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Arts and Culture

Tune in to Fall's Melancholy

Film and song that honour the piercing beauty of life's sadness, with Vancouver film fest picks.

Dorothy Woodend 28 Sep

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

There is a sculptural beauty in ruin. We gaze at the wreck that is Detroit, the blasted beauty of the Appalachians, and assign a certain type of romance. Here it is again, in the face of Bruce Dern.

Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska, starring Dern, opened the Vancouver International Film Festival. It is an interesting choice for an opening night gala. A deeply mournful piece of work, the film brings to mind fragments of Americana past, not the least of which is the scruffy aged face of old Bruce Dern.

Dern plays Woody Grant, a man of certain vintage who believes himself a newly minted millionaire, courtesy of a Publishers Clearing House piece of junk mail. Long in the tooth and somewhat unclear on reality, Woody enlists the help of his sad sack of a son (played by Will Forte) to drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. A form of adventure ensues.

Dern picked up an award at the most recent Cannes Film Festival for his efforts and his performance holds the film together. Filmed in chiaroscuro shades of black and white, the film spends a great deal of time focused on its lead actor's face. Sometimes it is practically up his nose. I found myself concentrating on the swirls and whorls of Dern's white beard, drifted like dirty snow in the hollows of his cheeks, and the serape-like folds of his withered neck. The melted candle slackening of his flesh has a certain beauty all its own.

No doubt you will soon be besieged by VIFF reviews aplenty -- ideas and opinions and jabber and chatter. That's all fine, but sometimes it's important to let a film sink in, to let it take up space in your head, make a dent in your mental sofa. So it is with Nebraska. I've been letting it loll about, reach out feelers to the rest of the world and infuse the air with a suffusing melancholy.

The twilight days are here, and summer's green age is fading to grey. The passing away of things and a deep impassable sadness is in the air at the moment. It's in the burnt sugar fragrance of Katsura trees that make certain streets in Vancouver smell like they are dipped in caramel. It's in the Zugunruhe movement of birds, restlessness on an instinctual level. The dark slinks in, and brings with it a sadness that is autumnal by its very definition.


I don't think I'm alone in this feeling.

A recent clip of comedian Louis C.K. that has been feverishly passed around the last couple of weeks is a perfect summation of this quality. Trust Louis to put into words a feeling that everyone has experienced, namely the piercing beauty of sadness. The moment he describes in an interview with Conan O’Brien was prompted by the Springsteenian howl that ends "Jungleland." "Aooooooo," sings Bruce, fading off into the vastness of night, lonesome train whistles and dead end towns. When the sound comes over the car radio, the experience causes Louis to pull over to the side of the road and sob like a little girl.

The deep and vaulted sadness of life is not something that we let ourselves feel very much anymore. There are so many ways to keep it at bay. Whether it's cell phones, Facebook or email, the constant chatter is like so much white noise drowning out music.

It's fitting that it is a Springsteen song that brings on Louis's breakdown. Watching Payne's film, I thought of that brand of American poetry that surfaces in Springsteen songs, stories about doomed young men and wild girls running free on empty highways, love and death intertwined. Think of Terrence Malick's Badlands, a story perfectly captured in four minutes in Springsteen's song "Nebraska," on the album of the same name.

It's been a long time since pop music has gifted us with anything deeper than twerking and girls sucking on sledgehammers that I almost forgot what it was once capable of. Springsteen's album was inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and the connective tissue that runs from Springsteen through Malick is clear. A version of it shows up in Payne's film, especially in the scene where Woody visits his childhood home. The ghosts of the past, even those long dead, cling to certain places. And so it is here, in empty rooms with peeling paper and dirty windows, where children were lost in infancy. There is no way to avoid grief of such magnitude. It lives in us forever.

American mournfulness

There is a certain brand of Americana that is hard to resist. Sentimental? Yep. Romanticized, yes, indeedy...but the damn stuff still works. The bevy of American writers that have plumbed the shabbiness beneath the American Dream stretches out from Charles Bukowski to Cormac McCarthy to E. Annie Proulx. But amongst the pathos, there are moments of zippy joy, a few punch-ups and bleak humour. A defiant middle finger raised at the looming figure of death. Or in the case of Payne's film, an elderly woman hiking her skirt up to show her lady parts to a long-dead suitor in the town cemetery.

A number of critics have noted Nebraska shares a few qualities with The Last Picture Show. Both are filmed black and white, set in backwater towns, and concerned with the passing on of a certain way of life. The Last Picture Show was on TV recently. I was folding laundry, and in spite of myself I got sucked into it. There are some shared characteristics. Not just the tactile burr of black and white and the stories of the people who live and die in a shitty little Texas town, but the feeling of the damn thing. The particular flavour of bleakness that says life, with a few exceptions, is often a sad business.

If you haven't seen the film, go and watch it. Based on an autobiographical screenplay from Larry McMurtry, and featuring the directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich as well as the first ever appearance from Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid, it is a fine slice of American pie. The youngsters take up only a section of the film, with the more affecting roles taken on by older actors. Ben Johnson is astounding, his handsome cowboy features worn and gentled by time. Even Cloris Leachman is rendered beautiful by longing. The thing that most affected me, though, is the music, the sound of songs on the radio, most notably the lonely yodel of Hank Williams. Williams, who died at the tender age of 29 after years of alcoholism and drug abuse, is another lost legend from fabled American history.

Mournfulness is not a subject that movies or music tackle much lately. I can't help but think this is part of a larger cultural phenomena. Try to think about the last pop song that you heard that dealt with the inevitability of aging and death. Music seems to live in a perpetual present of 20-something sex and club life. But really that's only a blip, kids. Life goes on and on. Memory turns on you when all the things you did and didn't do catch up. Walking home on an autumn night, the clouds pull away and the immensity of night sky breaks your heart. What are you going to listen to? Somehow, I don't think Britney Spears' "Work Bitch" will suffice.

Sadness is a blessing

If you want to see a film where music and time collide on an epic scale, the one film I would suggest seeing at VIFF is Expedition to the End of the World. A group of scientists and artists set sail to Greenland, and there they mess about making art, conducting various experiments, getting into trouble with polar bears, and generally being goofy humans. Death metal and Mozart's "Requiem" duke it out as the ship's crew buzz about, building flying machines and yakking away as if to fend off the brute indifference of the landscape itself. Against the immensity of mountain and ocean, something else begins to emerge. It's a sense of time, so vast and ancient that our human mayfly hour seems quaint and slightly ridiculous. Human ambition is revealed for what it is, a brief blip, a defiant little mouse squeak, and then we get back to the real business of silence and time.

As a kid, I developed an obsession with opera that bordered on the fanatical. The drama and the theatre of it certainly compelled, but there was something else. It was a conduit to larger things. You can't listen to the end of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" without feeling like it is music that captures the sound of tectonic plates shifting. The scale is so great, so glorious, so revelling in its power -- a suitable soundtrack for mountains marching forth and seas erupting.

Tragedy as a form of popular musical entertainment isn't as popular as it was in 1876, but it still works. A few years ago I went to a production of Madame Butterfly at the Vancouver Opera. As Butterfly prepares to commit ritual suicide and is interrupted by her little boy, something began to happen in the audience. To put it rather bluntly, people lost their shit. Men and women sobbed out loud, seemingly without shame or embarrassment, taken outside of themselves and placed somewhere else entirely.

Which brings us back to Louis C.K. sitting in his car and crying to a song on the radio. Sadness is not something we see often in films, but it is one of the larger parts of life, as most humans well know. Let sadness happen, let it roll over you. Standing in the way of it and letting it take you over is, as Louis says, "a beautiful thing."  [Tyee]

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