NYFF: Life is (Alexander) Payne
I dont think about the home where my films will land, says Alexander Payne, free-range in a film culture fenced off into art house and multiplex, to the detriment of both. He describes the audience that he writes for as my best friends and myself. . . . Then your luck in your career is that what occurs to you and your best friends as entertaining and interesting also occurs to a significant amount of others that way.
Payne is very, very lucky. The trajectory of his career has been an ongoing parallel rise in box-office success, critical estimation, and final-cut clout, from abortion satire Citizen Ruth (1996) to Election (1999)much-cited in the 2008 Democratic primaries for its main characters not entirely flattering resemblance to Hillary Clintonto the twin watersheds of About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004). With the first, Jack Nicholsons participation made Payne a star; by the second, Payne could do the same for Paul Giamatti.
Sitting across the table at La Buvette, a wine store and restaurant in hometown Omahas Old Market neighborhood, Payne, a trim, well-turned-out and fresh-looking 50, the owner of two Federico Fellini sketches given to me by an Italian princess who lives in Hawaii, the hometown boy who can go home again, seems a success by any measure. Success has not, though, been his topic.
Payne grew up comfortably in Omahas Dundee neighborhood, where his parents still live, four blocks away from Warren Buffett, who of course still lives there, too. About Schmidt, however, is concerned with another Warren, this one unfulfilled, with a Future Business Leaders of America pedigree and deferred dreams of entrepreneurship. Payne has had a career that most artists would sacrifice their firstborn for. Sideways, however, follows an unpublished novelist, whose manuscript receives its terminal rejection as hes touring Santa Ynez Valley wine country. (It was kind of slight for my tastes, says Payne, ever happy to denigrate his own accomplishments.)
The Descendants, which closes this years edition of the New York Film Festival and opens theatrically in November, features the most prosperous protagonist of Paynes career. Matt King is Hawaiian-landed gentry, the great-great-grandson of native royalty and colonizing bluebloods who now manages the family trust and is currently faced with disposing of 25,000 acres of undeveloped paradise on Kauai to the profit of himself and a coterie of cousins. (The dilemma is how much richer to get.) King is played by George Clooney, who had previously expressed interest the role of Jack in Sideways, a part that eventually went to Thomas Haden Church. I wouldnt believe the most handsome and successful movie actor playing the most washed-up TV actor, says Payne. I didnt want that to be the joke.
Now Payne has finally cast Clooneyas a handsome, successful failure. As the film begins, Kings free-spirit wife lies in a coma after a boating accident. He learns that she will not wake up, that her will stipulates pulling the plug, and that he must actively deal with two daughters for whom he has previously only been the backup parent, a pushy 10-year-old (Amara Miller) and a wild 17-year-old (Shailene Woodley), brought back from the boarding-school gulag and showing unexpected backbone when presented with the errand of spreading word of her mothers impending death.
Both Schmidt and The Descendants have a protagonist whos reached a point in life, who says, Ive done my job, Ive been a good provider . . . and doesnt realize how distant hes been from others and from himself, says Payne, himself divorced with no kids. Both men are also made madly jealous upon learning of indiscretions by wives now past blame. On the recurrence of infidelity in his work, Payne is tight-lipped: It seems pretty common, pretty dramatic . . . Maybe I felt some jealousy early in life, and thats made a mark. Maybe.
The Descendants draws a network of generational masculine rivalries around Kingbetween King and his wifes goading father (Robert Forster); between King and his daughters tagalong boyfriend (Nick Krause, whose broad, squinting grin radiates Neolithic stupidity). The viewer sees these men at first as King does: just more burden to bear. Eventually we come to realize, through Clooneys artfully withholding reaction shots, that they are people with private fortitude and sadness all their own.
To say something bad about someone, to caricaturize someone, but then to go, Yeah, but God love em, that might be something particularly Midwestern, Payne says. The harsh initial judgment, followed by the recall of the same judgment, is a signature of Paynes films; my own relationship with his work went through the same recoil and reconsideration. Where Paynes craftsmanship was always obvious, his warmth seemed more elusive; my Damascus moment was Paynes contribution to 2005 omnibus movie Paris Je TAime. Margo Martindale plays Carol, a husky middle-aged Denver letter carrier in tapered khakis and fanny pack, viewed on a vacation to Paris which she narrates in clomping French, as if before an adult-education class. There is fun had at Carols clumsinessshe confuses Simone de Beauvoir with Simón Bolívar, eats at bad restaurants, talks about her dogs in that way that suggests a life of profound lackbut by the time the film concludes, flat caricature has become character. While Carol sits in the Parc Montsouris, her voiceover expresses inchoate feelings withinat the same time joy and sadnessconveying a breadth of spirit that were all certain we have and yet are quick to deny to others. If I could say Im proud of any of my films, I would say that one, says Payne. I think it does everything in six minutes. . . . Its a little line drawing. This proved the key to unlocking Paynes work for me: Whereas once the closing shot of a teary Nicholson in About Schmidt had seemed like money-shot sentimentality, now it felt like the last stroke in that rare portrait to acknowledge its subjects ignoble and sublime aspects, with neither overriding the other.
The Descendants is Paynes first feature in seven years. It just happened. 05 was a washout, 06, 07, 08, a lot of that time was spent writing a screenplay with Jim Taylor that we havent made yet. Late 08 I was so anxious to beat up on actors that I did a pilot [HBOs Hung]. And then in 09, I started work on this. It just happened, I dont know where the time went.
In March, the director returned to what he calls River City after a year divided between shooting in Hawaii and editing in L.A.; hes preparing to shoot a new Nebraskaset film, the above-mentioned Downsizing, next spring. A cheap flight brought me to Omaha early, two days before my lunch with Payne was scheduled. This gave me ample time to hoof it around the setting of Paynes first three featuresand on foot one can still find the grotty Omaha of those films, the city he gladly left behind for Stanford years ago. At the time, there was a lot less going on in Omaha than there is now, and young people definitely felt a lot more Get me out of this cowtown, he says. Now people want to stay, and young people come back, but at the time it was . . . really great to leave.
Omahas rising fortunes have matched Paynes. The Woodmen Tower where Warren Schmidt wasted his life has been surpassed in height and corporate impersonality by the First National Bank Tower, seen going up in Schmidt. Another recent construction: Film Streams Ruth Sokolof Theater, a nonprofit repertory/art house film space founded in 2007, where Payne sits on the board of directors. He is, in middle age, a shameless booster. When I visit Payne at his downtown apartment, he is enthused at finding frozen guanabana at a newly discovered Peruvian grocery, a first in Omaha, and another testament to the citys burgeoning cosmopolitanism. Later, from the promontory of his rooftop deck, he traces the geography of Old Omaha over a panoramic view of the New: A block north, there is the site where his grandfather and father operated a restaurant for 50 years; all around, the ghosts of long-ago-razed theaters, some of whose names, recited with pleasure, give a clear sense of moviegoing as Paynes personal universe: In the old days, that was The World, that was The Moon, and that was The Sun . . .
As with many an educated provincial, Paynes universe expanded exponentially when he left town. From Stanford, he went to a distinguished showing at UCLAs film school, finishing the education begun in now long-gone movie houses. From here, he couldve very easily left Omaha in the rearviewbut instead he came back to film it as he saw it. Jason Reitman came out here to shoot a couple days on Up in the Airbecause the character was supposed to be based in Omaha. And he asked me later, So what did you think of how I treated your city? And I said, You didnt. I didnt see Omaha in there at all. I heard the name, but I didnt see it.
As were increasingly asked to accept the outskirts of Vancouver or Toronto as Anytown, USA, Payne remains dedicated to pinning down regional particularities. The specificities of his last two source novelsNebraska is not famous for its pinothave taken him abroad, but he retains a keen eye for local variants. I dont know why; Im very interested somehow in a sense of place. . . . I hadnt ever really seen Honolulu in a film, and that was one of the appeals of doing [The Descendants]. This meant Paynes usual process of populating the film with locally sourced non-actors, all toward getting that very specific, complex, kind of intimidating social fabric out there.
Based on the debut novel by Hawaiianborn Kaui Hart Hemmings, much of the films humor comes from the antagonism between King, molded by old-money dictums of responsibility and never, ever drawing down his principal and the islands prevailing hang loose attitude. Regardless of location, Payne brings certain Midwestern values with him: By the way, that line where [King] says, I agree with my father, you give your kids just enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing? Thats stolen from Warren Buffett. Thats an Omaha line.
You cannot throw a stone in the new downtown Omaha without hitting a statue of a covered wagon or bonneted settler womanthis is, after all, Willa Cather country. So, too, are Paynes very contemporary films shadowed by history: Schmidt discussing Buffalo Bill Codys house or dwarfed by larger-than-life images of pioneers at the Kearny Arch museum, marveling at the fortitude of the early Westerners; Matt King contemplating the photographs of his royal ancestry in The Descendants, a film whose very title speaks to the looming presence of our never-past past. Theres a discrepancy between self-image and the reality in front of them, Payne explains of these characters, between whats expectedwhat one assumes is expected by forebearsand the reality.
Although not so confrontational as Election, Paynes latest retains his wicked sense of humor rooted in discordthe friction between different class-based social expectations, between a purposeful past and an aimless present, between intensity of feeling and ridiculousness of expression. Payne pays great attention to the sound in his films, those little subversive elements in the mix that undercut the most dramatic moments with absurdity, like the flap-flap-flap of Kings docksides as he sprints out of his house, faced with the fact of his wifes unfaithfulness. For me, the funniest cut in The Descendants is when Judy Greer goes to the wifes bedside, says, Hello, Im Julie, Im Brians wife. And then it cuts to the womans facehere Payne, whose conversation is peppered with pantomime, tosses his head back, mouth-agape, imitating the comatose Mrs. KingThat always makes me laugh. Thats a grim cut.
Later, reclined on a chaise lounge in his large but sparely furnished apartment, Payne imitates Toshiro Mifunes scrambling, bug-eyed death scene, harried by a torrent of arrows, from Akira Kurosawas Throne of Blood. This is after weve watched a bit of Pigs and Battleships, a hectic 1961 satire by Shohei Imamura, a director whom we both admire. Imamura, Payne says, just accepts the animal nature of people. Hes kind of a biologist, anthropologist. We also watch a TV interview with Imamura late in life. Anybody can act well if I direct them well, says the Japanese director. Yes, says the American. Drama is about ordinary people, their lives, and the turning points in their lives, continues Imamura. Yes, yes, responds Payne.
There is a sense of sad, stoic acceptance at the end of The Descendants that one more closely associates with Japanese than with Western cinema. This firms my conviction about Payne, whose fine-point regionalism and unpretentious intelligence accompanies a concern in legitimate universal truths: Payne returns so consistently to failure that failure seems to be his definition of life itself. And in place of triumph, he offers only the possibility of small victories before the final, inevitable loss.
When, over lunch, I observe to Payne that his movies arent redemptive, he replies cheerily, Thank you! I want him to admit how unique his position is, to have captured such a large audience while expressing such a basically pessimistic worldview. When I press him, though, he always returns with, Isnt that life?as if he cant imagine anyone taking it for anything else. Look: An elephant dies. All the other elephants stamphere he clomps his hands on the tableand throw dirt around and trumpethere he waves his arms to simulate wagging trunksand get really depressed. Now he sits still. And then they move on.
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