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Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond at MoMA

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning retrospective of 100 years of Technicolor.

As Ben Kenigsberg writes in The New York Times, “this year [Technicolor] turns 100. The breadth and variety of American films that used Technicolor processes between 1922 and 1955 are apparent in a recent book, The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 by James Layton and David Pierce, and a continuing series at the Museum of Modern Art running through Aug. 5 . . . [after early experiments with a variety of processes, the company created "three-strip Technicolor," used extensively during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and] with a refined combination of cyan, magenta and yellow on its prints, the company unveiled that process in Flowers and Trees, a 1932 Disney short (showing in the MoMA series Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond, on July 31 and Aug. 3).

A three-color Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (Sunday), followed in 1935. The film series presents Technicolor as more than a novelty and tries to convey what the MoMA curator Joshua Siegel calls a ‘misunderstood’ story. He added, ‘I think we have these associations with Technicolor as this kind of garish, highly saturated, candy-color look, which was certainly true of a certain period of filmmaking.’” But that’s just a small part of the story.

As The Museum of Modern Art’s website adds, “This 100th-anniversary celebration of Technicolor, initiated by George Eastman House and presented in collaboration with the Berlinale, Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, and Austrian Film Museum, presents more than 60 feature films, along with a rich selection of cartoons, short subjects, industrials, and screen tests. MoMA’s exhibition focuses exclusively on American films made between 1922 and 1955 (the year that Hollywood studios stopped using Technicolor three-strip cameras), with a delirious range of musicals, melodramas, swashbuckling and seafaring adventures, sword-and-sandal Biblical epics, Orientalist fantasies, Westerns, literary adaptations, homespun Americana, and even rare instances of film noir and 3-D.

The exhibition honors Technicolor’s most immortal achievements, presenting rare 35mm dye-transfer prints of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain. It also deepens and complicates our appreciation of Technicolor’s history—and our nostalgic memories of movie-palace dreams—by revisiting some of the more muted and delicate, even diaphanous, uses of Technicolor in films like The Toll of the Sea and The Garden of Allah.

Even as period advertisements for Technicolor heralded the process as uniquely ‘natural,’ and ‘truer to life’ —a reflection of the painstaking efforts of the company’s technicians and color supervisors to achieve greater verisimilitude—filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli and Rouben Mamoulian were working closely with their cinematographers, production designers, costumers, and makeup artists to explore the expressive, fanciful, and even psychological uses of color by experimenting with light and shadow, chiaroscuro and sfumato, in emulation of Old Masters like El Greco, Titian and Zurburán, or with the brash, electric colors and bold contours of Fauvists like Raoul Dufy.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, the series runs from June 5 through August 5, 2015, and is an absolute must for all cineastes, even if you’ve seen these films before. The chance to see them projected in their original format- 35mm film as opposed to digital prints – is becoming increasingly rare, and the work and effort that went into this amazing series is really quite amazing. As Kenigsberg notes, “in a sense, digital work can’t compare to the artistry represented by the company’s heyday. ‘Technicolor is not just about color,’ Mr. Siegel said. ‘It’s about light and shadow, and it’s about depth and molding.’ These qualities are lost, he added, ‘in digital projections of contemporary films.’”

This is a must-see exhibition for everyone who loves cinema.

Robert Heide on Stonewall and Greenwich Village in the ’60s

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

My friend, the playwright Robert Heide, posted this excellent article on LGBT culture in 1960s NYC.

As Heide wrote in The Villager on June 25, 2015, “The evening of June 28, 1969, is the starting point of the gay revolution at what was once seen as a notorious mafia-run gay hustler bar by some uptight Villagers — and in particular by the New York Police Department — the Stonewall Inn, at 51 Christopher St.

The place was originally a horse stable, almost 200 years old in 1930 when it was converted into a rental hall for business banquets, birthday and wedding parties. In the ’60s it opened as a gay bar and attracted a mix of wild drag queens and young gay men.

Drags and transvestites were often excluded from the more exclusive gay men’s Village spots, like Julius’ and Lenny’s Hideaway, both on W. 10th St., and the Old Colony and Mary’s, on Eighth St. The cellar dive that was known as Lenny’s is now Smalls Jazz Club.

I myself hit the Stonewall a few times back in the early days with a brownette, pointy-toothed Candy Darling. This was before he/she was given a makeover by the flamboyant Off Off Broadway theater director Ron Link, who taught Candy how to do her makeup in 1930s movie-star style.

The newly glamorized Candy was presented in a show written by Jackie Curtis at Bastiano’s Cellar Studio Theater in the Village called Glamour, Glory and Gold, which featured in his first stage role a young actor named Robert De Niro. For the Candy transformation, Link got out a white henna powder concoction that, when mixed with peroxide and pure ammonia and applied to dark hair, turned it platinum-white blonde, thus changing a drab Candy into a Kim Novak/Jean Harlow blonde bombshell.

Eventually, Candy went on to become a Warhol Superstar: for the final makeover touch Warhol paid to have Candy’s teeth capped pearly white. At about the same time, drag performers Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn also jumped into the Warhol superstar film scene at the Factory.

There are many stories and myths about the rebellion at the Stonewall and the riots that followed and one of them has a Stonewall regular, a black drag named Marsha, hitting a cop over the head with a high-heeled shoe on the first night of the famous police raid.

Some of the Black Marsha myth may have been concocted or exaggerated by the three-day protest crowd. It is known that at one point the police were actually locked (along with Howard Smith, the Village Voice columnist) inside the place by the angry drags and queens and their sympathizers fed up with the constant raids and continuous harassment.

My partner, John Gilman, and I watched some of the big happenings from Christopher Park, not realizing at that time the full importance these events would ultimately have on gay history, gay identity, the gay revolution and the gay liberation that followed. Now, same-sex marriage is O.K. and, in the summer of 2015 with Olympian Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner, sex change has become the new ‘normal’ in America, leading us to a completely different way of looking at the world of transgenders, transsexuals and transvestites.”

Bob Heide’s play The Bed – a scene is pictured above, with John Gilman, Bob’s partner – was one of the key works of the era, and was eventually filmed by Andy Warhol, and archived in The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Bob and John still live on Christopher Street in Manhattan, and continue to push for LGBT rights and recognition, while still writing books and plays – and excellent articles like this one. It’s a really authentic account of what went during this crucial era in American culture. You want to know how it really was? Check it out.

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Philip Cohen – Photography as Art

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

My old friend Philip Cohen is a master photographer – great to see his new work!

Philip Cohen, who was part of the original line up of my band Figures of Light, and with whom I worked on a number of films in the 1960s and 70s, is now a commercial and art photographer in California, and his work is absolutely terrific. He just sent me this image of his newest exhibition, which is sensational, and if you click on the link above, you’ll go directly to his home page, featuring a portfolio of his work, and much more.

As he says about his craft, “when photographing artwork I’m always looking for the one angle that sums up the work most succinctly. However very often the only way to show what’s really happening is to shoot details: pictures taken from a different angle or way close up or both. And you can’t just count on cropping from the overall shot in Photoshop because you won’t be showing anything new.

So shoot the details when you do the overall shots. When shooting details of 2-D work select an interesting composition within the composition to reveal something about the piece that the overall shot can’t show. Shoot these details “full frame” to maximize clarity; cropping in Photoshop later won’t work as well.”

Phil’s own work is a revelation – if you’re ever out his way, check it out – it’s really remarkable.

Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In this deeply trying time in our nation’s struggle for basic human rights, this is a key film.

Spike Lee is, of course, the most important and influential African-American filmmaker working today, and one of the most important and influential filmmakers working today, period. In 1997, Spike Lee created a brilliant and moving documentary on the horrific September 15, 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

As Wikipedia notes, “Lee had first intended to create a dramatic reproduction of the incident, but decided that would not be the best approach. He shifted to a documentary. Once he secured funding, Lee went to Birmingham with a small skeleton film crew. He wanted to have the families be as comfortable as possible. Ellen Kuras was the Director of Photography and Sam Pollard the producer/editor.

Kuras said of her desire to shoot 4 Little Girls, ‘I was really interested because my background is in political documentaries . . .I always felt that one of the reasons that I had got into filmmaking was that I wanted to use my craft to be able to say something about the human condition, however I could, in my own humble way. For me this was an opportunity to make a small contribution.’

The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy.

People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.

A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.”

No, it’s very clear that “some aspects still haven’t changed” at all, as the brutal massacre of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 has more than aptly proved.

The subsequent campaign to remove the confederate flag from various public places, license plates, and the ban on such merchandise by Sears, Walmart, Amazon and Ebay – something that should have happened a long time ago – is one outcome of this senseless series of murders, but the cost of creating such change is much too high. Nine people were killed, including the senior pastor and state senator from South Carolina, Clementa C. Pinckney.

As I write this, these events are still unfolding, and it’s too early to tell if any real positive change will occur as a result of this senseless violence. I know that it has profoundly shaken me,  as well as all people of conscience, in the United States and around the world, and I can only be heartened that perhaps something will come out of this terrible tragedy that will move us all to a better place.

In the meantime, let us remember that the struggle for basic human rights for all goes on day after day, year in and year out, and is never really full accomplished. All we can do is continue to move towards the light, and a better tomorrow.

Spike Lee’s brilliant movie is a reminder of that struggle; if you have not seen it, do so now.

US Census Bureau – 74% of STEM Grads Do Not Work in STEM Occupations

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

The US Census Bureau has some surprising statistics.

According to their report of July 10, 2014, “The U.S. Census Bureau reported today that 74 percent of those who have a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering and math — commonly referred to as STEM — are not employed in STEM occupations.

In addition, men continue to be overrepresented in STEM, especially in computer and engineering occupations. About 86 percent of engineers and 74 percent of computer professionals are men.

‘STEM graduates have relatively low unemployment, however these graduates are not necessarily employed in STEM occupations,’ said Liana Christin Landivar, a sociologist in the Census Bureau’s Industry and Occupation Statistics Branch.

According to new statistics from the 2012 American Community Survey, engineering and computer, math and statistics majors had the largest share of graduates going into a STEM field with about half employed in a STEM occupation.

Science majors had fewer of their graduates employed in STEM. About 26 percent of physical science majors; 15 percent of biological, environmental and agricultural sciences majors; 10 percent of psychology majors; and 7 percent of social science majors were employed in STEM.

Approximately 14 percent of engineers were women, where they were most underrepresented of all the STEM fields. Representation of women was higher among mathematicians and statisticians (45 percent), life scientists (47 percent) and social scientists (63 percent). The rates of mathematicians and statisticians, and life scientists are not statistically different from each other.”

Click here, or on the image above, to see an interactive chart that explains this in detail.

Robin Williams’ Final Performance – “Boulevard”

Friday, June 19th, 2015

I have never been a Robin Williams cultist, but Boulevard seems restrained, serious, and deeply felt.

Actually, I’m quite surprised to be posting this, but Robin Williams has always been full of surprises, from his very earliest work up to the final days of his all too brief career. In the end, there seemed to be a great deal of sadness about him, in personal appearances as well as in his films – though I should make it clear that we never met – and I just got the sense that he was having a difficult time in his life.

So I was surprised to see the trailer for this small, economical film that seems much more successful, at least to me, than most of his more famous comedy work. Completed in 2014, it’s only now getting a shot at a theatrical release. As Michael Miller noted in People Magazine, “in Boulevard, the late actor plays a lonely man trapped by his monotonous life and crumbling marriage. After a chance encounter with a young hitchhiker, Williams’ character begins to climb out of his rut and turn his life around.

‘This is one of the kindest characters Williams has ever played, which makes his self-imposed turmoil – the consequence of not wanting to hurt anyone, least of all his wife – all the more tragic,’ film critic Peter Debruge wrote in Variety when the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. ‘Tapping into that same loneliness felt in One Hour Photo and Good Will Hunting, the actor projects a regret so deep and identifiable, viewers should have no trouble connecting it to whatever is missing in their own lives – whether those regrets are romantic, sexual, professional or spiritual.’”  Boulevard is directed by Dito Montiel from a script by Douglas Soesbe.

Boulevard also stars Bob Odenkirk and Kathy Baker, and is slated for a July 10, 2015 release.

An Interview with Denis Côté – Joy of Man’s Desiring

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

I have a new interview with Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté in Senses of Cinema #75.

As I wrote, in part, “Denis Côté is a young Canadian filmmaker who has burst onto the international film scene with a group of challenging and innovative movies in the past few years. Born 16 November, 1973 in New Brunswick, Canada, Côté began his career with a group of short films, and made his first feature in 2005, Drifting States (Les états Nordiques), which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Since then, Côté has worked a number of commercial and/or personal projects, most notably Curling (2010), a father/daughter family drama that was exceptionally well received by audiences and critics alike; Bestiare (2012), a ‘docufiction’ – that’s my own term – film centering on the animals who populate a tourist destination zoo in Canada; Vic+Flo Saw A Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours, 2013), a harrowing tale of two women trying to make it on the outside after a stint in prison, and how the world conspires against them to make redemption – at least in life – almost impossible. Vic+Flo Saw A Bear was probably Côté’s most successful film to date, and was screened at more than 90 festivals around the world.

Most recently, Côté completed the superb Joy of Man’s Desiring (aka Que ta joie demeure, 2014), which documents, after a fashion, daily life on the factory floor, as workers methodically partner with their machines to create the staples of daily existence. In all these projects, Côté offers his own unique take on concepts of narrative in his fiction films, and reportage in his documentaries, to create a series of films that are at once open-ended, mysterious, and subtly disturbing.

As of this writing, Joy of Man’s Desiring is only available on Vimeo, distributed by EyeSteelFilm. After seeing the film two or three times, I was so impressed with Côté’s audacious mixture of real events and lightly staged fictional sequences to create an entirely alternate reality that I contacted him, and asked if he would discuss the film with me; he agreed, and this interview was conducted on 4 April, 2015.

I’d like to talk with you about your most recent film, the fictionalized documentary Joy of Man’s Desiring, which for me is one of the most stunning explorations of daily factory life I’ve ever seen. So, my first question is if you’ve ever seen Godard’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), the only other film to my knowledge that tries to tackle the workplace in this fashion, although, in my opinion, it overloads the soundtrack with Marxist slogans and the usual Godardian intercut titles – yet the sequence on the car assembly line is really powerful. Have you seen it, and was it an influence?

I was a film critic for a decade while making short films. I have seen an enormous number of art films. When you are young, you get easily confused and overwhelmed by so many influences and desires to pay homage or copy your favorite filmmakers. But being the age I am today, having more experience and a stronger personality, I can definitely see I am not corrupted by direct influences anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché to think that filmmakers are strongly conscious about references of any sort. So, to answer your question, I am not familiar with British Sounds, but I will do my homework.

Joy of Man’s Desiring deals with blue-collar work, and with the machines that seem to dominate, and define the workplace. Indeed, the film begins with a series of trance inducing zooms in on machines that seem to rule the entire work environment. Were you introducing them as the controlling personalities?

Not being familiar with those environments, I decided to start the film with the most spectacular and fascinating point of entry: the machines and their primitive sounds. I felt the need to look at things like a four year-old would. For the first three minutes I let myself, and the viewer be amazed by the power, strength and perfection of those machines. I wanted to put the audience in a hypnotic mode right away.

As you said in another interview, you were struck by “the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment.” While it’s true enough that we all – or most of us – have to work, do you think that everyone finds “serenity, rest, [and] a sense of accomplishment”? For most people in factory jobs, it seems like a continual struggle just to keep up with the machine.

I do think we can find a personal sense of realization and/or accomplishment in any type of work. It’s really easy to think that machines are evil and kill human feelings, free will and ambition. I had those preconceptions myself before entering those environments, but you would be surprised to know how many people told me they consciously look for a repetitive job all day long. They told me those are the best jobs, because you don’t have to think all day long. Nighttime is for family matters and problems! Who am I to judge such thinking? I knew my film would not be frontally political, activist or judgmental and had to be more of a hypnotic journey.”

You can read the rest of this fascinating discussion by clicking here, or on the image above.

Ruby Dee – Actor and Activist – Dies at 91

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Here’s a superb tribute to the great Ruby Dee by Sarah Halzack of The Washington Post.

As Ms. Halzack wrote, in part, “Ruby Dee, an actress who defied segregation-era stereotypes by landing lead roles in movies and on Broadway while maintaining a second high-profile career as a civil rights advocate, including emceeing the 1963 March on Washington, died June 11 at her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She was 91. In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. Dee was known for a quietly commanding presence opposite powerful leading men, including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones.

As a young woman, she won acclaim as a chauffeur’s steadfast wife in the Broadway and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Poitier, and then earned an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as the mother of a drug kingpin played by Washington in American Gangster (2007).

In 1965, Ms. Dee became the first black actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., playing Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and Cordelia in King Lear. Moreover, critics consistently praised Ms. Dee’s ability to make the most demanding roles seem effortless. Off-Broadway in 1970, in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, she was commended for her searing portrayal of a South African woman beaten down by society and physically abused by her husband, played by Jones.

Ms. Dee’s marriage to actor and playwright Ossie Davis was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most enduring and romantic, lasting 56 years, until his death in 2005. The couple’s careers were deeply intertwined as they co-starred in films such as Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), both directed by Spike Lee; collaborated on the comedic play Purlie Victorious, which Davis wrote and in which Ms. Dee starred on Broadway in 1961; and even partnered on a memoir, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together.

When Ms. Dee and Davis received Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, it was said that they opened ‘many a door previously shut tight to African American artists and planted the seed for the flowering of America’s multicultural humanity.’ In 2008, Ms. Dee described the epitaph to Jet magazine: ‘If I leave any thought behind, it is that. We were in this thing together, so let’s love each other right now. Let’s make sense of things right now. Let’s make it count somehow right now, because we are in this thing together.’”

Ruby Dee – one of the most unforgettable actors in the history of the cinema.

Sir Christopher Lee Dies

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The great British actor Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93.

As Benjamin Lee wrote in perhaps the best of a host of tributes being offered this morning on Lee’s life and work, in The Guardian, “Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93 after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure. The veteran actor, best known for a variety of films from Dracula to The Wicker Man through to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, passed away on Sunday morning at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, according to sources. The decision to release the news days after was based on his wife’s desire to inform family members first. The couple had been married for over 50 years.

As well as his career in film, Lee also released a series of heavy metal albums, including Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. He was knighted in 2009 for services to drama and charity and was awarded the Bafta fellowship in 2011. His film career started in 1947 with a role in Gothic romance Corridor of Mirrors but it wasn’t until the late 50s, when Lee worked with Hammer, that he started gaining fame.

His first role with the studio was The Curse of Frankenstein and it was the first of 20 films that he made with Peter Cushing, who also became a close friend. ‘Hammer was an important part of my life, and generally speaking, we all had a lot of fun,’ he said in a 2001 interview.

Lee’s most famous role for Hammer was playing Dracula, a role which became one of his most widely recognized although the actor wasn’t pleased with how the character was treated. ‘They gave me nothing to do!’ he told Total Film in 2005. ‘I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose.’

In the 70s, Lee continued to gain fame in the horror genre with a role in The Wicker Man, a film which he considered to be his best. ‘Wonderful film… had a hell of a time getting it made,’ he said. ‘Its power lies in the fact that you never expect what eventually happens, because everyone is so nice.’ He went on to play a Bond villain in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun and turned down a role in Halloween, which he later said was one of biggest career regrets. In his career, he also turned down a role in Airplane!, something he also regretted.

His concern over being typecast in horror films led him to Hollywood and roles in Airport ‘77 and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. His career saw a resurgence in 2001 with a role as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then as Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He also became a regular collaborator with Tim Burton, who cast him in Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. Burton went on to award him with a Bafta fellowship.

In 2011, he returned to Hammer with a role in the Hilary Swank thriller The Resident although he generally tried to avoid the horror genre in later years. ‘There have been some absolutely ghastly films recently, physically repellent,’ he said. ‘What we did was fantasy, fairy tales – no real person can copy what we did. But they can do what Hannibal Lecter does, if they’re so inclined, people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, and for that reason, I think such films are dangerous.’

After dabbling with music throughout much of his career, including a song on The Wicker Man soundtrack, Lee released his first full-length album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010. It was well-received by the heavy metal community and won him the spirit of metal award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. His 2013 single Jingle Hell entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 22, which made him the oldest living artist to ever enter the charts.

Lee still has one film yet to be released, the fantasy film Angels in Notting Hill, where he plays a godly figure who looks after the universe. He was also set to star in 9/11 drama The 11th opposite Uma Thurman but it’s believed that the film hadn’t yet started production. In an interview in 2013, Lee spoke about his love of acting. ‘Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,’ he said. ‘I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.’”

Lee had a few thoughts about the film business and life in general, which are fairly acidic: on the film industry: “There are many vampires in the world today – you only have to think of the film business;” on fame: “In Britain, any degree of success is met with envy and resentment;” on Hammer Horror:”They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well-known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful;” on his craft: “I think acting is a mixture of instinct, imagination and inventiveness. All you can learn as an actor is basic technique.” And this final thought on acting: “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

Juan Felipe Herrera Named U.S. Poet Laureate

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Juan Felipe Herrera teaching a poetry workshop in 2010.

As Carolyn Kellogg reports in The Los Angeles Times, “on Wednesday, the Library of Congress named [Herrera] U.S. poet laureate. When he begins his tenure in September, he’ll be the first-ever Chicano poet laureate, writing and speaking in both English and Spanish. Herrera’s parents, both migrant farm workers, came to California from Mexico in the early part of the 20th century.

[Herrera] traveled up and down the state as a child and attended UCLA with the help of the Educational Opportunity Program for disadvantaged students. Although he got a master’s degree at Stanford in the 1970s in social anthropology, what he really wanted to do was write. In 1988 he went to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a master of fine arts in poetry.

Now 66, Herrera is a master of many forms: long lines, litanies, protest poems, sonnets, plays, books for children and young adults, works that combine verse and other forms. Lately he has turned his gaze outward, with 2013’s collection, Senegal Taxi, focusing on Darfur. But his career started closer to home, with poems that often casually combined Spanish and English, uniting the languages of his youth. In Blood on the Wheel, he writes:

Blood in the tin, in the coffee bean, in the maquila oración

Blood in the language, in the wise text of the market sausage

Blood in the border web, the penal colony shed, in the bilingual yard …

Typically, the U.S. poet laureate does a few official readings and beyond that is free to create his or her own programming during the year. The modest honorarium, $35,000, doesn’t go far, and some poets use the time to write, advise the library on matters of poetry and explore the collections. Others leverage the media to spread the word about poetry; Natasha Trethewey, who served as U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014, partnered with PBS NewsHour on the series Where Poetry Lives.

Herrera, who lives with his wife in Fresno, retired from UC Riverside in March, where he taught creative writing for a decade. He recently concluded his two-year term as California’s poet laureate, traveling to hidden corners of the state and showcasing young poets’ work in various media. Along the way he created a massive, multi-contributor unity poem and a number of popular live readings, catching the attention of key players in Washington.

‘I think people heard about what he was doing as California poet laureate in ways that you don’t always hear about what state poets laureate do,’ says Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. ‘That was really exciting to see. He speaks poetry in a way that I think is super-inspiring…. He’s the kind of poet who gives you permission to love poetry, to be excited about it, to be energized by it. To think that it’s something freeing and fun but also relevant to the issues we face, the challenges we have; to understanding the world we’re in.’”

An excellent and exciting choice – we will all be richer for it.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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