Seeing ‘Nebraska’ in Nebraska

nebraskaI got to see “Nebraska” over the weekend in the Omaha theater that director Alexander Payne helped establish.

He wasn’t there, though he was part of a couple of events helping open it. It’s a great film, by the way. Though its black and white stock lend it a needless artiness, there is power in its cinematography, its honesty and its performances, particularly from Bruce Dern, who plays these old coots now like it’s second nature (he was just on Hallmark in such a role a week or so ago). To the professional cast there are also a number of authentic looking locals, who add authenticity even though their line readings aren’t always the best.

There was something strange about seeing it right in the state where it was filmed and trying to replicate. I wondered if people who lived elsewhere would be able to grasp (or even believe) the small town feel, the broad empty landscape and the nearly wordless family gettogethers. At the same time, would it stand out enough from real life to make it even appear to be a movie by the Nebraskans in attendance?

Well, Omaha isn’t really Nebraska in that sense. The biggest city depicted in the film is Billings, Mont., where an addled ex-mechanic and alcoholic keeps trying to walk to Lincoln to claim a prize he is sure he has won: a million bucks, from one of those subscription come-ons that make it seem so official.

The dream of that prize is substantial enough to get him on the road no matter what, such that a son finally agrees to take him there, if only to prove to him he’s wrong. Along the way they stop in the small (fictional) Nebraska town where they grew up and word gets out too quickly about the millionaire he’s become.

They stay with relatives and visit cemeteries and see landscapes very similar to what I saw while in Nebraska, and a week before in northern Michigan. In a matter of days, I had seen the graves of all of my grandparents, on similarly windswept hillsides. Up north, I found that a great uncle had the nickname of Buck and had in fact opened a bar many people recalled fondly called Buck’s. Ordering a beer at the place one afternoon, the place near empty, I asked if the waitress knew Buck. “Before my time,” she said, just like the barmaid in the movie.

Most of all, the fraud of false winnings that prey on the elderly was all too familiar. This one might have been innocent and in fine print, but my mother, an avid contester all her life, fell victim to some Florida outfit that kept telling her that to won their big sweepstakes prize, she’d have to keep sending them more money. It ended up being thousands (and my dad and I yelled at the unscrupulous, anonymous people over the phone in tones much more severe than that in the movie).

There’s something familiar to me, of course, in all of Payne’s movies, starting from the settings in familiar locales in neighborhoods of Omaha where I have lived or was familiar, to supporting actors who I went to college with. His movies are big hits with wide audiences, though, because they connect on even more common emotional levels than just that, however.

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