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Spring Commencement Address by Alfonso Gómez-Rejón Posted: 5/01/19

Spring Commencement Address by Alfonso Gómez-Rejón

 

Alfonso Gómez-Rejón
 

Thank you Dr. Arenaz, faculty and friends for having me.  Congratulations Class of 2019.  It’s a privilege to be here.

My first reaction to being asked to speak today was the same as yours:

                 Is this the best you could do?

I looked for every reason to get out of it — I don’t have the body of work worthy of such an honor —— but ultimately what

resonated was something that my friend, Rosanne Palacios, said to me:

           Come here as an artist; speak as an artist.

That gave me pause. Because only recently have I been able to identify as an artist, confidently, without feeling obliged to qualify it, and without pretension. I wondered, after decades of working in the industry, why and

how I had limited myself by my own self-definitions. To me, “Artist” is a sacred word; a title held by people much

more talented than myself. How could I put myself in the same company as a musician, or a dancer, or a poet — I just can’t.  That’s pure art.  Art that expresses itself first in the human person, in movement and rhythm — it’s greater than man himself, and the closest thing to God for me. 

Filmmaking is different — it’s expensive, chaotic, you can’t do it alone - you need hundreds of people — it attempts to unite

all of these essential arts into one steady stream. They can exist without film, but film can’t exist without them.

True art rises out of necessity.  It influences the way we think and act as individuals.  Art documents our collective memory.

And even though I’m speaking as filmmaker, art is a fluid term — you’ll find it in the hands of doctors and nurses and their

humanistic approach to medicine, entrepreneurs creating a demand for new ideas, engineers and architects telling stories in

spaces, lawyers that see things that others miss... Artists can change society. And it’s ready for a change.

I wake up to the news on my phone, listen to my podcasts, and sometimes it feels like there’s no escape from this waking nightmare — with environmental destruction, rising anti- Semitism, migrant family separations at this very border.

But looking back at history, one always finds that a period of strife is often followed by a period of peace and prosperity.

And behind that change you’ll often find a secret weapon:

an artist.

Someone that can make something tangible out of an abstraction, and express the truths that unify us.

The murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros took political messages to the streets, accessible to all, promoting

indigenous identity and reflecting a history of oppression. Presidents come and go but the cries from those murals are as

loud as ever.

John Lennon’s “Imagine” continues to be an anthem for world peace.

A film like Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” de-stigmatized AIDS. Stanley Kubrick accurately predicted our future in “2001: A

Space Odyssey.”

Andy Warhol made us rethink what we considered “high art” with his Campbell soup cans.

Picasso’s abstract “Guernica” more realistically reflects the tragedies of war than any realist painting, photograph or

documentary. 

But  a documentary like Errol Morris’s “The Thin Red Line” can lead to a wrongly-accused man’s second trial, and eventual

acquittal.  So again, my road to being able to own this title for myself has been a long one.

I guess I still have some sort of an inferiority complex. I definitely had one when I left this great city at 17.

This was 1990 and it was a very different Laredo — a much smaller Laredo.  In hindsight - I wish I hadn’t taken for

granted how lucky I was to have been raised on such a fluid border.  With Nuevo Laredo, we were truly one city arbitrarily

divided by a river.  It was an imaginary border; just a line on a map.  You didn’t know where one ended and the other began.

Your life was split in two - with your house on one side, but most of your family on the other, and friends on both. You’d

cross daily and wouldn’t think twice about it. Deciding to be a director was a bit of a foreign concept at that

time. 

I was terrified.  I had no back-up.  I was terribly insecure andimpressionable — I guess just like any other teenager (and

 exactly how I feel standing in front of you right now).

But I had found my calling and was lucky enough to have one thing going for me — not connections in the movie industry — but my parents’ trust, and their tender, loving support.

They made me aware that I had one life and it was mine, not theirs.  They let me succeed and fail on my own terms.  They

were there to love me, and they were there for me to confide in and adore — but they gave me the greatest gift:  the freedom to find my own way in the world.  The right to pursue happiness.

I realize that this is particularly hard for parents of young artists because there is no clear path to perceived success.

And success is often what we equate with money, and money with stability and happiness.

But nothing could be worse than a life full of regrets.My journey started early.

Embarrassingly, I was afraid of the dark and would stay up all night watching television — network TV and in later years, after

the Star Spangled Banner sign-offs, switch to MTV and HBO. Television and movies had become my best friends.

Then came the moment that my life changed forever — the way the internet or streaming channels may have changed yours — and for me, it was:

The VHS Revolution.

 VHS defined my youth.  Video stores — these movie libraries - suddenly started springing up like convenience stores.  It gave me access to a world of endless possibilities.  A history I’d been - geographically - cheated out of.  But now I had no excuse not to get to work and study.

While devouring all the tapes at the Video Hut on MalinchenStreet, I discovered the films of Martin Scorsese. 

I was 12, and right then, as clear as day, I decided to become a director.

For years though — throughout elementary, and embarrassingly, some of Junior High, too — I was terrified I’d have a different type of calling. I was actually terrified that I’d be called to be a priest. All the Sisters at Ursuline had shared their stories about suddenly being CALLED to serve God (and left me traumatized).

And I prayed, and I prayed, that I’d never get the Call of the Lord. I prayed that I’d never see any of those visible signs: an angel under a spotlight at the foot of my bed, telling me to pack up my VCR and my sketchbooks, and tear down that poster of Paulina Porizkova in a bathing suit (she was a big supermodel at the time). This was my nightmare — because I just wanted to draw, watch movies, and David Letterman.

Luckily that never happened...

I guess they found me unremarkable.  Not virtuous enough.  Maybe they saw my future as an obsessive, neurotic, non-committal and emotionally unavailable guy and why bother.

Or perhaps they knew that I had become obsessed with Scorsese’s film, Mean Streets. Now Mean Streets was the first time a film had spoken directly to me. And among many aspects of the film, what I found most striking was the way he’d captured Catholic iconography in a contemporary setting - it was the way that I saw it.

That film explored faith, but also DOUBT — feelings I was holding deep inside without the words or the courage to express

them. But it no longer mattered because I wasn’t alone anymore. And I didn’t need words. I had images in spaces where no word could ever penetrate. And actors that became an extension of my imagination.

I began studying all of his films — freeze-framing, rewinding — counting the cuts in the boxing sequences in Raging Bull, or the cuts when Linda Fiorentino tosses an apartment key out of a window at Griffin Dunne in After Hours.

I began reading about film history — the little that was available at the time - and watching all the titles that I could

find at the Video Hut. So many of them never reached us here in Laredo.  We had one and half theaters back then:  the 4-plex at the mall playing more commercial fare, and the Plaza downtown where usually one of those films went to die.

When I was old enough to drive, I’d get my fix at the Crossroads in San Antonio or at the Cine 6 in Corpus — two art houses within reach that played a central part in my growth as a filmmaker.  It was where I discovered films from Spike Lee to

Louise Malle — such varied voices and styles, all eventually forming part of my own DNA.

After reading an article about Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, in Premiere Magazine about their brilliant short film, Life Lessons, from the film, New York Stories, I drove to San Antonio to watch — then re-watch — the film — if just for the scene when Rosanna Arquette as “Paulette" shouts at Nick Nolte as the artist “Lionel Dobie” — who ignores her, focused on his painting.

But as the scene unfolds, Paulette softens; she holds still, staring at him. In the article, Schoonmaker and Scorsese explained this fragile scene — how their delicate editing pattern had to avoid suggesting that she was falling in love with Lionel — it was about her admiration; falling in love with his work. A frame slid in this direction or that would have upset this balance and tell a different story — but they found the truth. 

My mind was blown.  The power of a single frame.  A 24th of a second. 

So I continued studying their work.  And their films took mefurther and further back to film history.  But the fact that I knew so little about film at that pre-internet age, didn’t frighten me — on the contrary, it made me hungry for more.  I made it my mission to work with them.  I applied to one school Early Admission and I got in:  New York University, because

Scorsese had graduated from there. 

I remember when I first landed in New York. I looked around my classroom — all these kids were so loud and confident. They had facial hair.  They wore sport coats with their sleeves rolled up while I still dressed like a 12-year-old from St. Augustine.

And they were all so tall — but I had one thing going for me... which I didn’t know yet... but when it came to making films:

                        Theirs.  Sucked.

 Mine didn’t.  Who knew? I was suddenly being noticed.  Looked at differently.  It gave me a little confidence.  A bounce in my step. I might have been a shy and antisocial Freshman, but I was secretly incredibly driven. 

Now I didn’t know this about myself.  I never had to compete with anyone else as a filmmaker — but being thrown into the shark tank that was NYU gave me the chance to discover a layer about myself. 

I’m not sure where that drive came from, but I had found a furnace inside of me.

And then... I made a bad film, a horrible film, and I was ignored all over again. Public. Failure. Get used to it. I wanted to die.  I wanted to hide.  I did the whole fetalposition/what-am-I-doing-with-my-life routine — and then did the only thing I could do:

                       make another film.

And prove myself again.  To them?  Or to me? That part wasn’t clear just yet.

 Within a few years, years of paying my dues doing grunt work on student films, independent films, delivering furniture,

storyboarding, working as a translator — all throughout college— I eventually heard a rumor about a job opening, fixated on it, got it, and soon found myself interning for my mythical heroes: Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. 

They were all of a sudden... human. Some say we should never meet our heroes because we’ll only be disappointed.  But meeting them was the exception to the rule. They continued to be giants. 

Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s unique, cinematic language became my lifeblood. 

A mentorship became a friendship.  I would stay late after work to watch laserdiscs or VHS tapes of all the classics — playing

catch-up on everything I had missed out on — it was a constant process of discovery and humility.  “Study the classics and

learn from them” was their mandate. With time, experience and observation, I learned that the pain one goes through as an artist affects us all. But it’s harder when you’re looking to the outside for answers or approval.

Even if it is in our nature to crave acceptance, maybe even glory, some might argue, immortality — there is only one way to

go as an artist and that’s to

                        go into yourself.

Don’t expect answers to questions that in your quietest moments, only your instincts will be able to answer.

Do your best, take on projects you are passionate about, and when you fail, you’ll know why it was worth fighting for.

It's our relationship to all these great unknown forces — how deeply we experience and feel them — and our ability to dust

ourselves off, make something new, and put ourselves out there again — that will define us, and develop and polish our voices.

A few years ago, after the success of my second film, I was able to finally make my dream project. It was a labor of love called “Citizen” that I’d been working on for years — and even though it had started as a feature, it was now the first of a ten episode-series that I would write, produce and direct. It was the biggest, most expensive pilot of the year and was going to launch Hulu (alongside Handmaid’s Tale).

It was an origin story about a Latino Superhero set in East LA. Half Dark Knight, half Pink Floyd’s The Wall. A mixed-media experiment that incorporated street art, music and animation.

It was a huge, original creative success.  I had an all-Latin cast from all parts of South and Central America, Mexico, Puerto

Rico and Spain.  And it starred one of my heroes, Tom Waits, playing a priest, giving his sermons in Spanish. I mean this thing was nuts.  Loud.  And very, very cool.  I had realized exactly what was in my head. We were all riding high.  But then there was an unexpected executive shuffle at Hulu and the new CEO looked at it and pulled the plug at the very last minute.

It was too expensive for an unknown cast.  Tom Waits?  Half of it in Spanish?  Forget it.  It was over. And I was shattered. 

CUT TO:  the fetal position/what am I doing with my life routine— It always hurts.  It’s supposed to.  We care too much, and

feel intensely.  And it’s always personal because what we makeis a part of us.  

Then Tom Waits sent me an email which got me through this dark time.  He wrote:

                    so much that is out there

        is folks making bullets that just fit the chamber

              you have made a motorcycle with wings

            and a tail that runs on chicken and candy

             — that did not come out right Alfonso...

         what I am saying is that something so original

                      and so full of heart

           will find a home that has the same features

             one door closes and another door opens

                  you are great at what you do

             and the right door is looking for you...

 I don’t necessarily agree that I’m great at what I do. But I do agree with almost everything else. You just have to keep pushing forward, even if at times we feel trapped in a revolving door.  Eventually, one does open.

There’s simply no easy path.

This journey we’ve chosen, or the journey that has chosen us, sometimes - to butcher Dickens (Great Expectations) - “bends and breaks us, but hopefully into a better shape.” Telling stories is my obsession.  You have yours.

It’s where I try and assert my individuality.  How I get through life; how I talk about life. 

And there’s a beauty in this sometimes painful journey.

But it’s my life — it’s your life - and life is an art piece.

And it’s our job to have the courage to keep searching and telling the truth even when you’re beaten down, or gossiped

about, even when hypocrisy and ignorance hovers around you — let it come, let it be, let it go — you have to continue taking a stand.

I hope we all have this same desperation to create until the very end.  And when we’re gone, we’ll have movies, and music,

and dance, and poetry, or bridges and buildings for people to remember us by. Or not.

We may touch someone’s life today, that might spark an idea a generation or two from now — and then a new idea will be born that might change the world — and even though we’ll be long forgotten by then, it’s because we had the courage to make something, to put something out into the world, that eventually made it a better place.

Most of us weren’t born White; some of you weren’t born White and male — which may have given us a leg up in the world.

But we’re lucky:  many of us are from the border, or have made the border our home — and we have our own unique identity.

We see the world uniquely. 

The world is in need of our diverse voices... the most powerful stories are the most personal ones — they’re the ones that

change hearts and minds. There is only one of you. And it’s important to keep asserting yourself through your work — your rebelliousness, irreverence... your honesty and humor...

To all the parents out there, I urge you to trust your sons and daughters, trust that they’ll come to their own self- realizations, pursue happiness on their own terms, travel and see the world and connect to others (age, sex, race, creed) — carrying the values and the work ethic you’ve instilled in them.

Being an artist isn’t measured by time.  There is no logical road that leads a poet to be published, or an actor to star in a film, or a dancer to lead a ballet.  Artists need time to grow, like trees. They need nurturing, and patience. Their job is to give shape to our communal feelings. They are necessary. It’s a noble profession. They created the music you listened to on your drive here. They designed the seats you’re sitting in now. And the clothes you’re wearing.

 And to those who didn’t have the parental support I was lucky to have; to the young men and women in the room that maybe had to be their own parents:  I beg you — don’t let anyone or anything strip you of hope.  See yourself for what you are, and be proud of it.

Be resilient — have faith in your capacity to endure. The journey never ceases to be difficult — just keep focused on the true, the real. So the question for all of the artists out there:  would you die if you were denied the right to express yourself? Is there something inside of you that is trying to get out — to come into words and images, in movement or song?

Dig down into the deepest region of your heart and if your answer is still yes, then construct your life unapologetically.

Depict your sadness, your loves and desires — realize images from your dreams and memories intensely but with humility, and don’t put too much importance on yesterday’s victories.

Go into yourself; your life will find its own, unique path. Be scared, grow, never be satisfied — you’re going to fail, so

fail hard and on your terms.  Whether you’re an artist or not - whatever your passion is,

         make motorcycles that run on chicken and candy.

Be conscious of what it is you’re leaving behind in the world.

But leave a mark that will make it a better place. 

I worked hard to seek out and nurture relationships with masters who eventually became mentors — filmmakers that I had idolized — for whatever reason — saw something in me, treated me as an equal and gave me a seat at the table.

And now part of my goal in life is to do my part to ensure that those who grew up with less than others — especially young

people of color — also have the opportunity to succeed. Had someone simply judged me based on my background, I don’t

think they would have predicted the trajectory my life has taken.  I, humbly, know that I may be looked at as an example of

what can happen when people take the time to get to know you and support you. 

Our world may not be a very happy place today, but you can’t build a wall in the sky, and you can’t stop anyone from

dreaming.

 And looking out at all of you right now — I’m confident that things will soon turn, because you’re what tomorrow looks like.

Please nurture, protect and defend your fellow artists - your fellow misfits, outcasts, iconoclasts — be happy for their

successes, and help each other do your best work.

Thank you Class of 2019 for letting me be a part of this celebration. Best of luck on all that lies ahead:  your beautiful

experiences, disappointments, and joys. You are in your future.

Be in it.

AGR

Alfonso Gómez-Rejón
Alfonso Gómez-Rejón, acclaimed film director and TV producer.

 

 

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