• Will Forte in Nebraska

In the Isa Genzken retrospective that opened last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, there’s a series of four stereo advertisements that Genzken enlarged and presented as found-art objects in 1979. The ads come from four different countries, though they’re remarkably similar in their layout. Each presents the equipment against a white backdrop and amid blocks of small type explaining the state-of-the-art technology employed by the new models. Taken collectively, these ads suggest a futurist sensibility, global in nature and based upon a utopian fusion of art and science. That sensibility, I think, is meant to be so compellingly unreal that it overshadows the more straightforward irony of advertisements hanging in an art gallery.

Viewing this piece the other day, I recalled the early scene in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (which Doc Films is screening a few times this weekend) that shows Will Forte’s hapless loser at work, unsuccessfully shilling stereo equipment at an electronics store. Forte struggles to stay confident as he goes on about the design of a fancy new model his customers clearly have no interest in buying. In one of the movie’s characteristically dry punchlines, he ends the awkward conversation (filmed in a single, static take that makes the characters seem trapped in a cage) by giving them his business card, more to remind himself of his professional competence than to inspire them to come back. It’s a great stinger, but Payne establishes an air of hopelessness from the second Forte opens his mouth. His sales pitch draws on the language of those late-70s ads, making him sound not only out-of-date but pathetically out of touch. Amid Nebraska‘s mournful images of middle-class America in decline, state-of-the-art stereo equipment seems like one more reminder of economic prosperity that no longer exists for the film’s characters. Payne makes stereo-culture futurism seems even sillier than Genzken did, since his characters have so little to look forward to.