‘Downsizing’ may elevate filmmaker to new heights; ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ your guide to his cinema universe
‘Downsizing’ may elevate filmmaker to new heights
‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ your guide to his cinema universe
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
The epic tragicomic tale told in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” (2017) tackles big ideas having to do with pressing world crises and universal, age-old human conflicts. The story’s imagined solution to ever depleted world resources is downsizing human beings to a fraction of normal size, thus decreasing mankind’s footprint on planet Earth. Only the reduction experience doesn’t quite go the way that Paul, the Everyman hero played by Matt Damon, envisioned. We go down the rabbit hole of this dark wonderland with Matt into a mind-blowing, soul-stirring, heart-breaking and ultimately inspiring odyssey that traverses everything from geo-political intrigue to classism and racism to human trafikking to love. The adventure takes us into new worlds that may or may not be the salvation of civilization but that just may be, for better or worse, the new dawn of man. Payne and his collaborators have traveled the globe to make an ambitious film shooting in multiple countries and starring an international cast. It promises to be a cinematic experience filled with spectacle, pathos and satire, yet never losing touch with human intimacy. As we know by now, every Payne film is about a physical, emotional, intellectual journey that tests its protagonists with some crucible they must endure in order to reach a new place, literally or metaphorically speaking. The stakes for the journey Paul takes in “Downsizing” are higher than for any journey in Payne’s other films because, unbeknowst to Paul, humanity’s future rests on his actions.
Payne and his film will get lots of attention when it releases mid-t0-late 2017. I think it will be the most talked about American film of the year. If it does resonate strongly enough with audiences it could very well catapult the filmmaker into a new category alongside such names as Tarantino, Scorsese, Cameron, Soderbergh and Nolan. Like their critically acclaimed movies that also become box office hits, Payne’s “Downsizing” may be his first film to not only reach the $100 million gross mark but to pull in well in excess of that number. It may also mark the film that finally wins him a Best Director Oscar. For someone like me who has closely covered Payne for a generation, there is much to anticipate and to report on in the coming year. After writing about the film last winter-spring and not much at all the last few months, I will be ramping up my coverage the remainder of this year through all of next year.
If you admire Payne’s films and want to know what goes into making them, then you will want to follow my reporting. You will also want to get a copy of my book”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” It is updated and current through Payne’s “Nebraska” and “Downsizing” projects. This passion project and labor of love is a must-read for movie buffs and fans. It is your companion guide to understanding his cinema universe. As an author-journalist-blogger, I often write about film and in 2012 I turned my in-depth reporting about Payne into this book. It is the most comprehensive study of his cinema career and work to be found anywhere. Its collection of articles and essays is based on interviews I conducted with Payne and with many of his key collaborators. My new edition is releasing this fall through River Junction Press in Omaha and features expanded and enhanced content, including a Discussion Guide with Index. It makes a great resource for film buffs, critics, filmmakers, educators and students as well as more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine.
“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” takes you deep inside the creative process of one of the world’s leading cinema artists and follows the arc of his filmmaking journey over a 20-year span, when he went from brash indie newcomer to mature, consummate veteran. Along the way, he’s made a handful of the best reviewed American films of the past two decades and his movies have garnered many top honors at festivals and at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
Available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle and at select book stores and gift shops.
I will be selling and signing copies of my new edition before and after my 7 p.m. book talk at the KANEKO-UNO Creativity Library, 1111 Jones Street, in the Old Market on Wednesday, September 21.
The book sells for $25.95, plus tax.
My informal presentation will offer insights into the Oscar-winning writer-director’s creative process gleaned from 20 years of interviewing and covering the filmmaker. I will also take questions from the audience.
Strong praise for “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” – Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (“The Genius of the System”)
I hope to see you at the KANEKO-UNO Creativity Library. You can let us know you’re coming by linking to the Facebook event page and clicking GOING–
If you can’t make this event, you’ll have more chances to get a copy signed by me during the fall. Look for announcements about future book talks-signings on my social media platforms:
Please remember that “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” makes a great gift for the film and book lover in your life.
It’s a must-get book for Nebraskans who want to know how this celebrated native son has arrived at rarefied heights and in the company of legends. Nebraskans love the fact that through all of Payne’s remarkable success, he has remained rooted to this place. His story will only get larger from here on out and this book is the foundation for appreciating how he has grown and what he has achieved in his first 20 years as a feature filmmaker.
There is much more to come from him, but for now “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is the definitive word on his journey.
Pot Liquor Love
Not long after Pam and I began getting to know each other, we discovered several things in common, and some of what we found we both have a real passion for has to do with food. Having been in a previous long-standing relationship with an African-American woman, I already knew that the food I grew up eating and the food that many African-Americans grow up eating share many similarities. This, despite the fact that I am of Polish and Italian ancestry, two cuisines you wouldn’t ordinarily or immediately associate with soul food. But much of the food my late parents grew up eating and that they then weaned my two older brothers and I on is what could be called peasant cooking, which is essentially what soul food entails. The peasant connotation simply refers to the fact that people of little means, whether Polish or Italian or Black, historically make do with whatever is at hand. including what they eat. The humble rooted people on both my dad’s Polish side and on my mother’s Italian side certainly made do with what they raised and tended on the land and with what scraps of meat they could afford to purchase. The same with Blacks, whose soul food tradition derives from what was available from the sweat of their own brow working the land and what they could scratch together to buy.
Thus, the Polish and Italian cuisine I grew up eating, just like the Black soul food cuisine I was introduced to years later, features lots of greens, beans, potatoes, pastas (think spaghetti and macaroni and cheese), grains (barley, rice, grits) and lower end cut, slow cooked meats, including pig’s feet, cheek, hocks, butt, ribs, oxtails, smoked turkey wings and legs and beef liver, although some of those formerly low cut low priced meats have since become pricey gourmet items. There are pan-fried and deep-fried connections, too, between my roots and Pam’s, such as chicken livers and gizzards. and, of course, chicken.
My mom and dad split the cooking. Their go-to dishes included: smothered pork chops (his), bean soup with hocks (his and hers), oxtail soup (his), braised oxtails (hers), oven-baked chicken (his), beef stew (his), Italian stew (hers), pig’s feet (his), greens (hers),
Pam has expressed surprise over and over again when, upon talking fondly about various dishes her family enjoyed eating, I come right back with, “Yeah, we ate that, too.” She is fairly amazed even now that I have consumed more than my share of ham hocks, for example, and that I still cook with them today. We didn’t have collards, but we did have mustard and assorted other greens. My mom grew up eating dandelions and she’d once in a while incorporate them into our greens as well.
The whole idea behind this mode of cooking and eating is to stretch things in order to feed several hungry mouths without straining the budget. That means lots of soups, stews, casseroles, bakes and concoctions where you throw in everything on hand to make what Pam’s family used to call “stuff.” Every ethnic group has it own variation of this everything but the kitchen sink dish that is more about expediency than it is culinary style. But Pam and I both agree that there’s never a good enough excuse for making something that lacks flavor. We are both big on bold, robust flavors achieved through liberal seasoning and cooking methodology. When it comes to meat, and she and I are both classic carnivores, we prefer slow baking, roasting methods that produce copious amounts of natural pan drippings that we spoon right over the serving portions or that can be the base for rich, delicious gravies and sauces. You might say we are connoisseurs of pan drippings because we appreciate the layered, complex, concentrated flavors they contain.
The resulting “pot liquor” is produced whether cooking beef, pork or poultry, but you have to have cuts that are bone-in and contain some fat, too. Fat and bone, that’s where the real flavor resides, and all the seasoning and veggies you add only help enhance the flavor. Yes, pot liquor is the really deep, fat and marrow released and rendered goodness that gets deposited in those puddles, streaks and bits. We never serve a meat dish without some of the pot liquor over it. I love that term because it’s so apt to what the essence of pan drippings are. Rendered fat and bone is where it’s at and when enough of it is released and it gets to coagulating and browning to where those alternately gooey and crusty bits collect at the bottom and edges of the roasting pan, it distills right there in the oven or even on top of the stove into a heady, briny brew that really is best described as pot liquor.
Pam knows by now that one of my favorite food things to do is to take a hunk of bread and sop up the smear of congealed pot liquor left on the pan. Oh, my, that is a burst of flavor that rivals the best bites I’ve ever eaten, Not even a 4 or 5 star restaurant can duplicate that taste.
There are other pot liquors not exclusive to meat dishes, such as the brew created by cooking collards with ham hocks. Pam makes some righteous greens with hocks or smoked turkey lumps whose pot liquor is enough to get intoxicated on when sopping it up with corn bread or pouring it over most anything.
With the holidays coming up I am already salivating at the thought of Pam’s roasted turkey – she makes the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten – and its pot liquor bounty that pairs well with the greens, the stuffing, the candied yams and everything else for that matter.
Sure, there’s more to life than food, but at the moment I can’t think what that might be. Cooking a meal for someone is as true an expression of love as I can think of. It is the epitome of sharing something precious and of delighting in someone else’s pleasure or satisfaction. Pam and I regularly take turns cooking for each other. Her home cooked meals bring me right back to my childhood and early adult years eating at home with mom and dad. She likes my cooking, too. It also takes her back. By now we both know what we like and what we don’t. Our tastes, with a few notable exceptions, are remarkably alike.
On our recent trips down South we experienced a few dishes with good to the last drop pot liquor love. Read those at–
Not sure whose turn it is in our couple cooking rotation. It doesn’t much matter though you see because whoever has the duty will be putting out big flavors. That’s what you get when you cook with love – flavor. The one cardinal sin we can’t abide is bland food. That and skimping on the pot liquor. When we sit down to dinner, it’s not so much “pass the salt” as it is “give me some more of that pot liquor, honey.”
I don’t mean to imply the lip smacking magic of our Pot Liquor Love is what keeps us together, but it sure helps.
All Wrung Out and Hung to Dry…
First off, blessings to all the Louisianans affected by the flooding. We were just down there before the deluge and troubles began, having driven through areas of Baton Rouge and surrounding towns and parishes en route to Pam’s family reunion in New Orleans, During our Southern Fried Love Road Trip II – link to my diary of that experience at https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/ – we only got one whiff of the torrential rains that can fall there. As brief as our exposure was when caught in a blinding downpour on the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge, it was plenty enough to make us nervous. Can’t imagine living in areas so prone to flooding. But what I’m really sharing in this post are my gathering thoughts about the oppressive humidity of the Deep South. While in the midst of that sog and sap I couldn’t find words to do it justice, except a few choice curses. Not even for a time upon my return could I manage to describe it. Now that I have a semblance of my wits about me, I will try to articulate how all consuming it felt. I mean, I knew it would be hot and I thought I was prepared for what everyone told me would be a humidity unlike any I’d felt before, but I never imagined its thoroughly invasive properties. Every time I left AC environs for the outside my pores spontaneously opened to release at first a film and then a full cascade of sweat. It often felt as if I’d been caught in a storm. That none too comfortable sticky, clammy feeling is most unpleasant. It’s essentially walking around in damp clothes. i did find relief when infrequent breezes thankfully appeared to create natural air conditioning of the most refreshing kind.
After being subjected to that muggy climate I can see how the humidity itself may be enough to explain the origins of Southern Gothic literature with its hyperbole, histrionics, eccentrics, grotesqueries and magic realism. Then add to that voodoo, fundamentalism, evangelism, hellfire Baptist devotion, devout Catholicism, swamps, backwoods, plantations, chain gangs, football, jazz, blues, country and soul food, not to mention the legacy of slavery, the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and you have the makings for high drama, combined with doses of the surreal and the supernatural. The stark rich-poor, urban-rural divide lends itself to tragicomedy. Just like the humidity, that rich broth of culture oozes out until it envelops you in a steam bath of pleasure and pain. Beads of sweat and drops of rain mark the spot. The myriad struggles and conflicts of that place find release in the grace of slow rhythms that the heavy, moist air seems to regulate. As a visitor, there is no mistaking you are in a Southern Realm or Southern State of Mind, and just to remind you that you’re far from home is that all pervasive, stifling veil of sodden heat you cannot deny or escape, except indoors.
Funny thing about that humidity is that as draining as it could be, it sure never dampened my appetite.
Then there’s an undeniable sultry quality to all the humidity down there. People wear fewer, lighter clothes down there and, well, you know…I swear I felt like going all Stanley Kowalski to my Stella, Pam, by stripping down to a T-shirt in the French Quarter and calling for her to come to me in her slip. Visions of high strung Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor characters and overwrought scenes and delusions of being a character in God’s Little Acre kept coming to mind. But that was the heat talking. Maybe that Rum and Coke, too. But just thinking and writing about the humidity now makes me breakout in a sweat, so give me another cold one and pass the pralines.
And somebody please hand me a fan – and a change of clothes. While you’re at it, if you have any of those battered, deep fried chicken livers we found at a roadside store, I’ll take me some of those, too. The key is to eat, drink and be merry and not let the humidity bog you down or bum you out. After all, when in the South, do as Southerners do.
Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II
From the land of Yes, sir…Yes, ma’am…and Y’all have a good time
After never being in the American South the first 57 years of my life, I made a purely pleasure road trip to St. Louis and Memphis in June. My partner Pamela Jo Berry and I made the journey with her daughter Beaufield and Beau’s husband Rob and their baby boy Shine. We took in the National Blues Museum, the St. Louis Basilica and the St. Louis Fine Art Museum. We toured Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum. We checked out the Beale Street scene. Good food and music were plentiful.
On the way home we stopped in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri for some more down home country sights and experiences. Then, just two months later, Pam and I headed to the South again – only this time to the Deep South for her family reunion. We traveled with Pam’s mother Janis and two of Pam’s sisters, Pat and Theresa, to Kansas City, where we rendezvoused with close family friend Jill Anderson. Caravanning with us in another car to K.C. were Pam’s nieces Ashley, Amber and Aubrey and nephews Christopher and Tyler. While the others flew from KC to the site of the reunion, New Orleans, Pam and I drove with Jill to The Big Easy. En route, we passed through Arkansas and Mississippi and made it to the epicenter of Let the Good Times Roll by way of Baton Rouge.
We just got back from four days and three nights in the tropical clime of that storied port city best known for its rich cuisine, jazz and blues music, raised cemetery plots, voodoo subculture and stew pot mix of French, African. Creole, Cajun, African-American influences and traditions. New Orleans is first and foremost a city of the waters – both ocean and fresh water – whose diversity comes to it from every nook and cranny courtesy the international boats that dock and disembark there. The heavily trafficked Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain all intersect New Orleans and feed the city with distinct elements of river culture, community and commerce.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we had to get there and our staging ground for the drive down south was Kansas City. On the ride into K.C. Pam, her sisters and mother would instantly react to any good soul, R&B and jazz tunes by swaying and grooving to the music. I am afraid that even sharing close quarters with four black women this white guy still didn’t acquire any soul, not even by osmosis.
We spent a night in K.C. at the industrial chic apartment Jill shares with her roommate Jake, who generously gave up his bed to us. That night in K.C. before splitting up the next morning for our New Orleans jags by plane and care, we all went out to eat. Walking to the bar-restaurant we passed through the lively Country Club Plaza district with its Spanish-style architecture adorning shops, galleries and eateries. We hadn’t walked more than a couple blocks when Pat, followed quickly by Theresa and ultimately Janis, joined a line dance in progress at a little open square that three DJs turned into an outdoor dance floor.
At the Granfalloon Restaurant & Bar everyone in our party except me went for the Taco Tuesday special. Always the outlier, I went for the Falloon Burger with its Angus beef patty topped by smoked cheddar and peppered bacon on a Brioche bun. This good eats was on point.
Now let me share some more impressions and incidents from the rather circuitous path we followed in making our way down to the Heart of Dixie and that town of grassroots mystique called New Orleans, the original Crescent City. Instead of taking the Interstate, we opted to drive on a series of highways in a south by southeasterly direction. This meandering approach was a collective decision and included taking a scenic river path into New Orleans but as you’ll read that didn’t turn out the way we envisioned.
Well into our slog through Missouri and somewhere near the Arkansas border we happened upon an off-the-beaten-track Amish-run farmstead, where we stocked up on fresh fruit and veggies, including juicy, just picked Missouri peaches. A pit stop for gas and provisions turned up an unexpected delight when Pam spotted battered, deep-fried chicken livers and gizzards for sale as a uniquely Southern road snack. She and I both grew up eating those organ meats and so with every bite it took us back to our childhoods. I never did acquire an appetite for gizzards, but livers, well, that’s a whole other matter. These were just as they should be – soft and creamy inside with a flavorful not too crunchy breading on the outside. If cooked just right, as they were, it’s not an oily dish at all. Of all the good food we ate on the trip, and as you will read we ate some downright righteous stuff, the livers may have been the single best bite of the whole experience.
Traversing the surprisingly hilly country of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas we stopped to visit Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs. This impressive glass and steel structure sits atop native stone in a clearing amid forest. More than 400 windows provide a panoramic immersion experience in nature that is both serene and sacred. Pam and I meant to stop there on our earlier trip down South but never made it, and so getting to see it on this trip was well worth the wait.
We stopped in Little Rock, where with more time at our disposal we would have visited civil rights memorials, but settled instead for dinner at Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken in the city’s downtown River Market district. The chicken comes spicy hot and it was better than average but not that much to brag about. Neither were the pedestrian sides. Our waitress was a bona fide Southern sweetheart who at one point sat herself down at our table for a down home, right quick break from being on her feet all day and a welcome to Little Rock how-de-do. Jill’s rental car got a less than how-de-do ticket violation for being parked in a spot where the citation read no parking is allowable at any time, This unwelcome surprise came despite no visible warning not to use that spot. The full lot’s only signage declared, “Public Parking.” Pam and I encouraged Jill to protest the ticket via whatever means the city of Little Rock allows. This wouldn’t be the last time Jill’s car attracted the unwanted attention of law enforcement despite our collective best efforts to obey the law.
We stayed a night at a Days Inn in Pine Bluff. All three of us skipped the promised complimentary breakfast after discovering it consisted entirely of white flour, sugar-based products that are no-no’s for people with diet restrictions like two of us.
Speaking of food, we had killer snacks on the ride down thanks to Jill, who packed a nice supply of her homemade vegan tamales featuring Jack Fruit and a yummy, spicy blend of seasonings.
Half-way on the aforementioned scenic river route in Louisiana Jill mapped out is when we realized we were lost or at least not where we should be because all we saw were flood control berms and heavy industry complexes. The sheer size and scale of operation of those various industry works were a sight to behold but decidedly not scenic. High above us ran conveyance systems from either side of the road. Do the overhead pipes carry water from the river to feed into whatever industrial processes are going on there? Don’t know. All I know is that whatever does happen at those plants is securely tucked away behind barbed wire and perhaps electrified fences. The giant works themselves, with their smoke stacks, cranes, valves and such, have a kind of heavy beauty to them in their interlocking tangle of mechanics and machinery, Not everything we glimpsed was so oppressive. There were a few roadside shotgun shack residences and bars. All through the parts of the South we traveled we saw lots of played out towns and abandoned structues that reminded me of what one sees trekking across Nebraska or any rural stretched. We did pass a raggedy plantation as well as some dreamland site full of white stone structures. Convinced we needed to ask someone where we were in relationship to the Mississippi River and to New Orleans, we pulled into an automotive and towing business called Joey’s on the side of the road and hollered at the first person we saw, who just happened to be Joey. In his thick Creole accent he informed us we were on the wrong side of the river to see anything remotely scenic and provided clear directions for getting us into New Orleans.
We were no more than a few minutes traveling across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, which is the world’s longest bridge over a body of water with its nearly 24 mile span, when we hit rush hour traffic. Lake Ponchartrain is so immense and my sense of geography so poor, that I assumed we were over the Gulf of Mexico at that point. Then things really got interesting when a thunderstorm broke out and rain went from moderate to heavy to a torrential downpour. Visibility was reduced to a car or two in front of us, in back of us and on either side of us. Amidst all that gray and all those vehicles it was a claustrophobic inching along that tested faith and patience. Finally the shroud lifted and we got back to a semblance of normal travel speed. but bursts of jagged lightning bolts hitting a few hundred yards away made for an ominous arrival in our destination city. The Superdome loomed large ahead as we snaked our way through jam-packed streets to find the Embassy Suites on Julia Street, where we stayed three nights.
Over the next four days we ended up doing the French Quarter and French Market, but we avoided Bourbon Street. As a prelude to our first French Quarter foray the entire family gathered for the reunion took a riverboat cruise aboard the Steamboat Natchez. The food was disappointing but the cruise did give an appreciation for the grandeur of the river and for the scale of its commercial traffic as a bustling thoroughfare of ships and barges transporting people and provisions. Naturally, there was a “house” band entertaining us with old-timey jazz and ragtime music.
Our first truly New Orleans meal came at Peche Seafood Grill just a couple blocks from the hotel. Pam had a smothered catfish entree that she loved though I didn’t care for the red chili sauce that covered it. I had a killer gumbo with a scrumptious side of roasted beets and pistachios accented by fresh thyme.
Very near Peche is an Emeril’s restaurant and since we’re both big fans of his from watching cable cooking shows we decided to do dinner there one night. Eating at Emeril’s was hands down the best and most expensive meal we had on the trip. Trying to keep costs down, we both opted for the grilled salmon dish served on a bed of farro (a barley-like grain) and a tomato and corn chouchou, with some pickled string veggies tied in a bow atop the fish. The salmon was prepared perfectly, with the skin a nice black and crisp and the flesh moist and buttery. This was fine dining done right. The experience included at least four different wait staff who attended to us, each with a specific function, and somehow none made themselves obtrusive or a nuisance.
I forget what night it was down there, but Pam and I were walking back to the hotel after dinner and decided to explore a little bit and we heard, as you often do there, live music coming from somewhere. We followed the sound and before we knew it we were enveloped by a small marching band and their brassy instruments and dozens of rollicking merrymakers dancing to the joyous rhythms of When the Saints Go Marching In.
The day of the cruise didn’t begin so well but it certainly ended nicely. Waiting in line to board the boat became a mini-ordeal because of the oppressive heat and humidity that left us from more temperate Northern and Western climes sodden messes. Hand held fans were our only relief until we got inside the AC of the dining cabin. After a pale imitation of Southern cooking for lunch we went outside to stand or sit along the deck. A cool spray of water got kicked up by the paddle wheel below and a refreshing breeze made being outside in New Orleans a comfortable time for once.
We no sooner clambered off the boat then we headed right for the French Quarter, where a Satchmo Summerfest featuring live jazz and a sidewalk art show of diverse work drew good crowds. There’s much to see and do in the Quarter, of course, and we stopped in a number of galleries and shops, including a praline shop whose proprietor was a very short lady speaking in a very big voice. Her natural amplification made it sound like she was speaking through a bull horn. Our walking party through the Quarter consisted of Pam and me, Pam’s sisters Cheryl and Veronica, and Pam’s brother John.
During the course of our adventures in New Orleans we passed any number of praline places but we never got any. We were both trying to be good with our diets in a place where the abiding philosophy is diets-be-damned. But we had moments of splurging with food and other things.
Our stroll through the Quarter and on back to the hotel seemed like a forced march at times because of he humidity. It clings to you as if you’re walking with a warm damp towel over your head.
If we ever get back to New Orleans, I would like to have more time to explore the Quarter and to peak into those distinctive, tightly packed homes and buildings with their multicolored pastel facades, arched entryways, cozy balconies, ample windows with shutters and interior courtyards.
We also never got around to visiting a plantation or a cemetery. Next time must-dos.
The French Market is a big bazaar off the French Quarter filled with commercial buildings and open air stalls. We perused its Flea Market, where you can find an impressive variety of cooked to order food, fresh produce, apparel, jewelry, art and a hundred and one other things for sale. Pam had some interesting encounters with a charismatic vendor there by the name of Stefano Velaska. The story goes he wound up in New Orleans after fleeing his native Czechoslovakia, where he purports to have been a wanted dissident. He has been a vendor at the market since 1990. He’s also a founding member of the Dutch Alley Artist’s Co-op located within a short walk of his booth. He makes and sells his own handcrafted jewelry. He apparently suffered heavy losses in the Katrina disaster. He likes to quote Tennessee Williams and whether serious or not, he tried to interest Pam in interesting me to visit NOLA’s red light district to marvel at if not sample the whores. She was not sure how to take that or what to do with it but he twice “propositioned” her with the suggestion, which coming from a mustachioed, heavy-accented, flamboyant man in a decorated top hat does make one wonder or pause. Not far from the Flea Market is the famous Cafe DuMonde and its signature beignet and coffee. The takeout and gift shop lines went on forever and the open air dining area was packed too but we managed to just walk right in and sit right down. These were our first beignets, the legendary doughy delights smothered in powdered sugar, and I must say they’re quite good but hardly the revelation I was led to believe. During our repast there two older women turned out in gaudy mardi gras garb sat at nearby table and Pam asked if she could photograph them and they complied. A great pleasure on this trip was that Pam took photos practically everywhere we went. She is a superb photographer who years ago made a name for herself for her photojournalistic and art photography before life intervened and she eventually dropped the camera and morphed into a mixed media artist. Seeing her little by little pick up the camera again does my heart good. We intend to work together on a project one day featuring her images and my words.
Joining us after awhile at Cafe du Monde were Pam’s sisters Veronica, Victoria and Cheryl. We found a neat little gallery featuring the work of an artist who’s also the gallery owner.
During our meanderings through the French Market we heard some good jazz being played by a variety of musicians, including a sidewalk trio of a young man drumming and singing, an older man blowing his trombone and a young girl tearing it up on the trumpet. They attracted quite a few onlookers and admirers. Count us among them, Pam got some great shots of them.
The big family gathering that reunion week was a dinner and dance at Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant. The staff put out a nice buffet spread highlighted by a great jambalaya and these scrumptious little meat pies. The main bill of fare though was the four generations of the Williams-Jackson family gathered for this celebration. Family and friends of family joined as one. Folks came from California, Nebraska, Missouri, Virginia and Georgia. Pam’s mom Janis, who is called Mother by one and all, headed the program, assisted by her daughter Cheryl. A cousin of Pam’s named Alexandra from the Kansas City side of the family has a beautiful, trained singing voice and she treated us to a rendition of “Ave Maria” and a gospel hymn. An unannounced segment of the reunion dinner program featured Pam’s daughter Beaufield Berry and her man Rob Fisher ecchanging marriage vows before the assembled Williams-Jackson clan. They wanted to share their wedded union with the extended family. I happened to be holding their 2-year-old son Shine during most of the ceremony and while he was just fine he sure couldn’t understand what mommy and daddy were doing up there.
We baby sat Shine two nights there after long days when we knew we weren’t getting back out into the party fray. We left the late nightlife revelry to the younger folks. Besides, we have a ball with Shine, whose sweet joy takes the edge off everything.
Once in New Orleans we didn’t see much of our driver, Jill, but we did find out she got a parking ticket for an expired meter and then a tow boot put on her car, which is no way for a city to treat the visitors who keep its economy afloat. After that, we decided it was better to pay the hotel parking garage fee of $37 a day, which all three of us originally balked at, and we split the cost with her. It turned out to be cheaper than searching for the scant street parking available and then getting hammered by the parking Nazis there.
For our return journey back home we took a much more direct route. We won’t soon forget the stark landscape of Mississippi, the winding roads of Arkansas and the rolling fields of Missouri. We crossed some spectacular old bridges that are epic and sculptural in addition to being practical. We were passing through Cleveland, Mississippi this past Sunday when hunger overtook us and not knowing where to stop we took a flyer on the Southern Cafe & Grill, which to our delight offered the best roadside, all-you-can-eat buffet imaginable for $10.99. Everything in that buffet line was country soul food done right: greens, lima beans, green beans, mashed potatoes, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, both fried and broiled chicken and some wonderful chicken stew-like dish. All of it was down home, real deal, succulent pleasure personified. It was one of those, Now-you-can-take-me-home-Lord meals that just don’t come around that often. We knew we were in the right place when after church crowd began filing in – white and black – dressed in their Sunday finest.
We spent another night at Jill and Jake’s place in K.C. before heading back to Omaha with Beau and Shine. After two straight adventures in the South I really like it there. The humidity does a number on me but its doable. I like the people, the landscapes, the attractions and the lifestyle. Mostly, from what I could see, the South is, just like the Midwest and pretty much everywhere for that matter, made up of honest, hard working folks who don’t take themselves too seriously but who have fierce pride of ownership in the places they call home. They love sharing their culture with outsiders if you show genuine interest in it.
As an interracial couple visiting the South in 2016 we don’t have to contend with the cruelties and dangers that mixed couples and people of color faced in the past. We never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. Seeing Confederate flags proudly displayed in the windows of homes and on private flag poles gives a moment of pause but those sights are few and far between. Pretty much everywhere we went we were greeted with cordiality, kindness and politeness. We even got a compliment from some random guy in Eureka Springs about what a great looking couple we are. Pam, as often happens with her, was told more than once how beautiful she is and how lovely her clothes are.
We were in good hands with Jill behind the wheel and she’s great company. A very sweet and smart woman who doesn’t stand for any nonsense.
I don’t know when we will next get back to the South, except that Pam feels called to do some serious family research in Georgia, where there are mysteries in her family line she is bound and determined to unravel. Depending on what she finds, it could be the makings of a highly personal photo essay or book or film or all or none of the above. If we don’t make it down there in 2017, we do know the next family reunion is set for Atlanta in 2018, so one way or the other I will be posting a new installment of my Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary. Until then, I’m dreaming of that heavenly Sunday buffet and counting candied yams, not calories.
Stanley Kubrick and Alexander Payne:
An unexpected congruence
Been revisiting the work of the late Stanley Kubrick. While I’ve always regarded him as a true master and genius of cinema, my appreciation for just how far ahead he was of his times is deeper than before. He may be the boldest independent filmmaker to ever come out of America. When the Hollywood studio system still had an iron grip on the industry, as an outlier totally outside that appratus he went ahead and taught himself filmmaking, got his work distributed and within a few years Hollywood came knocking at his door. He did this long before John Cassavettes. He did it long before there were film schools. He forced himself into the world cinema ranks without the benefit of having come up through the studio system or having a mentor or working in television or theater. He just made himself into a filmmaker through sheer will and talent. He eventually entered a longterm contract with Warner Brothers that gave him remarkable freedom to make fllms on his terms with little or no interference from the suits. It’s the same kind of arrangment Woody Allen later struck and still enoys today. But what got Kubrick noticed by the studios in the first place were doc projects he audaciously made on his own, “The Day of the Fight” and “The Flying Padre,”followed by two narrative features he also made on his own, “Fear and Desire” and “Killer’s Kiss,” thus proving he could produce and direct as good a B picture as any of the studios. Whereas making commercially viable films outside the system is fairly routine today, doing so in the late 1940s-early 1950s as he did was unheard of. It helped that this once prodigy still photographer had done photo essays for Look Magazine. He was a brilliant visualist and storyteller and an astute cinephile, He learned pracitically everything he needed to know to be a filmmaker through his photography work and watching movies Of course, someone like Kubrick or Alexander Payne doesn’t just watch a film, at least a compelling one, they analyze and absorb it. Their insatiable intellects make a study of everything that falls in their gaze.
In his early 20s, Kubrick rented a motion picture camera and shot those two documentary shorts with it, both of which he sold. Then came the two indie features. Neither is very good but each shows the filmmaker’s great eye for composing beautifully lit and evocative shots and for handling complext movements and actions. An indie distributor saw the first feature and got it seen in art houses. United Artists took interest in the second and offered Kubrick a deal to make a feature for them, which became “The Killing,” his inventive and effective racetrack heist picture that marked him as a serious talent. That led to his first masterpiece, the brilliant anti-war film “Paths of Glory.” It marked his first time working outside the U.S. and with a major star, Kirk Douglas. “Killing” and “Paths” displayed his sardonic sensibilies, visual poetry, precise compositions and facility for authenticity, all of which became trademarks for his subsequent work. Kubrick’s first full foray into big Hollywood studio filmmaking came when Douglas asked him to helm “Spartacus” after firing veteran A-list director Anthony Mann following the first few days of production. It was Kirk’s project. Just as Douglas clashed with Mann, he did with Kubrick, who hated being a director for hire without final say – a position he vowed never to be in again and he wasn’t – though the well received project did boost his standing in the industry as a bankable artist. His next two projects, “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove,” were completely different than any American films of that era in their incredibly frank, intelligent and satiric treatment of very sensitive subjects that in less hands would have fallen flat or rang dishonest or been ridiculous.
And then he changed the face of cinema for evermore by making his most ambitious film to date, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Before “2001” the best sci-fi film was “Forbidden Planet,” a very serious, big-budget project that I adore but that when compared to Kubrick’s work is a naive and simplistic cartoon. Outside the U.S. Fritz Lang made a German masterwork in “Metropolis,” but we’re confining this discussion to American films. Kubrick raised the genre to heights never before seen or imagined and arguably never since surpassed. It is a work of art unfraid to tackle the biggest questions concerning life on Earth, the universe and eternity. Which brings me to Alexander Payne and a certain congruence between his work and the work of Kubrick.
In rewatching Payne’s work to prepare for the release of the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” I realized that they are twinned satirists who insistently tweak, challenge, subvert and decry the worst in humankind yet offer a glimmer of hope in the end, though Kubrick’s endings are decidedly less hopeful and more pessimistic. But these artists’ work definitely shares an affinity for the ambiguous, complex and dual natures of people. They both dislike authority, exploitation, manipulation and dishonesty. Their films seamlessly juggle mulitple storylines. Their films also share the keen sense of observation that comes from analytical and intuitive minds that place us as viewers at a distance that keep us intellectually and emotionally involved without indicating too much what we are to feel. They each respect us enough to let us glean what we will without beating us over the head with cues. Visually. Payne is not at Kubrick’s level, at least not yet, though his compositions, cutting and visuals have become more and more cinematic, rhythmic and poetic. And where Kubrick was making and in many cases reinventing highly evolved genre films right from the start (“Day of the Fight” is a boxing film, “Fear and Desire” is a war story, “Killer’s Kiss” is a suspense film, “The Killing” is a heist pic, “Paths of Glory” is a war story, “Spartacus” is a historical epic, et cetera),
Payne has not worked in hard and fast genres, except he calls everything he makes a comedy. “Citizen Ruth” is a social satire about abortion and a lot of other things. “Election” is a high school comedy about blind ambition and mid-life crisis. “About Schmidt” is a personal dramedy about identity crisis. “Sideways” is at once a buddy pic, road flick and love story. “The Descendants” is a family dramedy about infedlity, loss and love. “Nebraska” is an elegaic tone poem about aging, family and community. The film he still has in production “Downsizing” is, whether he agrees or not, a sci fi film that not unlike “2001” takes on major social, politcal, cultural, philosophical and spiritual topics. It’s also a love story. Payne has always talked about wanting to work in genres and this may be his first venture there, though this is a terrestrial story, not an extratereistrial tale. No spaceships or monoloths or Star Child or self-aware Hal compiuter here. However, the entire plot does hinge on speciulative new technology that makes it possible for humans to downsize or miniaturize themselves to a few inches tall and much of the story unfolds in the hypothesized Small World. There’s yet another fictional world depicted, this one akin to a Middle Earth, that also has a major role in what reads like a post-modernist fable. I am not suggesting that Payne’s “Downsizing” will be the cinematic landmark that “2001 was but then again, maybe, just maybe, it might be. I, for one, can’t wait to see.
Of course, Kubrick considered more big ideas in his subsequent genre films “A Clockwork Orange” (sci-fi), “Barry Lyndon” (historical epic), “The Shining” (horror), “Full Metal Jacket” (war) and “Eyes Wide Shut” (love/relationships). Perhaps Payne will get around to that Western he’s long talked about and, who knows, maybe he’ll try his hand at a war film or an historical drama. Whatever he does, you can be sure it will be done with ultimate care, rigor and agility. Just as Kubrick’s body work by his seventh film already made him a world cinema giant, Payne is at that same point, too. In fact, Payne’s first two features were far stronger than Kubrick’s. You might argue that Kubrick’s next few films on through “Strangelove” were somewhat more impressive than Payne’s work from “About Schmidt” on through “Nebraska.” By that mean, Kubrick’s work was also visionary and unconventional and groundbreaking. I can’t say that for Payne’s works, although within the conventions he works in his work is unmatched. And then Kubrick went to a whole other level with “2001.” Something tells me Payne will do the same thing with “Downsizing.”
NOTE: My Alexander Payne book releases Sept. 1 but now through August 27 it can be purchased at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street in Omaha’s Old Market. It lists for $25.95. Or you can pre-order a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org. It will eventually be in select bookstores and gift shops and available on Amazon and for Kindle.
Do any Alexander Payne films rate among 100 Greatest American films ever made?
So, when the American Film Institute (AFI) gets around again to naming the 100 best American movies of all time along with the 100 best American comedies of all time, will any Alexander Payne films make the list? After recently rewatching all his work and putting together the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” I would hazard to guess that enough time may have passed by now for as many as five of his films to crack these lists, though another decade or so may make the case better for some of them. In the Greatest movies category, I can make a great case right now for any or all of the following: “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” though I think the most likely of that group to be so homored is “Sideways.” Personally, I think the most deserving is “Nebraska.” When I review the current AFI Greatest rankings, there are several movies that to my tastes anyway have no business being there, including “Ben-Hur,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Swing Time,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Easy Rider,” “Titanic,” “All About Eve” and well a whole bunch more. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all fine films. But do they rise to Greatest ever heights? Let’s just say that on my Greatest list I would change out about half of the entries in the AFI list for other films I regard as better works. I definitely rate any of the Payne films I nomianted as Greatest candidates above the pictures I singled out here. I see that “The Last Picture Show” is on the AFI list, and while I admire the movie, I don’t think it’s as good as Payne’s “Nebraska,” another black and white, small town elegy story. There are very few comedies on the Greatest list and once again i would rate any of Payne’s comedies, with the exception of “Citizen Ruth,” right there with “The Apartment,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Tootsie,” “The Graduate,””Duck Soup,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “City Lights,” “Modern Times” and “The General,” and I am a great admirer of all those films.
Looking over the AFI Greatest Laughs list, any or all of Payne’s films deserve a spot there. For many Payne buffs, his best comedy to date is “Election” and it certainly belonsg among the best screen comedies. Based on sheer fillmMaking and cinema as art consideratons, only a very few on the AFI list can match or exceed his work in my opinion, and that would be “Dr. Strangelove,” the aforementioned Chaplin films, Keaton’s “The General” and “The Navigator,” Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” James L. Brook’s “Broadcast News” and the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo.” If you’re grading purely on comedy or laughs, well then several films may be funnier than Payne’s comedies, such as “The Producers” or “There’s Somtething About Mary” or “Animal House” but of course his movies don’t only operate as comedies. Indeed, they are as much dramas as comedies because he applies a sharp satiric lens to everything he looks at and he focuses that lens on some very tough subjects. Abortion. Addiction. Infidelity. Loneliness. Alienation. Identity crisis. Aging. Death. With his new film “Downsizing” he’s tackling even deeper, darker subjects. For my tastes anyway, his comedies are among the richest and most satisfying ever made for these very reasons. In this sense, he shares much in common with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Frank Capra, Ernest Lubisch and Billy Wilder from the Golden Age of Cinema. Part of the fun of fillm is that everyone sees everything so differently.
NOTE: My Alexander Payne book releases Sept. 1 but now through August 27 it can be purchased at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street in Omaha’s Old Market. It lists for $25.95. Or you can pre-order a copy at email@example.com. It will eventually be in select bookstores and gift shops and available on Amazon and for Kindle.