“The Whole Industry’s Gotten Gutless”: Conformity and Selling Out in the Films of Alexander Payne

by Scotty Barnhart


In a recent interview for Connect Savannah, Alexander Payne observed that “the thing is about filmmaking is that each film takes such a long time, I have to be really careful. If a feature film could be made in two months, why I’d be the biggest sellout ever. And do all sorts of things.”[1] Like other Gen. X filmmakers, Payne is greatly concerned with artistic integrity, conformity, and selling out, a concern articulated through interviews and his films.

He is what Scorsese terms a “smuggler:” an auteur who “smuggles” personal aesthetics and anxieties into commercial, sometimes Hollywood projects. Payne, though, works within Indiewood, the hybrid system born from early 90s, conglomerate-owned independent studios that release “inventive, quirky pictures that flout Hollywood convention in terms of story and style, with just the right mix of star power, compelling characterization, and oddball affirmation of the human condition to engage a wider audience and crack the all-important $100-million box-office barrier.”[2] He maintains artistic control as a result. His films also appear conventional, yet “smuggle” art house sensibilities. He participates in Hollywood, but only so far, retaining a great amount of artistic integrity.

Unlike Richard Linklater’s early films, like Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), which feature characters reluctant to sell out, or characters confronted with selling out, Payne’s films typically feature characters who already sold out and resent it. The major, past exceptions are Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Matt King (George Clooney) of The Descendants (2011). Ruth, an inhalant addict and mother of four, will sell out to anybody, and the film’s basic conflict is a bidding war for Ruth’s body.[3] In The Descendants, Matt has been entrusted with 25,000 acres of undeveloped Kauai, which relatives pressure him to sell to developers.

In other Payne features, Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), and Sideways (2004), the protagonists have already sold out. Election and About Schmidt, for instance, open with the same sound: a ticking clock. In Election, that sound is actually a rotating sprinkler of an athletic field at an Omaha high school. The sprinkler repeats the same action over and over. That and the ticking sound signify the wasting away of a conformed life of a sellout: Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a civics teacher at the school who suffers through a midlife crisis (as does co-worker Dave Novotny [Mark Harelik]). Payne visualizes McAllister’s crisis through the mise-en-scène, associating McAllister with ensnaring circles.[4] Against Payne’s banal, grey-skied Omaha, McAllister runs mundane laps around a track. Payne furthers the subtext, too, casting Broderick, Generation X’s Ferris Bueller, their teenage rebel-trickster who outsmarted The System, as a three-time Teacher of the Year.[5]

Schmidt begins similarly to Election, with that sound of a ticking clock. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) sits in a grey suit in his grey office, the sky also grey, counting the seconds until his retirement—or until his death, really. He worked for decades at Woodmen of the World, an Omaha insurance firm. (Ironically, a wasted life is uninsurable.) To open Schmidt’s retirement dinner, Payne offers a montage of photos of cattle adorning the walls of a steakhouse. Cattle, in fact, become the most prominent motif of the film, and the final photo is a portrait of Schmidt: another cattle slaughtered for Woodmen.

He cast Nicholson as Schmidt partly to acquiesce Nicholson’s iconoclastic persona. Nicholson, of course, was a countercultural icon for Boomers in films like Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) films that undermined the status quo. (Payne shot a parody of the famous diner scene from Five Easy Pieces as commentary on conformity. Schmidt orders a meal at a diner and the order is denied, so Schmidt changes his order.)

Over the course of Schmidt, Schmidt seems to lose everything. He retires. His wife Helen (June Squibb) dies. He later finds out that she had an affair with a longtime friend. And Schmidt’s daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is marrying someone Schmidt thinks little of.[6] Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), her fiance, a waterbed salesman, is merely a participant of life, as exhibited by the walls of his old bedroom, which display “Participant” and “Honorable Mention” ribbons, as well as a certificate declaring that Randall completed a two week electronics course with perfect attendance. He is another of Payne’s many affable losers.

A discussion still remains, of course, about Sideways (2004), Payne’s extant masterpiece. He returned to the teacher-as-sellout with Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), an aspiring writer trapped as a high school English teacher. Miles sleeps through life. In fact, a handful of scenes begin with him sleeping or just waking up. He refuses to truly wake up and live. He shuffles through life, drunk on cocktails of wine, Xanax, and Lexapro (drugs that, especially when supercharged with alcohol, depress and combat living authentically). According to Giamatti’s costar Virginia Madsen, Miles “needs [to be] shoved through the doorway of life.”[7] This is revealing, as Miles is sometimes filmed through a doorway, as though stuck.

And Miles is definitely stuck. Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), Miles’s San Diego State freshman year roommate, complains to Miles: “You’ve been officially depressed for like two years now, and you were always a negative guy anyway, even in college. Now you’re worse—you’re wasting away. Teaching English to fucking eighth graders when they should be reading what you wrote, your books.”[8]

One of the film’s multiple story lines concerns Miles’ struggle to publish his novel, The Day After Yesterday (again, he refuses to acknowledge the present, instead circumventing it). He calls his agent, Evelyn, who delivers some bad news:  “Conundrum’s passing. He said they really like it. They really want to do it, but they just couldn’t figure out how to market it. He said it was a tough call… I’m not sure how much more mileage I can get out of continuing to submit it. I think it’s one of those unfortunate cases in the business right now—a fabulous book with no home. The whole industry’s gotten gutless. It’s not about the quality of the books. It’s about the marketing.”  This is a thinly-veiled critique of current, dominant filmmaking practices in Hollywood. Miles’ novel is a surrogate for films like Payne’s, which cannot easily procure funding.

Funding is one reason, following Sideways, that Payne took seven years to complete The Descendants and nine years to complete Nebraska (2013), which opened the 16th Annual Savannah Film Festival. In Nebraska,  Payne presents another, different tale of selling out. The film opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aged, deadbeat alcoholic, who might suffer from dementia, confronted with and wanting to sell out. He begins a more than 800-mile trek from Billings, MT, to Lincoln, NE, to redeem $1 million in supposed sweepstakes winnings. Woody’s family, including his accusatory wife Kate (Squibb, again) and son David (Will Forte), try to convince Woody that the trip will prove fruitless. Woody persists, though, and David, pitying his father, agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln to indulge Woody’s fantasy. They’re later joined by Kate and other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk). During their trip to Lincoln, while stopped in Woody’s fictitious hometown of Hawthorne, the family encounters a number of sincere friends and relatives, in addition to some vulture-like ghosts looking for a handout.

Nebraska is the first Payne-directed screenplay that Payne himself did not write, yet the film is covered in his fingerprints: career best performances; dark humor and irony; dysfunctional families; humanism; a perfect balance of comedy and drama; regionalism. There are several differences, though.

The film marks a drastic cutting back and scaling down from The Descendants. The former shares more with Schmidt than The Descendants, for both Schmidt and Nebraska are road movies about Silents, set against the “grey-ness” of Nebraska. But unlike Schmidt, with its $30 million budget (the most for any Payne film), Nebraska‘s strengths are its austerity, minimalism, and restraint, from the open landscapes, to the long, slow, static takes, to the many local and non-professional actors, to the acoustic soundtrack.

As well, the film was notably shot in black-and-white, a choice that captures the “grey” banality of the Midwest, as well as a “grey,” humanist outlook of the world, one without clear answers. The film augments the bleak Midwest of About Schmidt, far from the southern California of Sideways or the Hawaii of The Descendants. The look of Nebraska is a big, beautiful middle finger to the tentpole films of today, instead looking back to art house cinema and classic Hollywood, to Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), with its atrophied small town, and Paper Moon (1973), another father-child road trip through the Midwest.

Indeed, the journey of Nebraska can be interpreted a number of ways, including Woody’s journey toward death. It could be his figurative descent into the underworld, south from Montana, down to Nebraska, and back. He journeys for a quest-object, encountering grey ghosts and old haunts along the way. For instance, one of the most talked about scenes in the film is a cemetery visit.

But Woody does not return with the quest-object. He returns with consolation prizes, for the road trip of Nebraska is also a metaphor for the pursuit of an illusory American Dream. Like the money of Citizen Ruth and The Descendants, the money of Nebraska is a MacGuffin. Nebraska suggests that we can chase the money, but there is no gold at the end of the rainbow, at the end of the road trip to Nebraska.

[1] DeYoung, Bill. “Film Festival: Alexander Payne.” Connect Savannah, 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.

[2] Schatz, Thomas. Foreword. Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective (1998-2012). By Leo Adam Biga. 2013. Omaha: Inside Stories, 2013. Print. 6.

[3] Ruth sells her body from the very beginning, prostituting herself for a room. In an opening scene heavily painted with dark humor and irony, she has unpleasant, painful sex with Ricky (Lance Rome), presumably an ex-lover, on a dirty mattress on the floor of a flophouse. Frank Sinatra croons “All the Way” over the soundtrack: “When somebody loves you/ It’s no good unless he loves you all the way/ Happy to be near you/ When you need someone to cheer you all the way/ Taller than the tallest tree is/ That’s how it’s got to feel/ Deeper than the deep blue sea is/ That’s how deep it goes if it’s real.” After the sex, Ricky boots Ruth back onto the street.

[4] Conversely, Payne associates McAllister’s nemesis, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), with lines, visualizing her mobility.

[5] Payne also uses product placement prolifically in Election, but awkwardly, perverting it. We see a bottle of Mountain Dew in an otherwise disgusting fridge. Tracy and Dave drink a can of Diet Mug Root Beer just before he has sex with her. Tracy talks about how Coca Cola rules the world. Jim drinks a Pepsi while watching pornography in his basement. We see a Pepsi in a dumpster when Jim throws Tracy’s petition away.

[6] While brushing his teeth in Randall’s bedroom, Warren observes several “awards” of Randall’s: ribbons that read “Participant” or “Honorable Mention” and a certificate stating that Randall the “2 weeks course in the SCHOOL OF ELECTRONICS With Perfect Attendance.” Randall is merely an attendant or participant of life. The school considers this an achievement.

[7] Giamatti, Paul, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh. “Featurette.” Sideways, Blu-ray. Directed by Alexander Payne. Beverly Hills: Twentieth Century Fox, 2008.

[8] This is ironic since Jack, a former soap actor and current commercial voice actor, aspires to sellout to his soon-to-be father-in-law.