Friday 21 October 2016

'Nebraska': a film that makes us think and feel

Published 19/01/2014 | 02:30

A scene from Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern (centre).
A scene from Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern (centre).

LAST Friday on RTE, Jeremy Irons spoke lovingly about the Irish landscape. Among the many merits of the movie Nebraska is that, without lecturing, it lets you see what happens when you don't care about a country. Like America, we are destroying a paradise with empty estates, out-of-town shopping malls, and the prospect of pylons.

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Paradoxically, the technology that savages a landscape can be used to save it. Nuclear power safely provides 85 per cent of French energy. Britain is going nuclear too. So why are we still wedded to fossil fuels, noisy windmills and brutish pylons?

Nuclear plants could use the existing grid. We would not need pylons or the equally intrusive wind turbines. Waste can be exported. But, as with GM crops, our environmental elites want to trammel technology instead of transcending it.

But of course Nebraska is about a lot more than a lost landscape. It is a film about family and mortality, seeded with the forgiving black humour that forms a fundamental part of the Jewish, and Irish, comic traditions. But what makes Nebraska a classic is its subtle pursuit of the past.

As children we would put a penny coin under a piece of white paper and rub it with a blunt lead pencil until what lay beneath slowly surfaced and became starkly etched in black and white. That is how director Alexander Payne tells the story of Woody Grant, a confused old coot, living in Billings, Montana, who wrongly thinks he has won a million dollars, to be collected in Lincoln, Nebraska.

We first meet Woody as he shuffles away from the bleak outskirts of Billings under a John Ford skyscape that is shot in severe black and white. His sensitive son David picks him up, and, against his own better judgement, and the advice of Woody's abrasive wife Kate, takes Woody on a long journey to Lincoln.

Like the coin beneath the paper, Woody's past begins to emerge blurrily when he stops at his fictional hometown of Hawthorn. His relatives are as run down as the shut shops, closed cafes and sad streets. And the prospect of Woody's wealth brings out the worst in them and in the rest of the recession-racked town.

An exception is the ageing woman editor of the dying local newspaper, played by Angela McEwan. An old flame of Woody's, she continues to flicker with a dying dignity. Her stoic acceptance of life contrasts with the comically abrasive attitude of Kate, Woody's wife, played by June Squibb, who should have won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes instead of Jennifer Lawrence.

Kate is a hilarious repository of home truths, whether standing at the grave of a female family member, saying, "What a whore," or caustically dismissing Woody's delusions: "I didn't even know he wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought about this earlier and worked for it."

Bruce Dern deserves an Oscar for his Woody Grant. I first began to rate him highly when I saw On the Edge, his 1986 low-budget film about running. Although frequently passed over by critics, the film is one of his own favourites. One of the best films ever about what makes an athlete, it's also a model of how to marry a personal story to high politics.

Like all good stories, this one is driven by necessity and honour. Wes Holman, banned from running in his 20s for exposing backhanders, and now in his 40s, is back to run the

Cielo-Sea race, a savage test of endurance, stretching from Mill Valley to the Pacific Ocean. At the same time he struggles to explain himself to his estranged father, Flash Holman, an old Red, who lives in a junkyard.

Last week, when I took out my ancient VHS copy of On the Edge, the tape whirred and wobbled before finally giving me a blurred screen. But I can still recall the scene where Wes shares a meal with his father and other old lefties. And Flash's sceptical face when he rhetorically wonders why, with a whole world to be put to rights, his son is running races?

But Wes has another form of his father's iron integrity. He wants to show that his own life has not been a waste. That while there is courage in political struggle, there is also courage and honour in completing an epic endurance test like the Cielo-Sea race.

A bonus for Irish viewers is the performance of Bill Bailey as Flash Holman. Because Bailey, in his first film role, is really playing himself. Born into the poor Irish immigrant community of New York's Hell's Kitchen, Bailey left home at 17 to go to sea, became a radical union organiser and took part in the famous San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1934.

Bailey became nationally famous in 1936 as America argued about the motives of Adolf Hitler. Leading a small party of tough seamen -- handpicked Irish Catholics to make a communist charge harder to stick -- Bailey boarded the German ship Bremen docked in New York, braving the battering and bruising of an angry crew, to tear down the swastika flag.

The incident was widely reported internationally. Hitler was incensed. The world was slowly waking to anti-Semitic activities in Germany, and the Bremen affair was a big propaganda blow to the Nazis. Goebbels got involved, demanding the US authorities act against Bailey and his comrades, whom they denounced as communists.

But the US authorities were baffled by how to demonise half a dozen Roman Catholics as Reds. So Goebbels changed tack and complained that the German consulate on Lower Broadway was not being properly protected from protesters, claiming that "a thing like this could only happen in an American city where they had a Jew for a mayor".

This was not a good move. Angered by the remark, New York's Italian mayor, Fiorelli LaGuardia, picked 10 Jewish policemen and plainclothes detectives and posted them at the consulate. All in all, it was a considerable propaganda coup for Bailey and his band.

The same year, 1936, Bailey went to Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to fight alongside Republican forces against General Franco's fascists. And when the Second World War broke out, he bravely served his country in the Pacific theatre. But after the war he was hounded out of work by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Bailey resigned from the Communist Party in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, continued his activity as a radical trade unionist, wrote a fine biography, The Kid from Hoboken, and found a late-blooming career as a character actor, beginning with On the Edge. He died in 1995.

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A final word on a film-related topic. Don't miss Amber, which starts on RTE tonight. I say that not having seen anything in advance. But just as I will buy a crime novel blind because the author is called Gene Kerrigan or Michael Connelly, so too will I watch anything produced by Paul Duane, one of our finest film-makers, and a future Oscar contender.

Irish Independent

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