JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Northern Lights

An e-mail from an old friend, the filmmaker John Hanson, came out of the blue Wednesday, the day before the newspapers all said we were going to have a northern lights display tonight. The front page headline in the Bismarck Tribune on Wednesday blared “Solar storm to create Northern Lights.”

Whoa. Not so fast. The correction at the bottom of page 4 this morning said The Associated Press “erroneously reported the extent to which northern lights could be viewed in the U.S. on Thursday. A faint red glow might be visible …”

From what I can find, the Forum Communication’s newspapers across the state did not succumb to the same hype for tonight’s projected display, but Fargo meteorologist John Wheeler, the dean of weather forecasters in North Dakota, noticed the stories in most all of the news and social media Wednesday and ran this tidbit this morning:

“Unfortunately, the news entity putting out the story (on the northern lights display) skimmed over the more doubtful and uncertain facts and led boldly with the less likely but more extraordinary possibilities. Other news outlets copied the story, attributing the first news outlet, and the story became a bad case of media hype. This is not fake news, which is deliberately misleading, but just poor reporting. The reality is, northern lights are hard to forecast more than a few hours in advance.”

Ouch. Take that, Associated Press.

Oh, I might just take a drive in the country before bedtime tonight anyway, just so see for myself who was right, even a little bit. I’ll report.

But back to John Hanson.

My older friends will remember John as the director of the movie “Northern Lights” back in the 1970s, a film about the beginning of the Nonpartisan League In North Dakota, a film that won big awards at the Cannes Film Festival, was shown nationwide and attracted a cult following. John’s e-mail started:

“Hi, Jim,

“Today is the 45th anniversary of the world premiere of “NORTHERN LIGHTS” at the Dakota Theater in Crosby, ND back on July 12, 1978!”

This morning I wrote back:

“Hi, John,

“Hah! Good timing. They say we’re going to see some Northern Lights tonight.”

John’s been gone from North Dakota for a lot of years now, moving first to Bayfield, Wis., and finally settling in a little seaside village in New Hampshire. We’ve been talking via e-mail for a few months, as Lillian and I plan to stop and see him this fall when we visit the New England states. It’s been a lot of years since his mother died here in Bismarck and he stopped to visit after the funeral. He hasn’t been here in a good long while. The first number in his age is 8 now, but he sounds like he’s in good health and I can’t wait to visit again this fall.

But back to tonight’s northern lights forecast.

Even National Public Radio got sucked into Wednesday’s hype and then ran this correction this morning:

“An updated forecast for this week’s northern lights display shows they won’t be as visible in the mainland U.S. as previously thought.

“A previous forecast by the University of Alaska Fairbanks said the aurora would be visible in more than a dozen states.

“The university now says the previous forecast derived from a long-term forecast based on the sun’s rotation that went back 54 days. The features it observed on the sun typically last one to three months, which led to its initial report, Rod Boyce, a spokesperson for UAF’s Geophysical Institute, said Wednesday.”

OK, so maybe Alaska. That’s pretty “northern.” But maybe not North Dakota.

But back to John Hanson.

I don’t think he’d mind me sharing some of his e-mail with you. He’s got a lot of friends here, many of whom read my blog. He wrote:

“Hard to believe it was that long ago, but here we still are able to celebrate it these many years later. I’m filled with memories of that incredible day — and night, when we celebrated with cast, crew, friends, my family and townspeople far into the wee hours. Lead actor Bob Behling (Ray) howled at the moon just as he had in the film. Some moonshine might have been involved…

“The film played at the Dakota Theater for several weeks and broke all box office records. We got 50% of the proceeds and I have a photo of Rob, Sandra and I with the theater owners as they handed us a substantial check. It went on to bookings in other theaters in small N.D. towns, then on to Bismarck, Fargo and Minneapolis as each success built on the last.

“Then the miracle at Cannes and acceptance by international and U.S. film critics, which enabled booking in over 200 theaters nationwide and screenings and prizes at other international film festivals. You may have seen it again later on the national broadcast of American Playhouse series on PBS, where it won the Neil Simon Award for best dramatic screenplay. I have a photo of Simon, Lindsay Law (head of American Playhouse,) Rob and myself on the stage in LA when the award was presented. My God, we look young!

“Good memories, but not the last chapter for ‘Northern Light.’ It soon will have new life in distribution on DVD, VOD and streaming via Kino Lorber, a high-quality U.S. distributor of American Indies and international films, which is also distributing ‘Prairie Trilogy.’

“As you can guess, I’m enjoying today!”

But most fascinating was a link John sent with the e-mail. A young film buff from Los Angeles, Conor Holt, had done a ZOOM interview with John and his “Northern Lights” co-director Rob Nilsson a few months ago for his own blog, and Conor published the transcript, with photos from the film, on his website Wednesday, to celebrate the anniversary of the premiere. In it, John and Rob talk about how the film actually got made, giving due credit to another old friend of mine, Everett Albers, who was executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council at the time, and provided much of the financing for the film. It’s a really good interview. You can read it here. It takes a slow reader like me about ten minutes.

Well, after reading that, I got more and more interested in the history of this project, so I asked Mr. Google for more. He gave me this great little video, produced by our own Prairie Public television station. It begins, “In 1978, John Hanson set out to make a low budget movie about the beginning of North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League.” It’s about a seven-minute video, and you can watch it here.

OK, so now I’ve given you a couple of assignments that will take about 17 minutes to complete. When you’re done, you can get in the car and go chasing the northern lights. If you’re looking for me, I’ll probably be up at Double Ditch later on. Just in case …

Oh, by the way, Ev Albers helped John and Rob find financing for another film venture, “Prairie Trilogy,” a series of short documentaries focusing on the Nonpartisan League and featuring 97-year-old Henry Martinson, also one of the stars of “Northern Lights.” And you can buy this one on Amazon, on Prime Video (whatever that is — Lillian will know) or DVD (I know what that is, but I don’t know if we have a player any more — Lillian will know).

NOTE: An earlier version of this story about “Northern Lights” contained a reference to being able to watch the movie online. Turns out that is a pirated version, missing much of the valuable footage from the original movie. So I removed that part of the story. But John Hanson says soon you’ll be able to buy an authentic version of the movie. I’ll let you know when that happens. Sorry, John.

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