Plains Folk

Life on These Plains


During one of the arguments that punctuate the feature film, August: Osage County, Meryl Streep, in character as Violet Weston, blurts out, “What do you know about life on these plains?”


This is a question that people have been asking film-makers for a long time. In the 1930s the public reaction to the documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains, was so hostile the film had to be pulled from theaters.


Generally, cinematic views of the region are less than rosy. Director Peter Bogdanovich, for instance, observed a convention established with the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of OZ by shooting the entirety of The Last Picture Show in black and white.


So now we have two new indie films, much heralded, invoking places of the plains in their titles. First we have Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne, who grew up in Omaha. Then we have August: Osage County, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, who was born in Tulsa and grew up in Durant.


August: Osage County is set in the place named and was filmed in Pawhuska and Bartlesville, but does not present itself as a regional statement. Rather it is billed as intergenerational family drama—a story of “the strong-willed women of the Weston family.”


Nebraska, on the other hand, steps in it by intoning, “Nebraska tells the stories of family life in the heartland of America.” This has provoked my friend Jon Lauck, who works for Senator Thune in South Dakota, mightily. He protests, rightly, that the so-called heartland is portrayed as a land of decaying communities and hopeless hicks.


What, then, do these film-makers know about life on these plains? Both films establish themselves in local landscapes. Nebraska perhaps makes better use of the land, but August: Osage County does incorporate key landforms of the Osage Hills.


It is the treatments of people, though, that distinguish the films, and these are disturbing. In Nebraska, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), convinced he is a million-dollar magazine sweepstakes winner, sets out on a quest from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his winnings. Son David (Will Forte) is his driver. Along the way they stop in Woody’s old home town of Hawthorne (which looks a lot like Stanton and Plainview), Nebraska.


In August: Osage County, the elders of the family are hooked on booze and pills, and the kids, brought together by a funeral, are feckless and contentious. The old farmstead is in decay.


Many of the images and themes in both films are conventional and tiresome. Homes and towns are derelict, an older generation is gone to seed, the kids have scattered to places of better opportunity. And yet, Bruce Dern, visiting the farmhouse where he was born, provides a line that signals something deeper: “My dad built this place.”


Without revealing too much, I can say that these films are about revelations, about a younger generation learning things they never knew about their parents. They will be important to the cinematic history of the Great Plains.


Footnote: actress Misty Upham plays the Cheyenne woman hired as caregiver for Meryl’s Streep’s character. Upham is a Piegan from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. She is a direct descendant of Chief Heavy Runner, killed in the Marais Massacre in 1870. That’s another whole story.


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