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Monday, February 03, 2003

Arts & Letters

About Us (Or, Omaha Monogatari)

About Schmidt directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor; photography by James Glennon; produced by Harry Gittes and Michael Besman; with Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb; distributed by Fine Line Cinema.

His [Ozu’s] tombstone bears the single character for mu — an aesthetic word, a philosophical term, one which is usually translated as “nothingness” but which suggests the nothing that, in Zen philosophy, is everything.
— Donald Richie, Ozu, p.252.

I am weak and I am a failure. There is just no getting around it. Relatively soon, I will die. Once I am dead…it will be as if I never existed.
— Warren R. Schmidt, in the film, About Schmidt

  The older you get, the more you wonder why. In my case (I’m 52) — as, I assume, in that of most people — I increasingly hope that when it’s all over, the disappointments will not overwhelm, not so much the satisfactions as the understanding that delimitation is what life is all about (a very un-American concept, admittedly). We all always wish we could have done some (maybe a lot of) things differently. The point is to be able to say that, all in all, there was a meaning to the madness. My problem, as such, is not personal dissatisfaction so much as public distress: the older I get, the more I find the world around me a mystery.

The reader is undoubtedly smirking: That’s what getting old is all about, stupid. It’s one thing to find the world around you thoroughly changed, however, and quite another to realize that it’s become utterly alien. At its worst, getting old should be about losing touch with the world, not about questioning its essence, assuming, of course, that you’re not Oedipus or Lear — or Warren R. Schmidt.

Print into celluloid
I cannot begin to think of a finer American film of the last year, or of the last many years, than Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. Its virtues are, on a recent second viewing, seemingly endless and infinitely resonant and complex. I do not say this lightly; I’m one of those cinema-defined (perhaps overdetermined) types who believe that their most beloved art has been in a permanent coma for many years (somewhat like Almodovar’s two female characters in Talk To Her). Not that there will not always be “film” (of some sort or other) or filmmakers (like Almodovar, like Payne), but that “film culture” — what Susan Sontag, in a eulogy written (ironically) to mark the cinema’s centenary several years ago, called “cinephilia” — is dead. And, to quote Sontag again, “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too…no matter how many…go on being made” (The Decay of Cinema, February 25, 1996, The New York Times). There will always be movies (again, as in Talk To Her, one wakens, the other doesn’t), but “the movies” are dead, pure and (terribly) simple.

Somewhere between Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, however, the esthetic presence of Alexander Payne now demands attention. (I think it’s only right to put Payne in his proper American context; nonetheless, one could reasonably argue for a place for him between Renoir and Bunuel — but I’ll get to that later.) About Schmidt is not only about as good as movies get, it’s the kind of inimitably American movie that once upon a time made all of us for whom the cinema was the definition of all things think that, while Americans might not have invented film (the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines and all that), hell almighty, there was the American cinema — to use Andrew Sarris’s now-famous but once-notorious phrase — and there was everything else.

I admit I was not prepared for the sheer brilliance of this film; it will immediately join the canon of great American movies. From its unrelenting script to its searing mise-en-scène to Jack Nicholson’s elegiac performance, this movie burrows into one’s consciousness and inhabits it forever, and becomes the reference for a certain vision — that is, wisdom — of the world. Like City Lights or Sunrise or Morocco or How Green Was My Valley or His Girl Friday or Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, not Beatty/Henry) or Hail the Conquering Hero or Touch of Evil or Vertigo or The Apartment. (Name your own personal cinematheque; everybody’s got one, although the directors do not — cannot — change, if it’s existentially serious.) About Schmidt is also — and here I apologize to Payne for enmeshing him in extraesthetic issues — a movie that America needs desperately at this moment of the Republic’s decline into moral incoherence and intellectual denial (although, again, this is something that both Sturges and Wilder would have understood).

As anybody who follows film more than vaguely knows by now, Payne’s movie is based on a novel of the same title by Louis Begley. Did I say based? I meant “based”; actually, I meant….Anyway, the two works share a title. Having read the novel only after having first seen the film, I am doubly astounded at Payne’s audacity and perspicacity. The film has nothing to do with the book. Nothing. Even the characters’ names have been changed; Schmidt himself is “Albert ‘Schmidtie’ Schmidt” in the novel as opposed to the film’s “Warren R.” (who I could never imagine answering to the painfully precious “Schmidtie”). If you come to the novel after the film, you expect a bleak and austere book, combining the hopelessness of Russell Banks with Cormac McCarthy’s geographical ethic. Unfortunately, that particular work doesn’t exist. It was Payne’s “adaptation” that created it, or, more accurately, created a film with another, radically different, fundamentally deeper and more lucid, vision — of life, of course, but also, perhaps even more so, of America.

I mentioned Payne’s audacity; I wasn’t referring to his decision to alter Begley’s novel (and merge it with an earlier original script). That, after all, is what screen adaptation is about, for good or ill. I meant the extraordinary fact that every change made by Payne (and his co-screenwriter Jim Taylor) — and, basically, as I said, they’ve changed everything — is invariably for the better.

I’m one of those New Yorkers (there are many of us) who’ve always looked upon the Hamptons with a combination of bemusement, bewilderment, and (mostly) indifference, which means that the notion of bourgeois “tragedy” in the dunes is a little hard to take — in fact, pretty damn silly. Which is also why Woody Allen is, by far, the finest chronicler of that risible, ersatz-, or, worst of all, wannabe-Gatsby world. Don’t get me wrong: my wife and I spent a wonderful summer in a beautiful old house on Shelter Island once, and we have friends — decent people, with decent instincts — who own homes in that part of the continental United States. It’s just that, you know, it’s pretty privileged and not a place, an environment, that really speaks — or is capable, even if it so desired, of speaking — to most human beings outside it. The rich are different from you and me, which means, if nothing else, that we should care as little about them as (quintessentially and as Fitzgerald rightly explained) they care about “us” — such as we are.

About Schmidt is about us. That fact in itself is a great leap of faith that definitively separates the filmmakers not only from Hollywood today but from Begley’s novel. Recently, Begley wrote a very gracious defense in The New York Times (see “My Novel, the Movie: My Baby Reborn,” January 19) of “all the radical changes in the plot and milieu” of his novel’s “adaptation” to the screen; as he put it, he “would have been proud to have written their [the filmmakers’] book.” He went on to add, however, that the final results were so felicitous precisely because “all my most important themes were treated with great intelligence and sensitivity.” That’s true, but they were also all altered so fundamentally as to transform them utterly, making thoroughly different points; in a couple of cases, indeed, they were simply discarded.

The most important thing “about Schmidt,” Begley says in the Times, is his “frightful and…lifelong loneliness,” but there’s nothing so varied as the varieties of loneliness. In the event, it’s one thing for an eminently successful attorney who’s the son of an eminently successful attorney, born and bred in a “federal Greenwich Village house” (About Schmidt, p. 15) on Grove Street, Harvard College graduate, Supreme Court clerk, senior partner of a white-shoe law firm, with homes in Bridgehampton and on Fifth Avenue, with a “powerful editor” (p. 45) of a wife, whose diary-writing (or sublimation of “loneliness”) is revivified — during “the second semester of his freshman year” at Harvard — by his discovery of “Baudelaire’s Mon coeur mis à nu and…excerpts from Kafka’s diaries” (p. 127), to be “lonely.” It’s quite another for loneliness to plague an actuary and “assistant vice president” of an insurance firm in Omaha called, yes, “Woodmen of the World,” who graduated from KU (that’s University of Kansas for all you who are not Jayhawks fans) and settled down with a homemaker wife whose own life is as bitterly circumscribed as his own.

And how does “Schmidtie” Schmidt banish his loneliness when his wife dies? He discovers (it’s not hard, he’s a very smart guy) what Begley refers to in his recent article as “the redemptive and regenerative power of Eros.” Translation? He goes off into the sunset for “torrid sex” (Begley’s term) with a Latina named Carrie who just happens to be four decades younger than his 60-year-old self. Moreover, just as he and Carrie get comfortably concupiscent, he inherits — on the novel’s last page! O deus, o machina! — “a great big pink villa in West Palm Beach” (p. 113) from his stepmother, “some sort of cousin by marriage of the Kulukundis clan” (p. 115). Now, I realize that part of Begley’s attraction for his admirers is his satire, but, for me at least, it’s difficult to discern where his satire ends and his drama begins. I, for one, think that his Schmidt is mostly meant to be for real — which is precisely what makes him so unreal for the rest of us.

Slouching towards Omaha
Warren R. Schmidt is, on the other hand, so bereft of knowledge of the world, and of any sense of self-awareness, that loneliness cannot begin to describe his anomic condition. He is a stranger in a strange land, but the “land” is his own life, his own body and mind, and their connection with the emotional and even concrete reality around him. Rarely has the American cinema depicted such an absolutely lost creature, utterly at sea as he thinks he is brilliantly navigating his life’s journey. The first time I saw the movie, I was reminded, within minutes, of Stroszek (down to the motor home). Those famous closing lines of Herzog’s film — “We’ve got a truck on fire. We have a man on the ski-lift and can’t find the switch to turn the lift off. We can’t stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician.” — are, in their lucid nuttiness, singularly apposite to the existential and social terrain of Warren Schmidt’s equally fractured world. Payne’s extraordinary scene at the end of the film, in which Schmidt “rises” into a kind of cine-diorama of the “winning of the West,” is so resonant precisely because it is a surrealistic but accurate evocation of a man for whom reality is a specter — and who can only “enter history,” either his own or that of those around him, by hopping on an escalator and riding into a Disneyesque world that is his (and, increasingly, our) only sense either of “community” or of the “real.”

One of the funniest — and, of course, as with most of this film, saddest — moments is when Schmidt describes an encounter with a “real Indian.”(He’s just learned that their “preferred” self-description is Native American. Where has he been the last 30 years?) In the letter he writes, Schmidt says that this particular Native American “really opened my eyes.” He concludes, almost incredulously: “Those people got a raw deal.”

Schmidt is a zombie. He is, in every affective sense of the phrase, a dead man walking. He is so absolutely disconnected that the very act of connecting is not so much a resurrection, a coming back to life, as it is a genesis, a first awakening to life and to its meanings, and to its (multiple) realities. It is indeed this very notion of the density and multiplicity, the sheer layeredness, of reality that has “escaped his attention” all his life and is now so in his face that he can’t elude it any longer. He is animated (in the original sense of the term) by two deaths, one metaphorical and the other very real: his retirement and, even more so, his wife’s decease. It is especially after his wife, Helen (played by June Squibb), dies that he begins to live. Not in the clichéd sense, however, of a merry widower, but literally. It is only through what he discovers about himself — and his wife — following her death that he “comes together” for the first time in his life. (There is some indication that he might have had other “dreams” as a young man, but “Woodmen of the World” turned them to ash.)

Before his wife’s death, however, he is confronted with his own effective extinction. About Schmidt’s opening scene has Warren R. staring at his office clock as it inches toward five o’clock: it is his last day at work and, in every way, the last day of his life as he knows it. At a “celebratory” dinner — a wake, actually — given to him by his fellow Woodmen, he realizes, in a moment of quiet desperation verging on panic, that when you take the salary away from the salaryman, there’s no man left.

Talk about the heart of darkness. It is one of Payne’s many epiphanic strokes in this film that he situates the source of Schmidt’s salvation in Africa. It is the erstwhile Dark Continent that in fact irradiates the truly Darkest Continent with inspiriting light. As he’s zapping through the television one day following his forced retreat to existential nothingness, Schmidt comes upon an ad for one of those many international children’s organizations and decides to sponsor Ndugu, a Tanzanian orphan. (To Payne’s credit, he exploits the opportunity to do some meaningful “product placement” for a change, for a real group called Children International.) Ndugu becomes Warren’s “imaginary friend,” his metaphysical interlocutor, ostensibly for but actually through whom he will embark upon that most basic philosophical investigation: the examination of his own life.

It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s bleak to ugly. Worst of all — and this is what makes Payne’s film so terrifying and depressing — it’s so normal and recognizable. One’s immediate, throat-constricting reaction in watching Warren in confessional mode is: There, but for the grace of God, go I. And then, of course, the consequent, equally immediate reaction: But I don’t believe in the grace of God!

Do the right thing
If there is an overarching thematic notion here, it is the absolute indispensability in human affairs, not of divine dispensation but of human grace. I said earlier that one could reasonably argue for a place for Payne somewhere between Renoir and Bunuel. The Bunuelian aspect, of course, resides in the very nature of the satire: brutal, unrelenting, not to be diverted from its intellectual and critical purposes. I suspect that what many people find upsetting about About Schmidt is its cruel documentary veracity; in that sense, it is closer to Las Hurdes than to Nanook of the North. (The movie’s extraordinary wackiness, by the way, also aligns its director’s sensibilities with those of the cinema’s great master of surrealist disequilibrium, who, of course, loved the movies of Buster Keaton.)

In an article published in The New York Times Magazine a couple of months ago (“The Bard of Omaha” by John Hodgman, December 8, 2002), Payne admitted that he wished that his first film, Citizen Ruth, had been more “ferocious,” like Viridiana (or Wilder’s Ace in the Hole). He’s not the only one. I found Payne’s first two films perplexing because I was never sure (I’m still not) what they were about — or, more accurately, what the precise nature or extent was of their “censure” (immanent or overt). There’s no doubt, however, with About Schmidt; I don’t know if Payne has finally come of age (he wasn’t a kid when he made Citizen Ruth, after all), but he has certainly refined his art.

(I must add here that having done a stint for a couple of years with a Big Five accounting firm at the time when Enron/Andersen was teaching us all the real meaning of free markets and private initiative, I can attest to the sheer mendacity, moral hollowness, contempt for the most basic human sensibilities, unrelieved indecency verging on a kind of innate, organic obscenity, and, of course, unappeasable greed that is crystallized in the phrase, corporate culture. Payne’s depiction of Warren’s retirement — and especially his portrayal of the Hitler Youth who takes over his job — is remarkable in its accuracy.)

And yet, there is absolutely nothing heartless about Schmidt or About Schmidt. And this is where the cinema’s great pagan, Renoir, comes in. One of the more wonderful elements in Payne’s film is its exquisite and moving pantheism, in the same delicate, unaffected, but persuasive manner that famously became Renoir’s signature, from Boudu Saved From Drowning to Picnic on the Grass. In one particularly inspired sequence, Schmidt is driving his Winnebago and comes across a truck hauling cattle; when the camera closes in on the animals’ eyes, it delivers a “privileged moment” of the kind that I thought had disappeared from the cinema with the end of the Nouvelle Vague. My mind went to the rabbit slaughter in The Rules of the Game; suddenly, the poignancy of Schmidt’s continental drift was devastating.

As Schmidt’s wife is being buried, he looks up to confront a less-than-celestial sky; at one point in his wanderings, he comes to a crossroads and gets out of his trailer just to inhale the empty beauty of the American heartland; another time, he climbs on top of his vehicle and talks to the heavens, communing with his dead wife, who “responds” in the (admittedly unoriginal but still touching) form of a shooting star. This is truly Renoir’s earthy Earth, in which salvation only comes from our connection to it and (it goes without saying) from our solidarity with each other.

Solidarity has fallen out of use in American English. About Schmidt is about a lot of things, but one of them is this now antique and slandered notion of solidarity. “I tried to do the right thing,” Warren says, but, in the end, he wonders, “What kind of difference have I made?” One of the reasons for America’s contemporary hatred of the concept of solidarity is its obsession with “family values.” In a way, fascism performed a profound service for Europeans when, in country after country and regime after regime, it invariably linked family with fatherland, and so brought the former’s values into considerable disrepute. Society might not exist for Lady Thatcher, but it does for most other Europeans, and it represents a distinct relationship to the world — and to one’s own family.

Solidarity, in other words, is not so much a political or even a social concept — far less an ideological one — as it is an ethical precept, closer, in many ways, to the Buddhist dharma than to any politically correct prescription or party line. (The Poles were right about that.) Which is why any authentic notion of solidarity, like so much else in life, begins at home. It’s no accident that Warren’s life — both externally and, even more important, internally — collapses when he decides to “retire.” My American Heritage Dictionary has an incisive etymological commentary on the word:

Despite the upbeat books written about retirement…many people do not find it a particularly pleasant prospect. Perhaps the etymology of retire may hint at why. The ultimate source of our word is the Old French word retirer…meaning “to take back or withdraw.” The first use of the English word retire is recorded in 1533 in reference to a military force that withdraws. It is not until 1667 that we find the word used to mean “to withdraw from a position for more leisure.” In regard to the sting in all this we need to look at the source of tirer, “to draw, draw out, endure,” which ultimately may be from Old French martir, “a martyr….”

When Helen dies, Warren realizes he was more of a Woodman than he ever imagined. (Are Woodmen like Tin Men, more precisely, Tin Woodmen, forever looking for a heart?) When he “talks” to her, sitting atop his Winnebago after she’s dead, he asks if he was truly the man she wanted him to be. Having seen Warren, we can fairly assume (the shooting star notwithstanding) that if Helen had been posed that question while still alive, the answer would not have been unambiguous. At best, yes and no, with a stress on the yes as a concession to getting on together with as little recrimination and regret as possible. After she dies, Warren discovers that Helen had had an affair with his best friend. But it had been many years before, an act, undoubtedly, Warren quickly realizes, motivated by frustration as much as by boredom, by pain as much as by pleasure.

And, naturally, by indifference — his, to be exact. He learns too late to do his marriage any good that there’s more to life than meets the eye. When he objects to his daughter’s choice of a husband, she rebukes him with his apathy to her — and, the implication is clear, to everyone and everything else — until that moment. She had earlier reproached him for the cheap casket he had chosen for Helen. It is clear that Warren has been a less-than-expansive and -generous human being, not only in his relations with others but — this is actually the point — with himself. Solidarity is not a concept, it is not a sense of the world, that comes naturally or easily to someone like Warren since it means seeing life — the house in which you rise every morning, the street on which you live, the food you consume, the alcohol or dope without which you cannot “relax,” the “success” without which you have no other definition of self, let alone of “family” — through the eyes of another (an Other?). Solidarity is not about the “big world,” it is about the little one. It is about recognizing, in Renoir’s endlessly reiterated but rarely comprehended phrase, that everybody’s got their reasons — and that love is impossible without that fundamental recognition.

Road movie
For those of us who came of cultural age with Jack Nicholson, it is impossible not to view this film through the prism of his entire career — and of our lives. Nineteen sixty-nine was the year I went over to the other side. I had just spent four months in Greece and did not want to come back. I was 18, it was September, and I had returned for my sophomore year in college. I actually looked into transferring to university in Greece. Although there was a military dictatorship in Greece at the time, that very fact gave everything an edge: the length of your hair, the songs you sang in the street, the attitudes you copped toward anybody in a uniform, were all “engagements” that actually meant something, and could get you in trouble. It was glorious. I really did not want to come back. But I did, and the first movie I saw was Easy Rider.

It would not be the last. I subsequently disappeared from college during the fall semester and impersonated Antoine Doinel, negotiating the film schedules of three revival and art houses: the (old) Thalia, the (now defunct) New Yorker, and the (effectively defunct) Elgin (which was given over to modern dance decades ago when it became the Joyce theater, in a sign of New York’s cultural gentrification). This was a particularly efficient axis of educational upheaval, as it lay on the same West Side subway line, so that I could shoot back and forth between Chelsea (the Elgin) and the Upper West Side (the New Yorker and Thalia) in a matter of minutes. It made triple and quadruple bills both viable and a deep, daily, pleasure.

Thus was I initiated into the sublimities of the cinema (the erotic aspect of it, as Sontag stresses in her essay, is a marker of cinephilia). It was just a coincidence, of course, but Nicholson will always be an irreducible part of my year of living cinematically. In fact, I suspect that the passage from George Hanson to Warren R. Schmidt is, for many people, heavily freighted with both private memory and a kind of emblematic cultural chronicle.

If nothing else, the reduction (decay?) from Harley to Winnebago (and from the ACLU to Woodmen of the World) is a transcendent finale, especially because of Nicholson’s somatically brilliant enactment. The ponderousness of his portrayal, the almost excruciating heaviness of his movements, bespeaks complete capitulation. Nicholson’s body is truly a language of its own, or, rather, its own code, of resignation, regret, and utter exhaustion. “Retirement” cannot begin to describe the pure failure of purpose and consequence of which Warren’s body is the living symbol, a kind of walking, talking memento mori.

Although it’s radically different — in fact, in its radical difference — I think this is Nicholson’s finest performance in a long time because, for the first time in a long time, it’s not Jack Nicholson we’re staring at, but a sad simulacrum, a man who could have been Jack Nicholson (or at least George Hanson) if he had tried (live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse?), but ended up as poor, old, hardly sympathetic Warren R. Schmidt. And yet, he looks like Jack Nicholson; one of the most jarring and poignant visual motifs in this film is, again, Nicholson’s body. In that Times article to which I referred earlier, the author cuts down Payne and his films for “their smart aleckiness”; Payne strikes him as the “kind of fellow…who just can’t keep himself from swiping at things he obviously loves — whether it’s pulling Jack Nicholson’s pants down…or poking at Omaha itself.” Yeah, well….

Regarding Nicholson dropping his pants, there’s absolutely nothing smart-alecky about it. Quite the opposite, the several times we are exposed to his body, whether partial-frontal or full-back, what is most striking about it is precisely its substantiality, its robustness and fullness. Warren is not a shrinking violet physically. Dare I say it? He is a man, albeit an old-fashioned one. No lean, mean, fighting machine here, with grotesque pecs and abs more appropriate to a cartoon than to a human being, but a three-square, beer-and-cocktails kind of guy who’s always known which way is up — or, at least, thinks he does.

And, of course, that is precisely what makes the ceaseless emptiness of his life even sadder and, in a way, inexcusable. Such a physical presence, and he doesn’t know what to do with it; the one time he thinks he’s getting a sexual signal, he totally misreads ersatz sympathy for a ships-passing-in-the-night come-on. He is pathetic, in the deepest and most resonant sense of the word, and Payne masterfully uses Nicholson’s body as the visual vessel of Warren’s pathos. Nicholson, of course, allows himself to be so used; furthermore, he applies his own body, as well as that instrument of ineffable fixation, his face — the only one in contemporary film that can compete with that of Jack Lemmon or Cary Grant — to summon what is arguably the subtlest performance of his career.

And as for Omaha, I think that Payne’s self-assessment in the same article is infinitely more apposite. Has he gotten Omaha “right,” he asks himself, and then answers: “I’m not sure. Did Fellini get Rome right? Did Ozu get Tokyo right.” The point is, it doesn’t matter; both cities will forever be identified with their cinematic reimaginers. Despite the seriousness of his intentions, and therefore of his critique — actually, because of both — Payne is the best thing that ever happened to Omaha.

A Greek American postscript
Finally, although I will be accused of parochial obsession, I need to say one other thing about this film. I first heard of Payne a few years ago from a Greek American friend connected with the Salonika film festival. Payne had been invited to Salonika with Citizen Ruth, and my friend told me about it, as did several other acquaintances who were in Salonika that year, because they were excited by the fact of a “real” Greek American filmmaker not only making “real” films about America, but also showing them in Salonika.

As I’ve said, I think About Schmidt is Payne’s finest film so far, much more accomplished than Citizen Ruth or Election. That’s not important, however; the issue is not about “better” or “worse” films; it never is. The issue is about a filmmaker’s esthetic and intellectual trajectory; it always is. Recently, I castigated My Big Fat Greek Wedding and another film by a Greek American for the fact that neither dealt with what I referred to as the “continual, unabating, tremendously powerful, and central element” of “ethnic American existential anxiety,” which I said was “repulsion/attraction” to America itself (see “Ethnic American Graffiti”). The funny thing about art is that half the time it’s never about what it’s supposed to be about — which is why it’s “art.” In the event, Alexander Payne (Papadopoulos) has shown that you don’t have to make a “Greek American film” to make a Greek American film — and a great one, no less. Of course, John Cassavetes proved that decades ago, but Alexander Payne just confirmed it for a new generation. In making a rare and unsentimental film “about Schmidt,” Payne has established that ethnicity is not about blood, but about heart and, above all, mind. As an American, as a Greek — but, most of all, as an unregenerate and incurable cinephiliac — I thank him for that, and much else.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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