Thursday, November 19, 2009
Half-dead from reading books about the economics of Imperial Russia, I rented this film from the library. (I realize that this means I'm behind the times, since it came out years ago.) The box bills it as some kind of zany-journey-of-self-discovery flick, a genre which is occasionally entertaining but rarely compelling in any serious, pointy-headed way. Fair enough, I thought: better this tapioca than something Tarkovsky-ponderous. And besides, what can be better than an old and creaky-boned Jack Nicholson?
To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement: About Schmidt is a tremendously sensitive and powerful film. (It is true that I may have watched it through a lens of domestic nostalgia.) Characteristically, the self-conscious "comedy" bits are not especially funny and seem rather phoned-in. Where About Schmidt truly excels, however, is in its exploration of a moral universe whose limits are very narrow--the universe in which most of us live and which is almost never touched upon in big-drama Hollywood or arthouse cinema. Schmidt's main antagonist, the waterbed salesman who wants to marry his daughter, is not a bad guy; Schmidt's failure to stop the wedding is neither a moral victory nor a moral defeat, even if might seem that way to him. Even the Tanzanian child Schmidt "adopts," who provides the only glimmer of Great Moral Redemption in the film, is clearly there only as a kind of joke. The quest for a noble purpose is stifled by banality.
This banality, which suffuses everything from the sets to the costumes, is the film's other great strength. I've said for a while that the next great hip retro aesthetic is going to be tacky mall-culture Americana, with all its pseudo-colonial decor and collectible figurines. The film, which is full of the Midwestern version of this aesthetic, has plenty of chances to ridicule it. It never does so explicitly: the viewer is simply offered an opportunity to project his own disdain onto the pastel paint and garish pioneer monuments, and by the end of the film such a projection begins to seem morally unpleasant. The Midwest in About Schmidt has a certain dignity and gravitas that comes through because, not in spite, of its poshlost'.
It is crucial that this is not simply a matter of grassroots simple-folksism. There is nothing in this film like an ideal of rural authenticity that can be contrasted to the superficiality of coastal elites. Midwestern culture here is commercialized and inauthentic through-and-through; the all-singing, all-dancing highway arch commemorating the pioneers is downright grotesque, even if its plaque seems profoundly meaningful. What the film seems to say, however, is that all these abstract considerations of authenticity are ultimately irrelevant. One looks for rootedness in the world, like Schmidt, wherever one may find it.