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January 13, 2003

Moviegoing: "About Schmidt"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Until this evening, I hadn't been to a theater to see a movie in about two months, probably a record for me, at least since my teen years. At the end of the day, a DVD, videotape or book seems much more appealing than a trek to the movie theater. When the Wife and I think of going out these days, we tend to picture really going out -- for dinner, to the theater, for some music.

But lunch today with one of our film critic buddies reminded us that there are movies out there to be seen. On big screens! In the company of fellow human beings! So we hauled ourselves to the theater. "Chicago" and "The Two Towers" were sold out, and we wound up watching "About Schmidt," the new Alexander Payne movie starring Jack Nicholson.

Have you seen it? I seem to recall that you're a fan of Payne's "Election," which I liked too, though I preferred his earlier "Citizen Ruth." I think he's very talented, and Im thrilled that he's out there getting a few Americans to enjoy satire, something they're notoriously averse to doing.

But I was mezzo-mezzo on "About Schmidt." I sat all the way through, but squirmed and checked my watch more than a few times. In this film, Payne is mixing his satire with pathos. Lots of pathos. Actually, the pathos seems central; what the film feels like is pathos viewed about 75% satirically. The Wife compared it to an Ozu film: oodles of family despair and sadness viewed very formally.

Too bad that Payne doesn't have anything like Ozu's control over the shape of a film. He seems to be able to see moments, scenes, and sequences as wholes, but not the film in its entirety. So it winds up straggling on and on. You know how most films feel like they start and stop 3 or 4 times? This one felt like 7 or 8. I kept thinking, Oh, God, is he starting something new up again? (The movie was taken from a Louis Begley novel, and there were times when I was rolling my eyes and thinking, "Damn literary novels!")

But a lot of the moments and scenes are terrific. I don't know another filmmaker who gets the surfaces of mid-America (the film starts off in Omaha and winds up in Denver) as well as Payne does. Which is a kick for me, as I assume it'd be for you, given our mid-American backgrounds. Even the cityscapes of Omaha (empty and gray -- it's obvious that no one lives downtown) could be of the city near where I grew up. The people onscreen are like the neighbors in my childhood cul de sac. The physical details (the "central air" box outside the house, the Hummel dolls, the Englishman's driving cap that Nicholson wears), the behaviors (the perkiness, earnestness and awkwardness), the friendliness crossed with the sense of estrangement -- well, "it's like a documentary about where I grew up," I whispered to the Wife.

And the Schmidt character was like a documentary about my Dad in his later years: his feeling of futility, his never-to-spoken-but-perfectly-clear belief that he'd somehow missed the boat, his sense of "I've been a good boy, and this is what I wind up with?", the way he's always a little anxious and tense, even when cheerful. .. And above all the feeling Schmidt seems to have that life consists of suffering one little indignity after another.

Which helps explain another problem I had with the film: its lack of contrast. When the film starts, Schmidt is already stupefied -- and then the film grinds him down ever further. But you never see what his misery, his withdrawal, and his loneliness contrast with. He's supposed to have been a VP at an insurance company, so there was presumably a time in his life when he had some charm, some jauntiness, some spirit. But it's nowhere to be seen in the course of the movie. Instead, he gets clobbered with one humiliation after another. If you're going to be taken on a journey through a character's emotional underworld, it can help to start aboveground.

Between you and me, I didn't think Nicholson was a great choice for the role, although who knows whether the movie would have gotten made without his participation. It's a nice try, I suppose, and a lot of the people in the audience seemed to enjoy him -- that's Our Jack up there, doing something so unpredictably Jack-like, making a paradoxically wild choice not to play the naughty twinkly badboy but instead an unremarkable guy who feels like a failure and doesn't know what to do about it. As far as I was concerned, though, Nicholson spends the movie playing subtext, as though over-eager to show you how willing he is to play a good man who's also a bit of a dolt. It's one of the showier unshowy performance I've seen recently. And it has to be said that earnestness doesn't come easily to Nicholson.

Still, Payne's a real satirist with a lot of style; the way he fixates on little moments of irritability and bizarreness without turning them into art things is to be treasured. The cast is terrif; there are lots of incisive and quirky character portraits. And I do enjoy seeing the kind of life I grew up in up there on screen. Given that something like half the country's population grew up in similar ways (small cities, the 'burbs of small cities, small towns -- flyover country), it's pretty astounding how seldom this kind of life gets even semi-accurately portrayed in the movies.

Our film critic buddy doesn't like Payne's work, which he finds cold and condescending. They certainly aren't warm movies, but I never feel offended or defensive. These people really are pretty much as Payne shows them to be, and I'm glad to encounter them in a movie. Honestly, it's simply good fun for me to see My People both accurately portrayed and satirized -- and not because I have any desire to see them be put down. I'm not sure I can explain how this works, but I find that Payne's satire finally feels like a kind of tribute.

Incidentally, have I told you my latest observation about Changing Moviegoer Tastes? Here's something I've noticed in the last year or two: People will tell me they enjoyed "Mulholland Drive" or "Being John Malkovich." And I'll say I didn't, not much. And they'll start talking to me as though I'm a square, as though what I was saying wasn't "I didn't think they were very good for what they are, and believe me I'm very familiar with the kind of thing they are," but instead, "What I really wanted was a big, glossy Hollywood-product movie."

I'm finding it harder and harder, in other words, to get people to understand that one can make a distinction between "oddball movie I like" and "oddball movie I didn't enjoy." For them, it seems, the only distinction to be recognized is "Glossy Hollywood Product" and "Offbeat Movie." (And Offbeat Movies are, if you're hip, only to be enjoyed and appreciated.) Which suggests to me that for many people, the Offbeat Movie has become its own genre. You don't make distinctions between them, you like them just because they're Offbeat. There are times when you're in the mood for a cop drama, times when you're in the mood for a romantic comedy, and times when you're in the mood for an Offbeat Movie. Although, come to think of it, people do show a willingness to make distinctions between good cop dramas and bad cop dramas. But I haven't heard many people recently make a distinction between a good David Lynch movie and a bad David Lynch movie. I wonder why. Any thoughts?



posted by Michael at January 13, 2003


Perhaps the Offbeat Movie is finding a home right next to the Foreign Movie -- another kind which is presumed good merely by virtue of _not_ being a Hollywood product. The foreign movie benefits from some quality filtering in the process of getting imported, but that can't count for all of its automatic popularity in certain hearts.

Some people know their dislikes so much better than their likes, that they just let them do double duty.

Posted by: alexis on January 13, 2003 5:35 AM

Heh. I know what you mean. I recently went to see "Frida", at the insistance of one of my "artsy" friends. It was horrible, of course, but I don't think my friend, in his heart of hearts, really liked it, either - it was just the kind of movie you were "supposed" to like...

Posted by: jimbo on January 13, 2003 11:00 AM

Oh, and BTW - I vehemently disagree with you about "Mullholland Drive". So there.

Posted by: Jimbo on January 13, 2003 11:02 AM

I did see the film and very much agree with you on the pleasantness of the "travelogue" parts." It also created in me pretty much the same sequence of thoughts: I've been there, met these people (occasionally I've been one of these people) and how odd that these huge chunks of life never or barely ever get on a movie screen. I also agree that the satire is not nasty. In some respects, it's just simple observation, it's hardly even satire. I was a bit worried when our hero visits the interstate-based museum of pioneers headed west, but ultimately the film seemed to take it and our hero's reactions to it very straight. I mean, if you had reservations about this film, imagine how it would have felt if Mike Nichols had directed it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 13, 2003 11:39 AM

"Glossy Hollywood Product" vs "Offbeat Movie"

So true. Life would be so much easier if people would just like what appeals to them.... and of course all Glossy Hollywood Product is sexist, racist, etc., while all Offbeat Movies are pure of heart and politically correct.

Did have a little fun watching my fem friends trying to decide how to feel about 'Amores Perros' - on the one hand, it's Mexican so good. On the other, it has dog fighting and a kept woman, so bad.

Posted by: tgcm on January 13, 2003 2:14 PM

It's true, and thanks to all for their musings -- people use what they like as a kind of symbol of who they are. As a declaration of self, as well as a test for others: are we playing on the same team? Being somewhat ancient and broken-down (and thus a little past the self-conscious "gosh, who am I? What team am I part of?" stage of youth), I tend to forget that. How lovely, by the way, to be able to leave at least some self-consciousness behind. Too bad that this ability can't happen a whole lot earlier in life...

I wonder too about something: if it's true (I think it is) that people might be getting a little more prone to liking or disliking things less for what they specifically are and more for the kind of thing they are ("indie film"="I like"), maybe this has something to do with computers, and the kind of mindset they promote. We get to what we want these days by clicking through layers of categories: food-to-mexican-to-vegetable-to-fajitas. In a computer, everything is organized that way, everything is slotted and categorized. So maybe something that's happening is that the category is becoming more important to some people than the thing that's been categorized is. Any thoughts on this?

FvB: the idea of Mike Nichols directing "About Schmidt" is giving me nightmares. The condescension, the self-congratulatory pity and sympathy and tenderness. Eeek. Alexander Payne really does have a rare talent for non-condescending satire, at least one that's rare in movies. How did you respond to Nicholson's performance? I was surprised and dismayed by it. He got the ratio of jollity to moroseness all wrong, it seemed to me. Knowing these people, I'd say that even when they're miserable they're jocular/peppy/cheery 7/8 of the time, and let their feelings visibly show 1/8 of the time. Nicholson's Schmidt seemed to be showing his feelings about 7/8 of the time and making an effort (as we used to say back in mid-America) only about an eigth of the time. All that moping and trudging and acting stupefied -- I never knew anyone who was that transparent or demonstrative. Did you buy the performance?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2003 2:36 PM

Any fans of "Mulholland Drive" out there in addition to Jimbo? Very interested to hear what you enjoyed about the movie, though no fair simply saying "it was offbeat." I run into a lot of people who liked the movie, but most of them do one of two things: rely on the "it was so unusual" ploy, or else they swing instantly into interpretation ("well, this was real and that wasn't and this was a dream, and can't you see how it was all about movies and dreams and fantasy and reality"), without ever pausing to spell out what they enjoyed. Hey, maybe what they enjoyed was that the film gave them a chance to put their interpretive skills to work. Which seems reasonable.

Myself, I enjoyed the two main actresses, and I enjoyed a couple of the hotsy-totsy scenes. But beyond that it seemed to me like David-Lynch-by-the-yard, like generic David Lynch product, and not even terribly well-filmed. (I didn't think much of "Fire Walk With Me" or "Lost Highway" either, but at least they were beautiful to look at.)

So, hey, you "Mulholland Drive" fans: what did you like about it? You won't change my mind, and I'm certainly not going to get caught up in an argument about whether it's a "good movie" or a "bad movie" (yawn). But I'm very interested to hear how you explain or describe your enjoyment. Was it a turn-on? Did you love the spooky mind-game thing? What?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2003 2:43 PM

Michael: I did like Mullholland Drive, but I didn't think much about why. But I think you've guessed it.

First, I liked the actresses and the hotsy-totsy bits. Yummy.

But second, yeah, I also liked the spooky mind-gameyness of it and the ambiguitity. But I don't always fall for this, and it had two pass two hurdles. First, like Blue Velvet or some other good Lynch movies, I thought that the shape of the ambiguitity created something with real underlying emotional resonances. I think this is what he's good at (in movies like Blue Velvet). But the second hurdle, is that it did finally did fit together in the end.

Looking back, I'm wondering if my enormous relief that the jigsaw puzzle did fit and that I hadn't wasted 2 hours of my time (as in movies like Lost Highway etc.) may have completely eclipsed any more balanced appreciation.

Posted by: alexis on January 13, 2003 3:17 PM

Years ago I went to a Tom Wolfe book signing for Bonfire of the Vanities and suggested, when my turn came, that he was satirizing his characters, Kramer the amorous Assistant DA in particular. "Oh no," Wolfe said. "I like Kramer." I took his point to be that he does not exaggerate his characters for comic effect, and I don't think Payne does either. Even the Reese Witherspoon character in Election--you knew people like that in high school, right? I did. So maybe it isn't satire we are discussing here but something else.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on January 13, 2003 9:28 PM

I wonder too about something: if it's true (I think it is) that people might be getting a little more prone to liking or disliking things less for what they specifically are and more for the kind of thing they are ("indie film"="I like"), maybe this has something to do with computers, and the kind of mindset they promote. ... Any thoughts on this?

Oh, I think it's just the ol' Tribe instinct. However, I do think that media in the last... let's say 150 years, has made it possible for people to get their ideas for identity from sources that are not part of their own life (Willa Cather covered this in "Paul's Case".) It might be that the number of "lifestyles" we see in movies and TV and so on, combined with the ... isolation... lack of real information about how other types of people truly live makes it easier for the Pepsi generation to be smug and polarized. There are few roles for most of us, these days, so empathy is in short supply.

And satire does not have to be condescending. In fact, it shouldn't be. (This is covered in "In Praise of Folly" and, more recently, in recent releases by the long-dead Bill Hicks.)

Posted by: tgcm on January 14, 2003 2:42 AM

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