank tried to figure out why people who lived in economically challenged states like Kansas voted against their own economic self-interest. His answer was that Republican party insiders make promises to address hot-button social issues (like Roe vs. Wade, prayer in schools) but have no real intention to deliver results or even sufficient power in the congress or consensus across the nation to do so. Instead the party enacts economic policies (like tax breaks for the wealth, increases in military spending) that economically hurt the moral majority, many who live in red states like Kansas.
These two films, while staying away from electoral politics completely, answer the question in a different way and give us a strong sense of life in the heartland. What is the matter with Oklahoma, and Osage county (where Tracy Lett’s adaptation of his Tony award winning play takes place)? What’s the matter with Nebraska (where Alexander Payne’s film takes place)? Indeed, what’s the matter with all of the “fly-over country” that Woody Allen’s ex-New York socialite Jasmine (in Blue Jasmine) looks down upon from 30,000 feet in her flight to a California refuge provided by her off-beat sister?
The scene selection and cinematography of both films lets us know that both of these regions have been emptied out. Never heavily populated, these states have lost thousands of citizens who have been put out of work by agribusiness and the failure to provide non-agricultural jobs for young people lucky enough to go to Norman or Lincoln for college; young folks flee for Des Moines or Kansas City or even for Chicago and New York after graduation. In Autumn, two of the three daughters have abandoned Oklahoma for Florida and Colorado, and the third is about ready to embark with her cousin for New York City. In Nebraska, the two sons of Woody and Kate, themselves defectors to Billings, Montana, work as a Bose audio system salesman and as a local newscaster. The late 30s folks who never leave – like Woody’s nephews – are unimaginative and venal and, apparently, unemployed. The garage-body shop that Woody (Bruce Dern) once co-owned is now operated by Mexicans. One imagines that for them it’s a step up from work in a Hormel meat-processing plant.
If the demographics are as the films suggest, the average age is over 65. This is AARP country, the state a big assisted-living facility. A tableau in Nebraska powerful conveys the stupor of this aging population: seven taciturn old men in recliners watch a Bears-Lions game before a celebratory welcoming meal for Woody, Kate and their boys. Most of the stores on Main Street are for rent; an ill-conceived tanning salon is the latest casualty. The highway signs leading into the state proclaim that Nebraska state offers “The Good Life,” but the facts on the ground belie the claim.
The milieu of the adapted-from-the-stage Autumn is less well developed; the sense of place is of secondary interest to the human actions which seem less environmentally determined. But in the person of Violet (Meryl Streep), we get a sense of a worn-out and at- wits-end population. A head-strong and foul-mouthed matriarch, she suffers from mouth cancer and is burdened by an alcoholic husband, as he is burden by her.. She too likes her drink, and her cocktails deepen her bitterness. A garish wig subtracts only a few years from her age; with the wig off she looks like a succubus risen from the grave.
In such bleak landscapes the family conflicts are more intense, the wounds deeper, reconciliations harder to achieve. Both of these films are centered around parents and children; intergenerational conflict is front and center. Parents who have come of age on the plains during the depression have memories of emotionally wrought childhoods. Violet reminds her daughters that their father spent five years before his tenth birthday living out of a car. When Woody visits the abandoned house where he was raised, he points out to his sons the place in his room where his father would inflict physical punishment. These are men and woman who possess a perverse superiority that comes from having endured undeserved suffering and deprivation and who believe that whatever turmoil that afflicts their children can never rise to the same level. Coming from such backgrounds they communicate with their children with cruel taunts or icy silence. In Autumn we get the sense that suspicion, even hatred, is passed on from one generation to the next; Barbara (Julia Roberts), Violet’s most contentious daughter, and her own daughter have a strained relations. Her sisters are childless; perhaps they’ve made the choice to break the cycle of toxic relations.
In such barren soul, pipedreams have a way of blossoming, then quickly nipped. Woody’s journey to Nebraska, his birth state, is motivated by his foolish belief that he has won a million dollars from Publishers Clearing House and that the money can be secured by a trip to Lincoln. He’s not the only one who succumbs to the lucky prospect. Some of his town friends believe that Woody will settle the score for alleged past debts. His nephews believe that the new celebrity will share his good fortune with members of his extended family. David, his son and traveling companion, is the only one who knows how to gently reveal the truth to his old man while preserving some dignity for his deeply flawed old man.
In Autumn Violet is the wicked de-mythologizer, the caustic truth-teller who reminds her daughters of their imperfections and picks the right moment to reveal the skeletons in the family closet to demoralize them. She mocks her husband for poetry making and his pretensions to high culture. Though hardly the destroyer that Violet is, Woody’s wife Kate thinks of herself as a clear-eyed and salt-of-the earth realist, bemused by the follies of her husband and other men. She would hold her own at a kitchen table with Violet and Matty Fae, Violet’s sister, another survivalist. The noble wife of the late 19th century sodbuster depicted in novels by Nebraskan Willa Cather would be scandalized by this trio.
Nebraska is a far sweeter film than is Autumn. Payne conveys empathy, even love for these middle-Americans. In Autumn, a product of Steppenwolf Theatre’s soul-searing dramatic tradition, one can find little sympathy for any members of this dysfunctional clan, except for Little Charlie, Matty Fae’s son. But our sympathy here is for a decent young man who is the victim of his castrating mother’s dissatisfaction with what he has become; he’s hardly heroic material. Both of these films continue a long tradition in American literature and drama – the revelation of the sterility and claustrophobia and emotional violence of the American small town, a project that directly challenges wholesome advertising images and TV depictions of our many white-picket fence Mayberrys. These films update the first literary reports on small town America. Alexander Payne, the director of Nebraska, seems to be guided by the fascination with and respect for the emotionally cripples found in Sherwood Anderson (the short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio, 1919). Tracy Letts, who adapted his own play for the movies, works in the tradition of satirist Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, 1920). The answer to the question of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” is not a pretty one.