Aging in Place in a Bleak Landscape

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Somewhere near the middle of Alexander Payne’s new movie Nebraska, a young boy rides up on a bicycle to take a photo of Woody Grant for the local newspaper.  Woody has, or so he believes, won a million dollars in a merchandising sweepstakes. He has become a celebrity in Hawthorne, the small fictional Nebraska town he left years ago to move to Billings, Montana, to open an auto repair shop.  Driven by his younger son, David, he is on his way to Lincoln to pick up his winnings, and they have stopped for a few days for a family reunion of sorts. 

When this youngster appeared on screen with his camera, I wanted to step into the frame and call out, “Grow up fast, young man, and get out of this town!”  But his moment in the movie was too fleeting.  Assignment completed, he was on his way, perhaps already heeding my unspoken advice. 

Nebraska is yet another indication that older actors are not only getting great parts but playing them with enormous skill and imagination.  Bruce Dern (77) as Woody, Judy Squibb (83) as his wife Kate, Stacy Keach (72) as Ed Peagram, Woody’s former business partner—all create memorable portrayals of individuals aging in place but not particularly happy about it.  Of the younger actors, David (Will Forte) holds his own with the veterans.  

Filmmakers typically name their characters purposefully. Woody Grant is obviously a reference to Grant Wood, whose painting “American Gothic” of an Iowa farmer and his daughter is both iconic and mysterious. It has been seen as a satire on the rigidity of rural American life, an ode to Midwestern values of hard work and domesticity, a reflection of a dying American past, a mourning picture, and many other interpretations.  Alexander Payne, who is from Nebraska and lives in Omaha half-time, knows the territory.  Some parts of his film can be seen as satire, while other parts reflect his affection for the area. 

Exquisitely filmed in black and white, the bleak landscape of decaying towns, abandoned farms, and endless flat roads is like a character in the movie.  But the landscape is no bleaker than the people who inhabit it—Woody, old and an alcoholic, bent on what seems to be a fool’s errand; his sharp-tongued and feisty wife, Kate; their baffled and helpless sons, David and Ross. On the outer circle are Woody’s grim and laconic family and the elderly townspeople—all the people who never left and who both envy and covet Woody’s supposed good fortune.  Some are faux-friendly; a few are mean or at least willing to have a laugh at Woody’s expense.   

 Dern portrays Woody as a shambling wreck of a man but, at least in my view, one who is not above some manipulating to get where he wants to go.  He doesn’t wander in the conventional sense of dementia behavior, but sets out on foot to get to Lincoln.  The police pick him up and bring him to the station where David retrieves him. Woody is the one who suggests—was this his plan all along?—that David drive him if he’s so determined to keep him from walking.  Woody is a bit of a trickster, and maybe he knows that the letter from the sweepstakes company is also a trick.   

Nebraska is a road movie of a different sort—the companions are Woody and David, accompanied at some points by Kate and older son Ross.  And it is in David’s attempts to establish a connection with his father that the movie moves beyond its specific setting and achieves some universality.  Woody is totally uncommunicative about his past, even when David asks pointed questions about his early life and decision to get married and have children. In Hawthorne, David gets brief glimpses of the man his father was—a soldier, an attractive man sought by two women, a generous brother (or maybe not), a cheating business partner (or maybe not)—from Woody’s family and the townspeople.  But nothing from Woody himself.  David is at a loss to know what to make of his own life, and so he searches for clues from his father’s life.   

Don’t we all in some way try to understand our lives in relation to our parents?  Sometimes that means emulating them, and sometimes it means distancing ourselves from them.  Although I am nothing like my mother (I keep telling myself), I sometimes stop short and hear her words coming from my mouth, especially about clothing and proper behavior. Like David in the movie, I tried in vain to learn more about my parents’ meeting and courtship (apparently there was another woman in the picture).  How did my immigrant grandparents get to the small town where I grew up?  Why did my grandfather go to Russia in the 1930s for a few years?  No one would talk about these things.  And what of my children?  Do they have unanswered questions about my life—or my late husband’s? Or our marriage?  Have I given them what they want to know, while keeping certain aspects private? 

Despite all odds, Nebraska has a rather sweet if improbable ending.  Woody gets what he wanted after all, and one hopes that David did, too. 

Carol Levine, 78, is director of the Families and Health Care Project of the United Hospital Fund and a Hastings Center Fellow. She was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1993 for her work in AIDS policy and ethics.

2 Responses to “Aging in Place in a Bleak Landscape”

  1. Carol Eblen

    Thank you, Carol Levine, for this beautifully written review of the movie, Nebraska. It’s wonderful that that these old stars are finding work in the movie industry that so shapes the consciousness of our country. I, of course, remember Bruce Dern for some of his “darker” roles and know that he is a master of his craft. I’m sure his portrayal of senility or “craftiness” is a masterpiece.

    However, I watched the trailer and I think that I will skip this movie until it is available on my TV because it seems like more of a “downer” for anyone over the age of 65 (or 86-my age) who is not inclined to spend $10.00 or more and $10.00 for popcorn to feel bad or hopeless about human nature and small towns.

    Living in the heart of the Midwest, I often see and drive through the dying old towns where a few of the older citizens hold on because there is nowhere to go, or nowhere that they can afford to go, that will be any better for them in their old age. They have their memories and the new technology that brings the world to them even if they have no retail stores or schools or gas stations or doctors or lawyers close at hand. There is always a Walmart within driving distance and isn’t this a reminder that “there is never an ill wind that blows that doesn’t blow someone, somewhere, some good.” Who would have ever thought that our culture would be so dominated by the Walmart who got their start when Sam Walton started servicing the small towns. .

    I am in culture shock a lot of the time because of the “new” values and the “realism” that breeds so much hopelessness and cynicism into the arts. I watched some of the Christmas shows last night on the main channels and the cynicism and sick humor about Christmas and Santa Claus really turned me off and offended me even though I know that Christmas stopped being a Christian celebration many years ago

    I hope, Carol, that you will read my posts on this Blog Site which blog, I believe, is meant to help The Hastings Center to contribute to public policy concerning the growing problem of the growing costs of end-of-life treatment for the growing population of elderly/disabled citizens in the USA.

    I would be interested in your opinion about the growing use of unilateral covert and overt (default) Do Not Resuscitate Status (DNR) code status in the hospital charts of elderly Medicare/Medicaid patients that shortens the lives of the elderly without their informed consent.

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