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The Conversations: Alexander Payne

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The Conversations: Alexander Payne
The Conversations: Alexander Payne

Jason Bellamy: Alexander Payne films don’t have the distinct visual styles of movies by Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, to name two other filmmakers of his generation, but they are quickly recognizable just the same. Payne’s five feature films are quasi-tragic comedies with hopeful but not fully redemptive conclusions about people struggling with significant life changes. Protagonists in Payne’s movies are always flawed. Relationships are usually difficult, distant, damaging, or all of the above. And deception is commonplace. On the face of that description, Payne’s movies mustn’t seem distinct at all. In fact, I think I just described every crappy romantic comedy from the past decade or more. But what sets Payne apart is the way he applies these themes—unflinchingly exposing his characters’ worst tendencies before ultimately regarding them with great sympathy—and, even more so, who he applies them to. If Payne’s films are known for anything, it’s for being about average Americans, emphasis on the “average.”

Of course, at the movies, where Jimmy Stewart can be considered an “everyman” and Kathrine Heigl can be cast as the proverbial “girl next door,” “average” is never ordinary, which is precisely why Payne’s characters generate so much attention, because they’re often ruthlessly unexceptional. Ruth in Citizen Ruth (1996) is a promiscuous glue-huffer who becomes a pawn in an abortion debate. Jim in Election (1999) is an awarded high school teacher who can’t outsmart his students or pull off an extramarital affair. Warren in About Schmidt (2002) is a retiree with no interests or usefulness. Miles in Sideways (2004) is a writer who can’t get published, a wine snob who can’t control his drinking and an introverted romantic who can’t move on from his divorce. Matt in The Descendants (2011) is a husband who doesn’t know his wife and a father who doesn’t know his kids. And those are just the main characters.

Because Payne’s characters tend to live modest lives (some of them in modest Middle America), and because Payne is so fearless in his examination of their faults, and often uses his characters’ shortcomings as mechanisms for humor, his films have often been attacked as condescending. In this conversation we’ll go into each of the five films mentioned above, as well as Payne’s memorable vignette from 2006’s Paris, Je T’Aime, which does little to deflect the accusations of condescension. But let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Ed, does Alexander Payne look down his nose at his characters, or ask us to mock his characters, for being unremarkable? Is his humor mean-spirited and class-conscious? In short, is he condescending?

Tribeca Film Festival 2009: Don McKay

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Tribeca Film Festival 2009: <em>Don McKay</em>
Tribeca Film Festival 2009: <em>Don McKay</em>

Clearly a quiet and lonely man, Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) sluggishly scrubs the paint off a high school art class’s floor, with a loser shrug affixed to his face. He’s employed in janitorial services, and this being a not-too-stirring existence, he jumps at the chance to go back to his hometown after receiving a letter from a cancer-stricken first love, Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), who beckons his return. Upon arriving at her childhood home, Don is greeted by a suspiciously tidy, anal-retentive maid, Marie (Melissa Leo), who has been Sonny’s caretaker since the cancer spread. When Don finally sees Sonny, still marvelously angelic, his eyes widen in glee as fond memories are recalled, but Don McKay is no glorious reunion story, as this town and girl he once knew belie a much deeper, far-reaching truth than the artificial welcoming party may let on.

Go West: A Talk with Walter Hill

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Go West: A Talk with Walter Hill
Go West: A Talk with Walter Hill

Walter Hill (48 Hours, Wild Bill) appeared at a Television Critics’ Association press conference to promote his upcoming AMC film Broken Trail, which debuts in July. The four-hour, two-part film stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church (who were also present) as a veteran rancher and his nephew. The characters drive a herd of cattle from Oregon to Wyoming, then get sidetracked into trying to rescue five immigrant girls who have been sold into prostitution.

Asked why westerns had nearly disappeared from popular culture—particularly on TV, where the genre is represented only by the occasional TNT movie and HBO’s Deadwood, for which Hill directed an Emmy-winning pilot—the filmmaker said, “You’d probably need a sociologist to answer that.” Then he took a shot at it.

“When I was a kid, there was a tremendous saturation of westerns on television,” said Hill.” “All things pass.”

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