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Leo Adam Biga, Author of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ to Serve as Panelist and Moderator at (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest

September 30, 2013 2 comments

Yours truly will be a panelist and a moderator at the 2013 Omaha Lit Fest, October 18-19, at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Skin:
Literary Obsessions & Cult Followings
Featured authors delve into their own preoccupations, nervous habits, bad influences and literary obsessions. Nationally acclaimed writers will discuss the appeal of dangerous characters, the danger of appealing characters, the experimental, the sentimental, the personal and the impersonal. Hosted by Omaha Public Library, the (downtown) omaha lit fest features author panel discussions, an art exhibit and an opening-night party.

FRIDAY, OCT 18, 6:30-9:30 pm
In a partnership with AIGA: Nebraska, (downtown) omaha lit fest kicks off on Friday night with A Carnival of Souls opening-night party & exhibit. Members of AIGA: Nebraska, a professional association of designers, will exhibit their own versions of classic movie posters from the golden age of low-budget horror and drive-in theater (think: Attack of the 50 Ft. WomanLittle Shop of HorrorsNight of the Living DeadMothra), in celebration of B-grade cult cinema, cheap thrills, exploitation and scary carnivals.  Among the authors in attendance is Owen King, whose debut novel Double Feature tells the story of fictional B-movie actor Booth Dolan.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 12:30 pm
Love/Hate: The villain as hero in contemporary fiction.
Moderator Annasue Wilson kicked off a national debate earlier with a 2013 controversial interview in Publishers Weekly on the topic of whether literary characters should be likable. Annasue will explore this topic with Lit Fest authors: Carolyn Turgeon, whose The Fairest of Them All tells the story of a fairy-tale heroine-turned-villain; Monica Drake, whose The Stud Book is “the freshest look at the tyranny of the baby bump since Rosemary got pregnant,” according to Chelsea Cain; Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa was declared the “sickest, most controversial book of the summer” by Cosmopolitan; and Kelly Braffet, whose Save Yourself is “an electrifying tomahawk missile of a thriller with honest-to-God people at its core,” according to Dennis Lehane.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 1:30
Obsessed: Research and biography.
Authors discuss the rigorous, obsessive (and sometimes unhealthy) pursuit of their subjects. Panelists: Author and journalist Leo Adam Biga (Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film), who’s long followed the career of the Oscar-winning filmmaker and visited the set of Nebraska; Mary K. Stillwell, whose The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser is the first critical biography to consider the poet’s life and work together; Owen King, who researched Double Feature by watching hours and hours of horror films and is now furthering his obsession with baseball; and Timothy Schaffert, whose forthcoming novel The Swan Gondola involved full immersion into 1898 Omaha.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 2:30
Experiments: Writing around the mainstream.
Authors talk about risk, invention, small-press publishing, dangerous subjects and the literary underground. Panelists include: Elwin Cotman, author of Jack Daniels Sessions EP: A Collection of Fantasies; Brion Poloncic, author of Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics; and Thom Sibbitt, who explores sex, death and drugs in his novel The Turnpike.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 3:30
Cinematic: Movies as subject, inspiration, and influence.
Leo Adam Biga, whose extensive journalism about Alexander Payne is the basis of his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, moderates a panel on how movies shape a novelist’s vision. Panelists: Owen King; Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl (optioned for film by Kristen Wiig); Carolyn Turgeon, whose novel Mermaid has been optioned for film; and Sean Doolittle, recently involved with the development of an adaptation of his thriller The Cleanup.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 4:30
Trigger Warnings:
Our semi-annual “writing about sex” panel. Panelists: Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa centers on a sexual deviant; Kelly Braffet, whose first novel was written with a “restraint” that “lends the novel a prim mystery, deepening its creepy intensity,” according to the New York Times; and Elwin Cotman, who is a “synthesizer… of lewd dialect and high lyricism,” according to Karen Russell.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 5:30
Book signings by lit fest authors.

For more details, visit http://omahalitfest.com.

Omaha Community Foundation: A Giving Connection Serving Those Who Serve

September 30, 2013 1 comment

Omaha is regarded as being an especially giving community.  The corporate and foundation sectors here are known to be particulalry generous.  As my cover story in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) points out, the Omaha Community Foundation is a facilitator and catalyst for philanthropy in the city and the giving that happens through it touches many organizations and lives.

 

Giving Connection

Serving Those Who Serve

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

OCF is bringing a collective of donors together to make more impact

Since its 1982 inception the low profile but high impact Omaha Community Foundation has been a facilitator and catalyst for philanthropy that improves quality of life and helps local nonprofits best use resources.

Making a dent

Over a 31-year history the foundation has made cumulative gifts of $1.2 billion, including $906 million in grants. More than 1,200 active donors support 3,000-plus nonprofits. Nationally, OCF is in the Philanthropy 400 despite a totally local focus compared to many peer foundations with national giving models.

OCF granted a record $125 million last year and has $654 million in assets. It has ranked as high as fourth in per capita giving among U.S. foundations.

If you’re wondering how an organization that does this much has so little name recognition it’s because new president and CEO Sara Boyd says “we’ve been pretty quiet about how we’ve done our work.” That changed somewhat in 2013 with the May 22 Omaha Gives campaign that brought the foundation into the millennial age. The 24-hour online charitable challenge raised more than $3 million, attracted in excess of 10,000 donors, many of them first-time givers, and benefited 100 percent of the 318 participating nonprofits.

The campaign’s success has other cities inquiring how Omaha did it.

 

Growing philanthropy

Boyd says Omaha Gives coalesced the foundation’s mission “to increase giving and its impact when we come together as a community.” OCF has three main ways of fulfilling that mission.

“We are here to strengthen the nonprofit community. We’re here to bring people together around issues of importance so that there’s some collective movement as a community towards progress. And then we’re here to grow the resources available for our community in the charitable arena,” says Boyd. “Omaha Gives is one of those unique things that actually touches on all of those.

“We can’t do any of that without our donors and the partnerships we have with the nonprofit community because they’re the ones on the ground pursuing missions to actually make the change happen. We’re an amalgamation of lots of different people. We’re a participatory organization. We don’t exist on our own without the 1,200 or so individuals, families, companies making donations in our community to make it better. When we focus together on different efforts that’s where the ultimate benefit to our community is that much greater.”

 

A new approach

Omaha Gives provided an accelerated community donor platform.

“The idea was we can come together in one concentrated period of time as a community and really do some pretty amazing things,” says Boyd. “And by coming out in that visible way we can reinforce and demonstrate what it means to participate in a bigger universe of community.”

OCF board member Jennifer Hamann, who championed and helped organize Omaha Gives, says, “It wasn’t about necessarily bringing donors to us, it was really about bringing people to philanthropy.”

Boyd says, “It’s an easy, accessible, low-entry way to support organizations that align with donors’ interests. They learn about more opportunities to give and ways to plug-into the community. The long term goal is that people get more involved, not even monetarily but through volunteerism.”

Part of the appeal the effort held is what Omaha Steaks senior vice president Todd Simon calls “the gamification” aspects that included a time limit, a countdown and prizes. He’s says the fun ways Omaha Gives could engage people “captured our imagination.” It’s why Omaha Steaks provided a $1,000 match to individual donations picked hourly at random for a grand total of $24,000 in matching donations by the company during the 24-hour challenge.

Similarly, American National Bank supported participation prizes to small and large nonprofits netting the most unique donors.

“We wanted to encourage further and deeper giving and saw this as an opportunity to do that,” says American National Bank executive chairman John Kotouc. “This seemed like an exciting way to encourage giving, especially encouraging smaller gifts to bolster the charitable framework we rely on in this community.”

 

Omaha Gives generates buzz

Boyd says the excitement around Omaha Gives events that many nonprofits held was palpable: “The energy and enthusiasm made me feel like it was bringing the community together in a way I haven’t seen for awhile.”

That excitement extended to The Literacy Center, whose executive director Kirsten Case describes Omaha Gives as “a powerful fundraising tool” to increase visibility and connect with new donors. As with many participating groups, the Center exceeded fundraising expectations.

“Our goal was to raise $2,500,” says Case. “We raised a total of $7,551, three times our original goal. Two thirds was raised through small individual donations  The remaining amount consists of matching dollars as well as a participation prize of $1,000 for the number of unique donors that participated. The funds raised are supporting our growing GED program where we are helping adult students move towards self-sufficiency.”

Nebraska Humane Society development and communications specialist Elizabeth Hilpipre says Omaha Gives aligned well with the organization’s heavy online and social media presence. The nonprofit raised $72,000 during the campaign, including a $10,000 participation prize for having the most unique donors among large organizations.

“We are already using those donor dollars to provide medical treatment and care for animals in our facility,” says Hilpipre.

Kotouc says Omaha Gives is just the latest expression of OCF “applying themselves in a creative way to bringing together those who want to give money to those nonprofits with needs. That day stimulated a lot of interest and it spurred others on to make donations.”

 

Strengthening nonprofits

Boyd notes that OCF is far more than a transactional organization funnellng monies. Its Capacity Building program, for example, is designed to enhance and strengthen participating nonprofits.

“We take on about 10 organizations a year. Our leadership does a 12-month assessment of where the organization is and what it needs to take it to the next level. It’s a pretty intense, deep, time-intensive program. A lot of analysis goes into it. An organization has to be in the right space for that to work well.”

She says capacity building “is increasingly focused on strategic planning as a way to focus the energies of organizational leadership. If we have organizations that have some longer term thinking behind where they’re headed and a more focused resource allocation attention then we’re going to be better able to help them meet their missions. They in turn will be more effective and the outcome for the community will be greater, So, it’s really an investment in those organizations.”

Additionally, OCF offers fiscal sponsorship, account management services, including planned giving support, and some turnkey marketing assistance.

“Nonprofits are always welcome to call us with questions if they get in a spot or better want to understand an opportunity.”

 

Responding to community needs

To better meet pressing and emerging community needs OCF is partnering with the United Way of the Midlands and the Iowa West Foundation in doing a needs assessment through Wilder Research.

“It really came out of our strategic planning dialogue,” says Boyd. “We asked ourselves, If we’re bringing people together around specific issues how do we prioritize what the issues are? What we thought we were lacking was the voice of the community. We did a survey and we went out and had conversations in different pockets of the community.

“The best value we add in our community is as a lever. By having the Omaha Community foundation involved in philanthropy in Omaha we’re able to increase what we’re able to accomplish as a community on the back end. That means the kid that needs a flashlight from Youth Emergency Services or the homeless person that needs assistance finding housing stability or somebody hungry not only finding food but meeting with prevention specialists. If we’re doing our job well more of that is happening across the community. We’re part of a chain of organizations trying to affect that positive change.”

Boyd says the success of Omaha Gives is further evidence of the metro’s generosity and suggests “there’s a lot of energy and support around the idea of giving that we can still do more with.”

Learn about giving opportunities at omahafoundation.org.

______________________________________________________

“It’s an easy, accessible, low-entry way to support organizations that align with donors’ interests. They learn about more opportunities to give and ways to plug-into the community. The long term goal is that people get more involved, not even monetarily but through volunteerism.”

~ SARA BOYD, PRESIDENT, CEO | OMAHA COMMUNITY FOUNDATION

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl became U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru

September 30, 2013 1 comment

If war is hell, then where does heaven or spirituality come into the picture during armed conflict?  The question is apt when considering the career of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl, who squared his strong faith with his extensive combat and military strategy experience while becoming the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency guru.  The Omaha native is a graduate of his hometown’s Creighton Prepatory School , where the Jesuit education he received gave him values and philosiphies that have guided him through war and peace.  Read my cover story profile of Nagl that will be appearing in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  In it, he reflects on his roles as a man for others, a patriot, a military strategist, a combat leader, and a scholar and educator.

 

 

John Nagl

 

 

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl vecame U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru 

by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.the reader.com)

 

Two years since the U.S. pulled troops out of Iraq Americans still slog it out in Afghanistan — a full 12 years since its start. The dual wars for which so many paid a heavy price will forever be analyzed by the likes of Omaha native John Nagl, managing editor of the official U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counter insurgency Manual.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel was not only a military wonk under General David Petraeus but a warrior for whom the wars the U.S., waged in the wake of 9/11 were both object lessons and hard realities.

Millions of people have been touched directly or indirectly by the conflicts. Thousands of combatants and hundreds of thousands of noncombatants have died, many more have suffered physical damage and emotional trauma. The material costs run into the trillions. The intangible costs are incalculable.

Nagl is well aware that America and the world is sharply divided on the question of whether the wars were just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary, moral or immoral. Weighing such questions is nothing new for Nagl, who is steeped in Jesuit values gleaned from his education at Omaha Creighton Prep. He was a Golden Boy who graduated West Point, became a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford. He served in both the first Gulf War, where he led a tank platoon, and the Iraqi Freedom campaign, where he led armor regiments.

Like some Templar Knight on a crusade this warrior-scholar has been imbued with a sense of nationalistic duty to defend his country from all enemies and with a faithful devotion to do God’s will as he sees it.

Nagl found no contradiction serving his fellow man and doing combat. He’s comfortable too squaring his humanist ideals and Christian faith with having influenced the Army’s adoption of controversial counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques.

“The sense of being a man for others, your life being a gift and it being your responsibility to invest that gift wisely for the greater glory of God, for the furthermost of his purposes here on Earth, that’s part of what certainly drove me to West Point and to a career in the military,” says Nagl, who was near the top of his 1988 West Point class.

Long on a rising star track in the military industrial complex – he received the George C. Marshall Award as the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College – he seemingly went “rogue” when he advanced the use of COIN strategies in his master’s dissertation. He borrowed his work’s title, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, from a T.S. Lawrence observation about the difficulties of responding to insurgencies.

“I read that and I thought, man, that captures it, I now understand how hard this kind of war is. And then I went to Al Anbar (Iraq) and tried it and it was a whole lot harder than I thought it was.”

 

 

The Reader Oct. 3, 2013

 

 

 

The impetus for his infatuation with COIN was the U.S. military’s dominance of Iraqi forces in the Gulf War and his conviction that future enemies would avoid direct confrontations.

“I became convinced the military might of the United States which had cut through the Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world, like a hot knife through butter, was so overwhelming that future enemies wouldn’t confront us conventionally in force on force, tank on tank battles, they’d fight us as irregular warriors, as insurgents and terrorists.”

Nagl was a voice in the wilderness, due in no small part to the fact that “after Vietnam,” he says, “we consciously turned away from counterinsurgency as a nation and as an army, and pretty much literally burned the books and decided we weren’t going to do that anymore.” Yet there was Nagl calling on the ghosts of wars’ past.

“I was very lonely in the mid-1990s doing that. Everybody else was studying the revolution in military affairs and Shock and Awe and the idea that the U.S. military would triumph rapidly using precision weaponry. I was convinced that wasn’t the case.

“It was a discouraging time. Nobody was interested in counterinsurgency until after the attacks of September 11th (2001), when suddenly everybody was interested in counterinsurgency.”

Nagl’s dissertation found a publisher and his advocacy of COIN that before fell on deaf ears got the attention of a well-placed general, David Petraeus, who embraced Nagl’s writings. Petraeus, who’d been a professor of Nagl’s at West Point, eventually became the lead commander prosecuting the war in Iraq, where he changed the rules of engagement, partly through the use of COIN tactics in the field.

“It was the first time I felt I’d found someone in a position of authority who really understood the need. He was the right guy in the right place at the right times,” Nagl says of Petraeus.

 

 

 

 

 

Nagl, who was twice posted to the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, contributed to a new counterinsurgency field manual and tested out his theories in combat.

“I was sent to Iraq to do the research and to conduct counterinsurgency in Al Anbar in 2003 and 2004. We were rediscovering lessons consigned to very dusty bookshelves and I was just the guy who’d blown the dust off of those books. And then having read the books I tried to implement it in a particularly challenging place and quite frankly failed pretty miserably, so that when I came back from Al Anbar I wrote a short piece about how I thought I’d done, calling it, Spilling Soup on Myself. That became the preface to the paperback version of my dissertation.

“One of the criticisms I make of myself in that preface is that there’s sort of a blithe sense in my book that once you understand the principles it’s comparatively easy to apply them and, boom, everything will work out. Yeah not so much, not so much…Conventional combat is hard enough but counterinsurgency is conventional combat cubed. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life.”

During Nagl’s 2003-2004 deployment he became an Army celebrity.

“A journalist named Peter Maas embedded with my unit wrote a very substantial New York Times Magazine piece called ‘Professor Nagl’s War’ that popularized some of my ideas to a pretty big audience.”

He says his profile was also enhanced “being at the center of the storm” as military assistant for then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon “as the Iraq war was going rapidly downhill in 2005 and 2006.”

 

 

 

 

 

As COIN became in vogue as a new approach his reputation as a counterinsurgency guru got him invited on the Charlie Rose Show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Nagl’s a natural for the media to glom onto. He’s handsome, articulate, passionate. He can banter with the best. He cuts a dashing figure in or out of uniform and embodies the whole “be all you can be” slogan with aplomb and panache.

On Charlie Rose he took part in a roundtable discussion about Vietnam, Iraq and counterinsurgency that he says “was intellectually stimulating and engaging and I hope helpful to the American public.”

The Daily Show was a different experience entirely,” he notes. “The field manual had been published by the University of Chicago. I was back at Fort Riley, Kansas and was literally running a machine gun range when I got a phone call from someone purporting to be from the show asking if I could come on later that week. I didn’t believe it really was them. Well, it really was, and I said yes. Then I had to convince the Army to let me go. The Army actually cut orders, it was official business, so I wore my uniform.”

Nagl’s sure what proceeded was “the funniest discussion Jon Stewart has ever had on camera about an army field manual.” This hawk’s appearance on a show synonymous with cool, anti-establishment satire, he says, makes his “credibility go way up” when talking to student audiences. “They don’t care I’ve been shot at in a couple of wars, but trading words with Jon Stewart, that is an honor right there.”

COIN strategy came under sharp criticism within and outside senior military command beginning in 2008, He retired from the Army that same year.

In his immediate post-Army life he served as president of the Center for a New American Security from 2009 to 2012. This summer he assumed the headmaster role at the exclusive all-boys Haverford School in Penn., where his son Jack started the 6th grade.

After his Army retirement there was speculation he’d left because he found his path for advancement blocked due to his close association with counterinsurgency. He denies it.

“My retirement had nothing to do with having been passed over. I hadn’t been. If I had been, I wouldn’t have been positioned to continue rising up the ranks,” he says.

He adds that his retirement also had nothing to do “with counterinsurgency strategy falling out of favor,” adding, “It hadn’t when my retirement was announced in January 2008 or when I retired in October 2008.” In fact, he argues, counterinsurgency “was still ascendant in 2009 when the President twice increased force levels in Afghanistan to conduct COIN.”

No, it turns out Nagl walked away from the service he loves for, well, love. He and his wife Susi Varga, whom he met at Oxford, have a young son together and she wasn’t so keen on being an Army bride.

In an email, he wrote, “The decision was a personal one that was perhaps inevitable when I fell in love with a Hungarian Oxford student of literature and the arts and brought her on repeated tours to Kansas. The Army life had relatively little appeal for her and never really let her find her footing and spread her wings. I’m hoping that our new life together at the Haverford School will provide soil in which she flowers.”

That doesn’t mean he’s made a complete break with the military world, which after all was all he knew for more than two decades.

“I miss the Army every day. I loved being in the Army, being part of an organization that has global reach, that is composed of talented, dedicated young professionals, that boasts such a proud history, that makes history. I like to think that I’m still helping my army and my nation as a civilian – writing, educating, serving on the Defense Policy Board and the Reserve Forces Policy Board. But I still miss strapping on my tanker boots every morning.”

During his time in the military he did his best to both live the Jesuit motto “for the greater glory of God” and to train for and wage war. He says the two things never posed a moral conflict for him.

“I never saw any conflict between being a product of a Jesuit education and serving in the U.S. military. The Jesuits taught me the difference between jus ad bellum and jus in bello; the first, whether a war is fought for a just cause, is the business of politicians. How that war is fought, or jus in bello, is the business of soldiers. The first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, was clearly a just and necessary war, fought to free a conquered people and restore international order, and it was fought in a just manner.

“My second war, Iraqi Freedom, I did not then and do not now believe was necessary. However, it was fought according to the laws of war on our side, and we punished violations of those laws that did occur. I also worked to help the Army fight it more wisely and cause less harm to the Iraqi people through the writing of the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.  The Jesuits must have thought that on balance, I worked Ad majorem Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God) as they named me Alumnus of the Year for 2012 and included my rank on the award.”

Though the haze of war is full of tragedies and atrocities, Nagl holds to the classical warrior’s view that duty to country and God are the same. This fervent patriot and devout Christian swears allegiance to both.

“Military service is completely compatible with the values I learned at Prep. Some of the finest men for others I have ever known were those who laid down their lives for their friends that we could all live in peace and freedom. We must build a country that is worthy of their sacrifice.”

As a military academy product and teacher (he taught at West Point and the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College), Nagl knows Army history and thus takes a long view of things when it comes to COIN.

“Counterinsurgency is always going to be messy and slow, but if you’re trying to defeat an insurgency, it’s the least bad option. I’ve always said counterinsurgency is hard, that it’s not guaranteed to work by any means. What I always ask the skeptics is, ‘What do you recommend instead?’

“And the fact is with the American withdrawal from Iraq, the pending continuing drawdown in Afghanistan, the United States has decided not to engage itself in what we call big footprints –, tens or hundreds of thousands of American troops counterinsurgency-camping. But we’re still engaged in supporting insurgencies in places like Syria and supporting countries fighting against insurgencies not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in the Philippines, Somalia, Yemen, the list goes on.

“So it isn’t that insurgency and counterinsurgency have gone away but America’s not convinced you get what you pay for, and that I think is a fair question.”

 

 

 

 

 

In many ways, the beat goes on in the places where Nagl and his fellow soldiers saw action.

“Big footprint counterinsurgency continues in Iraq but it’s Iraqi troops rather than American troops who are conducting that campaign. We were able to build up the Iraqi forces and tamp down the fires of sectarian conflict sufficiently to pass that one off to Iraq and say, ‘Good luck guys,. over to you.’

“The campaign in Afghanistan is more complicated. Afghanistan has never been as important a country for U.S. interests as Iraq was

and the real epicenter of this struggle is not Afghanistan at all, but Pakistan, which is the current home of Al Qaeda central, what remains of it, and I believe still today is the most dangerous country in the world for the United States. The biggest global threat we face comes from Pakistan.”

When it comes to military affairs these days Nagl is an interested and well-informed bystander. As closely as he still observes what’s happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, he’s more concerned today with leading a school and preparing its students than with war analysis and strategy. At Haverford he feels he’s found a real home.

“In a lot of ways it’s a secular version of Creighton Prep. It’s a K-12 with about a thousand boys, with a great history. It started in 1884, a hundred years before I graduated from Prep. When I visited the school there were two things engraved in the fabric of the school that really sang to me. One was over the gymnasium and it said a sound mind and a sound body in Latin and those are principles I believe in pretty strongly.”

He says engraved just over the entrance of the upper school building is Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quotation, whose credo of service and action is one that Nagl’s lived by.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

“To fight the world’s fight, I believe in that responsibility,” says Nagl. “The Jesuits taught me that, my mom and dad taught me that. So it really seemed like this was a place after my own heart.”

5 Questions with: Leo Adam Biga, Author of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’

September 27, 2013 1 comment

The Omaha Public Library presents:

5 Questions with: Leo Adam Biga [journalist].

 

5 Questions with: Leo Adam Biga [journalist]

Leo Adam Biga at 2013 Friends of OPL annual meeting

Leo Adam Biga spekaing at an Omaha Public Library event in early 2013.

Omaha journalist and author Leo Adam Biga will make the Omaha Public Library rounds this November to discuss his new book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. The 2013 release is based on Academy Award winning screenwriter and director Alexander Payne, also an Omaha native.

Biga, a writer for more than 25 years, writes about the people, businesses and history of Omaha. “I write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions.” You can count Biga among Omaha’s biggest fans. He lists Lauritzen Gardens,Benson and Vinton Street business districts, and Love’s Jazz & Arts Center as local favorites.

Upon his return from Hollywood a few weeks ago, Biga took the time to answer some questions about Payne, writing as a profession, libraries and more. Enjoy!

1.)   How would you describe Omaha?

Omaha is an earnest place with strong urban and suburban environments and a growing arts, culture and creative scene. It’s a city rich in history but it doesn’t take its history or itself too seriously.

2.)    You’ve spent years chronicling Alexander Payne’s career and success. What ignited your interest in Mr. Payne?

My interest in him was a melding of my interest in film and my work as a journalist. I was a film buff and film exhibitor before I was a journalist. When I discovered that the young Payne had a student thesis film, The Passion of Martin, making waves on the festival circuit, I booked a screening of the film in Omaha at the New Cinema Cooperative. By the time he came back to his hometown to make his first feature in Omaha, Citizen Ruth, I was a journalist and within a couple years I began interviewing and profiling him.

3.)    What advice do you have for aspiring writers and journalists?

Simply: write and read and repeat more of the same. Today, of course, anyone can get their work seen because of social media platforms. Anyone can have a blog or website featuring their writing. Self-publishing is within everyone’s reach.

4.)    What five words describe Leo Adam Biga?

Passionate. Driven. Curious. Persistent. Eclectic.

5.)    You’ve visited OPL on numerous occasions for numerous events, and you have a handful of OPL visits scheduled this year. What keeps you coming back?

Libraries are built on words and language, and because I make my living with those tools I have an appreciation for any venue devoted to them. To be honest, as a kid and even as a young adult I never felt very comfortable in libraries or most any public place because of social anxiety, but I’ve largely grown out of that and now I find libraries very conducive places to my heart and soul.

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We thank Leo Adam Biga for answering our questions. Copies of the author’s latest book are available for check-out at OPL. In addition to his upcoming talks at OPL, he’ll be a guest at this year’s (Downtown) Omaha Lit Fest on October 19, 2013.

Minne Lusa House, a North Omaha Sanctuary for Canning, Conversation and Community

September 27, 2013 6 comments

Neighborhoods.  It used to be the norm not the exception that neighbors knew one another and did things together.  A yearning to return to that communal model inspired a pair of Omaha women, Sharon Olson and Beth Richards, to create a neighborhood space that encourages togetherness over a shared passion for people, canning, conversation and community.  Their Minne Lusa House in North Omaha has become a popular gathering spot for folks looking to connect and collaborate.  Read my New Horizons cover story about these ladies and their special house.

Sharon Olson and Beth Richards

Minne Lusa House, a North Omaha Sanctuary for Canning, Conversation and Community

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

Close friends Sharon Olson and Beth Richards are the neighborhood moms, porch ladies and activists behind a popular project in northeast Omaha, the Minne Lusa House, totally of their own making.

Without a grant or loan to assist them, they bought and restored an old, run down house in their Minne Lusa neighborhood for the express purpose of making it a place of social engagement. It’s an expression of their shared love for people, conversation, canning and community.

The tan, stucco structure at 2737 Mary St. is a kind of neighborhood clubhouse where folks come for private canning lessons, public workshops and the every Saturday Morning Brew open house. Groups hold meetings there. Writers, artists and others use it as a quiet sanctuary for creative inspiration and meditation.

The women fixed up the house with the sweat equity of friends, neighbors and local contractors, tearing down walls, gutting entire rooms, replacing the attic floor and making many major improvements.

They’ve done it all with their own money and without the aid of a church or community organization or government program. “And never will as far as I’m concerned,” says Olson, who believes in self-sufficiency. “Why wait until you die and give your money to somebody who doesn’t even care what happens when you can spend your money and do things in a neighborhood that maybe will make a change?”

The cozy home includes a pantry with metal shelving units filled with jars packed to the brim with canned tomatoes, bruschetta, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pickled peaches, sweet and dill pickles, relishes, jams and jellies. The pantry has two antique tools used during the canning process – a hanging scale and a pestle and mortar from her druggist grandfather. More shelving units store the pickling spices, flour and other ingredients used in the canning and baking that goes on there.

When truck loads of corn or bushelfuls of tomatoes come in from community gardens and local farms there’s a buzz of activity as folks gather to shuck, peel, chop, boil, spice and can the bounty. It’s a throwback to the canning parties and barn-raisings of yesteryear.

Right-hand gals Diane Franson-Krisor and Diana McIntosh, part of the crew that helped Olson and Richards rehab the house, are regulars at the Saturday brews that feature hot coffee and tea and assorted homemade toppings and spreads to garnish freshly baked biscuits, turnovers and bagels. Richards is the canner and Olson is the baker.

Cover Photo

Millard resident Betsy Scott has become a Saturday devotee.

“Instantly I felt welcomed,” she says. “I just felt at home with Sharon and Beth and Diane and Diana. Every week I kept coming back I got more and more excited to come up. It’s all about the apple turnovers and the fresh biscuits with the homemade jelly, it’s about ,’Here, try my tomato jam.’ It brings people together and that’s never a bad thing.”

Scott says the dozens of people who make it to those coffee klatches are attracted like she is to what Olson and Richards embody

“Their passion for community and for the house itself, their love of canning and their love of people. They make every single person feel welcome when they come in and by the time you leave you feel like you’ve known them forever. I think everyone walks away feeling like they’ve made some new friends. It’s kind of like Cheers but without the beer and without Norm.”

Franson-Krisor grew up in Minne Lusa and she cherishes what the project provides.

“I think it’s wonderful because every neighborhood needs a gathering place and they have really changed this area a lot. I’ve been here 52 years in a house on the corner and growing up was all about neighbors communing. That was the thing to do. All the mothers got together and the kids played. And this is bringing it back.

“Somebody referred to Beth and Sharon as the porch ladies, and that’s how it was when we were growing up. The women talked over coffee and the kids played, and that’s what’s coming back because of this place. It’s like we’re all one little family here.”

Because it’s neutral ground, elected officials and public servants come to hear concerns from their constituency. Everyone from Omaha City Council members to the police chief have visited there. It’s a safe house for children and adults escaping trouble at home. When there’s an issue in the neighborhood, whether illegal dumping or unkempt property or illicit drug dealing, residents view Olson and Richards as the go-to resources to contact the authorities. When there’s something that needs organizing, the “old ladies” at the Minne Lusa House are among the first ones people reach out to to get things done.

Richards says, “Some people who are afraid to call the police will call us and say, ‘This is going on on our block, can you help us out?’ Sharon is great politically. She’ll go to public hearings, listen and make her presence known. I’ll tell you right now when (Omaha City Council District 2 representative) Ben Gray sees Sharon he goes, Oh-oh.’ Sharon puts them to the task. They know her. That’s what it takes.”

“You have to be a tough person to be down here,” says Olson.

Both women are strong, assertive, plain-talking, live-out-loud types. Olson can be sarcastic. Richards is more diplomatic. Richards says they’re just enough different to “make it work because there is a balance between the yin and the yang.”

 

 

Minne Lusa House

Minne Lusa House

Friends say they personify the do-it-yourself independence, give-the-shirt-off-your-back generosity, puff-out-your-chest pride and glad-to-know-you warmth that characterizes Minne Lusa.

Situated between Miller Park and Florence in a tucked away sector east of North 30th Street, Minne Lusa was formed in 1916 by Charles Martin, who designed a neighborhood with California Bungalow-style homes of wood, stucco and brick. The homes were built in what was a cornfield. A pretty boulevard runs through the heart of the area. Many homes and yards are beautifully maintained. The area’s enjoying a resurgence of interest because its character-rich homes featuring natural wood floors, ample windows, fireplaces, generous porches and detached garages sell at highly affordable prices.

Richards says part of the motivation behind their project is “to get the name Minne Lusa out there because nobody before knew where Minne Lusa was. We’re not Florence, we’re Minne Lusa. We’re here to promote the neighborhood and to get people to know each other.”

The house has hosted an arts and crafts show and may host another this fall. It also organizes the annual Trick or Treat on the Boo-Levard during Halloween. Minne Lusa Blvd. is decorated for the occasion.

Efforts are underway to get Minne Lusa designated a National Register of Historic Places district. Olson and Richards support the initiative because they are so devoted to the neighborhood and generating appreciation for it and what makes it different.

These women of a certain age grew up in a time when tight-knit neighborhoods were the rule, not the exception. Olson, a retired phone company employee, resides in the same Minne Lusa house she was raised in and she does all she can to preserve the sense of neighborliness and community she’s valued there all her life.

Richards, who fell hard for Minne Lusa during 15 years as a mail carrier there, bought a house in the neighborhood and the retired U.S. Post office employee has made the area her home ever since. She’s flipped some homes there and she takes pains to only sell her properties to buyers with the same sense of community she has. Much as Olson did Richards too came of age knowing her neighbors, only not in Omaha but in the small town of Garwin, Iowa she grew up in. The friendly people of Minne Lusa made an impression on Richards because they reminded her of how the people in her hometown related to each other and she wanted to be part of that again.

“I really like the people,” says Richards. “There’s something about the people. I just fell in love with this neighborhood. It’s got a lot of promise, it’s got great homes. When I carried mail here for 15 years I knew everybody who lived between 30th and 24th, from Whitmore Street up to Sharon Drive, and I’d think, ‘Well. it’s too bad these people don’t know these people because they’d really get along.’ And so now I think we’re slowly getting those people to know each other.”

 Photo: Thanks to Diane Franson Krisor and Diana Lynn McIntosh, we will be ready to pickle watermelon rind tomorrow!

Among those she got to know on her route was Olson.

“Sharon and I talked a lot and we became friends over time.”

Richards says they both joined the Minne Lusa Neighborhood Association about the same time.

Their idea for the Minne Lusa House was to create an open space that draws people together.

“Our goal always was just bringing the neighborhood together,” says Olson. “People don’t talk to each other the way they used to. When I grew up neighbors spoke to one another. You didn’t have to love them, you didn’t have to break bread with them, but you were nice to them and talked to them. We don’t do that anymore. Well, we do on my block. So the goal was always to bring that back somehow.”

For years Olson held a block party on the stretch of Martin Ave. she lives on.

“I thought that was a good way to get everybody to know everybody.”

Richards says it’s just one of many ways her friend “was working” on strengthening neighborhood and community before Minne Lusa House. For both women it’s a personal mission.

“The old neighborhoods are all fractured because we have issues with landlords that own properties that don’t take care of their places,” says Olson. “We have landlords that rent indiscriminately to anyone and then it just ruins a neighborhood.”

Richards says, “That’s one of the things that drew us together because we’re both angry about what the landlords are doing to older neighborhoods and to our neighborhood.”

They don’t take things lying down either. When renters in a neighborhood house were causing frequent disturbances with loud music and late night partying, Richards spring into action.

“I got the landlord’s name and when the neighbors were partying I’d call the landlord at midnight and leave messages, saying, ‘We’ve got a problem here on Mary, we can’t sleep, the cops have been here, and if we can’t sleep you can’t sleep.’ The landlord finally called me to say they were woking on it and finally those people moved out.”

Richards says the landlord promised to be more diligent about who she rents to.

“They’ve got nice people in there now,” she adds.

Olson says the problem of absentee landlords “isn’t just in our neighborhood, it’s anywhere east of 72nd. People can walk in and buy these houses for $20,000 or $10,000 and they do not put a dime into them and then they’ve got people renting that aren’t going to take care of anything. They don’t better your neighborhood, they destroy your    neighborhood.” She and Richards say that many inner city vacant lots and abandoned homes are owned by landlords who live out of state and wont let go of the properties except for exorbitant prices.

Meanwhile, taxpayers absorb the costs of cutting overgrown weeds or razing structures. Neighbors are left to deal with the blight, eyesores and dangers that come with empty or unattended properties

“It’s wrong, this whole system,” says Olson.

“We’ve talked to Ben Gray about it,” says Richards. “We’re working on it.”

Opened in 2011, Minne Lusa House has become the very gathering spot and conduit for action the women envisioned

“When this house became available it was primary for us to say, ‘Let’s try this and see if it will work,’ and the means to doing that was canning. Canning brought people in. And as you can see there is nothing here that distracts them,” Olson says, referring to the TV-less kitchen, dining room and living room. The office, pantry and finished attic and basement have no TVs either. “People have to speak to one another and when you’re canning you have to talk to each other or you wont have a very good product when you get done.”

“The canning is fun,” says Richards.”The best part is when somebody tries it and goes, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ That’s reward.”

Franson-Krisor says she’s learned to can, garden and do home improvement projects from working alongside Richards.

 

Photo: Come on by this morning from 9 to noon for coffee and try out our new coffee mugs, compliments of Sue Bigsby. Thank you Sue, these are great!!

 

Olson fondly recalls a woman who learned to can at the house. “She sent the cucumber relish she made all over the country to her family and was the hit at Christmas, so she’s a memory to me.” Then there’s the mother and daughter team who come. The mother insists on sampling everything while the daughter busies herself canning. Upon leaving, the mother beams about how much “WE’VE canned.” The camaraderie is what she’s really after. A surprising number of young people, including families with small children, come to can.

Two more Saturday morning regulars are husband and wife ministers John and Liz Backus, who live across the street and pastor at nearby Trinity Lutheran Church. Lots of laughter and stories ensue.

“Those are things you just can’t put a price tag on,” says Olson.”I think we get more from this then maybe anybody else does. We get to meet all these fun, interesting people. We have a good time with them. We tell people, ‘Don’t come if you don’t want to have a good time.'”

“We’re going to have fun,” adds Richards.

The women didn’t expect all the attention their endeavor’s attracted, including an Omaha World-Herald feature that helped put the Minne Lusa House on the map. As a result the house has become a magnet both for folks in the neighborhood and from well beyond its borders.

“We’ve had people from Council Bluffs, Papillion, Ralston, Gretna come down here for canning lessons,” says Olson.

The way it’s caught on has taken the founders by surprise.

Richards says, “When we started this we didn’t know know where this was going to go. We had no clue. We didn’t see that coming. We were just going to be a little neighborhood house and then slowly spread it through the neighborhood.”

Minne Lusa House captures people’s imagination. Donated boxes of jars and other canning supplies regularly arrive on the front porch. Harvested produce is left for the women to can. Proceeds from the products they make go right back into the house. A Minne Lusa native living in Florida discovered the project and sent personalized coffee mugs.

Olson says, “We have wonderful support.”

 

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She and Richards don’t believe in planning too far ahead or following a strict plan. They just ride the wave and take things as they come.

“Today if you asked us what we would do next year we cannot tell you that. It just falls,” says Olson. “We don’t set goals. I worked 30 years for the phone company. I’m not putting together any business plan. I’m done with that. We fly by the seat of our pants. Too many years of structure, Beth had structure with the post office for God’s sake. We don’t need that. Nobody needs to tell us what to do.”

They’re not sure what the house’s future may be when they’re gone or decide to step down.

If something happens and we have to shut it down, then we shut it down, there’s no pressure,” says Richards.

Olson can’t see it continuing in its present form or with the same name under someone else’s leadership. “I mean, it’s the Minne Lusa House, it’s unique. If we couldn’t do it anymore and somebody wanted to buy it it couldn’t be Minne Lusa House anymore, at least not for me.”

Richards says it’s possible the house could always return to being a private residence. “We set it up that if we failed we’d probably lose money but we could sell it as a home for somebody to live in.”

The 1918 built home was occupied by several families over its history, the longest period, 45 years, by the Joseph and Clella Frolio family, who resided there from 1961 to 2005. The Frolio children left some indelible marks in the home, such as a pattern of BB gun pellet holes in one basement wall and handprints in another basement wall. Here and there are personal touches by Olson and Richards, including a vintage rocking chair that belonged to Beth’s great-grandmother.

A plaque hanging in the home’s front room details the chronology and names of the various people who dwelled there.

The women hope to create a Minne Lusa museum in the attic to display the photographs and articles they’ve collected about the neighborhood they feel such a kinship with.

The pair don’t like the bad rap North Omaha gets and they see the Minne Lusa House as a touchstone where people’s negative attitudes and perceptions about the area can be overturned.

“It’s a concept you have to change and it doesn’t get changed overnight,” says Richards.

“People go, ‘Oh my God, it’s North Omaha, there’s shootings, I can’t come there,” bemoans Olson. “People will not come down here because they’re scared they’re going to be shot. So when we have big groups of people we always say, ‘Do you know where you are?’ This is The Hood.’ Then they see for themselves what a beautiful area it is.”

Richards says, “We’re bringing people from out of the community into the community, where they find out it’s kind of nice up here. It’s by word of mouth and it spreads.” More than anything, she says, “what we’ve accomplished is that every day neighbors are getting to know each other.”

Keep up with doings there at http://www.facebook.com/minne.house.

 

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: Filmmaker speaks candidly about “Nebraska,” casting, screenwriting and craft

September 24, 2013 6 comments

 I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Sept. 9 monthly Hollywood Salon in Culver City, Calif. sponsored by the Nebraska Coast Connection, a networking group for Nebraskans working in the film and television industry.  I was there to promote my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, which you can order via thisblog site.  The salon’s special guest that night was Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne, who spoke candidly about his new film Nebraska, casting, screenwriting and craft in a Q&A moderated by NCC founder Todd Nelson.  The event was held at the classic Culver Hotel, where many film stars stayed back in the day.  This is an edited transcript of part of Payne’s remarks.

 

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Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Some of the crowd at the recent Hollywood Salon featuring Payne

 

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne:

Filmmaker speaks candidly about “Nebraska,” casting, screenwriting and craft

©Compiled by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt of Alexander Payne in conversation with Nebraska Coast Connection founder Todd Nelson

 

AP: “Hello, good evening, thank you for coming…”

TN: “You have a little movie coming out. A little black and white number you threw together over a weekend or two.”

AP: “No, longer than that. But it’s a small movie. That doesn’t mean it’s not dramatically resonant, but it’s a small movie.”

(Then Payne addressed how the project came to him and the background of how its screenwriter Robert Nelson came to write it.)

AP: “Nine years ago I got a script from Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team that had produced Election. They came to me nine or 10 years ago with a script called Nebraska and it was written by a guy named Bob Nelson out of Snohomish, Wash. but his parents were from Hartington (Neb.). And it was based on his memory of his father’s and mother’s families. He used to spend his summers out there in Hartington in northeast Neb. and he wrote this script based on his memories of those summers and it really rang hilariously true. It was a very austere screenplay. Those producers said they suspected it was going to be small for me, too dinky a film.”

TN: “They thought you might know someone who…”

AP: “Yeah, ‘Do you know a young Neb. filmmaker who might want to do this?’ and I said, ‘No, I think I want to do it.’ They had wanted to make it for like $2 or $3 million, and I said, ‘How about like $10 or $12?’ I showed it not long afterwards to someone in attendance here tonight, John Jackson, my casting director, because I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting. I mean, all films do but even a couple percentage points more this one would because it’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. And he liked it and thought he wanted to cast it. He said he felt a very personal connection to it through his family, whom he describes as dirt farmers from Iowa. That’s a bit of an exaggeration in a way with respect to the script but still it’s suggestive…

“A lot of the movie was a road trip and I was just finishing Sideways. I didn’t want to followup Sideways with another road trip film. It’s a real drag to shoot in cars and I just couldn’t do another car movie again after Sideways. Now The Descendants ended up having some stuff in cars too but anyway…the timing worked out and right after The Descendants I made it. They were nice enough to wait – the producers and the writer  – and so it happened.”

TN: “It has Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Tell us about bringing them on board.”

AP: “Bruce Dern had first leapt to mind  to play this part. All parts are tricky to cast in general but this one I think for John and me has been the trickiest. You know. I get praised sometimes for getting a certain controlled performance out of Jack Nicholson or that I get stars to create characters, that after 10 or 15 minutes of seeing a big star like George Clooney you can maybe, hopefully, of course it’s my aspiration, forget it’s a big star and just see the character…I  never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney, who have certain strengths that most directors and screenwriters would wish to exploit.

“Naw, this is a text and it’s a part and yes you’re a star but you’re also an actor, so come to this and make it your own that way. This though I think has been the most specific lead part we’ve ever had to cast. Not anyone could play this guy Woody Grant. I looked back in film history and said, ‘Well, Henry Fonda could have played it like the way he did On Golden Pond, or Walter Brennan, or for you film buffs out there Charley Grapewin,  or possibly John Carradine or possibly Warren Oates had he lived. But all those people are unavailable. After thinking about Bruce Dern, the only other guy who maybe could have done it, Gene Hackman, but I couldn’t get a meeting with Gene Hackman because he genuinely has retired. He won’t even return a phone call or a query. So it just came down to Bruce Dern.

“We did our due diligence and met 50 other guys and any one of them who could have done it would still be a stretch. Like this one could maybe do it but he has trouble learning lines or this one could maybe do it but you’d have to get him to not do this schtick or this one could maybe have done it but it would have taken more work on my part and every actor requires work anyway. Bruce required work but less work than any of those other guys would have required to get it right, so Bruce Dern’s the guy.”

TN: “Will Forte?”

AP: “Never would have thought about him in a billion years but he auditioned well. So I know often in these salons we get actors or casting people and I’m always happy to say that John and I rely on auditions, the old fashioned way. Even actors who are well known I still need them to come in and read the text, with all respect. I mean, even if it’s 10 words, say a few words, help me out, I have a pea brain, I don’t want to screw it up, and I don’t want to screw up and cast you in the wrong part and then it’s not right. We all benefit if we’re able to have a meeting. Well, what else are we going to talk about? Read the fucking script.

“And to good pros, the ones who won’t audition, but they will deign to have a meeting, the good ones will either consciously or unconsciously find the time in the meeting to say, ‘Oh, I loved the moment in your screenplay where he says…’ and he’ll do a little bit of it. That’s the courteous thing to do, that’s the polite thing to do because those actors who won’t even do that don’t get the job in my experience.

“Just about auditioning stuff I remember the actress Judy Greer, a super great old fashioned  in the best way actor. She’s in The Descendants. She plays the lover’s wife. She calls herself an audition-only actress. She won’t take an offer and if there’s a meeting she insists on reading the script because she says it’s only when I read the text in front of the director do I know if I’m right for the part. So the direct line of communication between actor and director is that text. That’s just smart. What the hell else are we doing?

“June Squibb, she played the part of Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt (and she plays Bruce Dern’s wife in Nebraska)…I didn’t offer her…She didn’t occur to me, she sent in an audition. Even she had to audition. I had no idea she was going to be right for this part. It’s the Geraldine Page part or the Marjorie Main part from Ma and Pa Kettle. Basically Nebraska’s a glorified Ma and Pa Kettle film,” he said, deadpanning and elicting laughs.

(Payne discussed some more actors he’s worked with, why’s he’s particularly proud of the casting he and John Jackson did on Nebraska and how he tried to avoid certain pitfalls that come with mixing professional and nonprofessional actors on screen.)

“Tim Driscoll from Omaha, who had a small part in Citizen Ruth, came back for this one.  And his sister (Delaney Driscoll) had a significant part in Election as Matthew Broderick’s lover.

“Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me it’s greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of professional and nonprofessional actors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it. The start date is here, the visual preproduction is here, the casting has to start here. You can’t fuck up casting, you’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.

“I looked at a number of small town American films for this one. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, versmisilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves. So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions of themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”

(Nelson and Payne then made a few comments before screening the trailer for Nebraska.)

TN: “It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A wild success I can witness – I was there. I saw a 15 minute standing ovation at the end of the film.”

AP: “Yeah, I’ve seen turkeys get a standing ovation at Cannes. It played better at Telluride.”

(Then, referring to the trailer, Payne said)-

AP: “This is a work in progress print.”

(After the screening someone in the audience commented about the Spanish sounding music, which prompted Payne to describe it as a)-

AP: “More Mexican sounding trumpet piece.”

 

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

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

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal

 

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‘Bless Me, Ultima’: Chicano identity at core of book, movie, movement

September 14, 2013 2 comments

For a writer, I don’t read as much as I should.   Most of my book reading these days is related to assignments.   I just finished reading the classic novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya to inform the following story riffing on themes in the story about what it means to be Chicano.  The 2012 film adaptation of the novel is showing Sept. 16 at Creighton University in Omaha.  After reading the book I very much look forward to the film directed by Carl Franklin.  For my story I sounded out three Omaha Chicanos who adore the book and were active in the Chicano movement and remain community acitivsts to this day.

 

Bless Me, Ultima‘: Chicano identity at core of book, movie, movement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Sometimes a work of art so well captures the spirit of a people and time that it becomes an enduring cultural talking point. Such is the case with Rudolfo Anaya‘s 1972 coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, widely considered a seminal piece of Chicano literature and an influential artifact of the Chicano movement.

Three Omaha Chicanos who are great fans of the book look forward to a Sept. 16 screening of its film adaptation. Written and directed by noted filmmaker Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) Bless Me, Ultima (2012) will show at 7 p.m. at the Hixson-Lied Auditorium in the Harper Center at Creighton University. The screening is free and open to the public. A pre-film social hour starts at 6 p.m.

For attorney Rita Melgares, a native of southwestern Colorado near where the author grew up and the story is set, the book’s depiction of a youth (Antonio) treading the worlds of indigenous tradition and mainstream convention with the guidance of an old woman, Ultima, as his curandero (healer), resonates with her own experience.

“I identified with the duality of the worlds he was living in. The duality of your Latino home bucking up against what you learn when you go away to school. It represented something I knew.”

Community activist Abelardo Hernandez grew up in El Paso, Texas, not far from Anaya’s New Mexican roots,. He says the book’s mystical visions and beliefs are “not so different than the stories our grandmothers used to tell us. At the time I didn’t identify with them as being from the indigenous culture but I suppose they were. People who cure with herbs and chants. They call it a cleansing. It’s a gift. They’re raised with it and they pass it on through generations of the family.”

Kansas City, Mo. native Jose Francisco Garcia says the book made him appreciate “medicine isn’t just MDs but a lot of wisdom and knowledge about herbs, folklore and hundreds of years of tradition.”

Hernandez says he most identified with “the family traditions, the respect for elders and the upbringing of kids” portrayed in the 1940s-set story. Like Melgares, he had the experience of straddling two worlds. “We were bi-cultural. We had to learn the American culture but the Mexican culture and traditions were raised with us at home, in church and at festivals, where everything was in Spanish. Because we lived mostly among Mexican people we didn’t learn the American ways until probably high school or even after.”

The book gave Hernandez, Melgares and Garcia a prism to appreciate their culture at a time when they asserted their identity. All were active in the Chicano movement and the book spurred their activism.

“It made me so proud to be a Chicana,” says Melgares. “Rudy Anaya was a man right out of our culture and he wrote about something he knew and it reflected much about what I felt. This was right during the surge of the Chicano movement and we considered it an important book for Chicanos. To me, Chicano is a political word we chose for ourselves in the movement for fairness, for justice, for equality. To me, Chicanismo or the sense of being Chincano, is what that embodies.”

Garcia says, “The number one principle of Chicanismo is to be self-determined and the second thing is to give back. It’s an intention. It’s almost like being converted. I started becoming influenced by the Chicano movement through books like Occupied America and Bless Me, Ultima. It gave me a way of life, it gave me a path to start following during a time when I really didn’t know who the hell I was. We had to search for our identity. We had to go out and almost reinvent not only who we were as Americans but who we were as a culture. The Chicano movement provided that.”

“People do have to have some kind of identity otherwise they get lost,” says Hernandez.

To be Chicano is a state of mind and being for Hernandez.

“People might change but the meaning doesn’t. I think Chicano is an experience you actually live through and that you identify with. It becomes a special feeling. A lot of people have educated themselves and attained nice careers but they still have that feeling of being Chicano because you’re background never goes away, at least it shouldn’t. A lot of people try to forget it, try to put it behind them, but it’s better to always know where you came from.”

In that spirit Hernandez helped form the Chicano Awareness Center, now known as the Latino Center of the Midlands.

“We were trying to get people to be aware of their culture,” he says. “We wanted to bring the language, the culture, the traditions back to the people because a lot of it was being lost. Once people learned English or maybe they never did know Spanish they didn’t want to have anything to do with learning anything Mexican.”

Garcia say the center, whose board he once led, advances “the precepts of Chicanismo of getting an education, having a cultural identity and expressing yourself in areas of self-improvement.”

Forty years have not dimmed the book’s impact. It remains widely used in classrooms and reading programs. Garcia says the film, which he’s seen, is a faithful adaptation. “It’s a great movie. It moved me. To a person like me of Spanish heritage that movie is very powerful.”

 

 

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