I genuinely cannot wait to read my colleagues’ recollections of how their artistic communities in Omaha have evolved over the 25 years during which The Reader has stubbornly refused to die. I just don’t particularly wanna write one for film. I mean, I will. You’re reading it, so I guess I already did. It’s just that nostalgia is the stank, decomposing albatross constantly chillin’ around cinema’s neck.
What I love — and have always loved — about this bad-ass publication that tolerates me for some inexplicable reason is that it is unabashedly progressive. Progress happens in the days to come, in the future, tomorrow. The past is what we transcend; it is the sludgy, rotten refuse that serves as innovation’s biofuel.
You bet your proverbial sweet bippy that I have fond AF memories over my tenure here, which I’ll be swimming in with you shortly. It’s just important to note that the future is where we should always fix our eyes. In the days to come, technological progress will make photo-realistic CGI look like rejected Toxic Avenger designs. In the future, casting couches and women-free Academy Award categories will be archaic obstacles. Tomorrow, people of color will have more creative control than plundered imagination.
But let’s talk about yesterday for just a minute.
Payne and Gain
I’m sure someone has been a featured subject in The Reader more than Alexander Payne, I just have no earthly idea who that could possibly be. Over the last few decades, no Omaha-centered star has burned brighter in Nebraska’s night sky. Sorry, not sorry, Chris Klein. From 1996’s Citizen Ruth — still his best movie — through 2017’s Downsizing, no cinematic artist has woven his or her brand into a tighter, funkier braid with our home than Sir Alex P. I don’t know if The Reader has technically earned the power to knight someone after 25 years of publishing, but dammit, I’m doing it anyway.
We’ve certainly sported some great indie pioneers in these here plains over that span as well, from Dan Mirvish (1995’s Omaha: The Movie) to Nicholas Fackler (2008’s Lovely, Still). And while we’re lucky to have performers John Beasley, Adam Devine, and Gabrielle Union put the “Oh, they’re from Nebraska” in Omaha, Payne’s subject matter and stature remain the most significant local film contributions in well more than 25 years. Again, because I cannot help myself, let me add that I eagerly await who will be next, which local writer/director will have a feature snag national acclaim.
Read on to see where we just may find them …
It’s a Festival for the Rest of Y’all
In 2005, a few kooky katz decided to hold a film festival. In Omaha. On purpose. Somehow, they’re still doing it, with this year’s shebang going on potentially right as you’re reading this (March 5-10). One of my fondest Reader memories is helping select short films in the early days of this bold endeavor. I promise, you cannot possibly fathom the time and energy it takes to legitimately, rigorously consider all of those submissions. I loved it, but it broke me. It broke me hard. I tucked tail and went from active participant to enthusiastic fan after one year. I legitimately don’t know how the folks behind this are still doing it 14 years later. I don’t want to say it’s drugs, but it almost has to be some kind of performance enhancement.
Here’s the part where my rear-view navel gazing turns to doe-eyed optimism again. The festival has a special block reserved for Nebraska-made films. I firmly believe that giving our young filmmakers a chance to see their work on the big screen during a legit festival is going to yield even more major ding-dang dividends than it already has. With workshops and dialogues and presentations from master craftsman, the Omaha Film Festival may go by OFF but I am forever ON its bandwagon. Just please don’t ask me to judge shorts again. Unless they’re cargo. Then, like, ew.
Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’ on the Stream
As often as I’ve sung the praises of Rachel Jacobson and the Film Streams posse, I feel like it’s getting hella repetitive. Don’t care! When I first started reviewing for The Reader, I could not cover a huge swath of films that a progressive (then weekly) journalistic outlet should have totally been all over. By the time itty-bitty indies, avant-garde arthouse adventures and funky-fresh foreign flicks hit Blockbuster, I could maybe toss a review up on Myspace or LiveJournal. Do those uber-dead cultural references help illustrate how antiquated and painful that era was?
Jacobson brought Omaha cinema into the modern era. It would be enough to simply provide an outlet for film lovers to ogle the obscure objects of our desire, but her nonprofit has done so much more. Its existence, and expansion into the Dundee Theater, served as brick-and-mortar testimony to the significance of film as art in our community. The collaborations and dialogues Film Streams has every month challenge Omahans to fight for a better community and foster stronger artistic growth. I’ve said it before and will say it until carpal tunnel takes my typin’ away: This is the biggest thing to happen to movies in Omaha.
Film Streams helped pave the way for others, too. I don’t think we get an Alamo Drafthouse, let alone two, if not for Film Streams. And folks are hella jelly of our Drafthouse(s). What Film Streams is to refined cineastes, Alamo is to mainstream movie buffs. Yes, that’s reductive, as both theaters cater to both groups, but I’m trying to draw parallels here, so cut me some slack. When I penned my first review for The Reader, I couldn’t imagine a city in which I am able to watch the latest experimental foreign film and a sing-along version of Moulin Rouge on the same night. See, the future is always better!
I (Still) Have No Idea What I’m Doing
In 2002, I walked into The Reader offices and should have been marched out. I have no idea why they let some idiot off the street do movie reviews, but you can still ask them the same question 17 years later. Reminiscing is valuable only if it teaches you to be better, so here’s some observations about my time doing film criticism.
Finding a journalistic space in which to have and promote critical discussion of cinematic art is more important than ever. The proliferation of social media and personal websites certainly means there are more people screaming into the void than ever before. That can be a good thing, in that it helps provide an outlet for voices that have been often ignored. It can also be a super-special kind of bad, as is evident every time a cyber-crusade is launched against something like the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters. I’m thankful that the Omaha World-Herald still has a full-time film critic. I’m selfishly even more thankful to be given a space with free rein to offer insights that wouldn’t play well in a mainstream media outlet.
With that comes a responsibility I didn’t take nearly seriously enough as a privileged hetero white dude for far, far too long. I don’t doubt that any number of my early reviews reek of “too-cool-for-school” nonsense as much as they scream an insulated point of view that I am still working on expanding. I own every stupid thing, every reductive and ignorant thought I ever committed to publication, in a way that I hope makes me a better person, not just a better critic. Everyone has an opinion on the latest movie, but few people record and share those opinions. They serve as an often cringey time capsule that shows me how far my taste and insights have progressed if I’m feeling positive and how wretched and shitty I’ve been if I’m not.
Bottom line is that I need to be better still. I need to elevate more cinematic voices and offer support to those artists and critics who need it. I need to keep questioning myself, to keep pushing my boundaries, and to keep expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to do so. Film in Omaha has changed in so many profound ways. We still have a long way to go. From new theaters soon opening in places that were cornfields when The Reader first went to press to opportunities for our young artists, I hope that the future sees even more change than we’ve seen over the last 25 years.