About Schmidt

Starring:
  • Old Fat Jack
  • Kathy Bates' Saggy Fun Bags
  • Wide Open Spaces

 

 
Directed by Citizen Payne

"If you think what I do in this movie is bad, I will have you know that I turned down Robert Altman's offer to do a full-frontal lesbian scene with Sally Kellerman."

The Big Empty

Considering some of the angry reactions it's getting, About Schmidt must really be on to something. I will admit up front that I love the movie, but I can't help but think: Am I making something out of nothing and peddling it as a pseudo-intellectual opinion, or did Alexander Payne make something (a moving story) out of nothing (the wide-open spaces of the Midwest) and turn it into art? Upon my second viewing, I am of the opinion that despite some of its movie-ish qualities (like Jack Nicholson's exceedingly disheveled appearance), About Schmidt taps into some of the most profound, existential aspects of the Midwestern life unlike any film of recent memory. It belongs to the same family of literature as Sinclair Lewis' Main Street and Babbitt and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio: Satire of the Midwestern life. Perhaps it suffers from Wes Anderson syndrome (quirky costumes and events interrupting the tone of the piece), but About Schmidt finds the same poetry of Midwestern existential lonliness and regret that those great works do, which I think touches some viewers on nerves they wish not to feel. Sometimes, the criticisms are so elusive that they seem to say more about the viewer than the film. Just read this article by George Will.

"Midwest bashed again in Nicholson flick"

George Will's stupefying take on not just About Schmidt, but also the works of Sinclair Lewis, seems to be more of a knee-jerk defense of all things conservative rather than actual literary criticism. Yes, George Babbit is a Republican, as Lewis himself wrote of his protagonist, "A sensational event was changing from the brown suit to the gray the contents of his pockets. He was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party," but the flavor of George Babbitt and Warren Schmidt's Republicanism is not that of William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Irving Kristol, Leo Strauss's conservative intellectual movement, but the middle-brow ranting of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. When Warren Schmidt listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, the idea is not that he's a racist (or whatever default criticisms the left has of Limbaugh), but that Schmidt's political thought mirrors the conformity of his entire life (Let it be said that even now most Republicans regard Limbaugh as a sideshow targeted at the disgruntled white man). This is more closely related to the Right's default criticism of university liberals who shovel IMF and World Bank conspiracies at suspectible college students than anything inherently political.

Will then tells us that, after all, stories like those of Babbitt and Schmidt are worthy of literature, that "a haunting sense of regret about time wasted is a timeless theme of literature." But he ends by saying, "Timeless and placeless. It is the human condition, not a Midwestern affliction." Does Will mean to say that Midwestern writers, for some reason, don't have the right to write about lonliness and regret because lonliness and regret are not confined to the Midwest? The human condition does exist in the Midwest, even among its most staunchly Republican voters. Great writing is timeless and placeless, but timeless literature localizes universal themes to a particular setting, so what, then, is so "condescending" about Alexander Payne using the metaphor of cattle to describe the human condition as it exists in the Midwest? Will's assertion that Payne turned Warren Schmidt "into a stereotypical Midwesterner whose taciturnity is presumably symptomatic not of still waters running deep, but only of a low emotional metabolism" is a bit baffling. The still waters of Schmidt's marriage result not in "low emotional metabolism" (his "emotional metabolism" percolates inside him) but the idea that humans are creatures of habit and, with the expanse of the Midwest tamed from the "heroic frontier," of comfort. How can he say that "it is still very modern to suppose that people like Schmidt who do not 'share their feelings' have none" when so much empathy is paid toward toward the character, when the screenwriters, director, and actor labor to give us a sense of his internal life? Does Will not suppose we feel for Schmidt when his daughter dismisses him and his feelings, or is alienation from one's children just another instance of "condescention toward Midwesterners"?

George Will wants to believe that the myth of Norman Rockwell America is more than simulacra, but to believe that Main Street values really are the bedrock of Main Street is hopelessly unenlightened—which is not to say that Lewis' angry satire and Will's want of myth aren't reconcilable. Will mentions Evan Connell's "nuanced" novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge as examples of quality Midwestern literature, which I will agree with. Connell's works are marked by the internal life of its protagonists, the struggle of adapting to the world as it's presented before them, without the author lashing out at that world at every opportunity, as if that Midwestern world itself has bred the pain (like Sinclair Lewis). But I have always been struck by something defeatist in the works: Mrs. Bridge accepts her priveleged life, as if there's something vaguely heroic about sacrificing life's passion for life's comfort. When faced with the profound truth of her sadness, she always resorts to obeying her husband or the values of her middle-class life. Is this not "condescending" as well, or because the book is as flat as the Kansas praire it qualifies as "Literature"? For me, the sad humor of Payne's work strikes me as more human to the absurdity of the suddenly uprooted life. As for the movie Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, of which Will apparently approves, James Ivory's photography is much to behold, and it's a bit of a rush to see one's hometown on the movie screen, But why isn't Mr. and Mrs. Bridge itself condescending for portraying Kansas City as such a lifeless town? Because the tone of the film matches the life of its characters within the city, not the city itself. I wish George Will would make the same distinction.

Regret, alienation, and lonliness are benchmark themes in post-industrial American Literature, but these themes are distinctly developed according to locale. Most novels of urban lonliness concern images of reduction; the city breeds a feeling of insignificance, that we are just a speck in in the universe as we are a face in the faceless crowd. The city seems to fold in upon the lonely, and they implode into the black holes of alley apartments or are left out of sight in a high rise. The same lonliness in the Midwest feels like its physical surroundings: For those not from the Midwest, invariably the most striking culture shock is the amount of space. Everyone in town knows our lives, so we are not insignificant as people, but we are reduced by the expanse of physical space. We swim through all this space without a destination in sight; the world doesn't consume us; we just get lost in it, like Warren Schmidt in his oversized Winnebago on I-70 looking for hope in the ghosts of his life. George Will may not approve of Sinclair Lewis' fictional depictions of Gopher Praire or Zenith, but Lewis' scathing worldview doesn't discount his satire of Rockwellian Midwestern life, just as Will's knee-jerk defense of conservative Red America doesn't render Payne's poetry of regret "condescending."

The Pitch:
 
2 Sinclair Lewis
Plus
 
2 Winnebagos
Equals
4 About Schmidt
See It For:
Jack at the Independent Spirit Awards planning on nailing whoever won Best Actress.