I frequently talk and think about cultural products in pairs. When I taught Women’s Popular Genres (a sophomore-level literature class) at UT-Austin, I taught Dracula alongside Twilight: New Moon (race, xenophobia, transgressive sexuality!), Jane Eyre alongside The Nanny Diaries (domesticity and women’s labor!), The House of Mirth alongside Shopaholic (conspicuous consumption!). Indeed, I am all about putting cultural products in conversation with one another. I think that people should watch Django Unchained as a double feature with 12 Years a Slave, and Dallas Buyers Club with How to Survive a Plague. When you experience texts along a common theme, they can illuminate each other in compelling, sometimes provocative ways.
That’s why I was so excited to realize that Nebraska and August: Osage County are ripe for this treatment. They are both set in the Great Plains, both prominently feature parents with substance abuse issues, and explore parent-child relationships. Both films, when I think of them together, raise some questions about gender and parenting, gender and anger, and what it means to be loved. (Oh, that sounds so cheesy.)
First off, I really loved both movies. Alexander Payne hasn’t made a movie yet that I didn’t like (Sideways, The Descendants, Election). When I walked out of Nebraska, I remember thinking, “well, that was a nice little portrait of midwestern masculinity” and feeling really good about the lengths that a son goes to in order to help his father make a little meaning out of his life. Along the way, we see that neither man fits the mold of what’s expected of the midwestern male: Woody (Bruce Dern) was a questionable provider, due in large part to his alcoholism. David (Will Forte) has a lame career as a stereo salesman, can’t sh*t or get off the pot when it comes to making a commitment to his girlfriend, and, according to his hulking, ex-con, bullying cousins, drives too slow. By contrast, David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), squares with what is expected of him as a man: he’s married, has kids, and is enjoying a comfortable career as a local news anchor. He’s mostly there as a foil for David and Woody, frequently as exasperated by them as the matriarch, Kate (June Squibb) is.
(I’ll admit: I wasn’t blown away by Squibb’s performance as Kate. I was expecting a scene-stealing performance, but I didn’t see much beyond rote line recitation. Some of those lines were funny, but I don’t get the fawning over her.)
There is a lot of repressed rage in this film, but it takes the form of the laconic male. Woody and his phalanx of brothers have perfected the art of silence, with only perfunctory answers given to queries both superficial and probing. (At least, I like to think of it as repressed rage — maybe they’re just a bunch of dummies with no inner life or subjectivity at all.) We see that David is a lot like Woody, but he struggles with wanting to be a little more in touch: he is genuinely ambivalent about marriage and children, but he’s not welcome to talk about it with his family, who belong to the “this is what you do because it’s always been done” generation. Meanwhile, he is too paralyzed by his ambivalence to talk about it with Noel (Missy Doty, who was also in Sideways), his estranged girlfriend. David is a New Man adrift in a school of traditionally masculine men. But it’s through this journey across the landscape of Nebraska with his father that helps him maybe, just maybe, negotiate a little of this ambivalence. I can’t help but smile when I think of David looking up at his dad in the cab of the truck at the end, smiling at how happy and proud his dad is in that moment. It’s an affirming portrait of a family that loves each other despite all the dysfunction.
Strangely enough, though, it was August: Osage County that made me want to be a better person.
I had a very strong emotional reaction to this film, probably because I recognized some stuff in there that was ugly and messy and made me sad. But I also loved it because I love Margo Martindale and Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor and … well, just about everyone in the cast. (I saw this movie referred to not inaccurately as Acting: The Movie, and there is a fair amount of scenery chewing, but that doesn’t bother me except when it does.)
There’s lots of rage in this film, too, but it’s not suppressed. At all. These people loathe each other and it’s no secret. Where the men of Nebraska keep themselves to themselves, the women in August: Osage County are all acid tongues and sharpened claws, reducing each others’ psyches to rubble with just a sentence or two while the men look on, baffled. Just look at this poster:
Look at this chaos! Here you see the two main female characters, played by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, engaged in battle. Martindale and Julianne Nicholson attempting to intervene, while most of the men hang back, unsure of what to do. Compare this to the stark isolation of the Nebraska poster above and you’ll see my point: men are meant to stay bottled, while women are emotional to the point of destruction. (At the same time, women aren’t meant to rock the boat; when they do, they ruin dinner.)
I’m a little uncomfortable with the portrayal of every single woman in this movie as angry, bitter, conniving, grubbing, caustic, cruel, selfish, and/or pathetic. Except, of course, for Johnna (Misty Upham), the Cheyenne woman hired as a live-in cook and maid. She alone nurtures (we see this mostly through her cooking) and protects (“tuning up” a character with a shovel when he gets a little handsy with a young relative), and she is virtually silent throughout the film. Because of course she is, she’s a brown person — you can’t get much more subaltern than a Native American woman when it comes to Hollywood.
Which is why I am so intrigued by these two films set in the Great Plains. It’s hard for me to articulate at the moment because I’m pretty well removed from my Native Studies coursework, but this region of the United States is so fraught, in terms of its significance in 19th century American expansion/exceptionalism, the genocide and forced relocation of millions of native peoples, extreme poverty in the Dust Bowl years, and ecological devastation wrought by an industrialized agricultural system. (I don’t think it’s any accident that Marc Maron described Nebraska as a “Dorothea Lange photo brought to life.”) Ghost towns dot the midwestern landscape, and within the worlds of these two films, urban spaces are places that you must travel to, an “out there” that is both magical and inconvenient. The dramas on the screen are small, confined to individual families, but set against the broader context of a region universally dismissed as “flyover states” utterly devoid of culture. These films make an argument for a closer look at the culture of the plains and what they can tell us about ourselves.
There is more to say here, but I want to extend this conversation beyond my own head. I welcome your thoughts in the comments!