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Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” splits Toronto

September 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” splits Toronto
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Alexander Payne has given the world something unexpected from him with his new film “Downsizing.” So far, after playing three of the world’s most prestigious festivals, the cinema community is decidedly split about this epic sci-fi dramedy from a writer-director heretofore known for his small human satires. After being almost uniformly hailed in Venice, the film elicited divided responses in Telluride and now in Toronto, and it seems most reviewers who’ve seen it fall into either love it or hate it camps. Some reviewers are practically ecstatic about the film and praising Payne for his brave ambition in departing from what we’ve come to expect. Others are going out of their way to damn the film and take Payne to task for biting off more than he could chew. If you read enough of the negative reviews, and there are plenty of them, the critics are on the one hand admiring the fact that he dared to upset expectations and chastising him for the temerity to thing big and visionary.

All I know having only read the script and interviewed Payne and a good chunk of his creative team is that the screenplay I saw was brilliant. I can’t speak to the final shooting script and how it was executed until I see the film. I suspect I’ll like what I see but then again, who knows. It’s just an opinion and so much of that is influenced by attitudes, tastes and, there we go again, expectations. People will disagree, but “Downsizing” finds itself in a precarious position now having gone from Paramounts darling project with glowing praise, awards predictions and big box office written all over it to very much an unsure thing that just might flop.

What all this means, if anything, for how Paramount might market and release the picture differently now and how general audiences might perceive and therefore respond to it differently now is anybody’s guess. What this presages as far as awards season is also hard to predict. But it does appear that the studio and the filmmaker have been taken aback by this sharply divided reception to “Downsizing.” I haven’t had a chance yet to speak with Payne about it, but I hope to do so soon. Stay tuned.

Here are three reviews that reflect the good, the bad and the ugly response to the film.

THE GOOD

DOWNSIZING IS A CRAZY SCI-FI FABLE FOR OUR TIME (TIFF REVIEW)
POSTED BY NOAH GITTELL ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2017

There is a moment in a certain type of great film when you realize you have no idea what is going to happen next, and you cannot wait to find out. Most films written by Charlie Kaufman have a moment like this. So does Downsizing, the wise and wondrous new film from director Alexander Payne, a somewhat unlikely suspect for such unpredictability. His movies (Election, Nebraska) do often have surprising flights of creative fancy in their third act (think the wallet-stealing sequence in Sideways), but none is as persistently inventive and creatively liberated as Downsizing, which starts out as sci-fi comedy, ends as a heartwarming social fable, and squarely hits a handful of different genres in between.

Downsizing is set in a near-future in which miniaturization technology has become cost-effective and popular. There are myriad reasons to “get small,” we are told. Some people are doing it to improve their lives, others see it as a way to help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint, and some people are just trying to save money. It’s the latter reason that inspires Paul (Matt Damon, effective here in “everyman” mode) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) to give up their small life in Omaha for an even tinier one. The painfully average couple are an embodiment of the shrinking middle class. Paul wanted to be a doctor, but he quit medical school when his mother fell ill. Now, he’s an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, where he earns a meager income, and he and his wife live in the modest home he grew up in.

Their money will go farther in Leisure Land, one of many “micro-communities” popping up all over the world. In fact, their modest $150,000 in assets will make them multi-millionaires, and the loneliness of life without their old friends and family seems like a small price to pay for living in a utopia. After a quick tour, Paul and Audrey decide to take the tiny plunge before they can talk themselves out of it.

From this set-up, there is a clear and obvious path forward – their perfect life turns dystopian, and Leisure Land reveals a dark underbelly – but Payne and his co-writer refuse the easy way out. It’s almost as if it never occurred to them. Downsizing is a film of many surprises, from celebrity cameos and abrupt departures for seemingly important characters to the probing, philosophical soul that informs each of the film’s radical plot developments  True, the film’s heroes find their new life to be not all that was promised, but where it goes from there will surprise even the most accomplished twist-guesser.

The film’s stream-of-consciousness plotting would be bad medicine if Downsizing weren’t also hilariously funny. There are plenty of sight gags, involving large (that is, normal-sized) items that have made their way into Paul and Audrey’s miniature world, including enormous flowers, giant jewelry, and a pack of Saltines that could feed a family for a week. Payne also packs his film full of extraordinarily funny people, from Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier as Eurotrash neighbors to Hong Chau, a former Vietnamese freedom fighter who, in one gut-busting scene, enumerates the eight different ways Americans have sex. If there is any justice, the phrase “love f**k” will enter our lexicon.

So if you want to simply laugh at Downsizing, you can. In fact, the film changes lanes so many times that just sitting back and enjoying the wild ride is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Eventually, however, it will ask more of you. The through line that runs beneath the gags and wild plot is a soul-searching character hyper-attuned to our apocalyptic times. The miniaturization process is originally discovered in the search for a solution to the world’s unsustainable population growth, and Downsizing follows this idea down its natural path, shifting into a journey of exploration of how best to live in an age when of human self-destruction and spiritual indifference. There are echoes of I Heart Huckabees and the recent Beatriz at Dinner in its ethical questions and earnest probings. At its simplest, Downsizing is simply an exploration of what it means to be good in trying times, a worthy endeavor even if the final product is not your tiny cup of tea.

THE BAD

TIFF Movie Review: Downsizing
ALLYSON JOHNSON SEPTEMBER 10, 2017

Downsizing has a tonal problem in that the film we’re watching in the first act is drastically different than the one we watch in the second, which is drastically different than that of the third. At the very least, we can never fault director Alexander Payne on the scope of his vision, as he attempts to tackle a grab bag of topics and themes that all boil down to the idea of the cyclical destructive nature of humankind and the beauty and connection that is to be found amid it all. Even when the world is ending due to man-made disasters, there’s still room to be kind and decent and maybe even fall in love while finding out who you are.

In the not so distant future of Payne’s latest film Downsizing, the world is beginning to visualize the threats to the environment that up till now had benn blissfully ignored. In order to counteract this, a scientist creates a magical solution where people can chose to be shrunken to help cut down on consumption and natural resources. What began as a novel concept soon turns into a phenomenon as more and more people are lining up be to become small, transporting themselves to different portions of the world where small communities have been set up. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) think that they too are ready to leave the normal world behind and embark on this great new adventure together. Granted the opportunity to live in luxury opposed to barely being able to keep up with the house they have now, it sounds alluring to the couple. However, cold feet kicks in for Audrey and Paul is left to embark on this journey more alone than he’s even been before.

It’s a mouthful of a movie to explain but one that, if you’re able to get over the hiccups along the way, are well worth it for the ultimate payoff. Beginning (in easily the most dragged out portion of the film) as mid-life crisis film, transitioning into something more stylish and science-fiction geared and then melting away into something romantic, globe trotting and meditative on the meaning of life and our need to contextualize everything and prove that there’s a reason for why our lives take the dips and turns that they do, the film never lands on just what it’s trying to accomplish. Astoundingly, it’s through that indecisiveness that we’re given some of the films most cherished aspects.

The single greatest joy of the movie is the introduction and inclusion of Hong Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran, a humanitarian who was shrunk against her will and who stowed away in a TV box to the U.S. to escape persecution. She also lost her leg and it’s through her faulty prosthetic that she and Paul strike up a temperamental bond. Up until her joining the narrative the film had been funny, if a touch icy, happy to tell a story that shouts from the rafters that our environment is doomed while also making us laugh with visual sight gags such as a miniaturized Laura Dern in a bubble bath. With Chau’s utterly winsome and earnest portrayal the film gains the heart it had previously been devoid of, proving to be the missing link in a film that so desperately needed some warmth to be greater than a film that’s applauded on concept alone.

As mentioned, the film does drag in moments with the first act taking the longest due to all of the set up and the third taking what feels like a prolonged detour but for the most part Payne and co., have created a film that feels both uniquely timely while simultaneously feeling out the past with an atmosphere that hints to both Pleasantville and Being John Malkovich. Surreal, initially a little off putting, but determined in telling a story that’s both intriguing and significant, Downsizing divisively marches to it’s own beat.

Matt Damon proves he’s at his best when he’s playing decent, albeit, ordinary men while Christoph Waltz is an utter joy as Paul’s worldly neighbor Dusan. Of the performances though, again it’s Chau as Ngoc’s that really wins the day and the chemistry between the entire cast is delightful entertaining as their difference temperaments bounce off of one another with ease. Wiig is the only one who the script truly disservices, which is a sham, considering how well she and Damon’s comedic timing played against each other.

There are, admittedly, moments when the CGI is a little out of it’s depth, but the set design makes up for it by making sure to keep a sense of artificiality even when they’re only surrounded by people who’ve also gone through the procedure. Similarly, the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is gorgeously rendered, particularly at the end as the film drives home just how wonderfully beautiful and vast our planet is.

Written by Payne and Jim Taylor, the two make sure to shine a light on the discrepancy of being offered to live in a world worry free where money isn’t an issue and you can have anything your heart desires. Like most things in life, this is focused on the privileged, with anyone else who doesn’t fit into the demo (minority groups and the disenfranchised) are still pushed to the outskirts of their community. The only thing that’s changed about their lives is they’ve gotten smaller. The films tackling of climate change is perhaps a touch on the nose but it makes sense within the context of the film where humans rush to find away to preserve life on a planet they’ve helped destroy.

A film that thinks big while keying in on the smaller but grander moments in life, Downsizing is messy, inconsistent and noisy in its many messages, but there’s something so refreshingly heartfelt about it all. A reminder that humans are always evolving, even when they don’t reflect, and that that evolution can happen both on the micro and macro scale.

AND THE UGLY

TIFF 2017: “DOWNSIZING,” “BEAST,” “WHO WE ARE NOW”
by Brian Tallerico
September 10, 2017

Alexander Payne’s latest finishes its fall festival trifecta after premiering at Venice and Telluride while a pair of “smaller” films actually feel like more complete, well-considered efforts, despite their own flaws. “Downsizing” has already become one of the most divisive films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, producing responses all across the board. I know a few critics who consider it one of Payne’s best, but more seem to fall into the “ambitious disappointment” camp, and I may be even a step below that group. It’s easily Payne’s worst film, a work that’s woefully misguided, casually racist, thematically incomplete, and tries to ride on a high concept until a ham-fisted message arrives in the final act to really drive the hypocrisy home.

The concept of “Downsizing” is the kind of thing with which someone like Charlie Kaufman could have worked wonders. As human consumption has essentially destroyed our planet, a group of scientists determines that the only way to reverse the trajectory of time is to minimize not only the waste of our species but our actual size. Think about how much less damage we would do to the planet if we were only a fraction of the size we are now. Imagine how far your dollar could go when 1,000 square foot house looks much, much bigger. Everyone could have a mansion, and produce a negligible amount of planet-damaging waste.

For Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the allure of what has been just outside of their reach becoming available to them through downsizing is too much to ignore. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, the journey to the small life doesn’t go exactly as planned, while Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Hong Chau, and cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern fill out an undeniably talented cast. Once again, Payne wants to examine the current state of America through a satirical, exaggerated lens.
The problem this time is that I don’t think he knows what he’s looking at. There are plenty of questions in “Downsizing.” How do we literally simplify our lives? What should we value? How can one person make a minor difference against major problems? However, none of these are interestingly examined beyond the superficial. Instead, Payne meanders through a surprisingly unfunny narrative about a wanderer, amplified by Damon’s least interesting performance in a very long time. The problem is that Paul needs to be either a Chauncey Billups-esque observer or something more exaggerated than the blank slate Damon presents. There’s no character here, and not even in an interesting, non-character way. The idea that this guy just bounces from decision to decision, never making long-term ones, feels underdeveloped thematically, and just leaves us with a film that’s as unfocused as its protagonist.

Part of the tonal dilemma presented by “Downsizing” is the bad taste left in the mouth by Payne’s willingness not only to present a remarkable degree of White Savior Complex but then dive headfirst into casual racism in the portrayal of a Vietnamese dissident whose broken English is clearly being played for laughs. Payne has been accused of condescension to his “less refined,” Midwestern characters before but I never felt it as strongly as I did here. It feels like there was a version of “Downsizing” that was broader, in which everyone felt satirical, but then certain characters were softened, leaving only a few stereotypes to stand out and offend, along with an overriding sense of superiority from the filmmaker. Throughout “Downsizing,” I kept asking myself what the point of all of this was, never engaged by its hodgepodge of themes. I wish the filmmakers had asked that question too.

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Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment


Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Three filmmakers from Omaha who’ve made impressive marks in cinema as writer-directors represent three distinct generations but their work shares a strong humanistic and comedic bent:

Joan Micklin Silver
Alexander Payne
Nik Fackler

You may not know her name or her films, but Joan Micklin Silver is arguably the most important filmmaker to ever come out of Nebraska. Her feature debut “Hester Street” (1975) was something of a phenomenon in its time and it still resonates today because of how it established her in the film industry and helped open doors for other women directors in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner was a studio director in the early talkies era and then years went by before another woman filmmaker got the chance to direct. Actress Ida Lupino directed a small but telling batch of features from 1949 through the mid-1950s and became a busy television director. Lupino helmed the original “Twilight Zone’s” classic episode, “The Masks.” The last feature she directed “The Trouble with Angels” was a hit. Her subsequent directing was back in television for a large variety of episodic shows. But it was years before other women followed Lupino as studio directors and Elaine May and Joan Micklin Silver led that fledgling movement. They ushered in an era when more women directors began working in the mainstream: Lee Grant, Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow. Hundreds more have followed.

Silver first came to the industry’s attention with her original story about the stateside struggles of wives of American POWs in Vietnam. No studio would let her direct and the story ended up in the hands of old Hollywood hand Mark Robson, who’d made some very successful pictures, and he brought in future director James Bridges to work on the script with her. Silver was not happy with the changes made to the story and though the screenplay bears her and Bridges’ names, she largely disowns the resulting shooting script and the movie Robson made from it, which was released under the title “Limbo” in 1972. However, Robson knew how much she wanted to direct and did something unheard of then: he invited her to be on set to observe the entire shoot and be privy to his interactions with cast, crew, producers, et cetera. She may have also had access to pre- and post-production elements. This experience allowed her an intimate study of how a major feature film production gets made. This, along with the films she’d been keenly watching since falling in love with cinema at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, was her film school. Only a couple years after “Limbo” Silver was shopping around another script she penned, this one an adaptation of a novella about the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century America that was part of her own family’s heritage. The focus was on New York City’s Lower East Side and the travails of a young woman trying to reconcile the ways of the Old Country with the new ways of America. Jake has come ahead to America and sends for his wife, Gitl, and their son. Gitl is little more than chattel to Jake and she finds herself stifled by social, cultural, economic pressures. Much to Jake’s surprise, she rebels. Silver titled the story “Hester Street” and again no studio wanted her to direct and she was not interested in giving control of her script to another filmmaker. To be fair to the studios, on the surface the project did have a lot going against it. For starters, it was a heavily ethnic period piece that Silver saw as a black and white film. Indefensibly though, while Hollywood by that time was giving all sorts of untested new directors opportunities to direct, it wasn’t affording the same opportunities to women.

Silver and her late husband Raphael Silver, who was in real estate then, raised the money themselves and made the film independently. Her beautifully evocative, detailed work looked like it cost ten times her minuscule budget. She and Raphael shopped the finished film around and, you guessed it, still no takers. That’s when the couple released it themselves by road showing the film at individual theaters with whom they directly negotiated terms. And then a funny thing happened. “Hester Street” started catching on and as word of mouth grew, bookings picked up, not just in Eastern art cinemas but coast to coast in both art and select commercial theaters. Before they knew it, the Silvers had a not so minor hit on their hands considering the less than half a million dollars it took to make it. National critics warmly reviewed the picture. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film having been written and directed by a woman made it and Silver darlings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film’s then unknown female lead, Carol Kane, earned a Best Actress nomination.

Years later “Hester Street” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work. In designating the film for inclusion, the Library of Congress noted historians have praised the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process in its portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America.”

Silver is now writing a book about the making of “Hester Street,” which is also being adapted into a stage musical the adapters hope to bring to Broadway. A biography of Silver is also in the works.

The success of “Hester Street” allowed Silver to make a number of feature films over the next decade and a half, some with studios and some independently, including “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Loverboy” as well as some notable made for TV movies such as “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “Finnegan Begin Again.” These films show her deft touch with romantic comedies. I’ve always thought of her work as on par with that of the great Ernest Lubitsch in its sophisticated handling of male-female relationships and entanglements.

I recently saw “Finnegan Begin Again” for the first time and now I see what all the fuss was about for this 1985 HBO movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Preston, Sam Waterston and Silvia Sydney. It’s a thoroughly delightful, mature and surprising dramedy that features perhaps the two best screen performances by Moore and Preston, which is saying a lot. Waterston goes against type here and is outstanding. Sidney never lost her acting chops and even here, in her mid-70s, she’s very full in her performance. A very young Giancarlo Espositio has a small but showy part. Watch for my separate Hot Movie Takes post about the movie.

During the 1990s and on through 2003, Silver directed several more feature and television movies, “Big Girls Don’t Cry, They Get Even,” “A Private Matter” and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” among them. The tlater two made for cable movies are straight dramas, which she also handled with a sure touch. I just saw “A Private Matter” for the first time and it is a searing true-life tale about a young American married couple with kids who become the center of the thalidomide scandal and tragedy. Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn portray Sherri and Bob Finkbine, who discover that the fetus Sherri is carrying will likely be born severely deformed due to the effects of the then widely prescribed drug thalidomide. When their intent to terminate the pregnancy goes public, it sets off a firestorm of controversy that nearly destroys them. In the midst of the medical deliberations, legal wrangling and media stalkings, the couple learn how widespread abortions are and how secret they’re kept. Silver brilliantly contrasts sunny, placid 1960s suburban family life with the dark underside of hypocrisy, greed, fear and hate that surface when issues of morality get inflamed. In this case and cases like it, what should be a private matter becomes a public controversy and the people involved are persecuted for following their own conscience. Spacek delivers a great performance as Sherri and I don’t think Quinn has ever been better as Bob. Estelle Parsons is excellent as Sherri’s mother. William H. Macy has a small but effective turn as a psychiatrist.

More recently, Silver had been working on some documentary projects that never came to fruition. And then her longtime life and professional partner, Raphael, died. Now in her early 80s, she’s seemingly more focused on archiving her work and sharing her experiences as a woman trying to shatter the American film industry’s glass ceiling.

Her maverick ways and superb films are highly regarded and yet she remains almost unknown in her own hometown, which both saddens and baffles me. The lack of recognition for her here is a real shame, too, because she’s one of the great creatives this place has ever produced and her exquisite films stand the test of time. I believe Alexander Payne, who is her junior by some 26 years, is one of the great American filmmakers to have emerged in the last half-century and I regard the best of Silver’s films on a par with his. And yet her name and work are not nearly as well known, which reminds us that even after all this time women filmmakers are still not accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Even in their shared hometown, Payne is celebrated but not Silver. I’d like to do something to change that.

When Silver was eying a career in film starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the old studio contract system was dismantled and the New Hollywood hot shots from television and film schools were all the rage. Even guys who’d never directed anything were getting their shot at studio features. Women were still left out of the equation but for the rare exception like Silver, and even then it took her battering on the walls before she was reluctantly let in to that privileged Old Boys Network. Her path to breaking in was to learn her writing and directing chops in theater and television. It was her ability to write that got her a seat at the table if not at the head of the table. She had to make her own way the hard way. She’s lived long enough to see progress, if not enough yet, for women directors to now be almost commonplace.

Alexander Payne’s cinephile development came right in the middle of the New Hollywood revolution and his entrance into the industry happened right on the wave of the indie film explosion. But like Silver before him, there was no visible Hollywood presence around him when he was coming of age here as a cineaste. No one was making anything like grade A feature films locally. The industry was remote and disconnected from places like Nebraska. His entry into the industry was his student thesis film. But it wasn’t until he wrote “Citizen Ruth” and got financing for it that he arrived.

Dan Mirvish is another Omahan from the same generation as Payne whose directorial efforts bear discussion. He’s actually been the most ingenious in pulling projects together and getting them seen. None of his films have yet crossed over in the way that Silver’s, Payne’s and Fackler’s have, but he and his work are never less than interesting. He, too, is a writer-director.

A generation later, Nik Fackler came of age when the new crop of filmmakers were coming from film schools as well as the worlds of commercials and music videos. But just as Silver and Payne used their writing talents to get their feet in the door and their first films made, so did Fackler. His script for “Lovely, Still” was good enough to attract a pair of Oscar-winning legends in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. He directed those Actors Studio stalwarts when he was in his early 20s. He was much younger than Payne and Silver were when they directed their first films but he had the advantage of having directed several short films and music videos as his film education. He also had the advantage of having seen a fellow Omaha native in Payne enjoy breakout success. But where Payne and Silver followed up their debut feature films with more projects that further propelled their careers, Fackler did not, It’s been nearly a decade since “Lovely, Still” and many of us are eager to see if Fackler can recapture the magic he found so early.

I find it interesting that Fackler, Payne and Silver all tackled tough subjects for their first features:
Alzheimer’s in Fackler’s “Lovely, Still”
Abortion in Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”
Jewish immigrant experience in “Hester Street”

Whereas Payne and Fackler have made most of their films in Nebraska, Silver, despite a desire to do so, has never shot here. There’s still time.

These three are not the only Nebraskans who’ve done meritorious work as directors, but they are in many ways the most emblematic of their times.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get Silver, Payne and Fackler on the same panel to discuss their adventures in filmmaking? I think so.

Meanwhile. a special screening of “Lovely, Still” in memory of Martin Landau is happening at Film Streams on Thursday, Oct. 12. Payne’s “Downsizing” is playing festivals in advance of its Dec. 22 national release. And Silver’s films can be found via different platforms, though a retrospective of her work here is long overdue.

New OLLAS director Cristián Doña-Reveco eager to engage community

September 1, 2017 Leave a comment

Chile native Cristián Doña-Reveco, the new director of OLLAS (Office of Latino and Latin American Studies) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is looking to broaden the center’s engagement across borders. Read my profile of him for El Perico newspaper.

OLLAS Director Dr. Doña-Reveco
Aug. 09, 2017

New OLLAS director Cristián Doña-Reveco eager to engage community
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

Cristián Doña-Reveco knows the challenge of succeeding Lourdes Gouveia as director of OLLAS at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He’s long been an admirer of the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies she founded and is director emerita of today.

“Lourdes Gouveia is a hard act to follow,” he said. “OLLAS is what it is today because of her work and the collaboration of her colleagues. I am not here to redo what Lourdes did, but to expand from her work. I am very lucky to have her support and guidance as well as that of Jonathan (Benjamin-Alvarado) and Juan Casas, interim directors the last two years. I also know OLLAS has a wonderful and engaged faculty very interested in participating in this second stage.”

Doña-Reveco attended a 2007 OLLAS conference and then followed the center’s work from afar. The native of Chile didn’t hesitate applying for the directorship.

“I really liked what they were doing, so it was an easy decision for me to apply,” he said. “This is a great place to be. I wanted to be here.”

His scholarly focus on migration is a good fit.

“His work is centered on issues so dear to OLLAS’ heart, such as international migration, social inequality and the differential access by the poor to public goods,” said Gouveia. “He is passionate about the things we study and about social justice.”

Doña-Reveco, also an associate professor in the Sociology-Anthropology Department, finds attractive that OLLAS “comprises in one place Latino studies, Latin American studies as academic research centers, while also teaching at the graduate and undergraduate level and doing advocacy and outreach.”

“In other places, including Michigan State, where I did my Ph.D. work,” he said, “those things are in different centers. They usually don’t even talk to each other. Here, we do it all together and that is very important and very interesting. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here.

“I see my own work and academic life through an interdisciplinary lens. I need to work, for example, with people in public administration, the social sciences, the humanities.”

His work resonates in Nebraska, where immigrants, refugees and migrants abound.

“We cannot understand today’s world without dealing with the issue of migration. This has been the topic of discussion in elections in the U.S., France, the U.K., Argentina, Brazil, and in my own country of Chile. The discussion about the effects, possibilities and fears of migration are in the public debate and a center like this has a huge role in creating knowledge about migration.

“Migration flows, experiences, patterns come to the forefront when there is a political discussion about it and there is a political discussion about it today.”

He conducts interviews to capture migrant stories: why and when they move and how they’re received by host countries and countries of origin.

He said OLLAS can provide facts to counter stereotypes and myths about migrants.

“A center like this has as a public role to fight against that ignorance, to show people what migrants create in the community,. So, it’s not only about migration of people but the mobility of ideas throughout the Americas and how Latino populations are key to understanding that connection between Latin America, particularly Mexico, and the U.S., and also to show that Latin America is more than Mexico and Central America. We have 30-plus countries in the Americas that share a Latino-Latin American culture. It’s important to recognize and incorporate that into the views of the U.S.”

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, UNO assistant vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said, “Dr. Dona-Reveco brings a new perspective on OLLAS’ central role as a community-engaged research and service arm of UNO’s overall mission. His vision and experience makes him an ideal leader to continue the OLLAS legacy. It is an exciting time for OLLAS and UNO.”

Doña-Reveco. wants OLLAS to share its work with other Latino-Latin American study centers and the community-at-large.

“One of the things I want to contribute to here is to encourage faculty to make all the research they produce have at least a component of public engagement.”

Similarly, he wants OLLAS to be a vital source of expertise in framing issues for policymakers, stakeholders and reporters.

“One of the goals I’ve set for myself is to make the center more visible internationally, but I cannot do that without first making the center for visible nationally.”

He also wants to parlay his worldwide connections and networks to help “internationalize OLLAS.”

“I would like to set up a study abroad in Chile. I’m still connected to the school I was working at before in Santiago that participates in a consortium of four large research universities in Chile on topics of social conflict and social cohesion. My goal is to connect OLLAS to that center in a meaningful way either through exchange of faculty or research. There is also work I want to do with networks I have in Europe

“There’s a lot to do.”

He and his wife, a native of Colombia working on her master’s in veterinary science, have three children.

Follow the center’s work at https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-arts-and-sciences/ollas/index.php.

Syed Mohiuddin: A pillar of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha

September 1, 2017 1 comment

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, co-founder and director of the American Muslim Institute in Omaha, is one of the driving forces behind a singular project here called the Tri-Faith Initiative that’s garnering worldwide attention. Nebraska is known for many things, but the Tri-Faith Initiative may just end up being what most folks identify with this state other than perhaps Warren Buffett, Alexander Payne, Nebraska football, corn and the Sandhills. The Tri-Faith is a truly visionary and brave undertaking that you might not expect to find in this conservative place, but here it is happening. This intentional effort at bringing the three Abrahamic faiths together in communal ways and at a shared physical campus called the Tri-Faith Commons is getting national and international media coverage because nothing like this has been attempted before. This intense interest is ongoing despite the fact the campus is still being developed. Temple Israel Synagogue and the American Muslim Institute are now neighbors there and soon to follow will be Countryside Community Church. That’s right, a synagogue, a mosque and a church will purposely be close neighbors and partners. Their congregations and visitors will share a planned Tri-Faith Center. For Mohiuddin and his fellow Tri-Faith players, it is a dream come true. Read my cover story about him in the September 2017 issue of New Horizons just hitting newsstands and mail boxes. Or read it right here.

Syed Mohiuddin: A pillar of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the September 2017 issue of the New Horizons

Omaha’s national name recognition hinges on a few staple people, places and things.

Everybody by now knows about Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne. Jun Kaneko and Conor Oberst have their followers. Terence Crawford’s made Omaha a relevant pro boxing championship site. Mutual of Omaha, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Henry Doorly Zoo, the Old Market, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center boost the city’s profile. So do the College World Series, Creighton men’s basketball, the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Finals.

Something new here making a big impression nationwide is the Tri-Faith Initiative, the decade-old interfaith endeavor whose partners are a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque and a Christian church. Two of three worship spaces at its Tri-Faith Commons campus are now open at the Sterling Ridge development near 132nd and Pacific. Temple Israel got there first in 2013. The American Muslin Institute followed earlier this year. Ground has broken on the new Countryside Community Church joining them in 2018. That leaves a fourth and final building, the joint Tri-Faith Center, slated to start construction next year and welcome visitors in 2019.

The project’s been profiled by national media ranging from CNN to “The Daily Show.” But unlike so many things, the Tri-Faith isn’t dependent on celebrity or attendance or ratings – but on being good neighbors.

A founder, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, is a household name and much beloved figure for his many years leading reform Temple Israel, where he’s rabbi emeritus. He’s known for supporting social justice causes and he did interfaith work long before this project. He and Temple member Bob Freeman initiated the conversation that grew into the Tri-Faith. Their earliest confabs about it were with someone less known but no less important in making it a reality, Dr. Syed Mohiuddin. The Omaha cardiologist and teacher is the co-founder and president of the American Muslin Institute.

Eventually, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska came on board to complete this troika of Abrahamic faiths. Rev. Tim Cannon was a player in those early years. When the diocese later pulled out, United Church of Christ member Countryside Community Church elected to be the project’s Christian partner led by Rev. Eric Elnes, who is himself a veteran of interfaith efforts.

“I was disappointed the Episcopal church did not do it, but for some reason I never had any doubt we would have a third partner and that we will have a Tri-Faith campus,” Mohiuddin said. “I always had that faith.”

Mohiuddin has been there from the start and he’s never ceased being inspired by the Tri-Faith concept.

“From day one when I heard about it, I thought it was a great idea and I was sorry i didn’t think of it myself,” he said. “It’s so unique and it’s so exciting. This has never been done, at least purposely.”

His unwavering faith has inspired others.

“My work on the Tri-Faith Initiative helped me to encounter the kind and compassionate Dr. Mohiuddin – a man of dignity, peacefulness, knowledge and kindness. A man of infinite patience, full of courage and a clever navigator in a sea full of obstacles and hazards.” said Azriel. “In all my years of knowing him, nothing deterred him from the goal of building the Tri-Faith. He’s a real advocate for the Muslim community in Omaha and the world.”

The two men forged their bond when, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel rallied Jews to protect a mosque at 73rd and Pinkney. No harm came to it.

Cultural exchanges began occurring between the mosque and the synagogue. So when a few years later Azriel reached out about forming the Tri-Faith, Mohiuddin already knew his heart.

“We had a very good relationship with Rabbi Azriel and the synagogue,” he said, “He came to the defense of the mosque when 9/11 happened. Synagogue members were in the process of thinking of moving from 70th and Cass. It was too small for their congregation and too old. They wanted to go somewhere where they could select their neighbors.”

It just so happened the newly formed AMI was looking to build its own facility rather than continue leasing spaces.

“It was very important to us that we have an educational and religious center in Omaha, particularly in west Omaha, so that we could have a place that we call our own to have not only religious activities but also educational, cultural activities.”

Thus, the founders like to say the project sprang from a conversation about sharing parking lots.

Mohiuddin credits Azriel with moving the Tri-Faith forward, saying, “He is the prophet.” He added, “Bob Freeman was also very prominent in this development. Bob was the first president.”

Common ground
The Tri-Faith blossomed from the fertile soil of celebrating commonalities and differences.

“First of all, we began with the idea that the three Abrahamic religions have a common root,” Mohiuddin said. “We have a very rich historical tradition which goes all the way back to the prophet Abraham. The idea which prophet Abraham preached is common to all three faiths. We have different interpretations, but we believe in the same things. And based on this idea we thought we could establish a campus where we could live together and demonstrate to the world that the three faiths really have no animosity per se, but they really are branches of a common tree.”

The vision from the start called for three worship spaces and a communal, nondenominational interfaith center.

“We will be able to show the world that the three faiths do believe in the common traditions, they can be servants of God and they can work for good things in the world, including social justice and other things which we need to defend with a common voice.”

Fixing on a location for the campus took time.

“The first few years we just met and talked about things -– mostly about where we should go. I can’t remember how many places we went looking for a site that would be ideal. In the meantime we began to know each other and we became very good friends. We thought this was something which had more truth than simple parking. We were building relationships, we were beginning to know each other not only through our religious practice but how we lived our lives.”

Relationships are the foundation of it all because the partners understand that tensions and fears borne of not knowing the other have prevented Jews, Muslims and Christians from interfaith communion.

“Our intent was to correct some of this misunderstanding, establish working, cooperative, friendly relationships among the Abrahamic faiths,” he said, “and we thought there could be no better way of doing this than sharing a campus. That became a very early goal with the partners. That’s exactly what has happened and it has deepened our friendship, deepened our trust in each other.

“The amazing thing is when we started this project nobody said, Why are you doing it and what is it in for you? We simply trusted each other and believed that this is something which needs to be done and we did it.”

Along the way, few have openly questioned or doubted the project’s validity and sustainability. Mohiuddin said it’s crucial that he and his fellow visionaries never let the detractors sway them. He said the project could have been derailed “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices and if did not have the courage of our own convictions.”

Ultimately, he said the Tri-Faith’s survived due to” the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and needed to be done and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

He has an answer for skeptics who worry participation in the project will dilute or diminish any of the faiths.

“The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the belief we have and that has actually made our faith stronger. We understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people. It actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it.”

Why did it take until the 2000s for this to happen and why did it find life in Omaha?

“If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns,” Mohiuddin said. “It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Coming out of the shadows
The fact that Mohiuddin is still relatively unknown despite being a Tri-Faith founder and longtime fixture in Omaha’s medical community reflects the low profile Muslims have here and his own soft-spoken, modest demeanor. Hardly a newcomer, the 80-year-old first came here from his native India in 1963 to study at Creighton. Though a familiar figure in local medical circles, he remained off the general public’s radar until the emergence of the Tri-Faith. Even now, his reserved manner is more likely to keep him in the background than the foreground.

From its humble start amongst a few friends, the Tri-Faith’s evolved into a public display of interfaith action with events like Dinner Under Abraham’s Tent and the annual Tri-Faith Picnic. Mohiuddin’s been the face of the low-key Muslim community here. He galvanized support for the AMI to be a part of the Tri-Faith. He helped secure donors to build its combined mosque and educational center at the Commons.

He often appears with his Jewish and Christian counterparts at community forums and press conferences. Though he’s happy to share the Tri-Faith story, he prefers letting the limelight shine on others. Avoiding publicity is getting harder these days. Thousands of well-wishers and dozens of reporters turned out for the AMI’s open house in July. The overwhelming response took Mohiuddin by surprise, though it was hardly the first time locals extended welcome to Muslims here.

He appreciates how Muslims are generally well-received in America but he’s aware hate crimes are a reality, too.

“Muslim integration to the United States is a new phenomenon,” he said, “and Muslim integration to Nebraska is an even newer phenomenon.”

He said the more exposure people have to Muslims, the more they’ll recognize the core values of Islam –acceptance, compassion, equality, justice, peace – are the shared values of the partners and of all humanity and specifically of the three Abrahamic faiths.” He hopes the Tri-Faith can help dispel myths. “Many stories you hear and read are biased – they don’t present a true picture of Islam.”

Against this backdrop, he was all the more touched by how many people attended the open house.

“It was astounding, it was stunning,” he said seated in a conference room at the new facility. “We had never anticipated more than 150 people. We served food and it was probably gone in the first 15 minutes. There were anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 people here. The open house was to start at one but people started coming here at noon and they didn’t leave until 5 or later.

“It was absolutely a wonderful occasion. It indicated to us there is enough interest in our community and we hope we did a good job of introducing our Institute and mosque and how our Muslim faith is practiced.”

The event fulfilled the vision for the campus, as the parking lot for the synagogue, which is just to the west of the Institute, accommodated the overflow crowd. He said Tri-Faith communications director Vic Gutman may have captured the moment best by commenting, “Where in the world can you see people parking at a Jewish temple and walking over to a Muslim mosque?”

Where indeed.

The outpouring of good will goes back to when funds were being raised for the $6.2 million Institute building.

“What was amazing was getting support from the non-Muslim community – almost 50 percent,” he said. “It again reaffirmed my belief that the three faiths are supportive of each other.”

Finding a home at Creighton and in Omaha Mohiuddin experienced American egalitarianism and Midwestern hospitality when he and his late wife first arrived in the States. They’d only been married a month earlier overseas. He said though Omaha’s become a much larger city, “what hasn’t changed is how welcoming it is.””That’s the reason I decided to stay in Omaha,” he said. “That, and my university – Creighton, which I loved and still do. Creighton, a Catholic institution, has always been very open, accepting and supportive. I never felt that I was a stranger.” This despite “there being hardly any Muslims or people from India at that time in Omaha,” he noted. “We were so pleased with the reception we got from Creighton University and Creighton Medical Center.”

“I never looked back.”

He fondly recalled he and his wife being befriended.

“We were looking for an apartment because on an intern’s salary we couldn’t afford to buy a house. Somebody introduced us to an Italian family who owned a house and wanted to rent an apartment out to a couple. We took the apartment and we became friends. They would invite us to their celebrations, including Christmas. It was wonderful. It was a large family and we all sat at a long table and thoroughly enjoyed the food and each other’s company.”

Mohiuddin fell in love with America and applied for his U.S, citizenship as soon he was eligible. Gaining citizenship is something he cherished.

“It was a wonderful occasion. Again, it was part of being accepted and how welcoming America is.”

His fascination with America began back in India. He grew up in the city of Hyderabad.

“I come from a middle class Muslim family, so we lived comfortably, but we didn’t have cars or other luxuries. My father was a forest officer. He died very young – when I was only 4-years-old. My mother was my teacher. She was very interested in teaching me. All the things I know about Islam and Muslims is from her.”

His mother didn’t have much formal education.

“In India in those days girls were not really allowed to have a formal education. It’s getting better.”

The India he knew has given way to new ways but persistent challenges remain.

“There has been a lot of progress. It’s certainly much more modern than what we had. But I think there’s still some fundamental problems with the annual population growth. It’s a very small country (geographically) and if the overpopulation problem is not addressed, then we’ll really have a problem.

“There’s still consistent lack of education, particularly in the rural areas, that needs to be addressed.”

Motivated to help people from an early age, Mohiuddin was still a boy when he vowed to be a physician. He was in college in India when he decided he wanted to do all his post-graduate training in the West. He became proficient in English, which all the medical literature was written in, and determined he would study in the U.S. rather than Great Britain.

“I admit freely I had a fundamental suspicion of the British because I knew how they had treated the people of India and our struggle for freedom, so I came here.”

He came intending to be an endocrinologist but got hooked on the then-new field of cardiology.

“I liked the idea that cardiology was going to make very rapid progress and in that I was not wrong.”

He’s seen dramatic advances in cardiac diagnoses and care. He said today’s interventions don’t just treat symptoms “but truly make people better” and get them right back on their feet. “We used to keep our (surgical) heart patients for weeks. All of that has changed. Now people go home in two days.”

Teaching became his real passion.

“I don’t think I would have even been satisfied being only in practice and treating patients and not teaching. That’s why I stayed at Creighton. I could have left and joined one of the large cardiology practices in Omaha and probably been much more financially successful,
but that’s not what I wanted to do.

“I was very fortunate to have very good teachers at Creighton and they just happened to be cardiologists. They’re one of the reasons I went into cardiology. I learned from them how enjoyable it is to teach, how enjoyable it is to see the light that comes on a student’s face when they learn this how a cardiac murmur starts.”

His teachers also modeled a career commitment to education by remaining there for decades as he went on to do himself.

His own integration into the mainstream was reflected by him being named chairman of the Department of Medicine at the Creighton University School of Medicine. He also served as president of the American Heart Association and governor of the American College of Cardiology (Nebraska Chapter).

Syed and his wife raised three children. Their fully Americanized kids attended Brownell Talbot and Creighton.

Standing for what is right
Life for the Mohiuddins was good, safe and uneventful. Then 9/11 happened and Muslims were suddenly under suspicion. When the Jewish community stood watch at the mosque, that show of concern and solidarity reassured Mohiuddin about his fellow man.

The love and respect demonstrated by that stand infuses the Tri-Faith and explains why it still flourishes.

“That’s where it starts,” he said, “because you know there have been a lot of interfaith dialogues that have not gotten anywhere. The key is having respect for our partners and for any differences we have. These are the similarities in our intention and purpose which brings us together. The word tolerance is a no-no in our discussions. ‘Don’t speak to me of tolerance,’ Rabbi Azriel says. “That’s not what we’re about. That is the change in paradigm. One of the things Rabbi Azriel said in our first meeting was, ‘I’m tired of dialogue.’ This is about relationships, not dialogue.”

Being in relationship is what it means to be a true neighbor and, he said, “by forming a Commons together, constantly we are neighbors – we look to each other and share our dreams.”

“Unlike a dialogue, at the end of which you get up and leave, here we cannot leave,” he said looking out at the green spaces between the synagogue and mosque. The unturned dirt for the church is next door.

More evidence of togetherness came a few years ago when Gaza hostilities erupted between Palestinians and Israelis.

“The Muslim population was distraught this was happening. But we were able to come together with our Jewish and Christian friends and write a joint editorial in the Omaha World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

Then came acquiring the former Highland Country Club land for the campus. Jews had built the club at a time when they were denied access and membership to gentile-only venues. Jews, Muslims and Christians now break bread there.

“We spent almost eight years looking for a place to build and finally we found the ground for the campus. When the Jewish synagogue began construction we began to see that this is really going to be a real thing. It was no longer (just) an idea we had been celebrating but a real fact of life. This will be an example for the whole community and hopefully for the United States and possibly the world.”

Mohiuddin emphasizes that situating the synagogue and mosque there also fills practical needs because their memberships mostly live out west. And just as with Temple, the AMI needed a new place with more space.

“There are three mosques in Omaha but they are simply small prayer places,” he said. “None of those have any capability of providing educational or civil services. What we have built is not only a prayer center but also a center for education and for support of the Muslim community, especially the new arrivals who need a lot of help and support and anything else the community might need.”

He said whereas the Institute and Temple were already looking to build new structures before the Tri-Faith, Countryside Community Church was not, which makes their participation all the more impressive.

Mohiuddin admires Countryside pastor Eric Elnes for bringing his congregation into the fold.

“He was probably the most visionary person among us because it was his leadership that got his congregation to consider this was the thing to do, this was the place to go, and they passed a resolution to move with a 99 percent majority.”

A larger purpose for erecting the AMI building was uniting a sometimes factious Muslim community.

“There are, as in any religion, different sects with different interpretations of Islam or the Koran or what the prophet said or didn’t say. That has caused division within the Muslim community. We wanted to be clear from the beginning this is a mosque for all Muslims no matter who they are. Whether they are Shiite, Sunni, whatever, we are not going to prohibit them – we are going to open them with open arms.

“If you can’t welcome your own brothers and sisters, how can we welcome our cousins?”

Another overriding goal is to practice gender equity,

“We want to make sure, and we have made it our fundamental aim, to treat women and men as equals because all religions, and Islam is not exception, have treated women as somewhat inferior to men. Our board members include three women.”

The new mosque’s prayer hall has only a discreet screen separating the sexes and it’s there at the request of women, he said, for modesty.

A bright shining symbol of trust A distinguishing feature of the building exterior is a towering, free-standing minaret that departs from the traditional custom of being affixed to the structure. The minaret symbolizes rising shafts of light that represent the five pillars of islam.

“These are the fundamentals of our religion and they meet at the top at the star that’s lit in the evening. One of our board members took a special interest in designing the minaret.”

The intent of the building also reflects where it is, who it serves and what happens there.

“This is not a typical Middle Eastern mosque,” he said. “This is a mosque for people in Omaha. This is an Omaha mosque. The building not only serves as a mosque and a place for prayers in Omaha, which is its primary function, but it is also an institute that has educational functions, civic functions, social functions. It includes a gymnasium and a space for children. The building provides for all that and that was something badly needed in Omaha. That’s why we continue to call it American Muslim Institute.”

Mohiuddin has enjoyed a long, distinguished professional career but nothing tops this.

“Establishing the American Muslim Institute and being a part of the Tri-Faith initiative I consider the most important things I have done.”

Already, the Tri-Faith Commons is becoming a destination spot for tour groups who want to see this experiment with their own eyes.

“I think people will come to see it’s a unique campus.They will see the three Abrahamic faiths working with each other, learning from each other, sharing their dreams, their hopes together.

“This will be the exact opposite of what we’re hearing about and some of its true – that Muslims mistreat Christians or Christians and Jews mistreat Muslims. This will be a counter to all of these things,”

The partners’ relationship as neighbors is readily evident.

“From the mosque you can see the synagogue and you will be able to see the other buildings. You’ll be able to see how closely we are situated.”

The gleaming glass-fronted buildings glow at night.

Proximity alone, he said, will offer tangible proof of this unique interfaith community and “of our message that the people of the Abrahamic faiths can live and work together and go on to the next generation.” The Commons is here and now but it’s real impact may yet come in the future.

“We are doing it for our children,” he said. “The whole purpose is for the next generation. This has been a dream for us and it is a dream come true. That’s our dreamland.”

None of it would have been possible without trust.

“We just had somehow this bond of trust when we started and we still have it.”

Can it happen elsewhere?

“I say why should this be unique. There ought to be other Muslims and Christians and Jews who follow similar paths and when they see this thing actually working this will give them more hope and more faith that this can be done.”

He advises others contemplating such an interfaith marriage: “Don’t have high expectations because you’ll only be disappointed. But there has to be a fundamental trust, there has to be a fundamental sharing of objectives and what is our goal. Then also a shared vision for how are we able to get there.”

As work readies on the new Countryside church, plans for the Tri-Faith Center are being finalized.

“I think soon we’ll make a decision on how large the building will be and what the function will be,” Mohiuddin said. “My own vision is that it will be an education center that would serve all three faiths. More importantly. it would serve people in Omaha and outside Omaha.”

Yes, the Tri-Faith is the culmination of a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian having fellowship. But just as there are no walls or fences separating the buildings, there are no boundaries excluding anyone from participating in it.

“The Tri-Faith belongs to all of us,” said Mohiuddin.

He and the others invite everyone to this dreamland.

Follow the project at http://trifaith.org.

Hot Movie Takes: The reviews are in and ‘Downsizing’ is the talk of the movie world

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment













Hot Movie Takes – Alexander Payne and Mike Nichols

August 26, 2017 1 comment

Hot Movie Takes – Alexander Payne and Mike Nichols
@By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Comparing artists, in this case film directors, is a hazardous business, but that isn’t stopping me from doing it. As someone who thinks and writes a lot about writer-director Alexander Payne, I sometimes search for resonance between his work and that of other filmmakers. When first exposed to his satirical cinema I was immediately reminded of Billy Wilder. Later, I saw parallels between Payne’s mis en scene and that of James L. Brooks, Joan Micklin Silver and Paul Thomas Anderson. More recently, I found continuity in the mordant, highly composed worlds of Payne and Stanley Kubrick. My newest reference point connects the work of Payne with that of the late Mike Nichols. The difficulty with this particular comparison is that Payne is a writer and director and Nichols was a director who, while I’m sure he had a great hand in the scripts he helmed, practically owned no writing credits. On the other hand, Nichols consistently worked with and interpreted great writers and the spirit of his satirical sensibilities is evident in his oeuvre. The term auteur is overused and misapplied to many filmmakers but it certainly fits both Nichols and Payne. Their work shares in common strong humanistic and satirical strains that reveal character in states of extremis. The comedy and tragedy in the stories they tell co-exist side by side and thus it’s hard to describe their movies as just one thing or another. Their movies are like life in that they are a mix of things. Nichols comes from an improvisational comedy, Actors Studio and Broadway stage background that gives his films a distinctive look, feel and sound that is at once realistic and poetic. Payne is most heavily influenced by classic world cinema and his films correspondingly have a formal narrative structure and compositional quality that also retain a sense of freedom and anarchy in line with their sharp tragic-comic turns.

These filmmakers are also both identified with producing thought provoking, highly literate work, I believe that is a reflection of how well read and rounded Nichols was and how-well read and rounded Payne is. Just as Nichols was steeped in literature, music fine art, theater and film, so is Payne. Bandying words and references with Nichols was a game played at your own risk because he seemingly had read everything. Payne is much the same.

But it’s one thing to have a great mind and it’s another thing to have a great heart, or vice versa, and here’s where these two separated themselves from many other directors of comedy. Their films show an intuitiveness and empathy that serve to leaven their sharp insights and harsh satire and to make their characters and situations, no matter how chaotic and desperate, more human and therefore more relatable. This is the same gift that their fellow comedy director masters shared and I’m referring here to:

Charles Chaplin
Buster Keaton
Frank Capra
George Stevens
Howard Hawks
Ernest Lubitsch
Preston Sturges
George Cukor
Billy Wilder
Woody Allen
James L. Brooks

I don’t know of Payne and Nichols ever met, but I have to think that if they did they would have hit it off and found they shared similar sensibilities and interests. At the very least, they would have made each other laugh.

My favorite Nichols films are “The Graduate,” “Catch 22,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” I don’t think there’s a great film among them, though those are all really good movies, and the rest of his career was pretty hit and miss. As for some of his other films, I admire “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” and “Carnal Knowledge,” for example, but they’re not films I feel compelled to see again. His “Heartburn,” “Wolf” and “The Birdcage” are interesting but minor works. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen his “Angels in America.” But I’ve seen enough of his output to know that while he almost never made a flat out bad film, several of his works are flawed and inconsistent.

By contrast, Payne hasn’t missed yet. I have yet to see Payne’s new film “Downsizing,” but based on his six previous features and other work he’s done, I am very comfortable saying that Payne is a consistently better filmmaker than Nichols was even at the peak of Nichols’ career. Now, some may argue that Nichols directed touchstone pictures for different eras in “The Graduate” and “Working Girl” and may go on to question whether Payne has done the same. I would assert that “Sideways” is that equivalent picture in the Payne canon. I would also suggest that Payne has made at least five films that are timeless: “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” and that it’s hard to find even a single Nichols film that could be so described with the possible exception of “The Graduate.” Some may further argue, and I can see the point, that Nichols was a more adventurous filmmaker than Payne in trying sometimes wildly different subjects and approaches from film to film, whereas Payne, to date anyway, has perhaps played it safe by staying within certain parameters and comfort levels that he likes revisiting. His new film “Downsizing” is definitely a departure for Payne in terms of scope – both physical and thematic – and we’ll soon know how well he handled that. Nichols made everything from social satires to farces to straight out dramas. I would counter that the few times Nichols departed from his own comfort zones resulted in some mis-steps – “The Fortune,” “The Day of the Dolphin,” “Wolf” and “What Planet Are You From?” – though Nichols does deserve an A for effort. Most observers count “Catch-22” as a mis-fire but I like its mordant tone and, unusual for Nichols, brilliant visuals. I actually think the best work he did that I’ve seen was the intense drama “Silkwood” and not the ironic, satiric pieces he’s best known for.

Granted, Payne may be taking fewer chances than Nichols did in terms of stretching himself, but I contend that even within the familiar confines of Payne’s work, he consistently goes deeper than Nichols usually did. For me, Nichols was more of a surface director, and Payne is more of an interior director, which is to say that in Nichols’ films the exterior lives of his characters predominate while in Payne’s films the interior lives of his characters speak to us Now, to be sure, there are exceptions to these artificial boundaries.

Certainly, the films of Nichols and Payne both show great respect for the written word and strong performances by actors. On this score, I think we can all agree.

Of course, all this is totally subjective and in the long run doesn’t really mean a hill of beans because they’re both among the best directors of comedy and of dramedies that have ever worked in Hollywood and they each have stand the test of time films to their credit.

‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Now a Metropolitan Community College non-credit Continuing Education class

August 24, 2017 Leave a comment

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Now a Metropolitan Community College non-credit Continuing Education class taught by yours truly.

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film
Movie Discussion Club
9/26-10/24 (five classes offered ala carte or bundled)
MCC @ Do Space
7205 Dodge Street (catalog has the incorrect address)
Must be 18 years old
Watch for your MCC catalog in the mail. Register: mccneb.edu/ce • 531-MCC-5231

Explore the creative process of Oscar-winning Indiewood filmmaker Alexander Payne through screenings and discussions of his work. The book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” serves as informal guide for this appreciation of the American cinema master who calls Omaha home and describes all his films as comedies. Payne’s in a long line of Nebraskans in Hollywood, yet he’s the only one who makes A-list films here. He not only brings the industry here via his productions, he hosts major film artists for special events and supports Omaha’s arts community.

Don’t be surprised if some film artists drop in to share a few things about Payne and their own cinema careers.

Purchase optional book from me for $25.95
Bundle all five classes to receive a discount.
MCC at Do Space
Tuesdays
5:45-8:45pm
09/26-10/24

Alexander Payne: Introduction/Overview/The Passion of Martin
Discover the influences that shaped Payne and how far he’s come on his writer-director journey. The film nerd fell in love with movies growing up in Omaha. Many travels and studies later, he embarked on a filmmaking path at UCLA. His student thesis short “The Passion of Martin” was his ticket to Hollywood. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 09/26
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: Citizen Ruth
Though Payne got a production deal with a major studio right out of college, several years passed before he made his feature debut with “Citizen Ruth” and emerged as a filmmaker to be watched. For his first film, he chose an audacious subject: abortion. Laura Dern stars as Ruth Stoops, an unlikely symbol of both abortion camps. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/03
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: Election
Payne’s second feature “Election” established him as a sharp new voice on the world cinema scene and earned him his first Academy Award nomination for this satire about a teacher and student engaged in a war of principles that’s more about their own insecurities. Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon star as the embattled teacher and student, respectively. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/10
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: About Schmidt
Working with a big budget and superstar (Jack Nicholson) for the first time, Payne scored a critical and commercial hit with “About Schmidt.” In the story a man set adrift by life events hits the road in search of meaning. The film’s success brought Payne, Nicholson and the film much adulation. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/17
5:45-8:45pm
$10

Alexander Payne: Sideways
Shooting his first feature outside Nebraska, Payne’s “Sideways” became a surprise box-office smash and elicited the best reviews of any of his films to that point. The story follows two loser buddies on a road trip in lush California wine country that results in more than they bargained for. The script won Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor their first Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. Rated R.
MCC at Do Space
Tue. 10/24
5:45p-8:45p
$10

Bundle all five classes for a total of $40 ($8 per class)

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