The two greatest Nebraska-born auteurs of the last 100 years are surely the late Harold Lloyd and the alive-and-well Alexander Payne. Different world views and approaches to cinema, of course — a brilliant physical comedian and a brainy, low-key dramatist with a wry sense of humor — so there’s no need to compare the two. Geographical origins mean nothing in the greater schemes.
But if someone insisted upon comparing them, who would be the greater, more formidable talent in the eyes of the Movie Godz? And who would be the “winner” if the same question was put to Joe and Jane Popcorn?
The answer, of course, is that the Movie Godz would side with Lloyd because of his physically inventive comic scenarios (i.e., that hanging-from-a-clock shot from Safety Last) while Joe and Jane would choose Payne because of Election and Sideways, and because they’ve probably never even seen a clip from a Harold Lloyd film, much less one from beginning to end.
It doesn’t matter how good you are or were — all that matters is (a) what people remember and (b) the quality of the biographies or documentaries made about your work.
I was thinking about Payne this morning because the 20th anniversary of Election (which is either his best or second-best film — you decide) is only a few days off. Payne has been a fully respected, brand-name director since Citizen Ruth, but he’s touched greatness only twice — with Election and Sideways (’04). Basically he was a beneficiary of what turned out to be a five-year hot streak.
Artists are merely channellers or conduits of creative insight and energy. They don’t get to choose when their output is going to be brilliant or mezzo-mezzo or disappointing. All they can do is keeping pumping the handle and hope for the best.
Payne exuded an almost wizard-like aura after Election, but after everyone saw About Schmidt (’02) the consensus was that he’d lost his touch. Then be bounced back with the glorious Sideways.
Seven years later Payne came up with The Descendants, which everyone found fairly exceptional and rooted in real-people behavior (it was a solid 8 or even an 8.5) even if they privately muttered that it wasn’t quite on the level of Sideways (9) or Election (9.5). Two years later he delivered the Oscar-nominated but vaguely underwhelming Nebraska (7.5)). Then he came up with Downsizing (5.5), which had a brilliant first act but collapsed somewhere around the halfway mark.
If there’s such a thing as a dry Nebraskan aesthetic, Payne is the emblem of this. (I think. Probably.) I’m not sure I know enough about Lloyd to say that he thought or wrote or performed like a Nebraskan; nor am I certain if “Nebraskan” means anything in the realm of creative endeavor. I do know that as a producer-performer Lloyd had a personal stamp, and that he enjoyed a six- or seven-year peak period from Safety Last (’23) to Welcome Danger (’29).
This is one of the most hare-brained things I’ve ever written.