Film: Robert Redford in Westchester

Janet Langsam and Robert Redford at JBFC. Photo by Ed Cody

Robert Redford describes himself as having been a shy, awkward, angry young man, not much different than many of the young men in our own neighborhoods.  So, I wondered:  “How did he become the quintessential artistic force in America from such humble beginnings?”  Drawing was his salvation, he told an audience of 200 at the Jacob Burns Film Center last Sunday.  Yes, drawing, with pen, pencil, charcoal or anything he could find.  “Drawing kept me out of trouble,” he said.  Although, it sometimes got him into trouble. One day, he was surreptitiously drawing at his classroom desk, when the teacher called him on it.  “Let’s see what is so important to Bobby Redford that he isn’t listening in class,” the teacher reportedly said.  “There I was, caught red-handed and embarrassed to have to show the class my drawing of cowboys and Indians being attacked by B-51 bombers overhead.”  That was toward the end of World War II, when Redford recalls going to the movies for 35 cents near his home in West Los Angeles.  For him, it was all about stories. “You could see stories about lives that were larger than the one you were living.”  He mused out loud about the Pathe News documentaries, the Bugs Bunnies animations, Danny Kaye, the Three Stooges, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,”  and mega musical productions.

“Acting was what I was meant to do,” he says, yet, in the same breath, he calls himself “an artist.”  And, indeed, he is, having studied art in Europe and at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before his stint at New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts.  “Art is a personal journey.  You get inside a story and move out from it.” As a Director, he likes to visually sketch his ideas on story boards, so it seems the artist in him still prevails.  He talked about his seminal films, the ones he had to do battle to make like “Jeremiah Jones,” a story of adventure, survival and “what it means to be alone with no codes to live by,” and also about his new film “The Conspirator,” the  story of a mother accused of aiding her son in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  He talked about Sundance, a place he created where “young emerging artists can show their work, perhaps stumble yet not feel like a failure.”  Finally, he talked about the power of the arts, and here’s where I’ll paraphrase Redford: Some see the arts as a trivial pursuit; others think it’s dangerous, like a drive-by shooting; many think it’s too costly.  Redford sees this as narrow-mindedness. He said, as if to the powers that be: “Give art a chance and you’ll see a difference in the streets.”

Now, I have heard Redford speak before, most recently in Washington at a conference for the Americans for the Arts. He is always inspiring.  What was so awesome this time ’round was that it was a lazy Sunday afternoon ten minutes down the street at the Burns in Pleasantville.  Filmmaker Jonathan Demme was on hand to schmooze with Redford, as was Steve Apkon, founder and director of the Burns. Do we all know how lucky we are to live in Westchester where the arts flourish thanks to all those who believe it is important?

The Jacob Burns Film Center is open Mon-Thu 4pm-9:30pm; Fri 4pm-10:30pm; Sat 11am-10:30pm; Sun 11am-9:30pm