Monday, April 14, 2014

Nebraska, Mostly Mean-spirited

Nebraska (the movie) is touted as one of the best movies of 2013.  Its star, Bruce Dern, was nominated for an Academy Award.  I concur with the second opinion and most definitely disagree with the former estimate.  This movie paints a dark and caustic portrait of the heartland of America. Its pallet, black and white—a metaphor for the attitudes the filmmakers insinuate. The color choice whispers old, faded, depressed, unimaginative, zero sum game loser. Nebraska is ungenerous and mean-spirited.

The story begins with an old, disheveled looking man walking along the highway.  He is Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern.  The character’s name evokes Grant Wood, known for his painting “American Gothic.”  Woody is determined to walk from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his magazine sweepstakes million dollar prize.  I’m sure everyone in America recognizes the reference.  Woody will not be dissuaded from his conviction that he is a million dollar winner.  His younger son David, ably played by Will Forte, agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska which is the headquarters of the sweepstakes company.  They set off, with Will trying to convince his father that the trip is a waste of time. The two agree to stop for a family reunion in Hawthorne, Nebraska. In Hawthorne, Woody’s home town, we meet various Grants whose chief occupation seems to be sitting blankly in front of the television.  When the town learns of Woody’s good fortune some try to tap into Woody’s million, citing imagined assistance extended to him when he lived in Hawthorne.  After Woody’s former business partner humiliates him in front of most of the town, Will decides to continue their journey to Lincoln.  This final plot twist during in the last thirty minutes of the movie keeps the film from being unredeemable. Remember, however, that the son was born in Montana.

Nebraska (the movie) reveals Hollywood’s contempt for “red states,” represented by Nebraska (the state). The film’s depictions undermine respect for the dignity of its elderly protagonist, denigrate small town rural America and mock its values.  Hawthorne—heartland, Christian, Republican archetype—devolves into a venal, small minded, sterile, hypocritical and mean spirited American Gothic still life when filmed through Hollywood’s distorted lens. All this from the folks who, in their movies and TV dramas, promote drugs, sex, and all things encouraged.  Hicks 0, Cool Flicks 1.

The lifestyle and characters portrayed in the movie are dull and irrelevant—Zombie-like families riveted to the television whose only recreation consists of heavy bouts of drinking in one of the town’s taverns and overblown reminiscences of youthful sexuality. The lasting image is of an old man propped on an upright chair placed at the side of the only road running through town, going nowhere, waiting for nothing. The movie’s cardboard characters are losers, used up, out of place in the ultra-liberal, tech savvy, connected world of Hollywood. Small town fossils with petrified minds only merit contempt clearly outlined in black and white. 

As for the plot, there is nothing funny about the elderly being duped by sweepstake or other types of scams.  As a librarian I have had frustrating conversations with older patrons trying to convince them that the unsolicited sweepstakes notification did not necessarily mean that they had won a major prize.  Guilt for wanting something for nothing (“I’d best order a couple of magazine subscriptions.”) was carefully balanced with the desire for self-esteem through good luck (“I’m the lucky winner!”) in their minds.  All the sweepstakes company wanted was their money.  Nebraska carefully sidesteps the morality of this one with a shrug and an “oh well.”  …there’s one born every minute.

Why do seniors in particular seem to fall prey to this gimmick? Like Woody, they are trusting; they are lonely.  They want to believe in this final chance at good fortune because of their penury and fear, because they hope that, in leaving a legacy to their children, they will be loved.  A significant prize awards them one final chance to feel alive, involved, and important. Does the movie temper its ridicule with the pathos of grey or an understanding ochre?  Not a chance. Woody’s not a likeable character and he’s a drunk. His quest is less Quixotic than querulous.

Nebraska hits ‘em when they’re down.  Even the semi-warmhearted ending conceals a final slam. I won’t be a spoiler and reveal the ending, but it doesn’t take much to fool some folks! This movie seems to ask when will somebody tell these “booze-addled” old fogies to pull the sod over their conservative, out of touch and used up lives, already long buried by irrelevancy.  Nebraska—no pity; just spite.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rattlesnake Season Starts Early

Oh?  That tidbit was announced on the local Orange County TV news at the end of January.  Who knew?  My young granddaughters did, “Oh the rattlesnakes cross the Santa Monica Mountains hiking trails all the time, grandma.”  Remind me to stay off the mountain trails.  Apparently the normal rattlesnake season runs from April through October…  Add to that bears in the backyards in Pasadena and mountain lions routinely crossing the 101 and you have an altogether different picture of paradise.

But paradise it has been this winter. We enjoyed the warm southern California weather for two months while our neighbors have been enduring one of the worst winters on record.  I felt really guilty about that, at least until the rattlesnake warning.

All good things come to an end and we have been back in the frozen tundra for a week.  I can take a joke with the best of them but when are they going to roll up the snow and cart is away? Yesterday it reached the 50s for the first time since early December.  Much of the snow cover melted but not to fear, 4 to 8 inches are predicted for tonight!  I cannot complain because it was an unbelievably awful winter in the Midwest and we missed much of it.

On to more pleasant memories, our California vacation was wonderful.  We were able to spend a great deal of time with the granddaughters who are a miracle.  Weekly dinners, occasional sleepovers and special trips remind me just how lucky we are.  The girls rope me into reading to them, although I expect that they read far better than I.  The latest series I found was the Dear Know-It-All  books about a junior high journalist and her friends.  The situations and solutions presented are real, relevant, and rational.  I would recommend the series for young girls nine to twelve.  I may need to load some of the earlier books onto my Nexus 7 because they are not all in print now.

What of our California adventure this year?  We spent most of our time in Santa Monica again but were able to get down to Orange County for a couple of days.  Some of my favorite SoCal restaurants are the Sherman Gardens and Library Restaurant (Corona del Mar), Auld Dubliner (Tustin), Thyme Café and the Urth Cafe (Santa Monica), and C & O Cucina (Venice). We also visited the Observatory in Griffith Park which is a great place to take yourself or your kids because the displays are very fine and the docents knowledgeable.  Their sky show is OK, I’ve seen better. The Observatory is free except for the sky show. We also went to see Cirque de Soleil’s Totem—very enjoyable.  Most of our time was spent at the beach, usually reading on a park bench and watching the sail boats.

 I fulfilled my long held desire to visit the Central Coast and was not disappointed.  After a nice lunch at the wonderful Mexican restaurant, Cielito, in Santa Barbara we drove north on scenic highways 1 and 101 to San Luis Obispo, a small city about three and a half hours from Santa Monica.  The area we visited, from Santa Maria to San Simeon, has much to recommend. In San Luis Obispo we visited the historical part of town near the small downtown area, a variety of shops, the Mission, and their Carnegie Library Muesum.  The restaurants in SLO (as they like to be called) are very nice.  If you like beef a trip to Tahoe Joe’s is in order; for Italian try the Upper Crust Trattoria which is in a strip mall, but the food and décor are first rate.  Lunch at the Apple Farm Restaurant will delight you with good home cooking and a visit to nearby Morro Bay requires a stop at Rose’s Landing for seafood chowder as well as a view of the harbor seals as they swim by.

Morrow Bay was relatively quiet in February, but I expect it is much busier in the summer.  The Central Coast State Park Museum in Morro Bay is really worth the stop. The interactive displays are educational for adults and children and be sure to see the minke whale skeleton on the very breezy balcony.  The Park’s golf course looked challenging; the boat rental tempting.  There are other state parks nearby as well as a large salt marsh.  However the really nice part of the SLO area is the people who are just like your neighbors and friends back home.  They are eager to share a recipe, offer directions or suggestions, or just chat with you.  I hope we can return to this area and check out nearby towns because it is a great place (read, SANER than LA or Southern California). I wouldn’t mind living there either…

After a week home, the memories begin to fade.  The unpacking is finished; loads of laundry done; maps and brochures stored away for next year.  I voted in the primary today. (Early voting is very popular in our household.)  We attended one of the lectures at the Institute for Continued Learning at Roosevelt University and have another scheduled for this Friday.  The Spring semester begins soon.  Plans for Easter begin to emerge.  One thing for certain, there will be no rattlesnakes at the egg hunt!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Happy Christmas to all...

No matter where you spend the holidays, best wishes for a Happy New Year.  Here's a Christmas poem that you may not know. Think of those away from home and those left behind on the dark days of this season of light.

Christmas at Sea
By Robert Louis Stevenson

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ‘twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we bought the North Head close aboard.
So’s we saw the cliff and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs and white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
‘All hands to loose topgallant sails,’ I heard the captain call.
‘By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,’ our first mate, Jackson, cried.
…’It’s the one way or the other, Mr Jackson,” he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.