Thursday, December 22, 2011

Two Dragons

Two Dragons

Two questions have haunted David Fincher’s much-anticipated American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: will it be worth the wait? and is there really a reason to make it in the first place? Well, now that it is here, it’s safe to say that the answer to the first is that it most definitely was worth the wait: it is a relentlessly dark movie about relentlessly dark people with mysterious and dark histories. And it is brilliant. As to the second question, which begs the notion of whether Fincher could add anything new to the visualization that the 2009 Swedish version did not (other than a far greater budget), I was willing to bet that America’s greatest stylist could manage to make it his own in some sort of way. And I think I’d win that bet also.

Fincher’s take on the first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy turns out to be less Se7en and more Zodiac, not so much the thriller as the pulsating, slowing unwinding, inexorable mystery, which is exactly what Larsson’s book, with its vast complexities of financial malfeasance, familial discord, and cryptic clues, is in the first place. The director begins, as the book and the Swedish film both do, by presenting the acute reason for trying to unravel a cold case now 40 years old, the arrival of a birthday gift. What follows this brief moment is a title sequence, over Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song,” that is surreal and haunting and rather frightening as it sets up some of the uglier backstory in enigmatic, Rorschach images. Once free of this nightmare, though, Fincher moves somewhat more conventionally.

Using a palette of white and gray and light gray and dark gray and several other shades of gray, (to which he generously adds some sepia when he moves indoors) Fincher shows us a part of Sweden trapped in a never-ending frozen state that one character not too inaccurately calls “the North Pole.” Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish film, opted for a less restrictive palette, even allowing (gasp) sunshine to penetrate his Hedeby Island. Not so Fincher, whose island is in a snowstorm when Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) arrives at the behest of the patriarch of the powerful Vanger family, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to try to solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance forty years ago and it never seems to stop. The one notable exception to the dull color scheme is the bright, modern sharpness of the home of the Martin Vanger, the missing girl's brother, and Fincher has his own ironic reasons for that choice. The otherwise ubiquitous dull gray is reflected in the life that the Vangers are living, shut up on what might once have been their island retreat but now has become more of a prison: practically none of them likes any of the others and no one speaks to anyone else, the perfect self-punishment for what Henrik calls “the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet.” It also reflects the painstaking search for the answers here. They do not swoop in conveniently: they are pieced together slowly from old photographs and opaque diary entries and decades-old hotel receipts. This is real investigative journalism, even if it is aided by a tech whiz with access to anything she wants.

Plummer does what he can with an undemanding role, and Stellan Skarsgård shines as one of the members of the Vanger clan, but Craig’s performance is revelatory. In every film he is in we see his strength as well as his vulnerability, and both are at play here. Blomkvist comes to Hedeby on the heels of a trumped-up libel conviction, and in Craig’s face and eyes can be read his character’s ambivalence about whether he even goes on writing. While Michael Nyqvist portrays this character well in the Swedish film, his performance remains oddly distant from the viewer: we do not get a chance to live inside of Blomkvist’s mind as we watch him go through his difficulties (which include attempts on his life). The result is something that we can believe and appreciate and even enjoy, but that does not seem complete. Craig’s far more emotional, more vulnerable performance gives us that intimacy. When he has been shot, the audience can feel the pain of the wound. When he realizes—too late—that he has made a terrible mistake, it only takes a glance at a knife to show us the horror he is feeling.

The biggest question going into this film, of course, was whether Rooney Mara’s performance as emotionally damaged hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander could be anywhere near as strong and memorable as the already-iconic one created by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version. The answer, with no offense to Rapace, is absolutely yes, but it is complicated. The two actresses and their directors create the character in very different ways. Rapace, who allows more of the natural feminine of her face to remain visible and unshadowed, for all of her smallness and thinness stays distinctly female throughout the film. Even in the most horrific scene (in both films), the rape and revenge sequence with her “guardian,” she manages a small feminine smile as she finishes her revenge telling him not to move or what she is doing to him “won’t look nice.” Her vulnerability comes from being a young woman in a man’s world, a woman who has been hurt many, many times by many, many men. When she gives herself to Blomkvist in one scene, it is a brief, entirely sexual encounter, over the second it is complete.

In contrast, Mara hides more of her face in shadow through the angles in which she turns her body, behind her forbidding piercings, and (most notably) behind an ever-morphing head of hair that either pulls attention away or covers part of it intentionally, leaving herself more unknown, more of a mystery. She is a riddle: her clothing gives nothing at all away of gender; her lifestyle gives nothing away of the genius she possesses. The only part of Mara’s Lisbeth that lives on the surface is her anger. It is always right there, waiting to explode. Mara’s Lisbeth is a wild animal keeping herself in line by sheer strength of will. She has developed a tremendous capacity for compartmentalization; otherwise she would certainly be institutionalized. It is never clearer than in the revenge scene. Rapace’s Lisbeth cannot wait to zap her assailant with a stun gun; Mara’s has a plan and will carry it out as dispassionately as possible…until she gets him trussed and vulnerable, the way he had her. The she can let the animal loose. And no sweet tones in her voice when she tells him not to move or it won’t look good. She practically hisses it.

Nonetheless, within a few scenes, she’s in bed with a woman. And within not too many more scenes, she’s in bed with Blomkvist. Compartmentalizing. It has become as natural to her as her photographic memory or her hacking skills. It helps her survive. It can be argued that Rapace shows this capacity too, but not to this extent. And that is one of the defining distinctions between the characterizations.  Another is the sheer urgency of Mara’s characterization, as well as her clear vulnerability, which comes out in many places during the film. Mara’s Lisbeth is vulnerable for a different reason than Rapace’s though: she has methodically destroyed the feminine within her unless she wants it there, so now she is vulnerable because she is the unwanted. What she has made herself into is exactly what society does not want. Both actresses are small and thin, though each shows herself capable of putting up a good fight, and it seems clear after watching both of them that whichever had come first would have been seen as the archetype for the character.

I’ve read reviews online that find fault with Fincher for his use of the book’s final chapters (which bring to a conclusion the convoluted and fairly arcane financial matters that got Blomkvist into trouble at the book’s start), which Oplev’s version merely glossed over. But, although it does seem a bit of an anticlimax, I won’t fault him for this. I’d rather fault Oplev for cutting the entire relationship between Blomkvist and his partner at Millennium magazine, Erika Berger (Robin Wright), an error that caused no end of havoc in the subsequent films of the series. I might question a pretty significant alteration to the ending that readers of the book with notice right away and wonder why Fincher felt it necessary. (Oplev managed it.)  But the bottom line is that this big budget American version of the Swedish popular novel is well worth seeing, whether or not you’ve seen the Swedish version. Here's hoping audiences reward Fincher's effort so that we can see what he does with the considerably less confining storyline of the second novel.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Thoughts in the Wake

In Norway, a bomber and gunman blows up a government building and then travels to a youth camp and systematically executes dozens of teenagers, apparently because they were youth activists in a political party he did not agree with.

In England, a talented, internationally famous but long-troubled 27-year-old singer is found dead in her home for reasons not immediately clear.

Good morning, world. Welcome to Saturday.

As I sifted through the news reports from Oslo last night, I first felt something akin to deja vu--this seemed familiar, as if I had been transported back to 1995 and the city were Oklahoma City and not Oslo at all--but when the youth camp reports started coming in...first seven deaths confirmed, then ten, then perhaps 17, then "as many as 30," then, suddenly and horrifically, 80 or more... How does one react to that kind of concentrated carnage, that kind of evil from the mind of a single man?

I have been in touch with a blogger from Norway who tells me that this man is a part of an extreme right wing movement in her country that distrusts the government, that believes it is involved in a great conspiracy with Muslims. And again my spidey sense tingles: where ave I heard that before? What will it take before the people of the world, including the people of the US, wake up to the fact that, despite all the Bin Ladens anywhere, their biggest enemies most often lie within their borders? The radical extremists with agendas who cannot be reasoned with who hate their governments passionately and without attention to reality: these are the people to fear.

And 80 kids lie dead on an island in the most peaceful country in the world, kids who were trying in their own ways to make a difference. The singer, her life also ended far too early, is a sad morality tale of a life that could have been so much more. But on this day that tale will have to wait for its telling. Those kids on that island are telling a tale far more demanding and far more critical. And if we don't listen, I'm afraid it will be a tale we will hear again and again.
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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Mischief Managed (review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two)

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) 
From the very beginning of the seven-book, eight-movie series, so many years ago that most of its fans have never known a world in which it did not exist, there was one single inevitable conclusion it could have: Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, the Boy Who Lived and He Who Must Not Be Named, must ultimately meet face to face and settle things once and for all.  As Harry tells his friends, Hermione and Ron, "I think I've known it all along, and I think you have too."

This final chapter of the most successful film franchise in history opened to a predictable record midnight box office, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two will not be remembered for whether it made as much money as it certainly will. Let's face it: this film could have been a complete dud and still broken into the all-time Top 10. No, the only way to judge this film is against the expectations that its fans have had all along. The fans are legion of JK Rowling's incredible journey of a young boy growing up in new, unusual and often frightening circumstances and faced with a legacy not of his own creation upon which, he discovers, everyone in this new world depends, and these fans ultimately will determine the final film's success, whatever its box office says.

As a fan both of the books and the films, which are most definitely two different worlds with plotlines that vary in key aspects, I entered the theatre (IMAX 3D) wanting to see the Ultimate Harry Potter Experience. I had been entertained by each of the films that had come before, but none of them, I had to admit, completely satisfied. The films, by their nature having to leave out many important subplots, often ended up feeling slightly forced to me, though I could admire their technical wizardry and both the visually magic world and the amazingly perfect casting for which much-maligned initial director Chris Columbus should receive a percentage of every one of these films. Still, when I read that Rowling's final book was going to be split into two films, my first thought was that, yes, they would finally have the time in the movie to get it right. And through the slow, easeful sequences of Deathly Hallows Part One, when so little was happening and so much tension was building, I believed that director David Yates was going to do it. I even forgave him the absurdity of burning down the Weasleys' house at the end of Part Six only to have it completely restored with no explanation at the start of Part Seven because he was getting it right.

And the lights came down and the IMAX screen lit up, and the last episode of the ten-year saga played before me, its brilliant staging and powerful moments made more so by the huge screen (though I must say that the 3D did little to enhance anything at all). The incredible set pieces we have all heard about--the vault at Gringotts, the various pieces of the Battle of Hogwarts, etc., are some of the finest of the series. Tiny moments, like a captive dragon enjoying its first free moment in, perhaps, eons, or a giddy Professor McGonnegal (Maggie Smith) exclaiming as she prepares for a horrific battle that "I've always wanted to use that spell!" or Ron and Hermione (finally!) falling into each other's arms and kissing stand out amid the nearly nonstop action here, and the characters we have grown to know and love through the years all make at least brief appearances, even though this film, like its predecessor, concentrates almost entirely on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and their nemesis, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). A few other characters who have been with us all along, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and especially Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), have their chances to shine here as well, but this one is truly the Harry and the Big Bad show.

To that end, the intensity, the pyrotechnics, the horror, the deaths, and the personal struggle are all ratcheted up to eleven. As Harry and the gang seek out more horcruxes to destroy, Voldemort grows mentally and physically weaker (though his magic is still powerful), more and more paranoid and--if it is possible--more evil. Fiennes is brilliant in his portrayal of a megalomaniac coming apart at the seams. His perfect wand is not working; his dream of immortality is slipping away; his entire world view is breaking down, and all because of one teenaged boy who simply refuses to die. In one telling moment, almost a throwaway, he tosses a killing curse at one of his own men for no reason at all; his mind is so twisted and torn that almost anything can set him off. And when he discovers that he needs to kill one of his most trusted people--for complicated reasons involving making that wand work for him--it doesn't occur to him that, hey, maybe his trusted friend deserves a gentle death. Instead he kills him viciously, with gratuitous (and thankfully offscreen) violence, ultimately leaving him barely alive for Harry to find in what then becomes a major turning point for the story.

As for Harry, Radcliffe has grown tremendously as an actor over the years. It was not long ago that he would have been simply incapable of conjuring the depth that his character needs in this final chapter, in which he discovers a terrible truth about his fate and then must face it alone, in which he must deal with the deaths of several good friends who were fighting because of him, and in which, ultimately, he must become a man (and not just in the five-minute long epilogue that takes place nineteen years later). Three films after he pretty much whined his way through the teen-angst filled Order of the Phoenix, Radcliffe here shows that he has come a long way. Harry is given fewer lines in this film, but he doesn't need them: Radcliffe finds ways to portray many levels of emotion in silence. As he walks through the destroyed halls of Hogwarts amid its rubble and the wounded and dead bodies of friends and colleagues, Yates allows him all the time he needs to take it in and to fight his own horror at what this war has wrought. It is an unexpected and powerful performance.

Most powerful of all, though, is the performance of Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Throughout the series, Rickman and his character have been the glue that have held everything together. From the children's movie beginnings under Chris Columbus through to the darker middle films and the final very dark films, his Snape has been one of the constants, that scowl and sneer and odd habit of pausing in unexpected places during lines lending darkness and mystery to a character who has, from the start, been cloaked in mystery. In this film we learn a lot more about Snape, and Rickman is allowed finally to expand his range to wonderful effect. By the film's end, he has given us a far deeper glimpse of what makes his potions professor who he is than we could ever have imagined, and if we look back to earlier films we begin to see more and more the layers that had to be constructed to get us here.

In all, this final installment of the Harry Potter series is a winning and most entertaining one, but it is not entirely successful. Just as with every other Potter film, I find myself in the end wishing there had been more of the book left in. But this time I am less willing to be forgiving; this time, with the book split in half the the running time of this second part a scant 130 minutes--the shortest of the series--it seems clear that Yates could have made other choices. Sacrificed elements could have been left in, and these might have added so much more depth and pacing variety to what truly is a nearly nonstop action thrill ride.

Examples pop up right away. In the Lastrange vault at Gringotts, the goblin Griphook betrays Harry, as he does in the book. But why? In the book, we understand this fully. In the film...we don't have the foggiest idea. In fact, the only thing Griphook has said to Harry has been highly complimentary, as he noted Harry's unusually soft feelings for both goblins and elves. Thus his completely unmotivated betrayal is at best confusing, at worst downright bizarre. The entire plot that involved Dumbledore's past has been excised, and very oddly: we are introduced to the competing versions of the legacy at the wedding in 7.1, the Hallows themselves are utterly intertwined within that legacy, yet in 7.2 it is simply not mentioned other than a brief nod at Aberforth's place to the fact that he and Albus had a sister. Without that backstory the character of Dumbledore remains flat as the god-like mentor and we never understand some of the most bizarre things that he does. We certainly cannot understand what is revealed in 7.2 in a flashback, for it is so extremely out of character. The time was there to show this to us--Harry Potter fans surely would not have cared even if the final film had been four hours long--but for some reason Yates did not.

In addition, many scenes are relocated for the film. This is very effective in moving the death of one character to a previously unused boathouse location that affords some powerful lighting and settings. Far less effective, though, is the removal of the final battle between Harry and Voldemort from the Great Hall to the grounds of Hogwarts. In the Great Hall, circling each other before everyone, with Harry's words searing into him, this scene was majestic; it also brought the books full circle, as everything began in the Great Hall as well. In 7.2, the battle runs, flies, and smashes all over Hogwarts, ending up outside on the grounds. It is visually exciting in a CGI sort of way, but it lacks the compelling character issues that Rowling's original design crafted into it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two is an exciting and wonderful film, and it certainly serves as a fine ending to the saga that has held the interest of so many for so long. Yet something within me feels that it could and perhaps should have been so much more than what it is. It is a strong and entertaining piece of filmmaking. It should have been a film for the ages. None of this detracts from my enjoyment of the movie or my desire to see it again (in 2D this time, I suspect: truly the 3D is pretty much worthless), but what I'd really love to see is the film this might have been.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

truths twisted about teaching

I worry about the future of education in this country.  
Day after day I read news reports about state governments passing laws against teachers' unions and about the desperate need to reform our schools and get rid of the deadbeat teachers who are apparently the root cause of all of the problems of our society.  I read stories about the unbelievably lavish salaries and pensions that these public servants take for themselves from the public trough while fighting against legal changes that would make it easier to get rid of even the weakest among them.  I read about their selfish desire to protect their jobs instead of focus on our children.  And I read how our children continue to fall behind China, India, Japan, South Korea and other countries in test scores, all because teachers' unions have made education such a cushy little gig with lifetime job security, incredible salaries, and so many other perks that teachers just don't seem to have motivation to do a great job teaching anymore.
I read these things and I wonder (as a teacher who knows the truth) just how many of our best and brightest minds, seeing all of this, could possibly desire to enter this profession in the 21st Century?  Where will our next generation of great teachers come from?  It's been difficult enough to recruit teachers with the (negative) salary disparity that (actually) exists between this and any other profession, but add on the societal blame game that the GOP is fomenting and I am not sure that I would have entered the profession despite my strong calling to it.
A teacher in Topeka, KA, recently published a column in the Topeka Examiner in which he wondered,
In what other profession are the licensed professionals considered the LEAST knowledgeable about the job? You seldom if ever hear “that guy couldn’t possibly know a thing about law enforcement – he’s a police officer”, or “she can’t be trusted talking about fire safety – she’s a firefighter.”
In what other profession is experience viewed as a liability rather than an asset? You won’t find a contractor advertising “choose me – I’ve never done this before”, and your doctor won’t recommend a surgeon on the basis of her “having very little experience with the procedure”.
In what other profession is the desire for competitive salary viewed as proof of callous indifference towards the job? You won’t hear many say “that lawyer charges a lot of money, she obviously doesn’t care about her clients”, or “that coach earns millions – clearly he doesn’t care about the team.”

A facebook friend of mine, in response to my posting this article, suggested perhaps a minister might be another example of such a profession.  But I've been involved in many behind the scenes discussions in our church council about our minister and his inadequacies, some involving a faction of the church who want to see him gone, and still I have never once heard anyone claim that he does not know what he is doing.  
Whether you are speaking of the professions that require apprenticeships and technical training before certification and licensing or those that require considerable education before even stepping into the field, members of every other profession are accorded by the public the courtesy of the simple acknowledgement that, by virtue of their profession, they know more about their fields than lay people do. Not so for teachers.  I assume that a professional hockey player knows more about the game than I do as a fan. I assume that a film director knows more about his profession than I do, though I teach film. I assume that a plumber knows more about plumbing than I do, and I'd better be correct because I know next to nothing. I assume that a doctor knows more about medicine than I do. Heck, I assume that the barista at my local Starbucks knows more about making a good cappuccino than I do. So why, given that I have two MA's in my field and over 30 years of experience, would any lay person assume that he or she knows more about teaching than I do? Yet they do. Nationwide, they do, again and again and again.
They think that, because they have read a few articles and listened to a bunch of talk shows, they know enough to question the experts. Let them use WebMD to do the same to their doctors; see how far it gets them. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and these people have a little knowledge but believe that they have so much more.  One issue here is simple consistency. Treat everyone the same way. Remember that the people to whom you have entrusted the education of your children are educated and licensed professionals and they are using the most modern techniques available to help your children learn, just as you'd expect your doctor to use the best methods possible to cure their illnesses. Teachers are constantly updating their knowledge in their fields and in the psychology of education. What these people have read and think they know, we have read and studied and discussed in groups and argued about and put into practice. But children are not little pieces of plastic that can be molded so they come out the same every time. Perfection is not a possible outcome. So people should stop expecting it any more than they expect a doctor to be able to cure everything that comes into his office. Treat all professional people the same way. Consistency. And it is a thing that the majority of the loud voices and politicians in this nation cannot seem to figure out how to do.
People complain about other professions, true. People complain a lot. It's their nature. But they do not believe that they know more about the profession than the professionals in it. With education, it is only natural I suppose: we've all been in school and we've all had our share of teachers who we feel have been less than edifying in their instruction. So if things do not go well it is not a great leap to begin to believe that too many teachers must be like these weak links from our past. And from there that tiny bit of knowledge I spoke about before, gleaned from right wing talk shows and magazine articles, reinforces a belief that teachers are the problem. It is patently absurd. It's also pretty much unique in the world. Most countries treat their teachers with utmost respect and honor. And if you want to ask why we are "falling behind" in education--a disputable "fact" anyway, since most of the countries we are trailing in test scores desire to emulate us in the creative and openly socratic methodology we use in our classrooms--you might begin with that very basic and simple fact. As I said at the outset, I keep wondering why in the world any intelligent young person today would want to be a teacher in America. And I deeply fear for the next generation.
An article in the New Yorker last fall even questioned the entire concept of the "crisis" in American education itself:
It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much. For example, although most of the specific charter schools one encounters in this narrative are very good, the data do not show that charter schools in general are better than district schools. There are also many school-reform efforts besides charter schools: the one with the best sustained record of producing better-educated children in difficult circumstances, in hundreds of schools over many years, is a rigorously field-tested curriculum called Success for All, but because it’s not part of the story line it goes almost completely unmentioned. Similarly, on the issue of tenure, the clear implication of most school-reform writing these days—that abolishing teacher tenure would increase students’ learning—is an unproved assumption.

The article says that "The school-reform story draws its moral power from the heartbreakingly low quality of the education that many poor, urban, and minority children in public schools get" and the issues we are now dealing with were first dealt with by laws passed under Johnson's Great Society.  It's nothing new.    But as to trying to reform American education as a whole?  
One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.

No one--OK, I'll speak for myself--I don't have any problem with getting criticism. What I do have problems with is getting criticism from those who have never been inside a school (as adults), who have never taken a single course about the ways in which students learn, who have never once tried to do the thing that they are criticizing in order to know first hand all of the infinitely variable elements and aspects that compose it. I particularly dislike being the pawn of politicians' whims of the moment. Here is a terrible, insane irony: we have spent the better part of the last decade working to "reform" our educational system by creating more and more standardized tests and demanding that our students score higher and higher on them, emulating models we believe have been successful in China, Japan, South Korea, India and elsewhere. What those countries have been doing for the last several years has been to study our educational system. They have realized that all their lovely "teach to the test" methodologies have achieved for them is to created nations full of little brilliant automatons, while here in the US we create thinkers. They want to know how the creative, interactive classroom model helps to achieve that because it is in the ability to imagine and invent that we unlock the keys to the future, and these are abilities not scored on any test. These are what good teachers provide to their students. Of course, in this country, mired in our emulation of the model that our "rival" nations seek to abandon for the one that WE are seeking to abandon, we will only discover when it is far too late that we were actually the leaders all along...which is why those countries sent their best and brightest to our universities.
I will concede that the notion that teachers are considered the "least knowledgeable" in the educational profession is a moment of rhetorical flourish by the writer of the story I linked to. But he is entitled to it, I think: hyperbole helps us to understand the underlying argument.  These things are descriptive. They are a form of metaphor, which is in essence what hyperbole is: a means to make a comparison in a creative and inventive way that captures the reader's attention. But what he IS saying is that our opinions about education often are valued less than those of the politicians and the micro-educated (see my above comments) though well-intended Tea Party advocates who feel the need to believe themselves to be sudden "experts" on every subject from the national debt to their children's education. I admire these people's zeal and their desire to make the country a better place. Sadly, their information is almost always poor and misguided. And of course it is: they have gleaned in months from the internet and talk radio and magazines what professionals have learned in years and years of careful study that has often led to MA's and PhD's. These sudden experts are on the rise in this country, and they are causing problems in pretty much every area that is important. And the real problem is that they are drowning out the voices of those who truly do understand the issues and who truly do know the options we have in resolving them. No one has ANSWERS; these problems are not so black and white as that. But true experts have ideas based on lifetimes of study, experience and, yes, expertise. When state governments disempower teachers from decision making in matters of education, when well-meaning people believe that the only thing that matters to us is job security and the mostly apocryphal cushy salaries and retirement packages we are earning, our ability to affect the right kind of changes in our own profession is weakened and even eliminated.
I don't know how we are going to get out of this.  Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari argued last month in the New York Times that we need to do the exact opposite of what we are now doing.
The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.
Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.
And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

That's a future I would love to see.  And it's one that might just save American education.  But it's not the one we are currently heading toward.  I fear for us.

(First published in DailyKos.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

how to fix the oscars

Nobody asked me, but...

As I was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, a predictably dull affair despite the best efforts of brilliant actors but amateur hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, I couldn't help wondering what--for the umpteenth time--was going wrong.  It's not as if something going wrong was such a shock; something is always going wrong with the Oscars broadcast.  Sometimes it is far worse than others.  (Witness the David Letterman or Chris Rock fiascos.)  This time...well, it was an ill-conceived experiment gamely played out by a couple of strong performers despite a complete lack of quality material handed to them by the writers.

Hathaway and Franco are not comedians.  They are not trained at improvisation.  They are actors--and damned fine ones--whose job it is to create characters from scripted words.  If only someone had thought to give them some decent scripted words to play with...but no: from the start, the writing was derivative, lame, pandering, and just plain unfunny.  OK, it's cool to put the hosts in a Best Picture montage, but it's been done about a million times before.  And the sheer gratuitousness of the "Back to the Future" sequence destroyed any hope for continuity that the montage ever had (if the "brown duck" dance had not already done so).  And was there a single remotely humorous line in the monologue?  These writers had months to come up with this stuff and the best they could do was to have Hathaway's mom correct her posture and Franco's grandmother ogle "Marky Mark"?

If the writing elsewhere in the show had gotten any better, this weak opening might have been forgivable--sort of--but it simply didn't.  I need offer only one simple bit of evidence to prove my point: Franco in a Marilyn Monroe dress for no discernible reason.  The hosts simply never had a chance.  And on top of that, someone got the brilliant idea that Franco should be tweeting and video-blogging from backstage during the entire live show.  Anyone wonder why he looked a bit distracted?  Anyone wonder why Hathaway needed to be über-perky to pick up the slack?

From Bizarro-World presenter dialogue to bits that clearly did not work (I understand Shrek was supposed to present an animation award) to the unexplained notion to split the Best Song performances in half (leaving the audience utterly confused) to the Best Picture montage that seemed weirdly to presume a victory for "The King's Speech," this was a ceremony that just made no sense at all.  Not only that, but there were absolutely no surprises: everything that was supposed to win won.  If it were not for the wonderful human moments (Kirk Douglas and his wonderful sense of humor, Luke Matheny, the winner of the Best Live Action Short, walking up to the microphone with his head of unruly hair and saying "I should have gotten a haircut," both writing award winners' brilliant speeches, Colin Firth's and Tom Hooper's heartfelt moments, Randy Newman's hilarious rant, Charles Ferguson of "Inside Job" calling out the fact that no one responsible for the economic collapse has yet gone to prison,  Cate Blanchette's "Gross!" upon seeing the "The Wolfman" makeup that would take home an award, Christian Bale's sincere (and grownup) speech, Sandra Bullock's lively Best Actor introductions, Steven Spielberg's reminder that the Best Picture "losers" would be in the company of pictures like "Raging Bull" and "Citizen Kane") there would have been nothing to watch for.

So, after a night when pretty much everything that could go wrong for Oscar did (including major category victories--yet again--by films that have been seen by about ten people each), how can we look ahead and try to fix this dinosaur of a ceremony as it moves into its 84th year?

Tell you what we don't do: let's not "go for the younger demographic."  That's called "pandering," and the "younger demographic" recognizes it in about a half a second and tunes out.  So, assuming that we cannot simply rehire Billy Crystal to a lifetime contract (and I think anyone who watched the other night would agree that this would be a great idea), where do we begin?

Let's begin with the one thing this year's producers got right: the elimination of the "applause-o-meter" from the "In Memoriam" section, which has always been about the tackiest thing about the Oscars.  Of course, the utterly random order in which the deceased stars were presented just made the whole thing rather confusing...

OK, another thing they did right: eliminated time-wasting "tribute" montages.  Good for them.

After that, well, since they didn't do much else right, we're free to play.  So let's think way outside the box.

Open the evening with a montage of the ten movies up for Best Picture.  Let's see what the evening is all about, right from the beginning: we're here to celebrate the best of the best in motion pictures from this year.  I'm not talking about a silly joking montage; I'm talking about a serious one, the kind usually saved for near the end.  This is the story of the night.  Lead with it.

After the montage, let the host enter.  The host should be someone who is an actor/comedian with improv training.  He or she should have multiple talents, including the ability to sing, and should be able to help write the show to have a greater stake in his or her performance.  The monologue should acknowledge the year in film: the great and the not so great.  It should not pander to the lowest common denominator.  This is Hollywood's greatest night.  Make fun of the bad movies, sure.  But save the psycho Charlie Sheen jokes for another venue.

The Awards:  This is critically important.  The Academy needs to rethink the awards themselves.  First, it needs to rethink which awards are presented in prime time.  This has been done before; there is precedent.  Second, it needs to consider changing, deleting, and adding awards to its list.  It's about time: the list has been fundamentally unchanged for most of the Oscars' existence, with only some technical awards being added (and Best Animated Feature).

Change:  All categories  Refine rules to clarify that, if fewer than five eligible films exist, fewer than five nominations wil be made.  (Already the case in some categories.)

Change:  All categories  Refine rules so that a sixth nominee may be added if the voting between #s 5 and 6 is extremely close.  This adds a bit of unexpected flair to certain races.

Delete:  Best Song  I know: it's sacrilege.  And we'd lose Randy Newman.  But this category (Best Song composed for a film, musical, or television program) belongs in the Grammy's.

Delete:  Short Films  Not from the awards, but from prime time.  No one has seen these things.  We should have, but we haven't.  And we won't.  So give the awards out some other time and place.

Recombine: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing back to Sound.  Seriously.  Does a split in these awards ever even occur?

Add:  Best Title Sequence  They do it at the Emmy's.  (This idea is not originally mine, but I have lost the link where I first saw it.  It's a good one though; these folks work hard and sometimes make mini-movies.)

The Show:  Without Best Song, random montages, and several awards that no one in the television audience knows anything about or cares anything about, the broadcast will tighten up considerably.  Allow the host to return throughout the show to do brief monologues; otherwise keep the pace moving.  Let the presenters (I know this is going to be a really crazy concept) present the awards instead of wasting everyone's time with allegedly witty banter that usually falls flat anyway.  A brief discussion of the importance of, say, art direction, and we're off to the races.

Keep the show about the movies.  Keep the things we see on TV about the movies.  Let us see stars.  Let us see clips of great performances.  When we get the Best Actor/Actress, consider giving us a comparison: show us a tape from an early rehearsal to compare with the actual performance.  Won't we all be impressed and amazed by what these people can do to mere words from a page?

And when we finally get to Best Picture (much earlier than usual because this show has hummed along), we've already had our major montage (back at the start, remember?) so we can do something completely new.  Maybe we could create a clever new kind of montage out of single lines from all ten films interwoven together.  Or maybe...we could just give out the award and finish the program.  Whatever.  But I'll bet this Oscars broadcast is about a hundred times better appreciated than the one last Sunday.

(It would also help if, you know, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" were up for Best Picture.  Can we arrange that?)  :-)

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

in praise of medicaid

Hi.  It has been a few month s since I have posted anything here, and I feel terribly remiss.  I would love to say that something wonderful has occurred to spur me into writing again, but that would not be the truth.  In fact, it is something pretty tragic (in the colloquial usage of the term).  Let me explain:
My 25-year-old son was married at age 18 in a gay/bisexual/transsexual/pagan/backyard ceremony presided over by a Unitarian minister.  It is not in any way recognized by the state, but he and my son-in-law recognize it, so I do; what else matters?  Both young people have had multiple personal issues and emotional problems; for years neither had a steady job, and currently (for about the fifth time) they live in my basement.  My son, Rory, is finally working steadily at a Build-a-Bear and enjoying it.  His husband, who goes by Echo, is studying for a master's degree online.  
Two weeks ago, Echo--who has had numerous physical ailments over the years--started vomiting a lot.  He also began feeling dizzy, and then started slurring his speech.  Rory rushed him over to the hospital emergency room, knowing that, though Echo has no insurance, they have to accept him there.  Fourteen hours of preliminary testing later, they admitted him: there was something wrong, they said, with his brain.  It might be minor--an infection, perhaps.  Or it might be significant: a tumor.  
Echo could not speak for himself; Rory explained that he had no insurance.  They filled out forms for Medicaid and were admitted.  The care they received was nothing short of amazing.  Five nights and days in a private room on the oncology floor.  Rory was allowed to sleep there on a fold-down couch so they could remain together.  Echo had visits from at least five different doctors and round the clock care.  He had two CAT scans and two MRIs.  They did a biopsy of what they had by then determined was in fact a tumor.
It turned out--worst diagnosis possible--to be the most aggressive kind of malignant brain tumor.  The doctor, with whom they have an appointment tomorrow, wants to treat it with chemo and radiation combined.  They will learn more about the prognosis at that session.  But all of that, and all of the hospitalization and testing, has been covered by Medicaid with no question.  These indigent 20-somethings with no insurance are getting exactly the kind of health care that everyone in this country deserves, exactly the kind that the GOP does not want us all to have.

So this is what the jackasses on the other side want to cut back?  This is a thing that is too expensive?  Another one of those "entitlements" that we cannot afford because we spend too much on unnecessary wars and tax cuts for the über-rich?
This has been my initial experience with Medicaid, and I am here to sing its praises.  I would climb up to the rooftops and shout them to the world, but for the risk that all of the snow up there would result in a fall that would cause yet another hospitalization for my family at a time that already has produced enough trauma.
The irony of course is that, had they actually had the insurance, their carriers might have fought them tooth and nail about each and every one of these tests: further evidence for a single-payer, non-profit based system.  But this is the dream.  What we have right now, thanks to President Obama's successful push for reform, is a first step toward care for everyone.  If Medicare and Medicaid are gutted or diminished, we will be taking a giant step backwards.  
Someone on Daily Kos suggested that the Democrats roll out the slogan "Democrats Care."  He (she?) was roundly criticized.  For naivete, I suppose.  But I don't care (in a small moment of personal irony) who calls me naive.  I think that could be the basis of a very strong bit of differentiation between the left and the right.  We need to find a way to do this somehow.  At this point, they have been allowed to define the game.  We have two years to redefine it.
My son-in-law is 26 years old.  I fear for him.  His deeply entwined, symbiotic relationship with my son makes me fear for him too: I honestly do not know if one can survive should the other die.  But at least I know that, thanks to a system that the government has funded, he is getting the best care he can get.  I take some solace in that, and keep reminding them to do so as well.
And to say a prayer or two.  I'm not sure what I believe in regarding a deity, but it can't hurt.

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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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