Here I will break down a few of my favorite Fly-over Country movies. This is by no means a comprehensive look at what hayseed cinema has to offer, but these films do, in one way or another, cut to the very bones of Middle America.
About Schmidt (2002)
New Line Cinema
Directed by Alexander Payne
During the filming of “About Schmidt”, director Alexander Payne found several production assistants meticulously picking the lint off sweaters worn by some of the extras. He shooed them from this task saying “lintless” sweaters were not “real”. And so it was with Payne’s own meticulousness that he crafted a mirror image of his home state, Nebraska. Hollywood can put a sparkling veneer on any setting and often does. Even rundown ghettos have received idealized makeovers courtesy of Hollywood. But when Payne hoists his mirror over Nebraska, he shows us as it is. A place of simplicity and beauty. And maybe even a little lint.
About Schmidt is the story of former Omaha insurance actuary and recent retiree, Warren R. Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson. When his wife dies unexpectedly, Warren sets out on a quest of self-discovery in the gigantic RV he’d begrudgingly bought at the request of his dearly departed. But Warren has had a lifelong struggle with mediocrity. He was unexceptional as an insurance man as well as husband and father. And so it’s no surprise that Warren turns out to be no talent in the self-discovery department either. As he rumbles across the stark and beautiful plains, rediscovering his past, he decides to make the disruption of his daughter’s wedding the end to his journey. Or maybe not. Sadly, the influence Warren seems to have on the one person who still matters to him is small.
Reviews of “About Schmidt” from east and west coast critics were uniformly very positive. Payne, in his third outing as a feature director, superbly came into his own and showed the flashes of brilliance that would permeate his follow-up “Sideways”. Also common to the reviews were descriptions of the bleak Omaha backdrop. Indeed, Payne picked a wet, late winter in which to film “About Schmidt”, giving much of the film a predominantly grey hue. But the bland and melancholy Warren Schmidt himself should not be interpreted as a metaphor for the setting. Though he is a dreary person, he does not necessarily inhabit a dreary and depressed place. What is indicative in Schmidt of where he comes from is quietness and humility. Plains people generally are not loud talkers. Like Schmidt, they rarely command the attention of a room upon arrival. Many Nebraskans are not keen to “rock the boat” as it were. But Great Plains residents are often straight forward and basically honest. The kind of people who will level with you. In this way, Warren Schmidt represents a photo image of Nebraska. He is a quiet, unassuming man. A snapshot of so many 60-somethings. But Schmidt’s melancholy is not a reflection of the state of existence in Omaha as some coastal perspectives seem to imply. He is a simple man and, though unexceptional, a fascinating character study.
Nicholson drew an Oscar nomintation for his portrayal, perhaps largely due to the absence of the glamorous and cocksure “Jack” in his performance. “About Schmidt” was one of the best films of 2002 and a fantastic fly-over movie. It remains an entertaining and often hilarious reflection of life on the modern-day prairie. Lint and all.
Coen vs. Coen.
The next two films are by Joel and Ethan Coen. Born in Minneapolis, these “hayseed” auteurs have gone to the well of fly-over locations several times to great effect. Starting with rural Texas in their debut “Blood Simple”, the Coens have set films in such varying places as Arizona, Mississippi and, most notoriously, their home state of Minnesota.
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
“This is a true story.”
So begins the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo”. It is known to many Coen fans now that the resemblance to the actual story on which the film is based is about as remote as the icy stretches of highway between Fargo and Minneapolis. But while the Coens admit they embellished a bit, the fact remains, fiction or not, this is among the truest looks at fly-over country Hollywood has ever produced.
The film opens with car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) arriving in the town of Fargo, North Dakota, where he arranges for his wife to be kidnapped so that he can collect a ransom from his millionaire father-in-law. But the contract kidnappers (played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) turn out to be a grisly pair of keystone criminals. While they manage to pull off the kidnapping with little difficulty, Jerry’s “no rough stuff” kidnapping plot begins to go terribly awry when his contract men end up killing three people in rural Minnesota.
Enter Brainerd detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).
Police uniform aside, Marge looks the part of a wide-eyed country rube and one might assume that she has never investigated a homicide before. But once on the crime scene, she pieces together the triple murder with the deftness of Columbo without so much as a shift in expression. Unlike the gritty urban cops that typically populate Hollywood movies, Marge’s logical re-telling of the events come out in a comically Midwestern matter-of-fact fashion: “Okay, so we got a state trooper pulls someone over, we got a shooting, and these folks drive by, and we got a high-speed pursuit, ends here, and then this execution type-deal.”
Taken on the surface, some Minnesotans surely cringe as they watch “Fargo”. The characters come across as rather simplistic in nature and the Scandanavian-American accents go over-the-top in some cases. The Twin Cities itself looks like an uninviting Siberia with skyscrapers. But the Coen Brothers do not make fun of Minnesota so much as they “roast” it. They color their characters with a deep shade of “Minnesota-nice” and while the people of the Upper Great Plains are not uniformly like the characters in Fargo, Jerry Lundergaard’s the-heck-ya-means and ya-darned-tootins make for an hilarious juxtaposition when peppered among the horrifically violent events in the film. And that’s what makes “Fargo” so remarkable. The Coens have taken what they do best, which is crime-gone-wrong and put it in the setting they know best, Minnesota. The result is a true classic of American cinema in general and fly-over cinema in particular. The Coen’s greatest achievement in taking a snapshot of Middle America is in the dialogue of Fargo. Reprinted here is a sample of some of their best:
Here a Brainerd police officer named Gary questions a man who may know something about one of the killers.
MAN “How ya doin’?” GARY “Mr. Mohra?” MAN “Yah.” GARY “Officer Olson.” MAN “Yah, right-o … So, I’m tendin’ bar there at Ecklund & Swedlin’s last Tuesday and this little guy’s drinkin’ and he says, ‘So where can a guy find some action – I’m goin’ crazy down there at the lake.’ And I says, ‘What kinda action?’ and he says, ‘Woman action, what do I look like,’ And I says ‘Well, what do I look like, I don’t arrange that kinda thing,’ and he says, ‘I’m goin’ crazy out there at the lake’ and I says, ‘Well, this ain’t that kinda place.'” GARY “Uh-huh.” MAN “So he says, ‘So I get it, so you think I’m some kinda jerk for askin’,’ only he doesn’t use the word jerk.” GARY “I unnerstand. ” MAN “And then he calls me a jerk and says the last guy who thought he was a jerk was dead now. So I don’t say nothin’ and he says, ‘What do ya think about that?’ So I says, ‘Well, that don’t sound like too good a deal for him then.’ ” GARY “Ya got that right. ” MAN “And he says, ‘Yah, that guy’s dead and I don’t mean a old age.’ And then he says, ‘Geez, I’m goin’ crazy out there at the lake.’ ” GARY “White Bear Lake?” MAN “Well, Ecklund & Swedlin’s, that’s closer ta Moose Lake, so I made that assumption.” GARY “Oh sure.” MAN “So, ya know, he’s drinkin’, so I don’t think a whole great deal of it, but Mrs. Mohra heard about the homicides out here and she thought I should call it in, so I called it in. End a story.”
Folks, welcome to the Midwest.
“Fargo” is an honest and funny satire and one of Hollywoodís best screenplays. Though some Minnesotans may take offense to the Coen’s skewers, they shouldn’t. This is a gentle ribbing done, I believe, with a great deal of affection by the state’s premiere filmmakers.
Raising Arizona (1987)
20th Century Fox
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
H.I. McDonough, the man embodied by Nicholas Cage in “Raising Arizona”, is a cartoon. This assertion comes from Cage himself, saying in a number of post-production interviews that he had based the character on Woody Woodpecker. But like cartoons of the animated kind, the best ones, for all their slapstick and impossible physics, usually have some element of reality. Often that reality comes as a symbol of some human trait. Wily Coyote, for example, symbolizes dogged determination. Pepe Lapew, the blindness of love. H.I McDonough is not the best surface representation of folks in the Southwest, but like the great cartoons before him, he does represent their most universal trait. H.I. is the free-spirit of the Southwest personified.
“Raising Arizona” begins with a lengthy narrative on the events of H.I.’s checkered past. We see his numerous prison stints as the result of an armed-robbery habit. He tries to go the straight and narrow, but, as he says, “Things are hard with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House”. H.I is earnest in his attempts to turn his life around and gets his best chance through an unlikely courtship with Edwina (Holly Hunter), the police officer who always books him. Shortly after they settle into “marital bliss”, H.I. and his bride are shocked to discover that Edwina is infertile and because of H.I.’s past felonies, they are not allowed to adopt children. But as chance would have it, Nathan Arizona, a local furniture mogul (Trey Wilson) and his wife have just given birth to quintuplets. So H.I. and Edwina pursue the only option they feel they have: Siphon off one of those Arizona Quints. What follows is a caper story done Coen-style as H.I. and Edwina attempt to stave off the authorities, blackmail-attempts, an appocalyptic vigillanti and a couple of H.I.’s former inmates who are bent on cashing the baby in for the reward money.
H.I. is a certain brand of redneck that can only be found in the Southwest. A land unencumbered by the kind of dense population spreads found in the east, it is a region of almost unimaginable beauty where rock formations jut out of the ground like gigantic abstract sculptures and the very desert sands dust the land like pastel brushstrokes. It is no wonder a man with as dire of finances and legal trouble as H.I. would remain so carefree. The southwest feeds souls. Even a two-bit criminal’s soul. With “Raising Arizona,” the Coens stray as far from realism as other outings such as “The Hudsucker Proxy” or “Barton Fin”k, but the result of their effort here is a theater of the absurd for fly-over country. So while the film may look to be nothing more than a farcical, keystone caper, like the great absurdist plays of Beckett and Pinter, a mere scratch below the surface reveals characters of striking realism.
“Raising Arizona” marked the beginning of the Coen’s emergence as fly-over country’s preeminent filmmakers, a title they would solidify just 9 years later with “Fargo”. It is modern slapstick at its best and a hilarious look at the “thinking man’s” redneck. If “About Schmidt” and “Fargo” hold vanity mirrors to their Midwest settings, “Raising Arizona” holds more of a funhouse mirror to its.
The last of the fly-over country films that I will look at is the only one that’s not ostensibly a comedy.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Directed by Bob Rafelson
“Five Easy Pieces”, another Jack Nicholson starred vehicle, is the story of bourgoise classically-trained pianist turned blue-collar S.O.B., Robert Dupea. We find Dupea hiding from his upper-class family somewhere on the fringe of flyover country in rural Southern California. A fitting location since the focal point of this movie is Dupea’s self-imposed alienation from everyone and everything in his life. Dupea can’t make himself fit into any setting and the not-quite urban/not-quite rural oil-rig environment provides the perfect backdrop for a look into this character.
What is so striking about Dupea is that, despite his emotional detachment, he physically blends into both blue-collar and bourgois life. Dupea can sit in a bowling alley, sip beer, verbally abuse his girlfriend (played by Karen Black) and pick up other women as the girlfriend sits, heartbroken, outside in the car, and we believe he is such a man. But, just as much, we believe he is the man who, in the refined setting of his father’s Pacific Northwest estate, plays a moving piece of Chopin by rote. The key, as Dupea himself points out, is that he is emotionally dead.
As it pertains to fly-over country, “Five Easy Pieces” is one of Hollywood’s best. Though the oil-rigs that employ Dupea sit close enough to Los Angeles to cause traffic problems on one of his morning commutes, this film could have just as easily been set in Oklahoma or Texas. Of particular note are the characters who surround Dupea while in the blue-collar setting. His girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto, and his oil-working buddy Elton, played by Billy Green Bush, are clearly beneath Dupea culturally and intellectually. On the surface, they would seem to be ignorant, rural stereotypes personified, but a closer look reveals them to be profoundly introspective (however simple in nature). Rayette and Elton want better lives, but they seem to be trapped in their own personal ruts. They wander through life just as much as Dupea but, unlike him, they limit their search for something better to the blue-collar environment they are used to. Instead of stereotyping the rural American underclass, Rayette and Elton are the very complex personalities on which the stereotypes in lesser movies are based. These characters best represent the subtle difference between well-crafted, realistic fly-over bumpkins and their superficially offensive counterparts.
No overview of “Five Easy Pieces” would be complete without mention of the famous diner scene. It is appropriate that this is the most remembered scene from the movie since truckstop diners are a staple of the fly-over landscape. But the irony of the diner scene’s popularity is that “Five Easy Pieces” is much more than those five minutes — as great as they are. It is a richly crafted character study, full of sharp dialogue and superb acting. The movie packs an emotional wallop, yet has a surprising sense of humor. And nearly 40 years after it’s filming, stands as one of the best glimpses of Middle America (its Southern California location notwithstanding) ever laid down on celluloid.
In my third and last installment of Cinema Hayseed, I will compare and contrast what makes some fly-over flicks great with what makes others not-so-much.