Scene study of Nebraska

Off camera dialogue as a narrative device

August 25, 2014

In an early scene of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, the video and audio split, each focusing on exposition in separate rooms with separate characters. The cinematic device sets up the movie’s themes – the characters have difficulty communicating, yet despite their loneliness they are lonely together.

The key scene begins at 5:18. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) enters his house with his wife Kate (June Squibb) and son David (Will Forte). Their conversation walks the line between banter and arguing. Woody and Kate go into the kitchen getting into a conversation that has been, and will be, repeated many times. David stays in the laundry room and the camera lingers for five seconds while he puts the laundry down and we hear the conversation in the kitchen. These few seconds introduce the relationships. From David’s perspective, he is task oriented while his parents bicker about the irrelevant past. He is unfamiliar with the details and doesn’t see why it really matters

Then David enters the kitchen with the camera following. Fifteen seconds later Woody, with the camera trained on him, leaves for the living room. While Woody settles onto the couch, we continue to hear the off screen conversation from the kitchen. Kate and David are talking about Woody. It is unclear if Woody can’t hear the dialogue or is trying to ignore it – a situation that occurs throughout the movie. Woody is tired, confused, and out of it. All he can do is slink into the couch while the people closest to him negotiate the direction of his life. The physical separation shows the viewer how Woody would rather keep his distance than get entangled into relationships. After 15 seconds of watching this man’s defeat, strumming music fades in, adding a comedic sense of hopelessness and distancing the viewer from the characters’ experience.

There is a very similar scene at 45:00. This time without the literal walls.

Kate and David move to the foreground and discuss Woody’s condition. Woody is framed in the center between Kate and David, farther from the camera and out of focus. Again, the scene ends on a light note as Kate makes a joke at Woody’s expense.

Film is a powerful medium. It can convey a tremendous amount of information. Visual and aural content can take us to multiple places simultaneously. Yet, Nebraska’s simultaneous vantage points is not being used to cram extra information into a shorter amount of time – the film is generally quiet and slow paced. This device contrasts the characters’ experience and shows how they are interconnected, despite their misunderstandings.

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