Tribute to educator who fired my passions for writing and film


Tribute to educator who fired my passions for writing and film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

Most of us, I suspect, end up doing what we do and loving what we love in large part because someone showed us the way or encouraged us to step out on a certain path that ended up being our calling or passion. In my case, the same person is responsible for nurturing  the two deep heart streams that run hard and fast in my life: my love for writing and for film. His name is Michael Krainak. The retired high school teacher now serves as the art editor for The Reader. If you follow my work, then you know that I have a long, strong relationship with The Reader as a contributing writer. Thus, Mike and I are colleagues today.

As most of you know by now, I make my living as an author-journalist-blogger. As a lifelong film buff I have never felt compelled to make a movie, though I would like to try my hand at a documentary one day. Instead, my cinema fix comes via watching movies and reading and writing about movies and the people who make them. While I am not a full-time film journalist, I write enough about the subject to qualify. My book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is now in its second edition. Before I ever began writing on film for pay, I was a film exhibitor-programmer-publicist at three nonprofits: the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where I received my journalism degree; the Joslyn Art Museum; and the New Cinema Cooperative. The latter, which also went by New Cinema Coop, was sort of the precursor to Film Streams in Omaha.

I took English, journalism and film from Mike at Holy Name High School in North Omaha. The high school closed years ago but the elementary school, which I also attended, is going strong after some struggles. Some years after I graduated Hold Name, Mike went on to teach at North High and just as Holy Name’s journalism program and student newspaper fared well in statewide competitions under him so did the program and paper at North.

Mike taught my two older brothers before me at Holy Name. Greg and Dan had him strictly for English. I was the only writer in the family and it wasn’t until I came under Mike’s influence that I gave any thought to the idea of pursuing writing as a field of study, much less a career. While my brothers and I all enjoyed movies growing up, I pushed that interest in some unexpected ways as a result of Mike opening a world of cinema possibilities to me I never knew existed.

Mike came into my life at a critical juncture. As a kid I rarely went to see movies at theaters. Virtually all my cinephile stirrings happened at home watching whatever was available on the three commercial networks, the three local network affiliates as well as on PBS and NET. Even with those seemingly limited options, I availed myself of a pretty wide sample of old Hollywood and foreign films in addition to more contemporary pictures from the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember the strong feelings and awakenings that particular films evoked in me.

“On the Waterfront”

“It’s a Wonderful Life”

“The Manchurian Candidate”

“The Red Shoes”

“Spartacus”

“Odd Man Out”

“To Kill a Mockingbird”

“A Thousand Clowns”

“The Producers”

“Bonnie and Clyde”

“The French Connection”

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

“The Quiet Man”

“Lonely are the Brave”

“Cape Fear” (the original)

And hundreds more.

At home, spellbound by the reverie of film’s magic, the intensity with which I felt movies often overwhelmed me. I didn’t yet possess the emotional maturity and the necessary vocabulary to articulate or even identify what I was feeling and thinking. I just sensed that these were important works of art that were somehow affecting and changing me. They were a huge part of my education about the world and about the human condition, though as I would come to find out no adequate replacement for actual lived human experience and interaction. I couldn’t really express to my parents, try as I might, the revelations and inspirations that films were feeding me. My brothers were both out of the house by the time I came of age through film and so I really couldn’t share these things with them either. Mike’s teaching affirmed for me that the very films I was reacting so strongly to were indeed essentials and that confirmation opened new horizons to my intellectual curiosity. He also challenged some of my assumptions and that process alone made me a more rigorous thinker and writer.

Mike’s film class was remarkable for any high school in America but especially for an inner city parochial school in Omaha, Nebraska. For starters, he screened an amazingly diverse mix of films that included pictures with very adult themes and R-rated content such as “Point Blank” and “Walkabout” and groundbreaking older Hollywood films only just being rediscovered then:

“Paths of Glory”

“Touch of Evil”

“Night of the Hunter”

It was important that I got exposed to these work when I did. It was equally important that Mike first introduced me to the vocabulary of film language in a focused way. I was so caught up in the whirl of cinema that within a couple years of starting at the University of Nebraska at Omaha I did something radical for someone as insular and insecure as I was by applying to be the chairperson of the Student Programming Organization film series. I ended up chairing or co-chairing that series for four years as a student and then continuing on as an unpaid graduate consultant for another eight or nine years. It meant programming, booking and publicizing the films as well as supervising their exhibition. In my 20s and despite my shyness I was appearing on radio and TV and giving print interviews to promote the series. It was a big program by the way. At its peak, we screened something like 75 to 100 films a year, showing a wide range of content from American and foreign classics to more contemporary pics. The reason I felt confident in doing it was the foundation that Mike laid for me in high school, which I made stronger by seeking out film books and magazines at the UNO Library and at the Omaha Public Library in order to advance my education about the art form. I once subscribed to three film magazines. I accumulated a fairly large private collection of film books. I also began paying close attention whenever a filmmaker or film actor was interviewed or profiled on television. All of it was an education for me, greatly informing my appreciation and understanding of cinema, past and present.

Mike ended up teaching film studies coursse at UNO. I took one of the courses and it was again a seminal experience, though not quite the revelatory rite of passage that his high school class had been. A fellow film buff friend and I would also sometimes attend private screenings Mike would hold at his home of some film he was passionate about us seeing. In that formative time in my young adulthood from ages 20 through 35 I more and more identified as a film buff and my circle of friends and I shared similar interests. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s I saw a whole lot of movies in theaters and on television – far more than I see today, though with Netflix I’m beginning to get back in the groove again.

I eventually evolved the SPO film series into a very different program that exclusively screened newer American and foreign films. many of them independent productions. We actually brought several films into town for their Omaha premiere screenings.

My efforts with the film series complemented and eventually supplanted my journalism studies at UNO. The assignments I wrote for class and for the UNO Gateway were not nearly as helpful to my development as a writer as were the many press releases and public service announcements I wrote and the brochure copy and film notes I wrote in support of the series.

Mike’s influence on me as a writer wasn’t as profound because that development came long after high school and even college. But thanks to Mike, I overcame my doubts and did follow his advice to study journalism. And if it wasn’t for that push, I would never have embreked on a career as a writer. My first real writing job was as head of public relations at the Joslyn Art Museum ,where fate reunited us because Mike ran a film series for the museum that I helped publicize. I also did some special film programming at the museum, including a Western film series in conjunction with River City Roundup. As my career transitioned into freelance writing, Mike continued to be an influence because I would attend some of the museum film screenings he presented and he attended some of the screenings I put on at the New Cinema Cooperative.

It was in the last year of the New Cinema Coop’s existence that we screened, on my recommendation, a student thesis film by a the unknown Omaha native and recent UCLA grad named Alexander Payne. His “The Passion of Martin” was showing at festivals around the nation and the world and getting high praise, not to mention getting him a deal with a major Hollywood studio. It was the first time I heard of him. We booked and exhibited his student film and five years later I did my first interview with him. Dozens of interviews have followed. 2017 will mark 21 years that I’ve written and reported about Payne and his work. During that time I’ve interviewed many other film artists from Nebraska and from well beyond Nebraska, including several legends and Oscar-winners.

Thanks to Mike, my cinephile leanings merged with my journalistic skills and I have since created a huge body of work that I have already turned into the book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” and that I intend to turn into another book about Nebraska’s Screen Heritage.

It took me a long time but I came to a point of ever more identifying as a writer and associating myself with fellow writers. I enjoy interviewing and profiling writers. Just as an exercise, I recently culled through my mental and digital files to chart the number of writers of all types I have interviewed and written about over the years. Though the list I came up was surely incomplete I was rather startled to find thatIi have made something like 75 or 80 writers the subjects of stories. Some of these writers I consider colleagues and friends and they include leading literary lights.

The blessing and curse that has been my life as a lover of films and words is something I attribute to Mike. I told him that myself just the other night at a book event I was a part of and he reminded me that we ultimately all choose our own path. Yes, but it does take someone to nudge or guide us onto or along the path. Thanks, Mike, for seeing something in me and giving me a direction to follow. I don’t know where I would be without these two constant passions coursing through my life. You helped me find dual magnificent obsessions that have enriched me and given me my livelihood.

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