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Alexander Payne: Sideways Glance at America

“This business is all about how we need to see more heroes in movies. I hate that.”—Alexander Payne

Writer-director Alexander Payne’s filmography of dark comic satires is packed with punch—his projects chosen, written, and directed with care as intricate character studies incorporating intelligent and humorous social commentary. His career began with the rare feat of getting his film school thesis project screened—in the Sundance Film Festival, no less. In the mid-1990s he began a creative collaboration with Jim Taylor: they selected projects and cowrote scripts together, with Payne at the directorial helm. An amazing collection of films emanated from this alliance: the caustic, abortion-themed Citizen Ruth; the hilariously biting, complex portrayal of American high school personalities, Election; and the heartbreaking late-life crisis tale About Schmidt—all of which are at turns loving tributes and sarcastic indictments of the Midwestern psyche. His latest creation, Sideways, is a luminous, subversively intelligent and nuanced gem.

Proclaiming a “Declaration of Independents” in Variety last year, Payne argues for his belief in the necessity of humane, intelligent, and uplifting cinema, and lends his own insight to the ongoing debate over the definition of independent film. Arguing that it is less about the mode of financing than the craft, he writes, “Cinema is independent only to the degree that it reflects the voice of one person, the director.” His films illustrate that he is true to his word—they are all marked with his individual stamp. He is one of a few directors currently working within the Hollywood system with final editing rights to his films, and his pitch-perfect casting stems from an insistence on actors suited to the part, rather than their star-power. “I want all of my films to belong to me,” he says. “There is an audience out there for literate films—slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made.”

Payne’s emergence at the forefront of contemporary American directors gives hope to the ideal of an original cinema that is both smart and entertaining. The Walker welcomes this independent voice in American film (fresh from his job as jury president of Un Certain Regard at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival) back to the heartland.