Sunday, September 27, 2009

Exhibits look at the 1930s

As we discovered when when we put together our online exhibit on Nebraska writers of the 1930s, the hardships of the time caused deep reflection about American history, community and shared purposes. American intellectuals and the New Deal programs they helped create seemed uncomfortably radical to some at the time, but at heart, they opposed the despair and empty radicalism that triumphed abroad in same decade.

When the Nebraska History Museum opens its new exhibit "Out of the Despair of the Spirit: Nebraska's New Deal Art" on October 3, (See the Museum Events Calendar there will be three concurrent exhibitions of 1930s era artwork running in museums around Lincoln.

The other area exibits are:

Artists of the New Deal: Print Exhibition of WPA Artists
This ongoing exhibit at the Lux Center presents portraits of America in the 1930s by artists Harry Sternberg, Lily Harmon, Marion Greenwood, Guy Pene DuBois and others who worked for the New Deal's WPA (Works Progress Administration) division known as the Public Works Art Project.
The Print Exhibit runs from 9/4/09 - 3/3/10 at the Lux Center, 2601 N 48th Street, Lincoln, NE 68504. See Phone:(402) 466-8692

Agents of Change: Mexican Muralists and New Deal Artists
Opening September 29, 2009 this Sheldon Museum of Art exhibit presents works done in the 1920's and 1930's by Mexican Muralists and artists in the United States' Works Progress Administration (WPA), all from the Museum's permanent collection. Included are works by well known artists Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco and David Siquieros, as well as work by other Mexican Muralists whose names are less recognized. A description is here.
The exhibit will run from 9/29/09 - 1/17/10. See also Phone:(402) 472-2461

In addition, on the national level, the Smithsonian Institution Exhibit "1934: A New Deal For Artists" is ongoing through January 3, 2010.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nebraska Writers and Film: A new display in the Heritage Room

Nebraska writers’ encounters with Hollywood and film-making have been as diverse as writers are individual. Some writers sought attention from film-makers, others shunned it. Some Nebraska writers have been pleased by what film makers did with their work, others were horrified and hated it. Some writers came to write novels after careers as playwrights and screen writers, others specialize in screen writing, or have turned to it as a profitable sideline.

The display itself is mostly devoted to the books and writers themselves, but in preparing it, we also looked at the history of film-making in Nebraska, and careers of actors and directors from Nebraska. Usually we hide that sort of background preparation. This time we decided to summarize our notes on the history of film-making in Nebraska here. That history seems to encourage us to ask these questions: Does Nebraska make it onto the silver screen as a real place, or is it more often assimilated to Hollywood clichés about middle America and “fly-over country”? What role has film experience played in the careers of Nebraska writers? Has the work of Nebraska writers been well represented on film? What will Nebraska look like in the films of the future?

Made in Nebraska

The first “feature” film with Nebraska connections was William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s 1913 self-promoting epic, “The Indian Wars.” Cody borrowed cavalry from Fort Robinson to reproduce the “Battle” of Wounded Knee on the original battleground in South Dakota. The film, so far as is known, does not survive. Contemporary reviews of the film make interesting reading. There was some concern with authenticity. The Wounded Knee sequence showed the soldiers as aggressors, vastly outnumbering the Indians and crowding them into the ravine where they were mowed down. That scene had critics though, among them the wife of the Pine Ridge agency superintendant who commented that General Miles, the “technical consultant” for this part of the film, “would not allow them to show the women and children in the fight and that was left out.”

The first feature film actually made in Nebraska was made by Nebraskans in 1915. Chadron residents organized the Black Hills Film Company of Chadron, Nebraska to make “In the Days of ’75 and ‘76” or (in a different advertisement) “The Thrilling Lives of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane” entirely with local talent. The Twelfth Cavalry out of Fort Robinson appeared again, portraying troops of the earlier era. The film survives and the community effort recalls an enthusiastically presented high school play that is as much a local festival as an attempt to dramatize a story.

Early in the Hollywood era, most filming was done entirely in Hollywood, but beginning in the late 1930s scenes for some films were shot in Nebraska. The first such film was Boys Town (MGM, 1938) with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Tracy won an Oscar for his portrayal of Father Flanagan, and the sequel, Men of Boys Town (1941) also filmed scenes in Nebraska. In 1940, background scenes for Cheers for Miss Bishop, the film adaptation of Nebraska writer Bess Streeter Aldrich’s novel Miss Bishop, were filmed on the University of Nebraska campus, and several hundred students served as extras.

In the summer of 1945 MGM filmed background scenes for The Sea of Grass (1947) on former Nebraska governor Sam McKelvie’s By the Way ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Martha McKelvie wrote about work of filming and the Sandhills people involved in the By the Way newsletter for Christmas, 1945. The action in the story, based on Conrad Richter’s novel, takes place in Arizona and New Mexico, so the Sandhills just served as generic “ranching country” landscape for the film-makers.

A fairly comprehensive list ( films made (at least in part) in Nebraska is available on-line from the Nebraska Film Office, a department of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. The Film Office’s interest is in how much money film-makers might spend in the State, and the economic boost such spending can give to local communities.

Looking at the Film Office’s list, we see some patterns emerge in films made in Nebraska. First, it looks like the relatively few big-studio films made here could have chosen any state or town in the Midwest as a setting. We remember Terms of Endearment (Paramount, 1983) now mostly because of then Governor Bob Kerry’s romance with Debra Winger. It’s fun to see bits of Lincoln on film, but similar scenes could have been shot in Des Moines, Kansas City, or Minneapolis.

Second, we encounter stories that reflect on real life or that have actual Nebraska roots mostly in smaller scale documentaries or television productions of work by Nebraska writers. Notable, among these, are the NETV-PBS 1987 documentary The Trial of Standing Bear, the 1992 Hallmark Hall of Fame O Pioneers!, and the 1994 filming of My Ántonia all for television. Sean Penn’s Indian Runner, 1991, and Omaha-The Movie (1993) also have Nebraska moments (well, for the latter, a visit to Carhenge, anyway!).

Finally, the list reminds us that screenwriter-director Alexander Payne has made more movies here than anyone else.

Payne grew up in Omaha, went to High School at Creighton Prep. He writes his own movie scripts, usually in partnership with writer Jim Taylor. Payne is not trying to tell Nebraska stories at all. Yet he is interested in a reality that big-studio, big budget films tend to miss. “I want my protagonists to be more like real people than like typical movie characters,” he told an interviewer, “I’m interested in capturing life…. I don’t do special effects.” Payne returned to Omaha to make his first film, Citizen Ruth, in 1996. His commercial breakthrough film, “Election,” a dark high school comedy with Reese Witherspoon and Mathew Broderick, filmed at Papillion-La Vista High School in Omaha. And most recently, his “About Schmidt, 2001, filmed in Omaha, Nebraska City, and Lincoln, and starring Jack Nicholson. Payne has won critical acclaim and many awards, including two Golden Globe awards and an Academy Award for his scripts. What is more, all his films have been commercially successful. Payne, reviewers have pointed out, has something of a formula: His small film, low budget strategy allows him to retain editorial control of the film. If he spent more, studios would want more influence. With his strategy he has been able to make profits from his films without being compelled to seek a mass audience. He seems to favor character studies that present something of the tragedy of the human condition with a biting sense of humor.

Might Payne’s example give us a look at the future of film in Nebraska?

The concern of the Nebraska Film Office, whose list of films we have been considering, is to explore motives that bring film-makers to the state and promote the state to film-makers for the sake of economic growth. To this end, the office commissioned the 2002 Nebraska Film Industry Development Study (available at the link as a pdf file). The document is a little dull—writers in this genre are obliged to collect facts, avoid thinking, and repeat whatever economic clichés are widely acceptable at the moment. But despite itself, the Study offers amusing observations. As in: “Wow, those folks really dropped a lot of money in Loma!” (No, no. Not an actual quote!) The 1994 filming of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar spent some 8 million dollars in the state. The film, with opening scenes in New York, New York and a San Francisco denouement, offered up the story of three bicoastal transvestites stranded in small town Nebraska. It wasn’t really a home grown story. But it did show that a big studio, this being a Universal/Amblin Entertainment production, can drop an astonishing amount of money to purchase pretty simple requirements.

The most interesting aspect of the Study, is that, though confined to the decade from 1991-2001, it tells us still more about Alexander Payne. Omaha—The Movie (Payne was executive producer) dropped $50,000 here, Payne’s first film, Citizen Ruth, spent $1,500,000 in Nebraska, Election, $1,252,840, and About Schmidt, some $8,000,000.

The choice of Nebraska for To Wong Foo, Thanks… can be seen as a rare, chance event, unlikely to recur with any frequency. This view is reinforced by the Study’s observation that, from now on movies that require a generic “Great Plains” landscape will be filmed on the Canadian prairies, because the cost there is so much less.

Payne, by contrast, chose to make some of his films here from real local knowledge and connection to Omaha. If we see much of Nebraska on film in the future, it’s most likely to be in films that have that kind of real local connection. We might expect such films to follow some of the patterns seen in Payne’s films. They would likely have smaller budgets, with more artistic control by directors who choose to film here. They would probably not seek to draw mass commercial audiences. They would be less driven by fantasy and sensationalism and more by diverse engagements with the fabric of real life. Such films will be made, if they are made at all, by people with direct connections to the actual local culture and the film culture of the state.

This would seem to be treacherous ground for the economic development frame of mind to tread. Nobody can simply promote a working culture into existence. The personal connections, institutions and funds that support local culture are either built and sustained over time by genuine community effort, or they will fall away and we will be lost in the “geography of nowhere,” where every street, every mall, every subdivision looks alike, and culture is reduced to a daily dose of frivolous spectacle whose only theme is distraction. But Nebraska’s film community now seems lively, though small. Alexander Payne continues to contribute, returning for special events and serving on the board of Omaha’s Film Streams theater.

Some notes on Sources:

The above is based mostly on these sources, or web resources already cited in the text:

Andrea I. Paul, “Buffalo Bill and Wounded Knee: The Movie,” Nebraska History, Winter, 1990, Vol. 71 No. 4, pp 183-190, describes Cody’s movie and contemporary critical responses. Thomas R. Buecker, Fort Robinson and the American Century, 1900-1948 (Nebraska State Historical Society, 2002) also describes the involvement of the Twelfth Cavalry from Fort Robinson in this film and in the Chadron film.

On the Black Hills Feature Film Company of Chadron, Nebraska and its seven reel epic, see Paul Eisloeffel “Preserving Nebraska’s Film Heritage” Nebraska History, Spring 1995, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 28-9.

Alexander Payne, quoted in Bob Fischbach, “Pure Payne” in the Omaha World Herald, Arts and Travel section, October 24, 2004. On Payne filming in Nebraska, L. Kent Wolgamott in the Lincoln Journal-Star, December 30, 2005.

All the amounts given here are listed in the Nebraska Film Industry Development Study in a table titled “Direct Expenditures” under the column label “Revenue Generated.” The labeling is ambiguous because these kinds of studies sometimes fudge things by considering “revenue generated” to include the total economic activity. That would considerably magnify the amount actually expended by including the estimated circulation within the community of the original amount spent. This measure of “revenue generated” is also a legitimate measure of economic activity, but should not be confused with “direct expenditures.” That does not appear to be the case here, however, as far as I can tell.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sunday, September 20th Ames Reading by Amelia Maria de la Luz Montes

The Heritage Room welcomes Amelia Montes to begin our 25th year of Ames Readings. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Montes has been a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for a decade. She writes fiction, critical literary theory, non-fiction and criticism. Most recently, she introduced and edited a critical edition of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton's 1872 novel, Who Would Have Thought It? Burton was the first Mexican-American woman to write novels in English.

The program will begin at 2:00 P.M., Sunday, September 20th.