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Alexander Payne’s Local Color: Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska’

November 21, 2013 5 comments

I’ve been anticipating Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska for a very long time.  Some years ago he let me read the script by Bob Nelson.  I was moved to laughs and tears by it and ever since then I’ve eagerly awaited Payne’s interpretation of it on the screen.  As I write this I’ve now seen the film twice and will soon be seeing it a third time.  Its depth of emotion coupled with its visual black and white beauty and aching honesty set the film apart from just about anything out there by an American filmmaker today.  I believe it to be Payne’s best work to date.  I know a little something about the filmmaker, having closely covered him and his work since 1997.  I have a book out with my collected jounralism about him titled Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.  It contains some two dozen of my Payne stories from 1998 through 2012 and soon I will be coming out with a new edition featuring my extensive Nebraska coverage.  My latest story about the film is shared with you here.  It recently appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I fully expect to file a new story about Nebraska come Academy Awards time, when the film should fare very well.  You can find my earlier stories about Nebraska on this blog.  I’ll salso be adding another Nebraska story I just finished for the New Horizons.  Additionally, I will be posting extended interviews I did with Payne, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Bob Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and producer Albert Berger.

 

 

 

 

Alexander Payne‘s Local Color: Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in the New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska‘ 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from a story that originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life.

After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named for his native state and primarily shot and set here. Nebraska had an exclusive limited run at Film Streams. On Nov. 24 Payne joins stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte at the Holland Performing Arts Center for the Film Streams fundraiser, Feature V, that will find the troika interviewed on stage by Studio 360 host and novelist Kurt Andersen.

The following day Payne and Dern travel to Norfolk, Neb., the production’s base camp last fall while the project filmed in nearby Hartington, Plainview and environs, to premiere the picture there.

Oscar-winner Payne is a stickler for the truth and with the by-turns elegiac and silly Nebraska he went to extreme lengths finding the people and places that ring true to his and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s vision of Midwest America.

“This is the most authentically Neb. feature film I’ve released to date,” says Payne, who previously made Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt in-state.

Casting director John Jackson and Payne searched long and hard for the right players to animate the oddball yet familiar characters Nelson created on the page. In a rare star turn winning him much acclaim Bruce Dern so fully inhabits his old codger of a character, Woody Grant, that despite the actor’s well-known face and voice he disappears into the part to become just another of the story’s small town denizens.

Dern plays Woody as written: a taciturn man of stoic roots and repressed pain long alienated from everyone around him. Feeling a failure near the end of his life, he’s desperate for some validation and so gets it in his head that he’s a sweepstakes winner. His son David, played by Will Forte, takes him on an epic journey to claim the prize. Amid the missteps and detours comes discovery, empathy and closure. As their strained relationship warms the son gives his father a gift born of understanding, forgiveness and love.

One of the reasons Payne says Dern leapt to mind when he originally read the script a decade ago is that like the actor’s actress daughter Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth, he doesn’t worry about what he looks like on screen. To convincingly play the gone-to-seed Woody the actor inhabiting the role had to look a wreck.

“Those Derns don’t have vanity,” Payne says admiringly. “They’ll do anything, they want to do anything. When working they’re more interested in hitting a certain level of truth, an often ugly truth or pathetic truth, and now you’re talking my language.”

About what made Dern the right fit, Payne says, “Bruce is a handsome guy when he’s cleaned up and obviously as you can see in the film when he’s not cleaned up he can really look like a coot and a weirdo. If you took many other actors and tried to do the same thing they’d look fake. The guy would have to portray someone cut off from others and lost in his own world. Woody’s probably been like that somewhat his whole life but as a young man they just thought he was reticent. Now he’s a coot and ornery and pissed off at himself that he hasn’t done anything with his life and now he’s about to start taking a dirt nap. I think that’s certainly what’s driving Woody’s crazy mission in some part.

“When I thought about who could communicate that I thought of Bruce.”

Payne felt Dern could express the two sides of Woody as both prick and pushover who can’t refuse doing favors, even if it means being taken advantage of. He also detected “a certain childlike nature” in Dern that aligned with Woody’s fragility.

“I think within Woody’s ornery crust there is something of a child – of a very disillusioned and disappointed child.”

Indeed, we first meet Woody as he’s running away from home.

“There’s also a sweetness about Woody and Bruce is a sweet guy. He hasn’t often played that.”

 

 

 

 

Dern acknowledges it’s a departure for him. “Throughout my career I’ve been flamboyant in a lot of roles, especially flamboyantly evil, and there’s a certain style that goes with that.” Nebraska called for him to be a dull, muted, passive presence.

“What the role demanded was a character who appeared to not be touched too much or too little,” he says, “and probably not touched at all. And if he touches other people it’s without planning to do it. He’s just who he is and he’s always going to be that way. I think he’s a fair man, Woody, and that’s another thing I based the character on a lot. Because he’s fair he believes what people tell him because he doesn’t know why anybody would want to lie to him about anything.”

The tangibles and intangibles of a character go into any casting decision.

“When you cast someone in a lead you’re not casting just his or her ability to act,” says Payne. “you’re casting the substance or essence of their person. There’s two things going on simultaneously seemingly contradictory but not. One is you want them to become that person in the script yet at the same time not act.”

Dern says Payne has an uncanny way of communicating what he wants, variously tapping “your strengths and weaknesses and sometimes invading your privacy” to extract the emotion or tone he’s after.

Actors Studio veteran Dern believes he achieved a progressive in-the-moment reality in Nebraska he’d never accomplished before on a film.

“I’ve always wanted to be a human being and just kind of acting-wise leave myself alone and not perform and I don’t think there’s really a moment in the movie where I perform – in other words take it above the context of what it really is. The first day of the movie Alexander said to me, ‘I’d like you to let Mr. Papamichael (cinematographer) and I do our jobs,’ meaning don’t show me anything, let me find it with the camera, and that’s what he did and that’s what you see.

“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. It was as hard a role as I’ve had to take on but I feel I owed it to the material and to my career for just once in my life to try and have as many consecutive moment-to-moment pure moments of behavior. That’s what I began when I worked with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg in the Actor’s Studio – how much moment-to-moment real behavior can you have? And I think in Nebraska I’ve done far and away the most I’ve had in an entire film.”

Forte, a relative newcomer to acting after years writing for television, says he learned a lot from his co-star.

“Bruce would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense. There’s such an honesty that comes from his performance and all the performances that it really taught me a lot to watch everyone work.”

Dern says Payne lived up to what his daughter Laura and his old acting chum Jack Nicholson, who starred in the director’s About Schmidt, told him about the filmmaker: “They both said in separate conversations he’ll be the best teammate you’ve ever had. They were right. I feel it’s the best team, overall, I’ve ever had.”

Payne, whose sets are famously relaxed, says he also casts with an eye to who will “be nice to work with” and contribute to the playfulness he believes essential to good filmmaking. “I want to be there to play. I don’t know exactly how it (any scene) should be, I’m there to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, let’s try this and let’s try that, nudging the machine toward a certain direction. It’s not all preconceived, you’re discovering it day by day, so I think you want actors who are willing to have a sense of, Let’s be playful and free. It’s all about having fun, and that will create something none of us have thought of exactly.”

Dern says he’s glad it took nearly a decade to get the film made – the project came to Payne as the filmmaker was setting up Sideways  – because “I wasn’t ready to play this role a few years ago.” The passage of time put some more natural wear and tear on Dern, both physically and emotionally. The limp he walks with in the film is real, if exaggerated, and the way Woody leaves things unsaid is something Dern says he’s been guilty of himself and regrets.

Similarly, Payne’s personal life caught up with the experience of David in Nebraska  as an adult child dealing with aging parents. Payne’s father is in a nursing home and his mother recently survived a serious health scare.

“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks,” Payne says. “Everyone I know of my generation at that age has parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy. How we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions. It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal. The fact that I had that much more life experience for this film with respect to my parents, I think helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”

 

 

 

 

Payne says the bottomed-out economy also enhanced the austere shooting style and stark look of the film, adding, “Those winds blew their way into the film as well and it becomes more of a modern-day Depression film.”

Undoubtedly some will take umbrage at the film’s portrayals of quirky. salt-of-the-earth types. But if the strong reception the picture’s received at the Cannes, Telluride and New York film festivals, among others, is any indication, than most audiences realize Payne and his collaborators sought archetype, not caricature in bringing to life small town inhabitants and the dysfunctional Grant family.

“I hope what people take away from this movie is his genuine love for Neb. because he really does love Neb.,” says Forte

Dern calls the film “a love poem” to Neb. from Payne.

Payne, Nelson, Jackson, Papamichael, editor Kevin Tent assorted other crew and the ensemble cast all committed to realizing authentic portraits of this comic-dramatic Midwest Gothic tale.

 

 

 

 

 

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)

This compilation of my extensive articles about Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.  

 

Jane Fonda Comes Home

July 23, 2012 8 comments

 

 

LATEST UPDATE:  Jane Fonda shares her thoughts about her weekend in Omaha on her blog site-

Jane Fonda Official Site

 janefonda.com/

 

ANOTHER UPDATE: The Film Streams Feature Event presenting Jane Fonda in conversation with Alexander Payne reminded me of the 1981 Omaha Community Playhouse event, An Evening with Mister Fonda.  The earlier event was a pull-out-all-the-stops tribute to Jane’s father, the late iconic actor Henry Fonda.  His Hollywood press agent and close personal friend John Springer, a biographer of the Fondas, interviewed the actor on stage at the Playhouse.  Much like the Jane Fonda event last night, which had Alexander Payne interview her, film clips were screened to break up the talk.  Coincidentally, I was programming a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the early 1980s and so I made sure to schedule a Henry Fonda-Dorothy McGuire film festival that showed around the same time as the Playhouse tribute.   Film Streams’ repertory series of Jane Fonda films continues.  What goes around comes around, and so the circle is completed.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that one of my favorite parts of the Jane Fonda in Conversation with Alexander Payne event was the surprise appearance by Laura Dern.  The actress has maintained a friendship with Payne since she starred in his first feature, Citizen Ruth, which was filmed in and around Omaha.  Her loyalty to and affection for Payne was demonstrated when she was the guest star for the inaugural Film Streams Feature Event that featured her in conversation with the filmmaker.  I got to interview her in advance of that event and an excerpt from my resulting story, When Laura Met Alex, can be found on this blog.  It turns out she came to Omaha for the Fonda event because, not surprisingly, she’s an admirer of the older actress and in fact met her when her father Bruce Dern worked with Fonda on Coming Home.  Dern described how that meeting and her opprotunity to closely observe her at work helped inspire her to pursue acting with the same unvarnished honesty as Fonda.  Both of Dern’s actor parents, her father Bruce Derna and mother Diane Ladd, worked with Fonda and as fate would have it her father is about to star in Payne’s new film, Nebraska.  How’s that for synchronicity?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Payne ends up working with Dern again and somehow finds a role for Fonda in one of his future projects.

As expected, Jane Fonda came and captured the hearts of those attending the Film Streams Feature Event IV last night (July 22) at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. Understandably, it was not only an emotional evening for her but an emotion-packed weekend, much of which she spent touring old family haunts, including the Omaha Communithy Playhouse that her late father, she, and her brother Peter all acted in.  Spoken and unspoken, her father’s legacy looms large over her and she must particularly feel his presence when she’s back where so much Fonda lore is present.  Omaha is where her iconic father Henry Fonda was raised, learned his social consciousnesses, and began acting.  One of the new things I learned from the conversation she engaged in with Alexander Payne live on the Holland stage is that she did some of her growing up here as well.  I knew that her father’s sister Harriet  lived in the Dundee neighborhood where he grew up and that he came back to visit her and I knew that Peter had attended Brownell-Talbot School and the University of Omaha here  but I always assumed Jane had little contact herself with the extended family in their communal hometown.  But it turns out she visted more than occasionally during her youth, even spending chunks of the summer in town during breaks from the elite boarding schools she attended.  She even says it was in Omaha where she came of age as an adolescent in the 1950s, which became her own personal Amercian Graffiti stomping grounds for cruising in cars up and down the main drag, Dodge Street, for taking-in drive-in movies, and for participating in sock-hops, and all the rest.  She told Payne and us that her aunt Harriett arranged for girls her age from the neighborhood to meet her and made she she was invited to parties and such. She also indicated that Warren Buffett and family, who also called Dundee home, have been friends with the Fondas over the years.

I didn’t get to interview her or meet her as I had hoped, but I’m happy that Film Streams has reenaged her with Omaha and Nebraska after her being away a long time.  She was apparently last here in the late ’90s with her then-husband Ted Turner, who has ranching interests in the state. Before that, she accompanied On Golden Pond to its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum Theatre. She’s pledged to continue her relationship with this place and with Payne, who serves on the Film Streams board and is the one responsible for bringing her back into the fold so to speak.  Now it’s time the same be done with Peter Fonda.  And the same with other Nebraskans in Film, including Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Gail Levin, Lynn Stalmaster, Monty Ross, et cetera.  For too long Nebraska has ignored its film heritage.  It should be celebrated and I’m glad to say that Payne and Film Streams are motivated to do that.

 

 

Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion

July 13, 2012 5 comments

The Film Streams art cinema in Omaha gets more than its share of attention and deservedly so.  It operates at a world-class level under the leadership of Rachel Jacobson.  It has the likes of filmmaker Alexander Payne and novelist  Kurt Andersen as board members and advisers, not to mention guest curators and hosts.  Its visiting artists have included Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger, Laura Dern.  And to help celebrate its fifth anniversary and raise funds for the organization it’s bringing Jane Fonda in for a July 22 on-stage conversation with Payne.  The following story I wrote, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), examines the organization’s strong community orientation and considers Fonda’s legendaric status.

 

 

Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Just as Omaha’s come of age with performing arts venues, nightlife attractions, community events and public spaces, so it’s matured in cinema.

This maturation first bloomed when Alexander Payne made features here. Then the local indie filmmaking scene organized. Subsequently the Omaha Film Festival’s provided an annual juried focus on movies.

But the real growth came when Film Streams launched in 2008, thus giving north downtown a vital new anchor and the metro its first year-round dedicated art cinema. Another amenity in the transformed Omaha.

More than a showcase Film Streams is viewed as a cultural center that invites discussions around movies and their themes.

“I love that there is a place to talk about complex and difficult issues and where I am learning about and appreciating film in a whole new way,” says board member Katie Weitz White.

Board member Paul Smith says “films that would never be seen in Omaha but for the existence of Film Streams are shown and provoke a discussion amongst a diverse community of people who attend those showings, and I think it’s very healthy and enriching to our community.”

He mentions the documentaries Food Inc. and A Time for Burning as films whose subjects, the nation’s food supply and racial discrimination, respectively, became talking points following screenings.

The nonprofit is part of the new community engagement model championed by young professionals here. Perhaps no one embodies that aesthetic more than Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson.

Rachel Jacobson

 

 

The Omaha native long harbored the vision for an art cinema. She enlisted artists, entrepreneurs, community leaders and business experts to help realize it. A classic networker, Jacobson’s built an enviable, pro-active board of directors and advisory board filled with heavy hitters, influencers and tastemakers.

Two celebrity players from Omaha, Payne and Kurt Andersen, are more than window-dressing names associated with it. They guest curate series and host the annual fund raiser, Feature Event. The July 22 Feature Event IV pairs Payne in conversation with Jane Fonda. Past Features brought Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. It’s no secret Payne reels in these major cinema figures.

“That’s really all about Alexander,” says Jacobson. “We wouldn’t be able to do that without him and we are so fortunate because Feature Event provides 15 to 20  percent of the annual budget. So that’s a huge deal for us as an institution.”

The gala’s evolution reflects how Film Streams capitalizes on relationships.

“It’s been a collaboration between us and the Holland and each of the different chairs of the gala. The first chairs were Betiana and Todd Simon, the second chairs were Paul and Annette Smith. Last year it was Katie Weitz White and her husband Watie White and the Weitz family. This year’s chair is Susie Buffett.

“All the different chairs and gala committees have helped shape the event and make it into this interesting thing. Alexander’s been involved. It’s not the kind of fund raiser where we’re auctioning off stuff. We’re not talking about fund raising at the event. We raise the money up front. That way the event gets to be about our mission.”

It’s only one night but in that small window Film Streams coalesces everything it stands for by giving film-as-art a big fat community forum.

“It’s become this signature thing that’s perfect for us. The fact that we get to bring these world renowned actors and directors to town is absolutely thrilling and the conversations have been I think really meaningful and one-of-a-kind,” she says.

Similarly, the whole community development piece of Film Streams has been shaped by many participants. Jacobson says the one-page prospectus she devised “of what Film Streams was going to be,” which amounted to her version of Charles Foster Kane‘s declaration of principles in Citizen Kane, “is very similar to what the organization has become. But the way that everything’s been created has been very collaborative with the staff and the board and with everyone engaged with the organization. Even though it matches what was inside my head it really is outside of me now. It’s something that a lot more people have a hand in authoring.”

Among those varied authors is her father David Jacobson (Kutack Rock), who chairs the board of directors. The board of directors includes members of old-line art philanthropist families.

Jason Kulbel and Robb Nansel of Saddle Creek Records and Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein with the Peter Kiewit Foundation are advisory members from different generations, each exerting pull in different segments.

The broad-based support Film Streams has received from donors, granters and box office patrons has allowed it to become a vested fixture on the arts-culture landscape in a short time.

“What Film Streams has achieved in only five years in being one of the jewels in the crown of the Omaha arts scene, together with the symphony and the zoo and The Rose and the College World Series and the Bemis, is an amazing achievement as far as I’m concerned,” says Payne. “I go to other cities and they don’t have Film Streams.”

Paul and Annette Smith support the organization monetarily and as advocates. The couple sponsored Feature Event II with Debra Winger.

“We’ve been a vocal proponent of Film Streams and we do that really because we believe it plays a critical role in the community,” says Smith a Taneska Capital Management. “The way I think about this is it’s an investment of time, talent, some treasure in an organization which is a cultural asset.”

For film buffs like Sam Walker, “Film Streams has been a dream come true.” Before it the University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus professor of criminal justice made do with scattershot screenings of art and classic films at commercial theaters and other venues. Documentaries rarely showed. Visits by guest film artists were almost nonexistent. Forget about any discussion or education.

The situation worsened when local universities and museums abandoned curated alternative film series. As cineplexes became slaves to blockbusters and sequels, the metro starved for an art film fix. Enter Film Streams. It’s already presented more than 200 first-run premieres and 400-plus classics, shown films from 43 nations and welcomed 222,000 patrons to 700-plus programs at its Ruth Sokolof Theater.

Forty-some visiting filmmakers and guests have spoken there. Dozens of panels and Q&As have followed screenings.

Payne sums up the seascape change with, “Omahans now take it for granted they can go see great movies, and that is an amazing development.”

Alexander Payne

Guest filmmakers sing its praises too.

Louder Than a Bomb documentary producer-director Greg Jacobs says Film Streams “really was one of the favorite stops” on its theatrical tour. “It’s an amazing facility and program. i just got the sense it’s a creative hub.” Jacobs notes what many observers do – that the organization takes its role as catalyst seriously.

Just as it occurs wherever the film plays some Omaha viewers “came up afterwards interested in Louder Than a Bomb as an event,” he says. “But what makes Film Streams stand out,” he adds, “is that Rachel Jacobson helped connect us with poet Matt Mason (Nebraska Writers Collective), which ultimately led to the creation of Louder Than a Bomb Omaha. I think it’s something very special when people take interest not just in the film but in the outreach activities around it. The folks there were involved enough to see the film could have an impact beyond its screening.”

“I get the sense Rachel’s innately a connector,” says Jacobs. “That’s the kind of role she plays. There’s a real desire to not just have people there but then to see what other things she can help create from that.”

“I’ve always loved the social action element of film and how it can convey ideas about issues and spark important conversations,” says Jacobson. “You can maximize the power of film by having discussions around them.”

Film Streams screened the documentaries Restrepo and To Hell and Back and hosted ensuing discussions by veterans and heath care workers about PTSD. It screened the doc The Last Survivor and hosted discussions about genocide.

“These are tough conversations to have and I love that we’re able to provide a safe place to have that kind of dialogue. That wasn’t really the initial vision, but seeing that happen has been exciting.”

She considers Omaha conducive to doing community outreach.

“I think a lot of it’s due to the nature of Omaha and how things operate, how everyone is kind of interconnected in 12 different ways. So we just have these opportunities to link to so many different organizations and individuals who in turn are willing to collaborate.

“That aspect has been really surprising. I didn’t realize how wide ranging it could be. I never really imagined how many different interest groups and demographics would be able to engage with it. It just kind of happened.”

 

 

 

 

The 100-some partners Film Streams has cultivated run the gamut from arts groups to community organizations and social service agencies to school districts and universities. One partner is the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at UNO. OLLAS-Film Streams present a biennial Cinemateca series. It returns August 12.

“The partnership became an instant expression of these two organizations’ mutual commitment to community engagement and to the broadening of learning opportunities beyond traditional spaces,” says OLLAS executive director Lourdes Gouevia. “We continue to explore ways to encourage the Latino and non-Latino community to experience this great theater and the beauty of Spanish and Portuguese foreign films.

“This year’s Cinemateca will include food, music and audience forums guided by OLLAS faculty as well as an invited film expert from the University of Pittsburgh. The series brings in El Museo Latino as a partner.”

All that engagement has a practical side, too. “It has to be that way in order to be sustainable,” says Jacobson, who bends the ear of top business executives.

“It’s very common to find compelling nonprofits that aren’t very well run and Film Streams is a very well run organization,” says Paul Smith. “I spend a good deal of time helping Rachel with organizing the financial management of her business and she’s a very sharp person, a very quick study, and is an effective business manager. It’s great to work with somebody like that.”

Smith says while the business end is not the sexy part of Film Streams, “it’s the infrastructure everything else hangs on. You need to have a good financial infrastructure. Without that you can’t do the fun stuff.”

Payne says the best is yet to come. “Wait till you see all the other outreach programs Film Streams is going to try to do in the next five years.”

 

 

Jane Fonda: A Legend Considered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Jane Fonda. Love her or hate her, she’s a lightning rod figure like few others in film.

When the actress appears at the July 22 Film Streams Feature Event she’ll not only carry the impressive legacy of her personal filmography but that of her iconic family. Alexander Payne will undoubtedly cover the Fonda family acting tree when he converses with her live on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

“To have such a remarkable star and actress and icon, and with the Omaha connection, well, it’s in my dreams,” says Payne.

The Fondas became a noted thespian clan when Jane and brother Peter followed their father, Henry Fonda, into the family business. Papa got his start at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where the siblings did their earliest acting.

In a life and career filled with makeovers and causes, she’s been sex symbol, counterculture rebel, traitor, feminist, artist, power player and fitness guru. Today, she’s best known as a healthy aging advocate and author.

Her early career rested more on her famous name and fashion model good looks than acting ability. But she remade herself from sex kitten ingenue in mostly forgettable Hollywood and European romps (the latter directed by her Svengali-like filmmaking partner Roger Vadim) to serious actress and wannabe activist. Her commitment to challenging projects and roles set her apart from her peers.

At the dawn of the New Hollywood she was perhaps the most powerful woman in the industry, often developing-producing her own material, and usually choosing a smart balance of commercial and art properties.

She turned entrepreneur in the 1980s when she tapped the nascent fitness craze with home workout videos that went viral. Her marriage to politico Tom Hayden ended in 1989. She then married rogue media czar Ted Turner in 1991 and abruptly retired from acting.

Her 2005 autobiography made peace with her deceased father. That same year she returned to acting. The Omaha event comes just as she’s reemerging as a screen presence. Her persona’s come full circle too – from coquette to neurotic to career woman to unreconstructed yippie.

A repertory series of her work shows now through August 30 at Film Streams.

The series:

Cat Ballou

She’s the fetching, spirited title character who hires gunman Kid Shelleen to meet out justice against Tim Strawn (both played by Lee Marvin) for the murder of her father. She holds her own with Marvin in this whimsical Western comedy with heart.

Barbarella

Fonda’s an eye candy fantasy figure in this surreal, pan-sexual trip. She and the film’s director, her then-husband Roger Vadim, push the boundaries of sexual expression and liberation on screen that he earlier exploited with Brigitte Bardot.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

It’s a harder, jaded Fonda stripped of any glamour in a bleak story of Depression-era dance marathoners intent on oblivion. The guile, vulnerability and yearning she revealed here became her signature face.

Klute

Fonda consolidated her new serious image with this post-modern take on the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold convention. She’s both savvy and brittle as Bree Daniels, a New York call girl entangled with a small town detective (Donald Sutherland) investigating a disappearance in the big city. Her first Oscar win.

Julia 

As playwright Lillian Hellman she juggles writerly insecurities and triumphs, a tumultuous relationship with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) and danger aiding a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) caught in the web of anti-Nazi intrigue.

Coming Home

Perhaps her most defining role came as a socially conscious war bride who has an affair with a paraplegic anti-war vet (Jon Voight). Her army officer husband (Bruce Dern) returns from ‘Nam a shattered man and becomes unhinged when he discovers her infidelity, Her second Oscar win.

The China Syndrome

Fonda makes spunk sexy in the part of an ambitious TV reporter who stumbles upon a nuclear reactor accident story. She finds just the right chemistry with cool Michael Douglas and manic Jack Lemmon in this prescient cautionary tale.

Nine to Five

Buttoned-down Jane joins Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in taking extreme measures against their oppressive boss (Dabney Coleman) and his misogynistic ways in this proto-feminist comedy. She plays it straight and gets laughs.

On Golden Pond

This career grace note paired her with Henry for the only time on screen in a story deeply resonant with their own real-life father-daughter dynamics. Henry disliked her Method style. The cathartic project also teamed her with Katharine Hepburn. Jane came to the Orpheum for the film’s gilded Midwest premiere and later accepted her father’s Best Actor statuette at the Oscars.

At Film Streams’ invitation Fonda’s selected two favorite films – 12 Angry Men starring her father and the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy classic Sullivan’s Travels.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and screening dates-times, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Alexander Payne Talks Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha

June 24, 2012 9 comments

One of the world’s leading writer-directors and a legendary actress he admires from America’s last golden age of film may just be made for each other, artistically speaking that is, which makes the “tete-a-tete” they will engage in July 22 at the Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha all the more interesting.  The filmmaker is Alexander Payne and the leading lady is Jane Fonda and they will undoubtedly spend a fair amount of time discussing American cinema from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, a period that Payne adores and that saw Fonda do her best work.  There’s also the Fonda Family legacy to be considered, one with deep resonance to Nebraska because her famous father, the late stage and screen star Henry Fonda, was born and raised in Nebraska and began acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  That’s where Jane and her brother Peter made their stage debuts.  When the lone picture she made with her father, On Golden Pond, premiered she accompanied the movie to Omaha for a red carpet extravaganza at the Orpheum Theatre.  Now she’s back 30 years later to talk shop with a native Nebraska filmmaker. Full circle.

I have a companion story on the blog that gives details about the Jane Fonda repertory series at Film Streams to run from late June through August 30.  She also selected two favorite films that will be getting screened, her father’s personal favorite among his own films, 12 Angry Men, and the great Preston Sturges social satire, Sullivan’s Travels, which is also one of the most scathing looks ever at the corrupt Hollywood ethos.  Film Streams is also screening Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which features Jane’s most recent film acting performance.

 

 

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE- Jane Fonda on the Red Carpet for Red Step. www.imageamplified.com, Image Amplified (1)
Red Step
Jane Fonda & Alexander Payne
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE- Jane Fonda on the Red Carpet for Red Step. www.imageamplified.com, Image Amplified

 

 

Alexander Payne Talks Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

When Omaha’s own Alexander Payne talks cinema with Jane Fonda at the July Film Streams Feature Event he won’t be at a loss for material.

He’ll converse with an intelligent artist he admires and whose best work came in his favorite decade of American movies, the ’70s. Then there’s all the noted directors and actors she’s worked with and the legacy of her famous father and brother to discuss.

It’s apropos that a renowned filmmaker from Omaha will review Fonda’s own legendary career before an audience of Nebraskans since her family is so tied to this place. Her adored father Henry remains an enduring native son. The loyalty the late stage and screen star showed to the state is not lost on Jane or Peter, who are adopted Nebraskans.

The threesome’s cinema paths rarely crossed. Just as Henry’s career waned, Jane’s and Peter’s took off. But there was a golden moment when they all converged. As the Old Hollywood studio system died out a brash new group of creatives crashed the gates to usher in the New Hollywood in the late 1960s. In that emerging space of permissiveness and artistic freedom depictions of sex and violence reached new extremes, more humanistic stories came in vogue, locations gained favor over sound stages and stylistic devices, like flash cuts, took hold. Amid this liberated landscape the Fondas made films that forever changed things.

Jane paradoxically struck a blow for both misogyny and feminism in Roger Vadim’s sexually bold adaptation of the adult comic strip Barbarella. Henry went rouge playing completely against type as a sadistic killer in the Sergio Leone Western Once Upon a Time in the West. Peter became a counterculture hero in the hippie, Harley, drug-fueled road picture classic Easy Rider.

Then, in a dramatic career transformation, Jane went from frothy sex symbol to first-rate dramatic actress of social conviction, winning Oscars for her risk-taking work in Klute and Coming Home. Later, she found the project that became her ailing father’s cinema swan song and their only film together, On Golden Pond. Fast forward a generation and Peter channeled his father in his Oscar-nominated lead role in Ulee’s Gold.

While the Fondas contributed to the unrestrained new cinema a young Alexander Payne cut his teeth on ’70s films as an audience member at the Dundee and Indian Hills Theatres. As Payne acknowledged in accepting his Oscar for The Descendants last February, his mother Peggy was his most devoted filmgoing companion.

He was an intellectually precocious youth with a preternatural appetite for adult art fare. He made his own short films with an 8 mm camera his restauranteur father, George, received as a bonus from Kraft Foods for customer loyalty.

Payne, a Creighton Prep graduate, considered studying journalism but fixed on history and Spanish literature at Stanford University. He didn’t formally study film until he entered UCLA, where his thesis project, The Passion of Martin, played festivals and netted him a production deal from Universal Studios.

By the time he made features in his hometown in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, repeatedly shooting in the same Dundee neighborhood where he and Henry Fonda grew up, Jane was already retired from movies.

For Citizen Ruth Payne cast a strong, socially committed woman not unlike Fonda in Laura Dern to play the title character of Ruth Stoops. Interested in making uncompromising films akin to those he fell in love with during the ’70s, Payne unflinchingly took on the abortion debate in the picture.

His next movie, Election, placed Reese Witherspoon in the kind of catty vixen part a young Jane would have been just right for.

Payne’s subsequent male-dominated films co-star women in roles that put men in their place. In About Schmidt Connie Ray is a trailer park wife sympathetic to Jack Nicholson recently losing his wife until he makes a pass at her and she throws him out. One can imagine Fonda in that part. In Sideways Sandra Oh is the cool wine pourer babe who goes ballistic when she discovers Thomas Haden Church has been lying to her and Virginia Madsen is the cool Earth Mother who sees past Paul Giamatti’s shortcomings. Fonda’s played similar characters.

As a good woman wronged in The Descendants Judy Greer finds the right balance of tenderness and rage Fonda delivered as Cat Ballou, Bree Daniels (Klute), Lillian Hellman (Julia) and Kimberly Wells (The China Syndrome).

No doubt Payne would have loved to work with Fonda in her prime. Who knows, now that she’s acting again perhaps they’ll be a part for her in one of his future projects. Just not his next one, Nebraska, a road movie that follows an embittered Nebraskan (Bruce Dern) living in Montana hell-bent on claiming a sweepstakes prize his estranged son (Will Forte) knows doesn’t exist. The son is sure his father will come to his senses long before they reach their destination of Lincoln, Neb. The journey revisits the old man’s dispiriting past and en route the sympathetic son decides to give his fool of a father the gift of saving face.

Payne’s angling to shoot the project in Nebraska this fall. He and casting director John Jackson are hard at work trying to find authentic Nebraska types as extras.

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

June 19, 2012 6 comments

The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses.  The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio.  A repertory series of her work is part of the deal.  Laura Dern got the treatment the first time.  Debra Winger came next.  Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people.  For some, she’s an enduring star.  For others, a faded one.  Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions.  Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move.  Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars.  She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.  Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70.  Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes.  Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work.  Her boarding school and debutant upbringing.  Her early modeling career.  Studying under Lee Strasberg.  Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner.  Her activist years.  Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer.  Making herself a fitness guru.  Her forever strained relationship with her famous father.  And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author.  You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog.  Many happy cinema returns.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Fonda Legacy

This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.

She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.

The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.

Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.

When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.

Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.

Incarnations

For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.

Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”

When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.

She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.

She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).

Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80′s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.

“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”

Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”

 

 As the title character in Cat Ballou
As the title character in Barbarella
As Gloria in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 
As Bree Daniels in Klute 
As Lillian Hellman in Julia 
As Sally Hyde in Coming Home 
As Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome 
As Judy Bernly in Nine to Five 
As Chelsea Thayer Wayne in On Golden Pond 

 

 

The series:

Cat Ballou

She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.

Barbarella

She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.

Klute

As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.

Julia 

Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.

Coming Home

She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.

The China Syndrome

Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.

Nine to Five

Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.

On Golden Pond

Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.

Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams

February 1, 2012 7 comments

 

 

Since its late 2007 start Film Streams has given Omaha a much-needed and celebrated infusion of art cinema.  This still young nonprofit theater already enjoys a strong following and a national reputation.  Film Streams is the vision of founder and director Rachel Jacobson, an Omaha native who left here only to come back with a mission of giving her hometown its first full-fledged art cinema.  Until she came back from New York City with her dream of forming a center devoted to film as art this metro area of more than 800,000 never had a theater dedicated to screening the best of old and new cinema and to presenting  educational programs around the films.  Thanks to her, Omaha finally has a film home befitting its large population.  She’s not only made her dream a reality but she’s made this Midwest theater nationally known thanks to first-rate screenings and programming and the involvement of board member Alexander Payne, whose clout has allowed Film Streams to nab some major guests, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderberg.  2012 will make the biggest splash yet when this year’s special guest is revealed.  A true film icon.  My short profile of Rachel is the cover story in the new issue of Metro Magazine.

 

 

 

 

Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams 

©by Leo Adam Biga

The cover story in the February 2012 Metro Magazine (http://issuu.com/metmago/docs/metromagazine-february-2012)

 

Film Streams is coming off its fourth and most successful year yet, capped by the record-breaking, exclusive run of Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants. With the art cinema riding high, it’s easy overlooking the determination founder-director Rachel Jacobson, 33, showed in turning her dream into reality.

Film buff in the making

The success has made her a respected leader among the young creatives and professionals set that’s helping transform Omaha’s once amorphous culture into an identifiably cool scene.

The Omaha Central High graduate left here to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and to get her professional start but her plan always included coming back to her hometown. When she returned in 2005 the then-20something set about selling philanthropists on the idea of a film center in the barrens of North Downtown.

Most embraced her vision. Some expressed reservations. But anyone who dealt with her soon fell under the sway of her informed passion to support the project.

Before coming back to pursue her dream, she laid the groundwork for it back East. She immersed herself in an intensive arts administration course at New York University and made a study of art cinemas, all to formulate the nonprofit public film model Film Streams follows. She strategically worked at a SoHo art gallery, Miramax Films and WNYC public radio to learn lessons for making her Omaha cinematheque sustainable.

“It was sort of grad school without having to pay for it,” she says.

She never intended going to New York City. Chicago was her choice out of college. But once there, she says, “I just fell in love with the city.”

She often describes an epiphany she had in college as the defining moment when she abandoned law school plans to pursue being a film curator-exhibitor. Her cinephile leanings began long before that, as a girl, when she accompanied her parents to see movies at the Indian Hills Theatre. “It was such a beautiful theater. It felt like this grand experience,” she says. The Dundee Theatre and then-AMC Westroads 8 became frequent haunts. As a college English and political science major she fell ever more under cinema’s spell via film studies courses and art movie house screenings.

 

 

 

 

A public film theater model

Her film education continued in New York, where she devised the core principals behind her Omaha cinema. True to her vision she’s made it “a mission-based” showcase for film as art. With support from memberships, grants, donations and other contributed revenue almost equal to box office-concession revenue, she’s freed Film Streams from commercial pressure and compromise.

“A big part of why I wanted to work in film is I wanted to figure out ways to get beyond the fact that film is seen as a product. Yyou need to have a way to fight against that commodity perspective,” she says.

Her serving on a National Endowment for the Arts grants panel has helped Film Streams win NEA and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences funding.

Not having to turn a profit or pack the house means Jacobson can schedule the kind of limited appeal movies cineplexes rarely play: first-run American independent and foreign features, repertory classics, documentaries and shorts. Unlike mainstream theaters, Film Streams presents panel discussions, educational programs and extras, often in partnership with community organizations.

She strives for a schedule reflecting world cinema. “An important part of our mission is to be a platform for those under-heard voices,” she says.

Early 2012 season highlights reflect this diversity. There’s a 10-film repertory series of international masterworks on restored 35 millimeter prints. Partnership screenings-panels are scheduled around documentaries about urban planning, education, women’s self-image and developmental disabilities. First-run narrative features include Pariah and We Need to Talk About Kevin, both by women directors on tough subjects.

There’s also the annual Oscar-winning shorts series.

As for the remainder of the year, she’s working on bringing prominent filmmakers and eying a possible film noir series. Ingmar Bergman may be the focus of the next Great Directors series. The biennial Cinemateca of Spanish-language films is slated for September. The 2012 gala promises a film-pop culture icon in August. Past guests of honor have been Laura Dern, Debra Winger and Steven Soderbergh. Board member Alexander Payne gives Film Streams pull in attracting major names.

 

 

Film buff friends Alexander Payne and Rachel Jacobson

 

 

Growing a film community

Just as Jacobson’s cultivated a close relationship with Payne and other celebs, she’s nurtured a growing audience at Film Streams, where ticket sales climbed to 54,000 last year. Memberships have held steady at nearly 2,000.

“I feel really great about where we are as far as audience. Hopefully it indicates more people are seeing the kinds of films we’re showing than would have if we didn’t exist.

“The interesting thing about what we’ve become that I didn’t imagine is that I feel like people perceive us as not just a place for cinephiles but also as a community space because of the discussions and the partnerships we do. I feel like that’s what makes us distinctive because that helps us reach new, wider audiences that may not otherwise come. Those connections help us serve the entire community.”

She strikes a balance serving both hardcore film buffs and casual movie fans. Along the way, she hopes general audiences sample more challenging fare.

Film Streams has also expanded its administrative staff and budget. “It’s over a million dollars now,” she says. “We’ve just kind of grown incrementally every year.”

She’s perhaps most pleased by how Omaha has gotten behind Film Streams. There’s a sense of ownership in it, and that’s precisely what she wants.

“We’re all sort of stakeholders in it – Omaha, our members, the board.”

A creative life and career

The island that Film Streams, Slowdown and Saddle Creek Records anchors is gaining a foothold in North Downtown along with Creighton University, Tip Top, Hot Shops, the Mastercraft and TD Ameritrade Park. She sees development there as a mixed-bag but the entrepreneurial spirit and energy on display make her optimistic.

She feels young creative class professionals like herself and her friends are more and more being heard. She likes the vibrant Omaha that emerged while she was away and that continues spinning off creative new ventures. She’s a big advocate of Omaha’s indie music scene.

“There’s something distinctive about what people are creating and there’s a strong community around it,” she says.

Film Streams gives her a little slice of the Big Apple in Omaha, where her life and work revolve around art, beauty, creativity, rock music, friends, donors and social entrepreneurs. “This job is that,” she says. Best of all, she gets to share her film passion. “I love that experience so much. It’s a way to connect with people. It feels really great to show someone something they appreciate. Man, I love that.”

Visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Omaha’s Film Reckoning Arrives in the Form of Film Streams, the City’s First Full-Fledged Art Cinema

November 27, 2011 11 comments

The much-ballyhooed rise of Omaha’s culture scene got a major boost with the addition of the city’s first full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, in 2007.  I wrote the following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of Film Stream’s much anticipated opening. It’s an analytical piece that examines the viability of the enterprise in this market and the various things that this art cinema’s founder and director, Rachel Jacobson, put in place to give it sustainability. Because I was a film programmer myself for several years in Omaha I have a certain informed perspective on what the art cinema scene looked like before and after Film Streams.

Five years later, there’s no doubting that Film Streams is a runaway success and that Jacobson is the main reason why.  She’s cannily secured both a strong endowment and membership base from Omaha’s movers and shakers, along with steady grant support, as backing for the world-class programming she and her staff have presented right from the start.  She’s also cultivated two star advisory board members in Alexander Payne and Kurt Andersen who help give the venue cachet and credibility well beyond Omaha.  If you’re a local and you haven’t been to Film Streams yet, shame on you.  If you plan to visit, be sure to make it one of your stops.  Payne has been instrumental in the theater hosting some high profile film names at special fundraising events, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderbergh.  My stories on the Dern, Winger, and Soderbergh events can be found on this blog.

The theater’s next special guest, for a spring-summer event, is a genuine cinema legend.  More on that in a few months.  Check out everything Film Streams at http://www.filmstreams.org.

And if you’re so inclined, check out my deep store of film stories on this blog.

Rachel Jacobson outside Film Streams

Omaha‘s Film Reckoning Arrives in the Form of Film Streams, the City’s First Full-Fledged Art Cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeard in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Rachel Jacobson’s Film Streams dream turns reality this weekend. That’s when the non-profit art cinema she’s synonymous with opens in North Downtown. The Ruth Sokolof Theatre at 14th and Webster joins Slowdown, the Saddle Creek Records live music bar that shares the same shell, as the next-big-thing in Omaha culture.

In truth, her dream is one many area cinephiles harbored over time, but she’s the first with the means and the moxie to have gone after it. Audaciously, she’s not hitched the theater to an entrenched cultural institution, such as a university or museum. Instead, Film Streams is an “autonomous nonprofit.” While Saddle Creek doesn’t have an active business interest in it, as the building’s builder, owner, landlord and neighbor, Saddle Creek Records is an institutional partner in spirit.

In some respects, it’s a case of good karma, as Jacobson articulated her vision just as Omaha’s much-discussed synergy of ambitious new art-cultural endeavors took off. Since 2000 the city’s seen come to fruition: various public arts projects; Qwest Center Omaha; the Riverfront Jazz and Blues Festival; the Holland Performing Arts Center; the downtown Omaha Lit Fest; the Great Plains Theatre Conference; the Omaha Film Festival and the Blue Barn Music Festival. Slowdown and Film Streams only add to the growing mix of can-do, cosmo, entertainment projects.

With an urban industrial look, from the clean, simple lines of its red brick and black steel exterior to the airy, open, many-windowed loft-style lobby-offices, the building plays off the retro-gentrified face of its eclectic environs. The interior’s exposed precast concrete and steel infrastructure and metal panel-encased windows lend a vaguely 19th century factory vibe. The pastel walls, natural finished Maple woods, Omer Arbel decorative lighting and Bludot furniture, plus a neoclassic Dineresque concessions stand, add a post-modern touch. A huge lithograph on one wall is of iconic Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter (a Jacobson favorite), adding a splash of drama and color to the light, Pop-style lobby.

The two auditoriums, one seating 206, the other 96, are intimate spaces with such requisite creature comforts as high-back, cup-holder chairs, and with such techno features as ample sound panels and multiple projection systems.

Surrounding the building is a mix of manufacturers, warehouses, divey boarding houses, pawn shops, bars, a homeless shelter and a day care center. To the west and north is trendy residential living in Creighton University dorms and Tip Top loft apartments, respectively. Hotels along the emerging Cuming Street Corridor to the north are going up fast. Bohemian spots like the Hot Shops, a few blocks north, are few and far between. The InPlay sports bar and Rick’s Cafe Boatyard are the nearest nice eateries. A couple blocks east is the whole riverfront scene. Traffic to and from the Qwest Center and Civic Auditorium may generate some walk-ins.

The building, set off by its striking black and white marquee and a wide, tree-lined curb, is the subject of much buzz. On a recent afternoon, as workers streamed in and out installing auditorium seats and unpacking assorted boxes in the lobby, passersby on foot and in cars rubbernecked for a glimpse inside.

Film Streams is situated in the projected hub of NoDo, the North Downtown redevelopment district the city’s pinning high hopes on. It could blow up into a destination place or just stagnate. Directly west is a vacant lot overgrown by weeds, a speculative site for a baseball stadium that some consider the missing anchor piece of this puzzle. For now though NoDo has a solid toe-hold and Film Streams is well-positioned as a cool modern throwback — a downtown neighborhood theater attached to the Saddle Creek-Slowdown star.

“Yeah, it couldn’t be a better location, really,” the lithe, long-haired Jacobson said from the Film Streams conference room, with its great view of the cityscape. “I mean, it’s amazing timing…it’s right place, right time, right people involved.”

It’s been a three-year love-fest for Jacobson. With her Cameron Diaz good looks, expatriate return from New York to her hometown, Saddle Creek hook up, Alexander Payne endorsement and philanthropic connections, she’s wrapped her fingers around the Big O!. Per her Revlon-smiling presence in those First National Bank television spots, she’s viewed as a poster girl for the Cool Young Urban Entrepreneurial set that local movers-and-shakers covet.

She’s also an example of the reverse brain drain this state needs; namely, she’s among the long line of Nebraska’s best and brightest to leave, only she’s the exception by coming back to realize her dream here. It’s a Chamber-made PR story.

 

 

All the attention has her a little queasy.

“This has been so tied to my personality the past two years because so much of it was in my head,” she said, “but now there’s a building, there’s people invested in it, it’s an organization. So I’m hoping it won’t be so synonymous with my name and my identity because that’s a little bit awkward and it also doesn’t bode well for the future…You want it to take on a life of its own and I hope it does.

“I think it’s important it have its own specific voice and personality just like any interesting small business.”

Rare for any start-up, much less a non-profit arts group venturing into unknown territory, i.e. a full-fledged art house in a burg that’s never really seen one, she’s gotten donors to pony up big time. Shaping Omaha’s cool quotient is a seductive thing and may help explain why Film Streams has attracted such widespread support.

“I think a lot people’s motivation for giving and being engaged with this organization is to have an affiliation with everything that’s going on in the arts scene in Omaha and to feel a part of it,” she said.

Her first home run was getting the Saddle Creek Boys, Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel, to build the theater as part of their new NoDo headquarters complex, which includes Slowdown. The Saddle Creek-Film Streams relationship is a case of young urban professionals who share like-minded visions getting together. She lived and worked in New York when she ran into Nansel in 2002 and they laid out their dreams.

“Initially we were talking to Rachel as a friend and trying to help her figure out a place that would work for a theater in Omaha,” Kulbel said. “We had already been on some real estate searches for a similar sized space so we knew what was out there — nearly nothing, unfortunately. There was a fair amount of time that passed between first talking  with her about it and approaching her about the idea of doing it downtown. I was personally very into the idea before we were involved on a business level. I have always seen it as something that would really help out the culture of Omaha, so I have really been into supporting the idea any way I could.”

Kulbel and Nansel serve on the Film Streams advisory board.

Then, with the help of her dad, Kutak Rock chair David Jacobson, she launched a capital campaign. It’s raised $1.7 million for theater operations and an endowment.

“You can’t underestimate the connection thing,” she said in reference to her father and the fact he heads a well-heeled law firm with a history of arts philanthropy. Her family’s standing in the Jewish community has also paid big dividends, including the Sokolof family gift recognized by the theater’s name. Even so, getting old farts to fork over serious dough for an art cinema took some doing in a town unused to thinking of film the way it does music or fine art. 

“It’s not a new concept obviously, but it’s a new concept for Omaha,” she said. “There were definitely people in the beginning who gave me quizzical looks and with whom I had to use examples of older art forms, like theater or opera or symphony, and how these things have had to become nonprofit and how film is the great art form of the 20th century. So it just makes sense to have an organization devoted to celebrating film in that sort of reverential way.”

She feels her New York experience, including stints at Miramax and WNYC, gave her a foundation for thinking and speaking about film as a legit art form.

“In New York film is seen in the kind of light I’m talking about,” she said. “Werner Herzog is a household name. Even more obscure directors are known, not only by people who consider themselves to be film buffs, but just by anyone engaged in the cultural environment of the city. So I knew what needed to be articulated here. I don’t know if I could have done this without having lived there…”

New York’s vital arts community also instilled in her an “attitude that anything’s possible” asdding,”My friends there have been so supportive of this project — they all got it in like two seconds.” She’s found enough cinema sophisticates here to move forward.

Snagging an Oscar-winning filmmaker in Payne and a best-selling author and national public radio personality in Kurt Andersen for her board helped seal the deal.

The Payne name adds sizzle and legitimacy. It opens doors and check books. “I never imagined he would be involved to this degree,” said Jacobson, referring to his curating the inaugural repertory series. “His involvement is so significant.”

 

 

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Alexander Payne has lent his support to Rachel Jacobson and Film Streams

Any skeptics left soon drank the Kool Aid when she secured mucho bucks from such community stalwarts as the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Dick Holland.

Besides getting heavyweights to embrace and fund her project, she’s done her homework, asked all the right questions and put in place a fundraising-membership structure that holds hope this experiment might bear fruit and have a future.

Experiment is the operative word, as no one knows whether Omaha can support an art cinema. Why? Start with there not having been one here before. Sure, there’s the Dundee Theatre, but it often shows titles that also play the cineplexes, it has no education component and its single screen, mid-town location and loyal fan base make comparisons difficult. 

Then ask yourself, what size of an audience really exists for new indie American and first-run foreign pics that outside a few crossover titles a year do little business anywhere? Or for classics now readily accessible via NetFlix or cable?

If anyone knows it’s Danny Lee Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, one of the nation’s longest-lived art cinemas.

“There’s a good reason why there aren’t more art theaters in Lincoln and Omaha,” he said, “and that’s because the markets here really aren’t large enough to sustain them. The only way the Ross has been able to survive over all these years is by having lots and lots of subsidies through grants, donations, memberships.”

Ladely also serves on the Film Streams advisory board.

Just how tough it is to get butts in the seats for art films is revealed by a recent study Ladely’s business manager did. “For every two-week run of a film we show we lose $3,500,” he said. It’s only the occasional art house darling, like The Piano or  Fahrenheit 9/11 that makes a profit, much less a killing. Most lose money. He’s curious to see how the Film Streams repertory program, which features classics, does. He long ago stopped showing older titles as they drew fewer and fewer moviegoers.

If Omaha history is any gauge then there’s a limited pool to be sure. Many alternative film efforts have come and gone. As recently as six years ago the Brandeis Art Cinema tried and failed to be a Dundee Theatre at the Southroads Mall. Nontheatrical causalities in the ’90s included student-sponsored film programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University, various  series at the Joslyn Art Museum and a short-lived series at the Blue Barn Theatre. The New Cinema Coop., a part-time presenting group, had a long run in the ’70s-’80s. The Old Market Puppet Theatre and Edison Exchange preceded it. 

Until now, the nearest art cinema has been the Ross, which might as well be Siberia for the few Omahans who trek down I-80 to catch a flick. Distance alone seems to negate head-on competition. Jacobson believes the two venues serve separate markets. Ladely mostly concurs, though he worries about losing the “handful” of Omaha faithful who go there. He sees a bigger conflict between Film Streams and the Dundee, but Jacobson says she’s after different titles than that mid-town theater and is willing to work cooperatively to avoid booking issues.

Danny Lee Ladely, ©photo Lincoln Journal-Star

Likewise, Dundee Manager Matt Brown is willing to consult with Jacobson. It makes sense for them to talk, as each desires exclusive runs. Double bookings at theaters four miles apart would hurt one or both. He said Film Streams is definitely new “competition,” but not one that necessarily “conflicts” with the Dundee. 

He feels the two theaters will largely go after different titles, with Film Streams eying more pure art films and the Dundee art films with more mainstream appeal. Jacobson confirms this. Still, there’s bound to be times when the two vie for the same features. The Dundee’s current attraction, Once, would seem to be an Film Streams fit. Film Stream’s opening first-run attraction, the subtitled French film La Vie en Rose, is not standard Dundee material, but who’s to say future titles won’t be? 

Where things could get dicey for Film Streams, Brown said, is finding enough art material outside what the Dundee and the AMC chain show that boast the kind of strong reviews and word-of-mouth needed to build audiences. Reviews can make or break things, he said, and only a few titles captivate critics and audiences. Brown said AMC may pose a problem, as it shows many art titles as loss leaders. However, Jacobson said studios/distributors tell her they prefer these titles play in an art cinema that nurtures them rather than in a cineplex that buries them. 

It may take time for Film Streams to find its niche. While the Dundee books first-run features months in advance, Film Streams, at least for now, takes a more fluid approach. Jacobson’s eying several titles from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for her fall/winter schedule. Her upcoming repertory programs after the Payne series include an Adaptations series and a Nebraska series.

Jacobson’s oft-stated belief, one shared by Brown, that the addition of Film Streams can help grow audiences for art fare and therefore benefit everyone sounds good. But the problem gets back to the relatively few folks who go see films that are obscure, subtitled or both or that can be readily viewed at home. Each tells you the city can enjoy a vital art cinema scene with multiple venues. But with two year-round operations here, it stands to reason one or both will be squeezed in the process.

Dundee Theatre

To cover a projected $800,000 annual operating budget Film Streams won’t need the volume of bodies and receipts suburban cineplexes generate. Film Streams expects to offset its smaller attendance/take the same way the Ross does — with grants, donations and membership revenue. Through last week Film Streams had sold 500 memberships, which are $50 for individuals and $35 for students/seniors.

“That’s the whole business plan,” she said. “That’s exactly why we diversified our income streams. We plan to keep every single one of those income streams afloat if we can. Box office and concessions and even rentals of our space will only amount to just over 50 percent of our operating budget. Everything else will have to come from membership contributions, corporate sponsorships, foundation gifts…People in the community have to continue to support this in order for us to exist.”

A small staff will keep overhead low. Besides Jacobson, chief programmer and fundraiser, there’s operations manager Ann Ploeger and communications coordinator Casey Logan. Box-office/concessions workers and union projectionists will be contracted per show.

Whereas the Ross is insulated to a degree from poor attendance by its association with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Film Streams stands alone, on an island.

“The Ross has an advantage that has really been important in the survival and the success of the program and that is that it’s part of the university,” Ladely said.

On the other hand, Film Streams has formed an endowment, something the Ross, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t have. As Ladely noted, it’s true the center’s namesake Mary Riepma Ross donated millions, but all of it went toward building its new center. The Friends of the Ross does have a small endowment.

Just as the Ross is utilized by UNL for classes, Film Streams plans to invite organizations to rent the space for its own or collaborative programs. “We can make it into more than just a movie theater and bring people here who aren’t necessarily cinephiles. That’s going to be a huge part of what we do,” said Jacobson, who envisions partnering with existing events, such as the Omaha Lit Fest or Omaha Film Festival, and with organizations that have a natural cultural connection to Film Streams films/series.

 

 

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©photo by a. matzke

Previous art film efforts in town lacked the cool, state-of-the-art digs and amenities Film Streams delivers. Joslyn’s flirted with cinema but despite its splendor it lacks a bona fide theater space and has never really committed to film. The closest anyone came is when the New Cinema screened alternative fare at the old Center Street Theatre and when the Park IV ran a repertory classics series, but as legit as those venues were their poverty row quarters, budgets and revenues spelled failure.

Jacobson was so intent on doing an art cinema she was at one time prepared to marry it to a Joslyn or do it on the cheap “like squatting in an old warehouse.”

The way things worked out, she’s got the real thing. The Ross in Lincoln is a model for it, as are landmark programs back East, including those at the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York’s Film Forum. “Film Forum was the one I looked at most frequently,” she said. “It’s completely autonomous and it’s devoted to film and that’s the mode I really wanted to emulate. That’s how I felt you could be most true to the mission, because if you’re within someone else’s mission then you just have to make too many compromises. So I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t consult people. She bends the ear of veterans like the Ross’ Ladely and her booker, Amherst, Mass.-based Connie White, who programmed the Coolidge Corner and Brattle Theatres in Boston. She also has the advantage of a network of industry contacts, Payne among them, who should help steer major film artists here for lectures, panels, symposiums, retrospectives, et all.

“I’m really excited about the potential for that,” she said.

In terms of anticipation, there hasn’t been anything like this for a new local arts facility since the Holland opened in 2005. A much larger, costlier project, it was the first major new performing venue here in a long time, thus it netted high attention and expectation. Film Streams is not only the first comprehensive art/repertory house here, it’s the first cinema of any kind downtown since the early ‘90s, when the New Cinema converted a storefront at 15th and Davenport.

Unlike Film Streams, the Holland has a built-in fan base as the home to the Omaha Symphony, whose members it markets to. The Holland is also located right in the heart of downtown, not on its northern fringes. Slowdown’s niche indie music model is much closer to Film Streams and its specialized cinema offerings.

The question now is: Will enough people buy memberships and fill seats to keep the theater a viable center that donors want to support? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Jacobson’s focused on “executing” what till now has been a run-through. The dress rehearsals are over and now the screen lights up for real.

“One thing I’m constantly thinking about is sustainability. That’s really the ultimate goal,” she said. “My biggest fear with this is that it will fizzle out in five years. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to…I think we planned this out and we have enough people invested in it that it won’t, but who knows.

“If everyone who says they’re going to be here all the time is here some of the time, then we’ll do OK.”

Jacobson was reminded of what someone asked her recently — what’s it like to do a job that’s your passion? “It was always my dream to do something I loved, but one thing is you can never, ever escape it. You’re always working, because it is me.”

Alexander Payne Achieves New Heights in ‘The Descendants’

November 21, 2011 18 comments

 

 

Alexander Payne Achieves New Heights in ‘The Descendants

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

As Alexander Payne‘s new film The Descendants opens in more cities the rest of the fall and into early winter, it will be coming, if it already hasn’t, to a theater near you.  No matter how you feel about his work to date, see this picture.  If you’re not a big fan of his movies, this one may or may not change your mind, but if you’re being fair I think you’ll at least have to admit that it’s a highly accomplished feat of filmmaking.  If you’re already a Payne devotee, then this will be preaching to the choir, but you will see in it his richest, deepest work to this point in his career and further evidence that his maturation as a director is ever growing.

I saw the film for the first time last night (Nov. 20) at Film Streams, the Omaha art cinema whose advisory board he serves on.  Like most in the audience I was not only impressed but moved by The Descendants.  The film confirms Payne is a masterful writer-director whose work continues to ripen from film to film, indicating that his best work may yet be ahead of him.

Below, are some thoughts I intend to bounce off of Payne in a new interview I’m doing with him this week.  I would like to coalesce my thoughts with his comments into a new story before the Oscars.  I will be discussing with him certain aspects of the film, including his striking use of many tight shots, the fluidity of the scenes, his restrained yet glowing treatment of the beautiful Hawaiian environs, his subtle yet emphatic emphasis on the deep currents of ancestry and heritage Matt King feels beholden to, the artful way the dying wife is treated, and the deeply felt performances by George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, and Judy Greer.

Payne seems increasingly comfortable to let emotions play out in extended moments and scenes where early in his career he tended to satirtically deflect or defuse these passages.  He’s also made his scene simpler in the way they are shot.  His transitions from scene to scene are more fluid.  To me, this is evidence of a dawning patience and confidence to let the emotions carry the story and capture the audience rather than to impose some filmic punctuation or comment on the proceedings.

The close-ups that director of photography Phedon Papamichael began getting Payne to use in Sideways are even tighter and more numerous here.  It’s rare for a contemporary film to use extreme close-ups to this extent.  It’s more in line with Old Hollywood.  But it suits this material and Payne and Papamichael and the cast make this stark intimacy pay off with incredibly intimate work that, often wordlessly, conveys deep stirrings of emotion and thought.  There’s no hiding or faking it or throwing it away when the camera’s in that close, and thees moments certify just how good this cast is.  Clooney has never been better.  Woodley is good enough to deserve a Best Supporting Actress nomination.  Forster nearly steals every scene he’s in.  Greer shows many dimensions in a small but telling part.  Everyone is very good.

Then there’s the surprisingly affective performance by Patricia Hastie as Liz,  the comatose wife of King.  The almost entirety of her screen time is confined to lying unresponsive in a hospital bed.  I remember a year and a half ago or so when I first interviewed Payne about the project and his rhapsodic praise for Hastie making her seemingly do nothing part a vital element and her investing everything she had into it.  Until seeing the film I was incredulous to imagine how she could do much to make an impact given the great constraints on her character, but now that I have seen it I understand what Payne meant  and just how present she is in those scenes with characters variously berating her and saying goodbye to her at her bedside.  Hastie took great pains to look like a progressively wasted away human shell who may or may not be able to hear anything being said.

The Descendants is by my estimation and by a lot of people’s estimation Payne’s best film to date.  Critical reception to it is universally positive, and as Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson indicated in some of her remarks last night some of the critical response is flat out ecstatic.  Audience response seems to be the warmest to any Payne film, which is not surprising given its tragic-comic subject matter, but of course it’s the subtle, sure way he and his collaborators have handled the emotionally charged material that is eliciting this overwhelming response.  As he noted himself last night, the film is off to a remarkable box office showing – 10th this past weekend – considering that it is currently in only 29 theaters compared with thousands of theaters for the other nine pictures on the box office rankings list.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF MY ANALYSIS IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now vailable for pre-ordering.

Related articles

Hail, Hail ‘The Descendants’ – Alexander Payne’s First Feature Since ‘Sideways’ a Hit with Critics, and the George Clooney-starring Comedy-Drama is Sure to be an Awards Contender

September 17, 2011 9 comments

 

 

Hail, Hail ‘The Descendants’ – Alexander Payne’s First Feature Since ‘Sideways’ a Hit with Critics, and the George Clooney-starring Comedy-Drama is Sure to be an Awards Contender

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

However you feel about Alexander Payne’s work you must concede the cinema landscape is richer now that he’s back with his first feature since Sideways. That’s certainly the consensus among reviewers who’ve seen his The Descendants.

The September 10 world premiere of the much anticipated comedy-drama at the Toronto International Film Festival officially launched the George Clooney-starring vehicle as a must-see this fall movie season. The film’s screenings in Toronto, where Payne, Clooney and co-star Shailene Woodley appeared, came just a week after a press sneak preview at the Telluride Film Festival.

The next big splash comes in October, when The Descendants is the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival. Payne will be on hand, It’s reminiscent of how his highly lauded Sideways and About Schmidt scored major points at prestige festivals. He will aalso accompany his film at festivals in London, Honolulu, Greece, Turin and Dubai.The Fox Searchlight release opens theatrically Nov. 18. Payne will be at special November screenings of The Descendants at Film Streams. Details coming.

Shot in Hawaii in 2010, the film is Payne’s faithful adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel. Clooney’s Matt King is a father-husband forced by circumstance and legacy to face some hard truths, such as his dying wife having cheated on him. This rude awakening propels a journey of revenge and reconciliation.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

 

 

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller

 

 

Payne and cast at the Toronto International Film Festival, ©photo from TorontoLife.com


George Clooney and Shailene Woodley

 

 

John Sorensen’s Decades-Long Magnificent Obsession with the Abbott Sisters Bears Fruit in a Slew of New Works, Including ‘The Quilted Conscience’ Documentary at Film Streams

September 8, 2011 2 comments

John Sorensen epitomizes a subject whose magnificent obsession, in this case for social work pioneers Grace and Edith Abbott, inspires me to want to write about him and his passion. This blog contains an in-depth story I did a couple years ago about John and his various Abbott projects. The following short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) encapsulates his fascination with the sisters, particularly Grace, and previews his documentary film about a quilt project with strong connections to the Abbotts‘ advocacy for immigrant women and children. John’s film lovingly details a group of Sudanese-American girls making a story quilt that expresses their dreams and memories. The quilt project is a metaphor for the loss of one way of life and the adoption of another way of life as the Sudanese, like other newcomers in the great march of immigration and refugee resettlement in American history, become part of the rich tapestry and fabric of America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Sorensen’s Decades-Long Magnificent Obsession with the Abbott Sisters Bears Fruit in a Slew of New Works, including ‘The Quilted Conscience’ Documentary at Film Streams

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

John Sorensen is like many Nebraska creatives who left to pursue a passion.

The Grand Island native and longtime New York City resident worked with master filmmaker Alexander MacKendrick (The Sweet Smell of Success) and Broadway legends Lewis and Jay Presson Allen (Tru). He founded a New York theater troupe. He’s developed a radio series. He’s written-edited books and study guides.

What sets him apart is a two-decade venture combining all those mediums. The Abbott Sisters Project is his multi-media magnificent obsession with deceased siblings, proto-feminists and early 20th century social work pioneers, Grace and Edith Abbott, from Grand Island.

As Abbott champions, Sorensen and University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Ann Coyne were instrumental in getting the school last fall to rename its social work unit the Grace Abbott School of Social Work.

 

 

John Sorensen

John Sorensen with bronze bust of Grace Abbott

 

 

Sorensen has found a saga of strong, visionary women engaged in social action. These early Suffragists and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduates were part of the Progressive wave that sought to reform the Industrial Age’s myriad social ills.

They trained under Jane Addams at Hull House, they taught at universities, they widely published their views, they advised Congress and sitting presidents and served on prestigious boards, all in helping shape policy to protect immigrants, women and children. Much feted during their lives, the sisters are arguably the most influential Omaha women of all time. The pair remained close, often consulting each other.

“I think from an early age, the sisters recognized they were each somehow mysteriously made whole by the other — that together they could learn things, experience things and do things impossible for either on her own,” says Sorensen.

His latest Abbott work is a documentary, The Quilted Conscience. He wrote, produced and directed it. A 7 p.m. free preview screening is set Thursday, October 6 at Film Streams.

The doc follows a group of Sudanese girls in Grand Island making a story quilt with the help of master quilter Peggie Hartwell and the town’s local quilters guild. The resulting story-blocks illustrate the African home the girls’ families left and the American home they’ve adopted. The quilt expresses the girls’ memories and dreams for the future. Sorensen seamlessly interweaves Grace Abbott’s minority rights advocacy with the girls’ cross-cultural experience to create a rich, affecting tapestry full of dislocation and integration, loss and hope.

A Q & A with Sorensen and some of the girls follows the screening. The “Dreams and Memories” story quilt the girls completed will be on display. The film is expected to eventually air on public television.

 

 

 

 

Grand Island public school teacher Tracy Morrow, whose students worked on the story quilt, says, “For many of the girls it has been a life-changing experience. They put so much work into it. I feel like John’s … educating the Grand Island community about the Sudanese and educating the Sudanese about Grand Island and America.”

As Grand Island connects Sorensen to the Abbotts, his project is allied with the public schools and library. The city’s refugee population is living context for applying Abbott values.

Sorensen has promoted the Abbotts for years, but it’s only recently his efforts have borne fruit. The story quilt has toured the state. He’s formed a immigrant-student quilt workshop. He co-edited The Grace Abbott Reader and helped get Edith’s memoir published posthumously. The sisters’ accomplishments are told in a new children’s book. The Grand Island Independent sponsors an Abbott scholarship.

All of it affirms that his epic odyssey to bring the Abbotts to the masses has been worth it. Even when his efforts gained little traction, he persisted.

“I just did whatever I could to keep transforming it and keeping it in people’s faces,” he says. “I could see I was having success in raising awareness — that people were slowly getting to know around the state who these women were. And that this more than the study of people from 100 years ago; this is the study about things that can help us to live better today.”

His devotion to the Abbott legacy is complete.

“I simply love the sisters,” he says. “I also admire their work for children and women and immigrants, and I feel a family-like connection and perhaps responsibility to them from sharing a hometown. I could no more turn my back on them, their legacy and their story than I could my own family. That love, that sense of faith is unconquerable.”

 

 

 

 

 

Even though he didn’t intend making it his life’s work, he’s grateful his Johnny Appleseed project is finally sprouting.

“It’s become clear in the last three or four years that it has no end for me. It’s become so embedded in my existence that I can’t stop — also because now it’s actually starting to unfold.”

Sorensen, who “never felt at home” growing up in Grand Island, is today a celebrated favorite son for his project’s rediscovery of two town legends. It feels like “a kind of destiny,” he says.

Seating is limited for the free Quilted Conscience screening. Reservations are recommended and may be made by emailing maggie@filmstreams.org or visiting the theater box office, 1340 Mike Fahey Drive. For more details, call 402-933-0259 or visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

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