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Dissecting Jesse James

October 10, 2010 1 comment

Jesse James, famous American outlaw.

Image via Wikipedia

If you are like me and you admire the film adaptation of Ron Hansen‘s masterful novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then welcome to a decided minority.  I know why most folks have problems with the movie.  It’s unusually long, slow, and deliberate.  Its two main characters are enigmatic, inscrutable, unlikable figures. There is a sinister pall of death around all the proceedings.  The work is uncompromising in taking its meandering, even indulgent path to the end, one that the very title of the film signals.  And while I would not choose this film among the few I want with me on a desert island, I do believe it is as masterful in its own medium as Hansen’s novel is in literature.  I think the film’s reputation will grow over time.  Of course, you may be among the vast majority who haven’t seen the film, as it was an abysmal box office failure.  I definitely recommend it.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) appeared in advance of a screening of the film that concluded with a Q & A with Hansen, who closely consulted the film’s writer-director, Andrew Dominik.  Hansen loved how faithful Dominik was to his novel and the author was invited to be on the set for much of the shoot.  You can find more pieces by me about Hansen on this blog.  If you haven’t read his James novel, do so, because it is a superb piece of literature that, unlike the film, moves quickly.  In fact, I recommend anything by Hansen, who is one of America’s finest writers.

Dissecting Jesse James

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is so faithful to the Ron Hansen novel the author might well have adapted it himself. Filmmaker Andrew Dominick generously included the Omaha native in the process. Hansen read script drafts, offered notes, observed scenes and answered dialogue questions from stars Brad Pitt (James) and Casey Affleck (Ford).

Dominick’s fidelity to Hansen’s work resulted in as literal a translation of a full-length novel as film constraints allow. Hansen feels deep ownership in the movie. On August 23 he will take questions from Omaha novelist Timothy Schaffert and audience members following a 1 p.m. screening of James at Film Streams. The program previews the Sept. 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest Schaffert directs.

The cinematic quality of Hansen’s novels has long attracted filmmakers. James marked the third and most successful screen adaptation of his work. As “a visual writer more concerned with scene than voice,” he said, “the images come first,” not the words. “I try to make it as tangible as possible for the reader, and that’s why I employ simile and metaphor. If you just rely on the sentences to take care of themselves, it becomes kind of an amorphous, abstract kind of writing.”

“As I developed my interest in film I saw how close-ups and strange angles could actually create interest for the reader,” he said, “so I think there’s more variation of focal length and angle in my writing now than there used to be. For example, two characters in a room just staring at each other and talking is not as interesting as if the camera is on one of their lips and then sees the glint in the other one’s eye. I think that actually gives energy to the fiction writing.

“Like in Mariette in Ecstasy (the author’s 1992 novel), there’s one moment where a young nun is caring for Mariette after her first trance-like stigmatic experience, and I point out what her lips look like. When she puts Mariette’s hand into the water I describe how the blood kind of twists out of her wound into the water and pinks the water. Those things are essentially close-ups. I talk about the sound of her breathing so intricately you understand the camera’s very close to her mouth to hear that. A lot of times I do an overall picture of the landscape but then hone in, on, say, a mosquito landing on some water and its tiny ripple marks. That’s an example of going from deep focus to an extreme close-up.”

Schaffert admires how Hansen’s work “is so poetic for prose. The attention he gives each word, each sentence, each expression of the characters is just so expert and masterful. You definitely become spirited away by his imagination. There’s a marriage between the images and the language so that it’s not just vivid description but images that come from the words themselves.”

In the 4 p.m. Q & A Schaffert plans asking Hansen “what it means to write something with an image in mind and then to see someone else make that image happen. As a writer myself the idea of taking an image, bringing it into words, working it into narrative and then communicating that into someone else’s mind is just rife with failed possibility.”

Hansen’s precise prose in James amounted to cutting in the camera.

“Most of the time the prose was so clear about what the actions were they could only have happened in a limited number of ways,” he said. “Now, there’s always going to be changes in camera movements and so forth. For example, before Bob Ford goes in to kill Jesse James he’s out in the backyard washing his face from a pump. I just had the water sloshing down his temple, but Andrew had the camera go way above to look down at the water in a bowl or bucket, with Bob’s face reflected in that water. I would not have considered that, but it’s of a piece of how films are made — taking a scene from lots of different angles.”

Hansen wishes he could avail himself of filmmakers’ resources when writing a novel.

“I really envy the information they have access to. Art director Patricia Norris knew exactly what kind of clothes people would wear. I was laboring in a total vacuum in that regard. In my bit part as a journalist they had me wear a suit from the 19th century. That is so useful to know exactly what those pieces of clothing feel like, and novelists never have that. When they dressed the set for the train robbery they had a railroad car from that period. For interior scenes there were real antiques. I didn’t have access to that stuff, so in terms of scene setting it was really remarkable. That kind of attention to detail was all the way through the film. That’s what a novelist relishes.”

Critics knocked the film’s slow takes but Hansen likes that it disrupts our rapid-cut expectations “by setting a more 19th century mood.” He likes the music underscoring the film. He feels Pitt and Affleck hit all the right notes in their roles.

Schaffert hopes his work gets the same filmic treatment one day.

 

“Casablanca” – Film classic still enchants as time goes by

October 10, 2010 2 comments

Count me among those who adore the film classic Casablanca. For my taste, it is the perfect Hollywood film from that Golden Era when the studios operated as dream factories and churned out picture after picture, most of them forgettable, but when they worked, oh my, how they made magic.  This most iconic of American films from that era has so much to admire about it that one doesn’t quite know where to start.  Suffice to say that every element in the film is masterfully rendered, which of course is what makes a film great.  Every line of dialogue, every glance, gesture, action, camera angle and movement, every plot point, every musical note, et cetera, is honed to its finest, most nuanced possibility.  The film is like a gem that has been polished to its maximum effect, yet it never feels packaged or manipulated.  It all comes off naturally, capturing you from the opening shot through the closing shot, your sense of disbelief thoroughly suspended in the drama’s grip. The following article I wrote about Casablanca for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed a special screening of it.  If by some strange fate you’ve still never seen this movie, make sure you do.  It will capture you, too.

 

“Casablanca” – Film classic still enchants as time goes by

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Casablanca. The very name drips nostalgia. The 1942 Warner Brothers film classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman still enthralls viewers with its story of star-crossed, wartime lovers. An emblem of intrigue and romance, it’s one of those rare movies whose popularity only increases with time. Perhaps more than any other film, it embodies the textured chiaroscuro look and feel of Old Hollywood studio-bound productions. It really sets mood, time and place. Notice too the fluid camera work that brilliantly utilizes closeups to reveal character and relationships. Add bigger than life personalities, a conflict drawn in both human and political terms, a witty yet pungent script, mix well, and you have a masterpiece.

In recognition of this ageless treasure Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is screening Casablanca on Saturday, October 21 in Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall as a benefit for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. The 7 p.m. program will include remarks by special guest Stephen Bogart, the only son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart was 8 when his famous father died of cancer. He’s the author of a 1995 memoir, Bogart: In Search of My Father, that describes the struggle of being the legend of an icon-father he barely knew.

To help set the Cafe Americain mood, local jazz pianist Orville Johnson and his vocalist wife Servalia will perform “As Time Goes By” and other standards.

A sure sign of the movie’s enduring appeal is the honored place it holds in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” polls voted on, as AFI puts it, “by a blue-ribbon panel of leaders from across the film community.” The picture has been selected number one among Love Stories and number two among the “Greatest” American Films ever made. Also, no fewer than six lines from Casablanca, more than from any other film, made AFI’s Best Movie Quotes ranking.

Memorable line after memorable line grace the Oscar-winning script by Howard Koch and twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Bogart, perfectly cast as the world-weary but noble Rick Blaine, fittingly has most of the best dialogue.

Any discussion of Casablanca, released in special edition videos and the subject of documentaries in recent years, must touch on how this masterpiece came together as if by fate or luck. The Hal Wallis produced pic was adapted by a team of writers from an obscure play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Then, as now, Hollywood looked for material anywhere it could be found. In this case, an unstaged play.

America was at war and the play’s basic narrative of refugees caught in a no-man’s land where humanity is cheap and courage in short supply, remains unchanged on screen. The story contained everything studios-audiences want, namely, a topical story, suspense, sex appeal, a tragic hero and a redemptive ending. The film would have surely ended up routine, even forgettable, had the original casting discussed for it come to pass: Ronald Reagan as Victor Laszlo, the selfless freedom fighter Paul Henreid ended up playing with just the right note of defiance and naivete; and Ann Sheridan as Ilsa, the former lover of Rick, now the wife of Laszlo, and a part Ingrid Bergman made her own. Her wan yet radiant Ilsa is the epitome of desire. For such a melancholy film it’s remarkably engaging.

Bogart was always the first choice for Rick. His presence alone would have made Casablanca a must-see. But the elusive chemistry he has with Bergman, Claude Raines (Louie), Sydney Greenstreet (Senor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Carl) and Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt), is a magic something peculiar to him and them. It only stands to reason director Michael Curtiz, co-writer Howard Koch, who was on the set, and crew were inspired by the spark between Bogie, Bergman and Co.

As the story goes, the cameras began rolling with an unfinished script, leaving the actors unsure of the end. Would Rick reclaim Ilsa? Or let her go off with Laszlo? That doubt lingers over every frame and helps explain why the film transfixes us so. It all worked to create a film that’s as potent today as when it first came out.

“It’s a great example of serendipity, where everything just fell into place and all the stars aligned just right,” Crawford said. “This is the one film above all others that film snobs and average Joes both love. That’s very rare. It has a universal appeal. It and It’s a Wonderful Life are probably the two most popular black and white movies of all time; so deeply loved they almost transcend their own medium.”

“The film is very entertaining but also very haunting,” he said. “For anyone who’s ever been in love it touches a real emotional nerve, and that’s part of its timeless appeal. It’s completely of its era but it doesn’t date. How can a story so set in its time still seem so fresh now? I don’t know how to explain that. I think it’s got to be that love triangle. Ricks give Ilsa up and does the right thing.”

Of its time, yet timeless. Ah, yes, love and loss and desire never go out of style.

“The Searchers,” a John Ford-John Wayne masterwork

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

This image is a screenshot from a public domai...

Image via Wikipedia

In keeping with my passion for classic cinema, here is an article I wrote in advance of a special screening of the great John Ford-John Wayne Western, The Searchers. Early in my cinephile life I have to admit I was not familiar with this film except for reading references to it in various history books and seeing an occasional clip from it in documentaries. These teases definitely whet my appetite to see the movie, but growing up Omaha , Neb. offered limited opportunities at best to see classic films in theaters and I do believe The Searchers was unavailable for television screenings for a long while due to rights issues, or even if it was available it would have not have been shown in letterbox format, and thus the film’s impact would have been severely diluted.  I seem to recall that a friend of mine, Gary Anderson, whom I worked for on a few occasions, first turned me onto the fact this was a film essential I absolutely had to see.  If memory serves, Gary named his first born son Ethan after the character Wayne plays in the picture.  I finally did see The Searchers in my 20s or 30s, and I was immediately struck by the sweep of its epic storytelling and the power of its uncompromising themes.  I have seen it several times since, always finding it a richly rewarding experience, and like the best Ford films, always discovering ever deeper currents in the images and the performances, in the music and the settings.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival showing at the Indian Hills Theatre, which was one of the few remaining Cinerama theaters in the nation.  Watching The Searchers on the big screen, from the balcony, has to rank as one of my all-time filmgoing experiences.  As it turned out, it was one of the last films shown at the theater, which was torn down to make way for a parking lot.

NOTE:  This blog also contains my take on Ford’s and Wayne’s other late masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in a story I called, “Through a Lens Darkly.”  I also have many other film entries on the blog, including pieces on such other classic films as Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life and on filmmakers as diverse as John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, John Jost, and Alexander Payne.

 

“The Searchers,” a John Ford-John Wayne masterwork

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Legendary Hollywood director John Ford, that great visual poet of American cinema, cut his teeth on two-reeler horse operas in the silent era.  Bigger-than-life actor John Wayne, that symbol of virle patriotism, learned his craft toiling in cheap cowboy flicks.  Ford helped give Wayne his on-screen start when he hired the charming young prop man as a bit player in his 1929 picture Salute.

By the early 1930s their careers were heading in opposite directions.  Ford, already a top-flight director at Twentieth-Century Fox, achieved great acclaim outside Westerns while Wayne, who got a break starring in Raoul Walsh’s epic The Big Trail, discovered Hollywood fickleness when, after that pic failed, he was banished to quota-quickie shoot-em-ups.

The Duke despaired his second chance might never come.  Then, in 1939, Ford instinctively cast Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, a landmark film artfully shot in Monument Valley and dynamically edited for peak dramatic effect.  The smash hit proved the Western could be both a box office and aesthetic success and made Wayne a bankable screen presence.

In the post-war years Ford made a cycle of classic Westerns that ensured his status as the great populist interpreter of the American West while Wayne reigned as both a perennial superstar and American icon.  When Ford consistently chose Wayne to embody the hero in his films, the men were forever linked in cinema history.

Long into their fabled collaboration, the pair teamed-up for The Searchers, a 1956 Warner Bros. wide-screen Technicolor Western far darker in tone than Stagecoach yet every bit as riveting.  A favorite of film buffs, The Searchers displays Ford at the height of his creative powers and stars Wayne in one of his deepest performances.

On September 23, area film fans will join celebrities and surprise guests for a  special one-night only salute to John Wayne and The Searchers at Carmike Cinemas’ Indian Hills 4 Theater in Omaha.  The program, a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska, begins at 7:30 p.m. with a pre-show, followed by The Searchers projected on the theater’s 70-foot wide Cinerama screen, one of a handful still in existence.

The presentation is the latest event from Omaha film maven Bruce Crawford, who has organized classic movie programs since 1991. In typical Crawford fashion he is pulling-out all the stops for The Searchers.  He has secured a restored vault print from the Warner studio archives.  And in his usual showman-like way he has planned a gala evening complete with searchlights, paparazzi, red carpets, limos, Western reenactors and balladeers and a theater lobby display of Wayne memorabilia on loan from The Birthplace of John Wayne museum in Winterset, Iowa, where The Duke was born and raised.

Why all this fuss about an old Western?

The Searchers has long been rated by film historians and aficionados among the Top 100 films of all time.  I think it and Stagecoach are the only Westerns in that select company,” said Crawford, a film historian.  “The Searchers is also a favorite among many of today’s leading filmmakers.  Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg all cite it as a major influence and have borrowed from it for films as diverse as Taxi Driver, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  Indeed, the film’s anti-heroic themes resonated with the rebellious cinema and culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s  As Crawford said, “The picture is not so much about the West as it is about obsession.  It’s more of a psychological portrait and character study.  It just happens to take place in the West.”

To double for the Texas setting of The Searchers Ford selected evocative Monument Valley in Arizona, where he returned again and again for his Westerns, and this time captured its sweeping beauty in VistaVision, a wide-screen photographic process.

“The wide-open terrain becomes as much a character as any of the actors because it’s so beautifully photographed in 70 millimeter,” Crawford said. Set against this grand backdrop is the struggle of a nomadic figure (Ethan Edwards) battling the harsh elements as well as his own fierce nature.  According to Crawford, Ethan Edwards is another in a long string of “non-conformists” populating Ford’s work.  “Ford established very clearly, particularly in his Westerns, the rugged individualist. How one man alone can make a difference.”

It is said John Wayne regarded his role in The Searchers as his favorite, which is surprising given how morally ambiguous the character is compared to the late actor’s typical screen persona as a rough-hewn but fair-minded man of action.

The Searchers came along at a time when the Western genre was starting to reflect the anxious new realities of the Cold War era and, with it, directors like Ford were taking a more mature, even revisionist view of the Old West, which had been depicted in overly simplistic and blatantly biased terms.  In keeping with these changes, Wayne interprets Ethan Edwards as an obsessed man with an almost psychotic racial hatred.  The character is more troubled than any previous Wayne screen incarnation (with the possible exception of the driven cowhand-turned-ruthless cattle baron he played in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River).

As Ethan Edwards, Wayne is a man adrift — a Confederate veteran estranged from society.  It is a demanding role and Wayne delivers the goods under Ford’s direction.  Ford liked using a core company of actors and Wayne became the marquee member of the stock players Ford repeatedly drew on for his films.  By the time the cameras started rolling on The Searchers, Ford and Wayne were as closely identified with each other as any director-actor combo before or since.  In Crawford’s view, Ford knew Wayne could project the very qualities his protagonists embodied and utilized Wayne’s “strong silent charisma” like no one else.

The Searchers memorably opens with a lone rider approaching the homestead of Aaron Edwards, wife Martha and daughters Lucy and Debbie.  The rider is framed in the doorway of the house amid the vast expanse of the desert.  As the rider approaches, a ballad about a man’s lonely wandering plays on the soundtrack:   “What makes a man to wander?  What makes a man to roam?   What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home?  Ride away, ride away, ride away.”

Ethan Edwards is returning to the frontier Texas wilderness and the only family he knows after a separation of many years.  There is a tragic quality about Ethan, who during his long sojourn has lost his former sweetheart, Martha, to his brother.  Harboring a deep hatred for Indians, he cannot accept the part-Cherokee teen, Martin Pawley (whom Aaron and Martha adopted after Ethan rescued him during an Indian raid in which the boy’s parents were killed), as his nephew.

After living a nomadic bordering-on-outlaw life since the war, Ethan clearly longs for the domestication his kin enjoy, but events prevent his reintegration into civilization.  When an Indian raiding party, led by the Comanchee renegade Scar, attacks neighboring homesteads, Ethan and Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) join Texas Rangers in pursuit of the marauders.  In Ethan’s absence, the raiders attack Aaron’s place, killing Aaron and Martha and kidnapping Lucy and Debbie (Natalie Wood).

The killings and abductions set Ethan, Marty and others off on an epic avenging search across the desert.  It is a quest fueled more by Ethan’s blind rage than justice.  After Lucy is found dead and violated, Ethan leaves no doubt he means to kill both Scar and Debbie, whose virtue he deems irretrievable.

While Ethan is unrelenting in his pursuit, Marty, who abhors Ethan’s plan, is just as unbending in his will to prevent any harm coming to Debbie.  When, months later, the decimated search party is no closer to finding her, only Ethan and Marty remain to carry-on.  Beyond all reason, their search stretches over a decade, with Ethan growing more callous each year.

In the end, Scar is finally dealt with and, after chasing his niece into the mouth of a cave, Ethan spares her, uttering the famous line, “Let’s go home, Debbie.”  By sparing her, he reclaims part of himself.  The final scene, Debbie’s homecoming, is perhaps the most poignant ending in movie history.  As Debbie and Marty are embraced by the family he is marrying into everyone sweeps inside the house to celebrate except for Ethan, who stands awkwardly in the doorway — poised between redemption inside and oblivion outside.  It is the same framing device used for Ethan’s arrival at the film’s start. As the door closes behind him, he is cast adrift amid the wilderness.  An eternal wanderer searching for a home to call his own.

The ballad heard at the opening reprises the haunting lament of the wandering man:  “A man will search his heart and soul, go searchin’ way out there, his peace of mind he knows he’ll find, but where, O Lord, oh where?   Ride away, ride away.”

The ending is rife with resonance.  First, it is a suiting elegy for the dying-breed of Westerner Ethan epitomized: he must move on because his job is done and his time has passed.  The end is also a requiem for the Western itself, which was fast dying out due to changing cultural tastes and the glut of TV Western series.  Finally, the ending is a tribute to Harry Carey, Sr., one of the first great Hollywood Western stars.  When Wayne stands astride the doorway, he reenacts a trademark pose of Carey’s — clutching his right hand to his left elbow — before trekking off alone.

There was a strong connection between Carey and The Searchers’ director and leading man.  John Ford helmed many of Carey’s silent Westerns and John Wayne admired Carey as a kind of role model.  Additionally, Carey’s son, Harry Carey, Jr., has a supporting role in the film and was a regular stock player in Ford pics.

The Celluloid West

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

The searchers Ford Trailer screenshot (1)

Image via Wikipedia

My love of film and writing about film finds me looking for opportunities to wax poetic, or my clumsy approximation of such, about cinema. An example is this story from a few years ago about a Turner Classic Movies Western film festival.  I am a big fan of the Western.  When I was a film programmer I organized two major Western film fests, and so when I caught wind of the TCM series, I finagled an assignment from my editor at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to write this preview piece.  Although the TCM fest long ago aired, the channel regularly screens many of the great Westerns I mention in the article.

This blog also contains articles about two of the best John Ford-John Wayne collaborations, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The blog also contains dozens of other stories about cinema classics, stars, and filmmakers.  Check them out.

The Celluloid West

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

On select nights in November Turner Classic Movies pays tribute to the Western with a lineup TCM bills as “ALL the greatest Westerns ever made, except for Shane,” — the omission of the George Stevens’ classic probably owing to a rights issue.

At first glance, the Western may seem a rather dry form, but to this film buff’s thinking, anyway, it may just be the richest of all genres. The best Westerns, like the best dramas, speak to universal passions. They explore the human quest for power, freedom, independence and wealth and they examine the conflicts that arise when these desires collide with the equally strong needs for home, family, community and civilization. They reveal the struggle of men and women at odds with not only the natural elements but their own human nature as well. Because of all that it encompasses — from the settling of the West to empire building to the genocide of native peoples — the Western covers a landscape that is at once epic, mythic, historical, political, sociological, psychological and geographic.

If there is one Western that is the nexus of the genre, it is John Ford’s cinematic tone poem, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a memory saga about how what is known about the past is a function of what is told us and what we wish to believe. Near the end of the film a sardonic newspaperman, upon hearing how a celebrated taming of the West episode came down very differently from the way stories purported it to be, utters an aphorism — “This is the West, sir — when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — that neatly explains how the mechanisms of popular culture make even outlandish lore the gospel truth.

In this same way, Hollywood Westerns through the mid-1950s were like dime novels in their avoidance of historical accuracy for heroic depictions of a fabulous frontier where hard men delivered justice, vengeance and temperance. All the conventions of the Western were in place by the end of the silent era and the first three decades of the talkies only served to reinforce its constructs: the lone rider finding trouble in some town; the corrupt cattle baron protecting his interests with hired guns; the golden-hearted “saloon girl” aiding the Westerner; and Indians laying siege to homesteads and army outposts.

For most of us, our mental picture of the Old West is derived from the images Hollywood has provided of its epochal events — range wars, cattle drives, wagon trains, cavalry campaigns — and its infamous legends — Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean, Billy the Kid. All most of us know about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is what the movies tell us.

Early Westerns were simplistic, but occasionally a picture surfaced, like Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, that both defined and transcended the genre or, as in the case of William Wyler’s 1940The Westerner, that took delight in sending it up. Some Westerns, including Howard Hawks’ Red River and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), are practically Shakespearean in the scale and scope of their conflict and intrigue.

The Western milieu often has been used as a forum for examining social issues, from William Wellman’s 1943 The Oxbow Incident, which condemned intolerance with its attack on lynching, to the Fred Zinneman directed and Carl Foreman scripted High Noon (1951), which championed integrity in a thinly veiled reference to the ‘50s’ witch hunts, blacklists and informants. Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar are a carnival of Freudian symbols writ large. Anthony Mann’s The Furies is a Greek Tragedy on the prairie.

By the time Ford, the great interpreter of the Western, completed his early cavalry cycle (Rio GrandeFort ApacheShe Wore A Yellow Ribbon) and got around to The Searchers, filmmakers were reinterpreting their vision of the West. In The Searchers the Western protagonist — John Wayne as Confederate veteran and Indian killer Ethan Edwards — is presented as an anti–hero whose society-building impulses have been usurped by baser instincts and blinded by racist feelings.

In Wayne, Ford found the icon for the latter-day Westerner. Estranged from society, but not averse to aiding it — for a price — he is a stabilizing force who adheres to a personal code of conduct that allows him to straddle either side of the law when it suits him. At the end of the trail, the Westerner dies or rides off alone, unwilling or unable to bend to community strictures. He is the original American rebel.

This same anti-heroic thread runs through two key series of Westerns in the ‘50s, each pairing an inspired director with a perfectly matched star. Much like Alfred Hitchcock did in his suspense films with Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Mann explored the darker more cynical side of Stewart in Winchester 73Bend of the RiverThe Naked SpurThe Far Country and The Man from Laramie.

Similarly, Budd Boetticher found, in Randolph Scott, the embodiment of the laconic drifter in The Tall TBuchanan Rides AloneRide Lonesome and Comanche Station. By the 1960s, the Westerner was forever recast as an enigmatic, alienated and even anachronistic figure — a man of fierce independence and great competence whose temper and skill have been forged by years as a mercenary in the service of top dollar.

Not surprisingly, the Westerner is the precursor of today’s action hero — a rough-hewn rogue possessing extraordinary skills of horsemanship, gunplay and physical combat. He is strong, smart, brave and over-the-edge. The Westerns of Howard Hawks made a great point of portraying the Westerner as a professional called on by ordinary citizens to help rid them of some menace. The role of the professional is the theme of his late trilogy — Rio BravoEl Dorado and Rio Lobo. Taking this theme even farther was director John Sturges, who transposed the samurai warrior philosophy to the professional gunslinger code by drawing on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as the inspiration for his hugely popular Western The Magnificent Seven.

The great purveyors of the newer, harsher, de-romanticized Western were neoclassical filmmakers Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High CountryMajor DundeeThe Wild BunchThe Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars MoreThe Good the Bad and the UglyOnce Upon a Time in the West).

Peckinpah, who despite the later violence in his films was a storyteller from the old school, seemed to invest the anxiety, anger and alienation of the ‘60s into his work. He developed a lyrical, folkloric, yet ironic approach that subverted many old conventions and exposed the hypocritical forces operating in the West. Leone was also a visual poet, but on a grander, more stylized scale. He staged the Western as if it were an opera, building elaborate sets, scenes and sequences that heightened the Western motifs and then undercut those very same motifs through such obvious but gorgeous artifice that his gaze on the Western landscape became at once reverential and winking.

Leone gave birth to a character, The Man with No Name, and to the actor who portrayed him, Clint Eastwood, that became identified with the revisionist Westerns of the late ‘60s through today. Eastwood’s Westerner is a remote and bitter figure who casts a jaundiced eye on everyone and everything around him. In much the same way John Wayne’s later characterizations were informed by his five-decade body of work and revealed the nuances of an older, grizzled, embittered and, finally in The Shootist, dying gunman unable to escape his past, Eastwood draws on his cinema legacy to create, in Unforgiven, a figure haunted by his violent legacy.

To fully appreciate the richness of the Western, one must be steeped in a wide range of examples of the genre from different eras. For what it’s worth, here is one film buff’s partial must-see inventory, listed roughly chronologically, of  essential Westerns:

Stagecoach (Ford’s 1939 version, not the dreadful 1966 remake); The Oxbow IncidentMy Darling ClementineRed RiverThe GunfighterHigh NoonShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon;WagonmasterWinchester 73The Naked SpurShaneThe SearchersForty GunsThe Tin StarThe Unforgiven (the 1960 John Huston classic, not the Eastwood film); Rio BravoThe Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceLonely are the BraveRide the High Country; One-Eyed JacksThe Wild BunchButch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThe Ballad of Cable HogueWill PennyThe Cheyenne Social ClubThe Stalking MoonMcCabe and Mrs MillerUlzana’s RaidThe CowboysThe ShootistBarbarosa; and The Grey Fox.

Enjoy ‘em, pardners.

Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: New works by Rick Dooling

October 10, 2010 5 comments

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/slaying-dragons-rick-dooling/

 

The best writing challenges our preconceptions of the world, and Rick Dooling is an author who consistently does that in his essays, long form nonfiction, and novels.  He’s also a screenwriter.  If you know his work, then you know how his language and ideas stretch your mind.  If you don’t know his work, then consider this a kind of book club recommendation.  I promise, you won’t be disappointed.  The following piece I did on Dooling appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) a couple years ago upon the release of his book, Rapture for the Geeks, When AI Outsmarts IQ.  The work reads like a cross between a love ballad to the wonders of computer technology and a cautionary tale of that same technology one day overtaking humans’ capacity to control it.  Around this same time, a suspenseful, supernatural film Dooling wrote the screenplay for from a Stephen King short story, Dolan’s Cadillac,  finished shooting. Dooling previously collaborated with King on the television miniseries, Kingdom Hospital.  Dooling is currently working on a TV pilot.

You can find more pieces by me on Rick Dooling, most efficiently in the category with his name, but also in several other categores, including Authors/Literature and Nebraskans in Film.

 

 

 

 

Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: new works by Rick Dooling

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It’s been awhile since Omaha writer Rick Dooling, author of the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm, enjoyed this kind of traction. Fall 2008 saw published his cautionary riff Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ (Harmony Books). His screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, will soon be released as an indie feature. Dooling, collaborator with King on the network television series Kingdom Hospital, was flattered the master of horror himself asked him to tackle Dolan, a classic revenge story with supernatural undertones.

Dooling’s no stranger to movie-movie land. His novel Critical Care was adapted into a Sidney Lumet film. The author was preparing to adapt Brainstorm for Alan J. Pakula when the director died in a freak accident. Then there was the creative partnership with King. But writing books is his stock-in-trade, and even though Dolan could change that, Rapture’s what comes to mind in any appreciation of Dooling.

Like much of his socially conscious work Rapture’s a smart, funny, disturbing, essay-like take on a central conflict in this modern age, one that, depending on your point of view, is either rushing toward a critical tipping point or is much ado about nothing. He fixes on the uncomfortable interface between the cold, hard parameters of computer technology’s increasing sophistication and meta-presence in our lives with existential notions of what it means to be human.

High tech’s ever more integrated in our lives. We rely on it for so many things. Its systems grow faster, more powerful. Dooling considers nothing less than humankind nearing an uneasy threshold when the artificial intelligence we’ve engineered surpasses our own. He lays out how the ongoing exponential growth of super processing capabilities is a phenomenon unlike any other in recorded history. The implications of the singularity, as geeks and intellectuals call this moment when interconnected cyber systems outstrip human functioning, range from nobody-knows-what-happens-next to dark Terminator-Matrix scenarios.

A fundamental question he raises is, Can the creators of AI really be supplanted by their creation? If possible, as the book suggests it is, then what does that do to our concept of being endowed with a soul by a divinity in whose image we’re made? Is synthetic intelligence’s superiority a misstep in our endeavors to conquer the universe or an inevitable consequence of the evolutionary scheme?

“Well, we all know what evolution is. We’ve read about it, we understand it, it’s just that we always have this humancentric, anthropocentric viewpoint,” Dooling said. “Wouldn’t it make perfect sense there would be another species that would come after us if evolution continued? Why would we be the last one?”

Is AI outsmarting IQ part of a grand design? Where does that leave humanity? Are we to enter a hybrid stage in our development in which nanotechnology and human physiology merge? Or are we to be replaced, even enslaved by the machines?

The real trouble comes if AI gains self-knowledge and asserts control. That’s the formula for a rise-of-the-machines prescience that ushers in the end of homo sapien dominance. Or has mastery of the universe always been an illusion of our conceit? Is the new machine age our comeuppance? Have we outsmarted ourselves into our own decline or demise? Can human ingenuity prevent a cyber coup?

Arrogantly, we cling to the belief we’ll always be in control of technology. “Do you believe that?” Dooling asked. “It is kind of the mechanical equivalent of finding life on other planets.” In other words, could we reasonably assume we’d be able to control alien intelligent life? Why should we think any differently about AI?

Pondering “what man hath wrought” is an age-old question. We long ago devised the means to end our own species with nuclear/biological weapons and pollutants. Nature’s ability to kill us off en masse with virus outbreaks, ice cap melts or meteor strikes is well known. What’s new here is the insidious nature of digital oblivion. It may already be too late to reverse our absorption into the grid or matrix. Most of us are still blissfully unaware. The wary may reach a Strangelove point of How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Microchip.

It’s intriguing, scary stuff. Not content with simply offering dire predictions, Dooling examines the accelerating cyber hold from different perspectives, presenting alternate interpretations of what it may mean — good, bad, indifferent. This kaleidoscopic prism for looking at complex themes is characteristic of him.

Extremities lend themselves to the satire he’s so adept at. He finds much to skewer here but isn’t so much interested in puncturing holes in theories as in probing the big ideas and questions the coming singularity, if you ascribe to it, inspires. His drawing on scientific, religious, literary thinkers on the subject confirms his firm grasp and thorough research of it.

The project was a labor of love for Dooling, a self-described geek whose fascination with computers and their content management, data base applications began long before the digital revolution hit main street. We’re talking early 1980s. “Not many writers were drawn to computers that early,” he said, “but of course now you can’t write without a computer most people would say.”

 

Richard Dooling's photo.

 

Richard Dooling

 

 

He designs web sites, he builds computers and because “I knew I wanted to write about this,” he said, “I knew I was going to get no respect until I could at least write code and do programming.” Deep into html he goes.

The pithy, portentous quotations sprinkled throughout the book come from the vast files of sayings and passages he’s collected and stored for just such use.

Aptly, he became a blog star in this high-tech information age after an op-ed he wrote that drew heavily from Rapture appeared in The New York Times. His piece responded to oracle Warren Buffett’s warning, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” following the stock market crash. Dooling enjoys Web exchanges with readers.
“I’m telling you every blog from here to Australia quoted this op-ed, with extended commentary. I’ve never seen anything like that happen with my work before. It took me completely by surprise. It makes you realize how powerful the Internet is.”

If you doubt how ingrained our computer interactions are, Dooling said, think about this the next time you call Cox Communications with a technical issue:

“Your first few minutes of interaction are being handled by a chatterbot,” Dooling said, “and some people don’t even realize it. It’ll say, ‘Let me ask you a few questions first,’ and then it’ll go, ‘Hold on and I will connect you with one of our assistants’ or something like that. And when you’ve reached the point where the thing has gathered everything it can automatically gather now you need an intervention from someone in India to come on and actually take over and start doing the human interaction. Until then, that’s a piece of software talking to you.

“The chatterbots are getting very good. It’s taking longer and longer in a Turing Test type of situation” for people to determine they’re bandying back and forth with a machine not another person. He said that’s because advanced chatterbots can be programmed to exhibit qualities like humor or variations of it like sarcasm.

“I mean the very first one, Eliza, I talk about in there (Rapture), they fooled hundreds of people with in the beginning because people were naive back then. The designers did it just by turning every question around. They call the software a Rogerian Psychiatrist because you go, ‘I hate my brother,’ and it responds, ‘Why do you hate your brother?’ Or you say, ‘I feel terrible today, and it goes, ‘Why do you feel terrible today?’ My favorite one is, ‘My brother hates me’ and it asks, ‘Who else in your family hates you?’ Do you love it?”

For those who dismiss high-tech’s hold he points to our computer, iPod, cell phone, online fixations and prodigious digital activities as creating cyber imprints of our lives. Our identity, profile, personal data, preferences become bit/byte fodder.

“And it’s true, you know, because when you log onto something like dig or slash.com they’re showing you stuff based upon every time you’ve been there and what you clicked on,” he said. “And when you’re going on something like Wikipedia and contributing content the operating system is like, Oh, good, more content here. ‘Based on your contributions in the past, it appears you really enjoy the singularity, would you like to write an article about it?’

“At one point in there (Rapture) I think I quote George Johnson from The New York Times, who takes it to the next level by saying, Look, does it really matter what you believe about your dependence if Amazon’s picking your books and eHarmony’s picking your spouse and Net Flix is picking your movies? You’ve been absorbed, you’ve been to the operating system, they already own you.”

Skeptics counter that’s a far leap to actually losing our autonomy. “Yeah, but in exponential times a very far leap is no longer a very far leap,” said Dooling.

Virtual reality’s dark side also interests Dooling. “Well, it does make you think about things like technology or Internet addiction or any of those things,” he said. “I believe that’s very real and it’s just going to get worse. A lot of people don’t even realize they are addicted until they’re stuck somewhere without their iTouch or whatever. And then you see it in your kids. You know, what does that mean?”

He said at book club forums he does for Rapture “people have a sense technology is changing them but they are uncertain about its effects. They also sense the dramatic speed and exponential increases in power, but don’t know where that will all end up. Most people feel like computers are already smarter than them, so they are more curious about the possible dangers of a future where computers are literally in charge of the Internet or our financial welfare. We’ve seen just a sample with the computer-generated derivatives that began the latest crash. What about nanotechnology and the gray goo phenomenon? That is, the possibility a terrorist or ‘mad scientist’ could create something that replicates, exponentially of course, until it crushes everything…It goes on.”

Dooling doesn’t pretend to know what lies ahead. He’s only sure the techno landscape will grow ever larger, more complex and that America lags far behind countries like India and China in math, science, IT expertise, broad band penetration and high tech infrastructure. The good news is greater connectivity will continue flattening the world, opening up new opportunities.

“In the short term I think what you see is exponentially increased collaboration and intelligence sharing and data sharing,” he said. “But beyond that we don’t know where it’s going to go.”

The same can be said for Dolan’s Cadillac. At the start anyway. Obsession, Old Testament-style, is the theme of the Stephen King story Dooling adapted. More precisely, how far will someone go to exact revenge? King’s original appears in his short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

In the script, which adheres closely to King’s story, Robinson (Wes Bentley) is bent on avenging his wife Elizabeth‘s murder. His target — big-time criminal Jimmy Dolan (Christian Slater), a human trafficker who makes the drive between Vegas and L.A. in his prized, heavily-armored Cadillac escorted by two bodyguards. The ruthless Dolan, who ordered the hit on Elizabeth, seems impervious. Robinson, a school teacher, appears outmatched. But with the visage of his dear-departed egging, nagging, cajoling him on, Robinson lays a diabolical trap for Dolan and his Caddy.

After King asked him to adapt it, Dooling read the tale and it hooked him. How could it not? It has a relentless, driven quality that captivates you from the jump and never lets up, with enough macabre twists to keep you off balance. From the first time we meet Robinson, half-out-of-his-mind laboring on a desolate stretch of U.S. 71 in the killing Nevada sun, we know we’re in for a ride. We have no idea what he’s doing out there. That’s what the rest of the film is about.

Dooling said he likes the story being “the revenge of a common man, not an ex-Navy Seal or ex-cop or whatever. He doesn’t care if he loses, because his life is over anyway, but he’d really rather make sure he gets Dolan first.”

Another writer took a crack at adapting Dolan. That left Dooling with a choice.

“In Hollywood you can either look at the first project and try and fix it or you can choose to start from scratch,” he said. “I decided to write it myself, which is riskier, because if you do it yourself there’s no one really to blame except you.”

He said King’s story is set-up as “the perfect second half of a movie,” which found Dooling filling-in “how did we get here.” That meant detailing the back story of how Elizabeth (Emmanuelle Vaugier) stumbled onto Dolan and crew to witness something she shouldn’t, her going to the feds and despite protection being killed. It also meant fleshing out Dolan’s lifestyle and business dealings and Robinson’s transformation into a single-minded vindicator.

The film shot largely in Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 2008, where Dooling was on set for weeks. He saw several cuts of the film, including the final. He’s pleased with the results. Among other things, he’s impressed by Bentley and Slater in the leads.

“Bentley’s quite bland to begin with, but once he begins stalking Dolan he makes himself into one intense, haunted creature,” said Dooling, adding Slater makes us “like Dolan every once in a while. Not many bad people are just plain bad. They usually have a story…and Slater is good at telling us that story.”

He admires the inventive ways director Jeff Beesley handled Elizabeth’s many ghostly appearances, both visually and with voiceover.

It was Dooling’s first experience with an indie project. “It was both scary and exciting because you’re kind of out there, up in Regina. It was great. Lots of fun.”

Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL

October 5, 2010 4 comments

In 2004 I first became enamored with the story of Danny Woodhead, a North Platte, Neb. all-around athlete who became a living legend in high school for his exploits in football, basketball, and track.  He set all kinds of records on the gridiron but large colleges were put off by his small size. He was maybe 5’8 and 180-190 pounds then.  Many a big school has bypassed a great player by only looking at the measurables and not assessing an individual’s heart, worth ethic, competitiveness, and instincts for the game.  Woodhead clearly had those qualities and if coaches had only believed their own eyes they would have seen a special athlete with big-time running capability.  Without an attractive offer in hand, however, Woodhead decided to stay close to home and attend nearby Chadron State College, an obscure Division II school. There, his legend only increased.  Long story short, he became the leading rusher in NCAA history, regardless of division. He personally ran for more yards from scrimmage than the majority of college teams did during his four-year career.  He helped lead a turnaround at Chadron, which went from doormat to contender, I finally caught up with him in 2006, when he won the Harlon Hill Trophy as D-II’s best player for the first time.  The award is D-II’s equivalent of the Heisman, and he won it again at the end of the 2007 season.  No one will ever know what Woodhead would have done at a D-I football power like Nebraska, which showed only tepid interest in him at best when he was in high school, but it’s safe to say that after what he did in college and what he’d done by not only making it to the National Football League but thriving there, that he would have performed very well had he been given the opportunity.

In 2008  he was signed as a free agent by the New York Jets, and he so impressed the coaching staff that after suffering a serious injury in preseason camp he was retained by the team, and he once again made the squad for the 20o9 season.  He shined in some exhibition games and though he saw limited action during the regular season he did produce well when given the chance.  He became a darling of the Jet press corps and fan base, and his legend grew more when he was featured in the HBO reality show, “Hard Knocks. ” Head coach Rex Ryan often praised Woodhead. Woodhead recovered from his injury and made the team to start the 2010 season but he was released only two weeks into the campaign.  That’s when the folktale of Woodhead took another fateful turn:  the NFL’s premier franchise did what it’s done innumerable times before by picking up a cast-off that the brain trust of coach Bill Belichick & Co. recognized as having real value.  The Pats’ acquisition of the no-name Woodhead has more than panned out, as Woodhead has scored a touchdown in each of his first two games with the club, earning praise from his new coaches and teammates, and along the way he’s become an instant folk hero in New England.

The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared after Woodhead’s Harlon Hill-winning junior season at Chadron, when the thought of an NFL career was yet a distant dream. That dream has now been fulfilled and it still has a long way to go before it’s finished.  Indeed, Woodhead is only just getting started.

 

Danny Woodhead, The Mighty Mite from North Platte Makes Good in the NFL

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

By winning the Harlon Hill Trophy last weekend as the nation’s best Division II college football player for 2006 Danny Woodhead won one for all the guys told they’re too small, too slow or from the wrong athletic pedigree. Coming out of North Platte, Woodhead, now the super stud, record-setting tailback for Chadron State College (Neb.), heard doubts about his ability despite being Nebraska Class A football’s all-time rushing-scoring leader.

The modest Woodhead isn’t sure his award is vindication so much as inspiration for underdogs. “I don’t know if it’s a win for ‘em, but I think it’s encouraging,” he said. “It makes ‘em think they have a chance because if I had a chance of doing it I think anyone can. It’s not about your size. It’s about how if you keep working hard something like this could happen. It probably teaches don’t let people tell you you can’t do it, because I’ve been told I couldn’t do stuff since I was in 8th grade.”

D-I schools gave him a look after high school but no offers. A pair of D-II schools courted him and the one he chose, Chadron, lacked a powerhouse program. He followed older brother Ben there. Besides, it was closer to home than his only other suitor, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

At North Platte High he compiled huge numbers, but didn’t meet the profile of a big-time back. In the eyes of major college recruiters he was under weight, (190 pounds) and a step slow (4.6 in the 40). Also hurting his cred was where he played. Western Nebraska doesn’t produce many D-I prospects. Most of his yards came against the Grand Islands and Cretes, not Lincoln or Metro Omaha schools. The theory went, You-may-be-all-that-in-the-sticks, but-you-ain’t-shit-where-it-counts. Then, too, he’s white, when the prototype ballcarrier is black. What’s a guy to do?

Well, in Woodhead’s case he got bigger, stronger and faster and in the process put up eye-popping stats his freshman and sophomore years, rushing 562 times for 3,609 yards and scoring 46 touchdowns for Chadron teams that were competitive but lost as often as they won. He also proved a dangerous receiver. Each year he made the Associated Press Little All-America Team. Combining great lower body strength, superb balance, uncanny vision, excellent speed and rare endurance, he sheds tacklers and makes people miss and just keeps coming at you.

Then he took his game up a notch in 2006. In a year in which Chadron went 12-1, advanced to the playoffs and nearly beat D-II finalist Northwest Missouri State, he went off the way Barry Sanders did his Heisman year. Woodhead earned 1st Team All America honors and D-II’s Heisman equivalent when he gained 2,736 rushing yards and 3,158 all-purpose yards and scored 38 touchdowns and 228 points, tops in each NCAA category. To put it in perspective, by himself he outrushed and outscored most collegiate gridiron teams. His 2,736 rushing yards set the all-division single season mark. With a full season to play, Woodhead, a junior, has 6,345 rushing yards and 84 touchdowns. He’s on pace to break every NCAA career rushing, all-purpose yardage and scoring record. He may eclipse some marks by huge margins.

Like all great athletes he’s not content. “I don’t want to be satisfied with what I’ve done,” he said. “I want to work just as hard as I can to get better.” He intends leading Chadron to the D-II title game, which the return of 19 players with starting experience makes plausible. He’ll be the favorite to win a second Harlon Hill.

Whatever he does next, he knows people will ask, Could he have done it in D-I? “We could play the what if game,” he said, “but honestly it’s not going to get us anywhere. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m having a blast playing football. It’s something you don’t want to end, so I’m just going to cherish it while I have it and I’m not really worried about what I could be or would be doing in Division I.”

The next question is, Can he make it in the NFL? It doesn’t matter. You see, he’s already a legend. His feats should do wonders for recruiting. Thanks to him, other  guys who don’t fit the mold may be dreaming big . Now that’s a legacy, man.

 

 

 

 

Woodhead compiled just under 10,000 all-purpose yards during his Chadron State career.  Here are a few of his college stats:

RUSHING
GP    NO.     YDS    LOSS   NET    RSH AVG   TDS   LNG   PER GM-AVG
11    250     1646   49     1597   6.4       21    89    145.2
13    344     2854   98     2756   8.0       34    88    212.0
10    278     1854   85     1769   6.4       21    91    176.9
10    284     1892   52     1840   6.5       25    73    184.0
44   1156     8266          7962            101
RECEIVING
GP     NO.     YDS   AVG.   TDS  LNG
11     38      484   12.7   2    85
13     45      403    9.0   4    43
10     30      367   12.2   0    32
10     16      163   10.2   2    55
44    129     1417          8
SCORING
GP     TDS      PTS

11            23               138

13             38              228

10             21              126

10             27             162

44           109            654

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home base

October 3, 2010 10 comments

A frequent enough occurrence finds me reading about somebody in the local daily newspaper and my feeling an immediate connection to the person and what makes him or her tick.  Usually I am responding to a depth of passion the subject has for whatever that thing is that’s become a magnificent obsession in their life.  As a journalist, I then naturally want to take my own crack at telling the story.  That’s precisely what happened when I read about the subject of the two stories posted here, Gary Kastrick. At the time he was an Omaha high school teacher getting off the ground an ambitious history-social sciences program called Project OMAHA, which entailed Kastrick and students collecting, researching, and interpreting local history through multi-media projects.  Kastrick was an award-winning teacher who paired his love of education with his love of history.  Kastrick’s also a lifetime collector who has gathered countless artifacts of Omaha history.  His collecting increased after he started Project OMAHA.  He ended up creating an interactive museum at Omaha South High School that displayed materials he found and that others acquired or donated.  I followed Project OMAHA’s progress from afar, charting its ups and downs.  It was years before I finally caught up with Kastrick, and by that time his beloved project was in a tenuous state.  By the time I completed these two stories this year, one for the New Horizons and the other for El Perico, he had retired and the project retired with him. Thus, my stories are bittersweet in tone, because that’s how Kastrick feels after seeing his magnificent obsession became homeless after 12 years of pouring so much of himself into it.
UPDATE: Since writing that above, Kastrick and some collaborators finally did find a new home for his collection by forming the South Omaha Museum, which still operates today. You can find my story about the museum on this blog.
The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home base

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

 

One of Omaha’s most honored high school teachers retired at the end of this past school year, and with him a singular history project he gave his heart to retired with him.

In 1999 then-Omaha South High social studies teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies), an innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, which happens to be his alma mater.

After announcing the project and inviting the public to come forward to have their oral histories recorded and to donate artifacts, the positive response that followed took him by surprise.

“We got floods of people and floods of material. A lot of stockyards people came forward,” said Kastrick. “What we have the most material of is the stockyards. I’ve got tons and tons of material.”

But he soon realized his little project struck a chord well beyond the stockyards and South Omaha to include all kinds of people with stories to tell about many different segments of the city.

“There was no rhyme of reason to the people that came down and interviewed. We have such a diversity of people on tape.”

The history and memorabilia added to what Kastrick had been acquiring himself for years. With a museum to put it in, he ramped up the collecting.

“I never expected it to happen like this,” he said, “but stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap. I mean, I almost had to literally stop (collecting) because it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Stuff soon jam-packed the subterranean room given over to the project at South. Every last inch utilized. As far back as two years ago he ran out of space, saying then, “I’ve basically used about every inch of space I can in this room. I’ve got hundreds of artifacts more than this. I’ve got stuff in the back of this room, in storage places…I don’t know what to do with all of it I’ve got so much.”

The interactive space encouraged South High and visiting students to pore through the collection. It was harder for the general public to access the project since it was housed in a functioning school, making it perhaps the only museum in a school anywhere, but occasional open houses were held and tours could be arranged by appointment.

It was a sight to see. Photographs and descriptive panels put history in context. Remnants from famous buildings that no longer exist were exhibited. A popular exhibit recreated one of the famous Christmas window displays of the downtown J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store.

“We had an open house here one Christmas and people flocked. We had this place packed. They literally cried in front of the window and started telling their Brandeis stories,” said Kastrick.

Instead of static displays of history that remained distant, this was hands-on, up-close history that students were encouraged to use in multi-media projects that repurposed the material as teaching tools for elementary school students. Working under Kastrick’s direction, South students produced children’s books and videos based on oral history interviews and made these available to 3rd grade teachers and their students.

South students variously described Kastrick as “making history fun” and Project OMAHA as being “different than a regular class.” One student said, “It reminded me of my grandma’s house.” Indeed, it was like the ultimate grandma or grandpa attic overbrimming with things.

While OPS never mandated teachers utilize the project, some 3rd grade classes did make regular treks down there. He enjoyed giving tours of historic Omaha to youths, especially suburban kids who rarely venture that far east. The tours obviously energized him because once he had a captive audience he suddenly turned spry, animated guide and Pied Piper leading his charges up and down South 24th Street or through Prospect Hill Cemetery.

 

 

 

His goal was instilling in children an interest in history they could carry wherever they went. On a 2009 tour for Pinewood Elementary students he told the 8-year-olds to note the names and dates on buildings:

“What I really want you to learn is how to look at buildings or how to look at historical places. By the time we’re through here you should have a real good history of this area without even opening a book. Now when you go around the city you have to look for clues on what might have been there at one time.”

 

 

1928 South 24th Street, Omaha, NE 68107.

South 24th Street, past and present

 

2014 South Omaha, NE - South 24th Street

 

Mr. K, as kids call him, always has a story about whatever site he stops to show a group. He often interjects personal anecdotes, like as a boy his hunting rats around the packing plants or his selling bologna sandwiches to livestock haulers stuck in the long procession of trucks waiting to unload their cargo at the stockyards.

“I love the 3rd graders because they’re at that age where they still have that vim and vigor for things, and they still have that appreciation.”

He still leads a popular South Omaha tour for the Durham Museum and even in retirement he may lead school tours again because of all the requests he gets from teachers. Teachers love how Kastrick’s own childlike passion for history, combined with colorful information, resonates with kids. Teachers refer to the project as “a great asset.”

The interpretive center he created within South was his playground. He loved having his own students as well as visiting students immerse themselves in it. Besides the children’s books/videos South students created, an original opera, Bloodlines Sings of South Omaha Immigrants, was drawn from the historically-based narratives South students gathered about the community’s immigrant experience. Former South teacher Jim Eisenhardt took those stories and enlisted then-Opera Omaha artistic director Hal France and composer-in-residence Debra Fischer Teaser, along with local theater director Kevin Lawler, the Omaha Symphony and local actors and dancers ,to collaborate with South students on the product. It had its world premiere in 2001.

The opera showed the potential of Kastrick’s project.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” Kastrick said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities. I’m going to miss that, I’m going to miss the activities, I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and trying to educate people about local history.”

Designed as a multi-media learning experience for students at South, an arts and technology magnet school, the project provided opportunities to hone computer, video, Photo-Shop, editing and writing skills. All that activity is suspended now, leaving many unfinished projects and unrealized dreams. Hundreds of taped interviews need transferring to DVD. Kastrick wanted to publish many stories people shared. He wanted to see completed new book/video projects abandoned as students graduated or funds ran dry, including a planned four-set animated history DVD.

The school and school district helped underwrite the project at times, including a technology upgrade. But Kastrick’s vision and ambition seemingly went beyond where South or OPS were prepared to go. The limbo position the project inhabited was perhaps best summed up by spokeswoman Luanne Nelson, who described it as an “unofficial but valuable resource.”

Much recognition came Kastrick’s way for his efforts in the classroom and with extracurricular activities, including an Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award. Shortly before retiring the Omaha Optimist Club honored him for his work with the organization’s Academic Decathlon competition. In September he received the Nebraska State Historical Society’s James C. Olson award for his contributions to preserving local history through Project OMAHA.

Despite considerable media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded. Chalk it up to a mid-life crisis or to the divorce proceedings he was embroiled in.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser was commissioned to fashion a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he told a reporter, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into an already cluttered storage site.

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture, display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he and others value.

Upon retiring, he grew his gray hair out and sprouted a full beard, giving him a Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. He wasn’t letting himself go, instead he was getting into “character” for his gritty South O tours.

Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That task was put on hold when he had hip replacement surgery, followed by a bout of pneumonia. He may be getting his other hip done. For now then, the collection gathers dust, a sad end to a proud program that seemingly came out of nowhere but that was the culmination of a lifetime fascination.

He and former colleague Dean Flyr conceived Project OMAHA. Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on. Officially, the project was an adjunct to Kastrick’s teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced.

After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. That precarious position left it at the whim of administrators. It’s why he was always scrounging to keep it going.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

 

 

Omaha South High School

 

 

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch at 23rd and M. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive for the project.

Luanne Nelson said that after some preliminary discussion the district decided not to get involved in acquiring the old South O library for OMAHA.

Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

He also wanted to to establish an endowment that put the project’s operations on sound financial footing well into the future. With the project disbanded, it seems a moot point now. A part of him is prepared to move on and let the project rest in mothballs, but another part of him is holding out hope a patron will step up and provide a new lease on life. A grant that Metropolitan Community College is seeking could provide a lifeline for a new exhibition space. He’s not holding his breath though.

He sometimes ponders what might have been. He wonders if the project’s scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt its chances of being endorsed. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make it a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

It was all proof to him that no one cared as much about the project as he did.

His laments are remindful of Bertha Calloway’s. Her grassroots Great Plains Black History Museum struggled on the north side just as Kastrick’s did on the south side. Like him, she found some support but ultimately felt betrayed when she couldn’t get the museum on solid enough ground to secure its future. It’s now closed. The materials Calloway worked so long and hard to accumulate have no permanent home. Kastrick long feared a similar fate for the materials he collected should things not work out and the project forced to move.

For Kastrick, as for Calloway, it’s a legacy thing. It’s about preserving heritage and history for future generations. It’s about saving a lifetime of work. They know without preservation their work’s likely lost forever. After the GPBHM closed, Calloway’s legacy lay in storage for years and only recently a portion of the collection has been archived at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to Kastrick you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his late custodian father Leo Kastrick on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

His father was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this.”

His dream was to have a large enough space to accommodate groups who could come tell their stories — of working at the Martin Bomber plant or dancing at Peony Park or playing the ponies at Ak-Sar-Ben or shopping at the downtown Brandeis department store — and make digital recordings of them.

He rues not having a venue or apparatus for collecting this history. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

He regrets, too, not having a space where all his stuff can be displayed. His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units overflow with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

As a fresh young teacher at Bancroft Grade School in the ‘70s he struggled connecting with its at-risk kids. With the old school slated for closure officials wanted to document its history. He volunteered himself and a group of students to do the job. He peeked students’ interest by telling them their old urban digs were where Omaha began.

“We looked through old city directories and found the original Bancroft school building. One of the kids was actually living in it. Sure enough, downstairs was a blackboard. That intrigued me and so then I thought, Let’s do all of South 10th Street. What I saw happening from this was the kids got a whole different perspective of their own neighborhood. This was no longer ‘Aw, they’re just a bunch of old beat-up houses,’ but instead, ‘Somebody famous lived here’ and ‘This company started there.’ They really got into it.”

Noting how history helps kids see with new eyes, he made it his educational focus.

“When I came to South I put into progress the first local history class” in OPS, he said. “By 1987 I had an Omaha history class.”

Twelve years later Project OMAHA was born. He and Dean Flyr were already thinking about a history project when the stockyards announced it would close in 1999, prompting the pair to have students chronicle its rich past. A World-Herald article on the fledgling project and the educators’ interest in recording stories elicited a huge response.

He and South students sought out artifacts for display, conducted oral/video history interviews and researched various facets of local history to inform educational products they produced. He also accepted materials brought in by staff and the public — artifacts, books, photos, newsreel film. The memorabilia documented everything from the history of organized sports in Omaha to the early struggles for civil rights here.

Kastrick even salvaged the last standing cattle pen from the now defunct Omaha stockyards, which once claimed the title of world’s largest livestock market. He regards the pen as if a holy relic.

“A lot of people wanted this wood,” he said, caressing it. “It took me awhile to get that out of there.”

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Even though the project is homeless and he’s short on space, he still collects things, like Omaha Knights hockey memorabilia he recently came into possession of, adding to his already extensive Omaha sports collection.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

But his heart isn’t in it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories and artifacts to cultivate. It sickens him the old ballpark will soon be gone. He covets a row of grandstand seats.

Beyond that, there’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading South Omaha tours. Besides, people just won’t let him alone, always calling or emailing with requests for tours or Omaha history tidbits. He’s always happy to oblige because in truth he’d be disappointed if people didn’t contact him for his expertise. It’s his passion.

Project OMAHA may now be only a heap of junk in the dark, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

If there’s anyone out there who’d like to help it find a home, Mr. K will gladly listen. Sure, he’s tired, but he’s not dead.

El Perico cover/Reader culture story on Gary Kastrick and Project Omaha

Story sources: interviews w/Kastrick, visits to Project Omaha and his home, etc.

Photo contacts: Kastrick, 905-2538

 

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, Loses the Home to His Beloved Project OMAHA But His Magnificent Obsession Still Burns Bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

In 1999 then-Omaha South High teacher Gary Kastrick’s abiding love of history led him to create Project OMAHA (Oral Memories and Historical Anthologies). The impetus for this innovative local history educational-interpretive program at the school, also his alma mater, was the Omaha stockyards’ closure. The focus soon extended to all Omaha history.

After announcing the project, he said “stuff just came pouring in. For awhile there I was going to every (estate) sale I could find, I was on e-Bay constantly, just gathering material. When the Durham Museum threw out a lot of stuff I ended up in their garbage heap…it was just becoming overwhelming.”

Artifacts were displayed in a subterranean room at South. In the jam-packed space, South students pored through the collection and, using computer technology, created history materials for 3rd grade teachers in the Omaha Public Schools. Teachers brought their classes to South.

Kastrick loved leading history tours: at the project’s digs; along South 24th Street; at Prospect Hill Cemetery. The activity energized him.

“It was more of a learning center than it was a museum,” he said. “It was more to bring kids down and have them do activities.”

Despite media coverage and grant funding, Kastrick bemoaned a lack of support, appreciation and, well, love for his baby. In his mournful Chicagoese “Sou’d O” voice he vented frustration. He complained of burn-out. The craggy-faced Kastrick often looked as bedraggled as he sounded.

The mood of this self-described “pessimist” brightened in light of 2009 developments. He won a tourism grant to enhance displays and upgrade an interview booth used for recording oral histories. Artist Doug Kiser fashioned a scale model replica of the Omaha Stockyards. It was enough to have “rekindled” Kastrick’s hopes.

Still, it vexed him there was no plan to continue the project at South and no off-site facility to house it once he retired in May. He rued the prospect of moving the entire works. Then his worst fears were realized when South officials disbanded it. With resignation and resentment in his voice, he said, “Project OMAHA has ended at South High.” He glumly dissembled the exhibits, hauling away hundreds of items into a storage site already cluttered with excess.

 

 

Omaha Stockyards

 

 

Many items are stacked in a heap: an old cash register, an adding machine, a vintage typewriter, assorted furniture , display cases. Against walls are a floor radio and a juke box. Arranged more carefully are posters, photographs, audio cassettes, newspaper clippings. None of it has any real monetary value he concedes, but it’s history he values.

Unbound by school rules, he’s grown his gray hair out to shoulder-length, giving him a mad Biblical prophet look befitting his extreme history fixation. Whether or not the collection sees the light of day again, he wants it archived. That months-long task must wait until he recovers from hip replacement surgery and pneumonia.

He thought up and did Project OMAHA with former colleague Dean Flyr. Along the way Kastrick devoted countless unpaid hours treasure hunting, interviewing, organizing, supervising, presenting. Flyr and a paraprofessional who once assisted him moved on.

Officially, the project was an adjunct to his teaching. Emotionally, it’s what he lived for. It’s where his passion for education and history coalesced. After giving so much and getting so little in return, he felt like an unrequited lover. A decade into it he still fought to get it institutionalized. Though the project received significant direct grant support, donated equipment and in-kind services from Apple and other sources, it was never an official Omaha Public Schools or South High project. Instead, it was Gary’s Chasing Windmills Dream. He was always scrounging.

Its governance was under the nonprofit Omaha History Inc. The board’s comprised of Kastrick and a friend. South High Alumni Association executive director Dick Gulizia  was a vocal advocate, as was Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt.

The History Boys sought benefactors to recognize and reward this labor of love. Finding a permanent home was priority one. Kastrick acknowledged his lack of tact was a detriment. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician. I’m not a schmoozer. I’m a stubborn Pollack. I believe this is good enough on its own merit and should be able to sell itself.” He said it didn’t help being “a peon — I’m just a working stiff.”

Denver architect Phil Greenberg did offer $50,000 should a permanent home be found for the collection. An Omaha native, Greenberg’s father, Sam Greenberg, owned the South 24th Street landmark, Phillip’s Department Store. The old South Omaha City Hall building was one site Kastrick and Co. eyed. More recently, they fixed on the former South Omaha public library branch. They asked the City to donate the structure for the Project Omaha/Sam Greenberg Learning Center. But the Omaha Library Board declared the building surplus property and put it up for auction at fair market value, making it a cost prohibitive deal for the project. Kastrick’s been unable to get a line on another building. Even if he did, renovations would likely cost more than the promised $50,000.

It seems a moot point now.

He wonders if the scope was too broad for others to grasp or if the inner city location hurt the project’s chances of being embraced. “Maybe if it wasn’t at South High, maybe if it was at a Burke or a Central, the crown jewels, there’d be more interest,” he speculated. He wanted OPS and the Learning Community to “authenticate this” — to make OMAHA a required or encouraged part of the curriculum. He said a project web site he launched was taken down by OPS during a digital redesign. It was never restored.

To understand how much this endeavor meant to him you have to know he grew up in the neighborhood, shadowing his custodian father on moonlight shifts tending bar and cleaning businesses. The belly-up-to-the-bar stories told by meatpackers, stockyards workers and ethnic immigrants spurred Kastrick’s interest in culture and history.

“I do distinctly remember listening to all these people and their stories. Like in any of these ethnic, industrialized areas the taverns were where the folk history abounded. I found that interesting and I always thought later on down the road I’d like to get together some of these stories,” he said.

 

 

Gary Kastrick leading a tour

 

 

His old man was a born storyteller. He told Kastrick of the 1919 lynching of William Brown outside a besieged courthouse, the ‘35 streetcar riot, the fatal ‘30 Krug Park rollercoaster accident and Johnny Goodman’s upset win at the ‘33 U.S. Open.

“He loved to tell stories about Omaha,” the proud son said.

History came alive in those moments. “Yeah, there was a passion and fascination for local history, with what used to be. Being an old romantic, I love walking down the street and visualizing what used to be there. That’s really the inspiration for this,” he said, taking in what’s left of the project, caressing the last stockyards pen salvaged from the Omaha Livestock Market as if a holy relic.

Objects are one thing, interviews are another. “Some of these people really love to tell their stories,” he said. “It’s amazing sitting and listening to them and having them recount their lives like that.”

His “packratism” manifested early and has never stopped. His storage units over-brim with memorabilia collected since childhood. Collecting, he said, is “what got me enthralled” with not only preserving the past but teaching it.

But his heart isn’t it like it used to be. He’s had it broken too many times. Still, he can’t help acquiring things. Like the Jetter Brewing Co. beer case he recently obtained. He had to have it. Then there’s that great white elephant, Rosenblatt Stadium, and all the stories to cultivate. He covets a row of grandstand seats. There’s an Alamito Dairy sign he lusts after. And if he can ever locate the old Chief movie theatre’s neon headdress sign, he’ll feel complete.

Whenever he adds a new piece, he feels he’s saved another link to the past. But where to put it?

“What I feel good about is that I had families bring me photographs and newspaper clippings and little pieces from their businesses that otherwise would have been thrown away. If it’s thrown away, you’re never going to find it again. Where would that have gone if I wasn’t here?”

As much as he’d like to be out from under the avalanche of materials in his care, he cannot renege on the promise he’s made to himself and others to hold onto this “hodgepodge” of ephemera. Even though he’s a curator without a museum now, he feels a custodial duty to preserve what he has.

He admits it’s become a burden. Not that he’d ever do it, but he said “there are times when I want to take it all and burn it, because it’s holding me down. Sometimes stuff can take you over.” Part of him that would like to leave it all behind. He talks about getting on a Harley and just taking off. Where to, you ask. “Who knows,” he says.

As much as he craves freedom from his encumbrance, the glint in his eyes tells you he’s not done collecting or leading his Gritty City tours. Besides, teachers clamor for him to resume his Old Omaha jaunt. He won’t commit, saying only, “I’m going to miss the 3rd graders and the activities and trying to educate people about local history.”

Project OMAHA may be in moth balls, but The History Man’s magnificent obsession still burns bright.

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“Lovely, Still” that rare film depicting deniors in all their humanity

October 2, 2010 8 comments

Image by 1031 via Flickr

This post is likely the last major piece I write about Lovely, Still, the sweet and searing debut feature by Nik Fackler, who I am sure I will be writing about again. The film stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in roles that allow them to showcase their full range humanity, a rare thing for senior actors in movies these days.  If the movie is playing near you, take a chance on this low budget indie that actually has the look of a big budget pic.  If you don’t have a chance to see it in a theater, look for it when it comes out on DVD in November.  As deserving as the film is for Oscar consideration, particularly the performances by Landau and Burstyn, it’s unlikely to break through due to its limited release. The following article I wrote for the New Horizons comes close to giving away the film’s hook, but even if you should hazard to guess it, the film will still work for you and may in fact work on a deeper level.  That was my experience after knowing the hook and still being swept away by the story.  It happened both times I’ve seen it.  My other Lovely, Still and Nik Fackler stories can be found on this blog.

 

“Lovely, Still” that rare film depicting seniors in all their humanity

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

Hollywood legends seldom come to Omaha. It’s even rarer when they arrive to work on a film. Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney did for the 1938 MGM classic Boys Town. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates crashed for Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

More recently, Oscar-winning actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn spent two months here, during late 2007, as the leads in the indie movie Lovely, Still, the debut feature of hometown boy Nik Fackler.

True, George Clooney shot some scenes for Up in the Air in town, but his stay here was so brief and the Omaha footage so minimal that it doesn’t really count.

Lovely, Still on the other hand was, like Boys and Schmidt before it, a prolonged and deep immersion experience for the actors and the crew in this community. Landau and Burstyn grew close to Fackler, who’s young enough to be their grandson, and they remain close to him three years later.

Since the production practically unfolded in Fackler’s backyard, the actors got to meet his family and friends, some of whom were on the set, and to visit his haunts, including the Millard eatery his family owns and operates, Shirley’s Diner. It’s where, until recently, Nick worked. It’s also where he carefully studied patrons, including an older man who became the model for Lovely protagonist Robert Malone (Landau).

Then there’s the fact the film drips Omaha with scenes in the Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Memorial Park and Country Club neighborhood. Omaha’s never looked this good on the big screen before.

After select showings in 2008 and 2009, including a one-week run in Omaha last year, Lovely is finally getting a general release this fall in dozens of theaters from coast to coast. It opened September 24 at the Midtown Cinema and Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha and other cities across the U.S..

For Fackler, 26, it’s the culmination of a long road that goes back to when he first wrote the script, at 17. Over time, the script evolved and once Landau and Burstyn came on board and provided their input, it changed some more. Finally seeing his “baby” reach this point means much to Fackler.

“I’ve been very emotional,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to be emotional but I have been. It’s been nine years of persistence and positivity and not giving up. It’s always been this thing in my life, Lovely, Still, that’s never gone away, and now I’m going to let it go away, and it feels good because I’m ready to let it go…

“I wanted it to come out a couple years ago, and it was delayed. Now it’s finally coming out and I feel sort of a distance from it, but at the same time it’s good I feel that because there’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know that it’s out there.”

Nik Fackler

 

 

The film, which has received mixed critical notices, does well with audiences.

“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it,” Fackler said. “It’s either people really get it and get something emotional from it or people don’t get it.”

The PG movie’s slated to continue opening at different theaters throughout October before going to DVD November 9.

Lovely had its requisite one-week screenings in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. While many feel Landau and Burstyn deliver Oscar-caliber performances, the odds are stacked against them because of the film’s limited release and non-existent budget for waging an awards campaign.

Rare for features these days, the film focuses on two characters in their late 70s-early 80s. Rare for films of any era it stars two actors who are actually the advanced ages of the roles they essay. The film also approaches a sensitive topic in a way that perhaps has never been seen before.

Now for a spoiler alert. The film hinges on a plot twist that, once revealed, casts a different meaning on events. If you don’t want to know the back story, then stop reading here. If you don’t care, then continue.

Without getting specific, this story of two older people falling in love is about a family coping with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unlike perhaps a Lifetime or Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Lovely never mentions the disease by name. Instead, its effects are presented through the prism of a fairy tale, complete with exhilarating and terrifying moments, before a dose of stark reality, and an ending that’s pure wistful nostalgia.

What makes the film stand out from most others with a senior storyline is that

Landau and Burstyn create multidimensional rather than one-note characters. The script requires they play a wide range of emotional and psychological colors and these two consummate actors are up to fully realizing these complex behaviors.

A Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ed Wood, Landau returned to Omaha last year to promote Lovely. He said he was drawn to the material by its depth and nuance and by the opportunity to play an authentic character his own age.

“I get a lot of scripts where the old guy is the crusty curmudgeon who sits at the table and grunts a lot, and that’s that, because we kind of dismiss (old) age. So, the chance of exploring this many sides of a man, and the love story aspect of the older couple, presented an interesting arc.”

The actor marvels at how someone as young as Fackler could tap so truthfully the fears and desires of characters much older than himself. During an interview at North Sea Films, the Omaha production company of co-producer Dana Altman, Landau spoke about the pic, playing opposite his friend Ellen Burstyn, and working with wunderkind writer-director Fackler, whom he affectionately calls “the kid.”

Before there was even a chance of landing an actor of Landau’s stature producers had to get the script in his hands through the golden pipeline of movers and shakers who make feature film projects possible. Fackler’s script long ago earned him a William Morris agent — the gold standard for artists/entertainers.

Landau explained, “Nick sent it to William Morris, who has an independent feature division, who sent to my agent, who sent it to me. I liked it a lot, but I felt there were bumps in it at the time. Some scenes that shouldn’t be in the first act, some scenes that needed to be in the first act. What the second act was I had no idea.” Enough substance was there that Landau expressed interest. It was only then he learned the unlikely author was a not-long-out-of-high school 20-something whose directing experience consisted of low budget shorts and music videos.

“I said, “I want to meet with the writer, figuring somebody maybe close to my age. I said, ‘How old is he?, and they said 22 (at the time). A few minutes later my eyes were still crossed and I said, ‘Wow. I mean, how does a 22 year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?'”

The venerable, much honored actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe. Each was a bit wary whether he could work with the other. Landau recalled that initial meeting, which he used to gauge how open Fackler was to accepting notes to inform rewrites:

“I basically said, ‘This is a terrific script, but it’s bumpy. If you’re willing to do this with me, I’ll do the movie,’ and Nick said, ‘OK.’Well, he did a rewrite on the basis of what we talked about, For two months we talked on the phone, several times a week, five or six pages at a time” to smooth out those bumps.

Landau and Fackler devised a wish list of actresses to play Mary. Burstyn, the Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was their first choice. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until the rewrite was complete before sending the script to her. When she received it, she fell in love with the property, too.

Even as much as he and Burstyn loved the storyl, signing on with such an inexperienced director was a risk “It was a leap of faith working with a kid,” said Landau, “but he’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”

In the end, the material won over the veterans.

“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. Dialogue is what a character is willing to reveal to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t is what I do for a living. It’s harder and harder to get a character-driven movie made by a studio or independents and it’s harder to get theaters to take them, so many go directly to DVD, if they’re lucky. Others fall through the cracks and are never seen, and that’s going to happen more.”

The suits calling the shots in Hollywood don’t impress Landau.

“Half the guys running the studios, some of them my ex-agents, haven’t read anything longer than a deal memorandum. And they’re deciding what literary piece should be made as a film?”

He likes that this movie is aimed for his own underserved demographic.

“A lot of older people are starved for movies,” he said. “They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”

 

 

 

 

He attended a Las Vegas screening of the pic before a huge AARP member crowd and, he said, spectators “were enwrapped with this movie. It talked to them. I mean, they not just liked it, it’s made for them. There’s a huge audience out there for it.”

Instead of an age gap they couldn’t overcome, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before he got into acting, Landau studied music and art, and worked as an editorial cartoonist. He draws and paints, as well as writes, to this day. Besides writing and directing films, Fackler is a musician and a visual artist.

“I feel that Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added the two of them still talk frequently. He described their relationship as a mutually “inspired” one in which each feeds the other creatively and spiritually. Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn. He said he gets away to a cabin she has in order to write.

On most any film there comes a time when the director must fight for his or her vision, and Fackler found an ally in Landau.

“One of the main things Martin repeated to me over and over again was, ‘This is your movie.’ He made sure that rang in my ears,” said Fackler, “just to make sure I stayed strong when I came up against fights and arguments with people that wanted the film to be something I didn’t want it to be, and much love to him for doing that. Those words continue to ring in my ear in his voice to this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my career.”

Landau and Burstyn brought their considerable experience to bear helping the first-time feature director figure out the ropes, but ultimately deferred to him.

“All good films are collaborations,” said Landau. “A good director, and I’ve worked with a lot of them (Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Coppola, Allen), doesn’t direct, he creates a playground in which you play. Ninety percent of directing is casting the right people. If you cast the right people what happens in that playground is stuff you couldn’t conceive of beforehand.”

“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team, it was artists working together the same way a group of musicians make a band. We became friends and then after we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”

As for working with Burstyn, Landau said, “it’s a joy. She’s a terrific actress.” He compared doing a scene with her to having a good tennis partner. “If you’re playing pretty well and you’ve got a good partner you play better. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to place the ball, and it’s that element when Ellen and I work together we have. It’s never exactly the same. She’ll throw the ball and I’ll get to the ball, toss it back to her, so that it’s alive. I won’t call them accidents but they are sin a way, which is what living is, and that element of unpredictability and ultimately inevitability, is what good acting is about. That stuff is what I care about.”

Not every review of the film has been positive. Some critics seem uneasy with or dismissive of its emotionalism, complaining it’s too cloying or precious. That emotional journey of a man who believes he’s falling in love for the first time, only to find out the bitter truth of what he’s lost, is what appealed to Landau.

“The interesting thing about this movie is that if you took away the last act you could cast 15 year-olds in it and not change a lot,” said Landau. “Nick (first) wrote it when he was 17. It’s basically a teenage romance. There’s something simplistic and sweet about these two people who want to be together. Robert’s naive, he’s a kid on his first date. That’s why Nik was able to write it — because he was going through stuff, his first love. The primal feelings people have at 15 or 50 or 80 are pretty much the same.”

Landau is proud to be associated with the film for many reasons, among them its effective portrayal of memory loss.

“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. But this one because I know so many people who’ve had memory problems or are having memory problems. My brother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. A lot of close peers of mine. The Alzheimer’s Association is very behind this movie because it rings true…”

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