Between Two Coasts with Alexander Payne

Niki Holzapfel | 9th January 2017.


Screenshot from Nebraska, Paramount Vintage

“Hey, partner,” says a police officer after pulling over and approaching a man walking by the side of the road. He asks where the man is headed. The man points in front of him. He asks where the man was coming from. The man points behind him.

So begins the 2013 film Nebraska, nominee of six Academy Awards and winner of none. Alexander Payne’s fourth film about his (and my) home state, Nebraska earned recognition for a variety of reasons: the representation of small Plains towns, the performances by Bruce Dern and June Squibb and a cast of unknowns, the simple storyline of a father and son’s strained relationship.

The zero-of-six result is fitting for a film about high hopes meeting their demise. The man picked up by the police officer on the side of the road, Woody Grant, tells his son in the police station that he plans to walk from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect the million dollars promised him by a flyer in the mail. Though his son repeatedly warns him the letter is a scam, Woody remains convinced, and his son agrees to drive him to Lincoln. Along the way, their trip allows for shot after shot of wide-open plains with Woody craning his neck to admire the sky from the passenger seat. Woody gaping in awe mirrors the reaction of several reviewers who lauded the beauty of the film’s black-and-white simplicity. For The Omaha World Herald, reviewer Bob Fischbach (“He hates everything,” my mother often says) notes, “The movie’s beauty doubles if, like me, you grew up in a small Plains town.”


Director Alexander Payne and Bruce Dern, star of Nebraska (Paramount)

I did not grow up in a small Plains town. I’m from Omaha, the biggest (and only, depending who you ask) city in the state. The wide-open plains in Nebraska aren’t foreign to me, although they aren’t something I see daily when I’m home. Instead, I’m inclined to view them with the same wide-eyed awe as Woody, and, by extension, Alexander Payne, who deemed the landscape worthy of recording in motion.

Of course the plains can be monotonous. Of course there are tons of fields and few signs of life in the most rural parts. And inevitably there’s the cynicism about how flat and boring it could be. Peter Travers opens his review of the film for Rolling Stone with the question, “Have you ever thought of Nebraska as Oz?” I could think of more people who would say no than yes. We’re an overlooked place. We get a mention here and there—Lady Gaga sings about her “cool Nebraska guy,” Bruce Springsteen made an album in 1982 called Nebraska, and Omaha Steaks were a prize on The Price is Right this morning. But for the most part, we’re written off as a flyover state that votes Republican, and people turn their attention to the coasts.

I’m not about to launch into a defense of my state. It’s like anywhere else, really; I know people who will never leave it, I know people who can’t wait to get out. But Nebraska points out something that seems to be ignored when discussing the film. The sense of place here inevitably includes a sense of motion. (If you don’t find it too repulsively romantic, take a look at “America the Beautiful.” There’s mention of “amber waves of grain.”) In lengthy stretches of the plains, movement contributes to its beauty.

A bestselling author came to speak at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha—bearing the unfortunate nickname the University of No Opportunity—and told us to leave Nebraska and head to the coasts. I would amend that and say leave Nebraska by crossing the state. As Alexander Payne made clear, remaining in motion here can create its own art. This isn’t a revelatory concept. Books and movies about road trips abound. But it makes me wonder whether viewing Nebraska as a place to pass through is purely derogatory, or whether it can be a valuable way of experiencing it.


“The West Begins”, Howdle Studios

The ambivalences are summed up by a wall-sized mural at the Omaha Eppley Airport entitled “The West Begins.” In varying shades of an earthy tan, the squares of the mural depict a wagon train led by men on sprinting horses. I don’t know if its creator, Bruce Howdle, considered how the mural could be read cynically, apart from the problems with glorifying western expansion. It makes sense to have a mural in an airport depicting motion, but I’m sure many people would say it’s really depicting the urge to flee Nebraska by any means necessary—by horse, carriage, foot or plane. Maybe the fleeing can be artful, and maybe it takes artists like Payne to show us the beauty of leaving.

About Niki

In my mother’s words, I was her only child who actually wanted to see how the story ended. After earning degrees in English and creative writing, the same can be said today. I am most interested in considering how people tell their own stories in the controversial world of creative nonfiction.

Edited by Kate Lewis Hood.

Works Cited

Fischbach, Bob. “‘Nebraska’ Review.” Omaha World Herald, 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 08 Jan. 2017.

Nebraska. Dir. Alexander Payne. Perf. Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Paramount Vintage, 2013. Film.

Travers, Peter. “Nebraska.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 08 Jan. 2017.

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