Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Done Waiting for "Superman"?

I dare you to remain impassive while watching the documentary, Waiting for “Superman”, as hundreds of parents and children wait on the turn of a lottery ball to get those kids, most of them underprivileged, into life-changing schools. It’s clear from Daisy’s tiny, crossed fingers clenched inside fists of hope that she knows exactly what KIPP LA Prep means for her. And the tears rolling down soft cheeks make it clear the losers at the Harlem Success Academy’s name draw know they’ve lost the lottery of their lives: a chance at a viable future.

It isn’t right. And it isn’t fair. Even the kids know it.

“Each morning, wanting to believe in our schools, we take a leap of faith,” says Director Davis Guggenheim in the opening scenes of the film. When every social researcher knows that the fate of an entire nation hangs on the quality of the education of its citizens, our schools are NOT something that should be left to faith.

Waiting for “Superman” is a gasp-out-loud shocker, a heart-wrenching tear-jerker, a powerful, controversial, and enlightening film. Says Entertainment Weekly reviewer Nicole Sperling, “It’s a seat-gripping ride that will leave you frustrated, outraged, and--once it becomes apparent that Superman isn’t going to show up and set everything right--eager to do something about the problem.”

The movie cuts between the lives of five students from around the country who are struggling to get into good schools and a detailed rundown of the statistics behind our nation’s fall from educational grace. (Guggenheim actually made two, complete movies and finished cutting them together just before the movie’s first screening--the device works shatteringly well, here.)

While the movie effectively illustrates the most salient and startling statistics, the companion book to the movie (currently #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list) presents even greater detail, citing several well-respected studies. No matter how confident you may feel about America’s academic rank in the world, the numbers don’t lie; we’re actually near the bottom of the barrel. (Click and scroll for statistics by state.) Perhaps you were already well aware that even our highest-performing students come in dead last when compared to the best students of 29 other developed countries. But our students, as a body, are clearly not cognizant of this fact. When surveyed, they still ranked themselves at the top. That confidence is a killer.

Guess what, kiddies? America is NOT #1. It’s better you know this now, before you graduate and wonder why you passed all your subjects but weren’t accepted into a good college, or you couldn’t secure that high-paying job you applied for.

Please. Step away from the giant foam finger.

At the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Waiting For “Superman”, last January, it was immediately clear that Guggenheim's film would launch a national debate on education, the way his earlier documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, had done for global warming. As the lights came up, the man next to me that night could barely hold back his ire at the film’s portrayal of teachers’ unions as a near-insurmountable obstacle to public school reform. During the Q and A that followed, he was not alone. (As a teacher currently working without a contract because our union is incapable of successful negotiations, I tend to side with Guggenheim.) But even stronger voices, those of teachers, of parents, of frustrated administrators, continued to fill the room with support and with personal stories of successes and failures. "So, now what?" they asked.

When it screened locally, this month, I watched it again, alongside my daughter’s amazing kindergarten teacher and a theater full-to-brimming with educators. The questions posed by the film generated a palpable thrum of excitement: What makes a good teacher? Why are American public schools ranked so poorly, compared to other nations? Who is really responsible? Can we improve our schools? What will it take? Fired-up patrons carried their personal torches out into the lobby, that night, where spirited conversations about the future of American schooling continued.

To all of these questions, there are answers, though not easily digested ones. Which may be why we’ve been choking on this question for the last 50 years. Up to this point, there hasn’t been enough political will to target the programs that work, fine tune them to fit the history and character of each neighborhood, and scale them up on a regional level. The top-down approach clearly hasn’t worked. The onion-like layers of bureaucracy involved are overwhelming.

There are teachers who find ways to successfully manage classrooms under difficult circumstances. In the years in which Stefania Pomponi Butler taught in an inner city school in the San Francisco Bay Area, not once did she have a parent volunteer; they were all working too hard to find the time. To teachers and administrators who complain that the children of the working poor can’t effectively learn without parent involvement, she shakes her head. “Don’t tell me you can’t do your job without classroom volunteers,” she insists, “because I did it.”

Still, she only taught for three years. And that’s not unusual. Teacher turnover is a common situation in underperforming schools. No matter how good the teachers, without the right tools, training, support, and environment, their jobs are made infinitely more difficult. Championing our amazing teachers--wherever they are found--is the real key to this puzzle.

With all, or even most, of these pieces in place, our teachers can transform a nation. According to recent research published by the Center for Teaching Quality

Waiting for “Superman” may have instigated a national debate, but without action, our kids are going to see this as one more example of grown-ups screwing up the world. I happen to believe in the power of film to inform and motivate. But an education--even one that comes to you through film--is worth nothing if you refuse to use it.

There have been a few positive changes to come out of Guggenheim’s project. New York’s appallingly infamous “rubber rooms” are disturbing places, where poorly-performing teachers have been pulled out of classrooms to sit, useless, each day (and get paid for it) while their cases filter through the system. Outraged audiences were horrified to witness them in the film. According to Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, these were recently slated for closure. I’m willing to bet that if this situation had not come to light through the film, they would not have been shut down any time soon. (My Inner Skeptic asks, "So where did all those teachers and their casework GO, then?)

Nor would school make-overs have become the latest reality series. NBC’s School Pride aired October 15th, showcasing impoverished schools each being given $2M in upgrades, in hopes that an attractive environment will improve learning. But we all know a great education is more than skin deep.

Ultimately, it’s disheartening to realize that, for every child who enters a great charter school, and for every school that wins the Hollywood renovation prize, there are thousands more that continue to struggle against near-impossible odds. There is no Race To The Top funding coming their way. And there is no Superman to save them.

What serious, structural changes are we going to make to help our students? The movie’s companion book devotes an entire section to action steps for students, parents, educators, and business leaders at the local, statewide, and national level. The final chapter is a list of almost 70 different educational success web sites, from Achieve, Inc., to Parent Revolution, to Teach For America, along with a description of each. I challenge you to see the film and read the book (if you can only afford to do one or the other, read the book). Begin a conversation with your friends and family. Start taking action.

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher believes in a “do whatever it takes to empower kids to be successful” philosophy. Every viable piece of data we have indicates that this level of investment reaps bountiful returns. (As example, I offer...a Spoiler Alert: Despite facing countless challenges--from a poverty-stricken, inner-city school to missing parents, one of whom died of a drug overdose--Anthony made the Dean's List in his first year at a SEED Charter school.)

Create an excellent education system and we can create a nation that is the powerhouse of economic prosperity, strength, and knowledge that we believe we are--and should be.

THEN you can wave that foam finger all you like. I'll even buy you one, myself.

When she’s not giving fiery speeches at college teach-ins, Angela Orr works as a Geography instructor at a Community College in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s there that she daily comes into contact with the under-prepared students who have been failed by the public school system. She is also currently teaching a course at a charter school in a poor district in order to learn first-hand what the kids and teachers there are up against and how they’re learning to overcome educational obstacles. Follow her on Twitter: @AngelOrr

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Dan Gordon-Levitt 1974-2010

Sliding along a sinuous highway through the chilly Santa Cruz Mountains, tracing the San Andreas fault seemed the right place to be at that moment. Although it had been growing colder each morning just inland of the northern California coast, the heated cabin air felt unbearably chest-heavy, unbreathable. As the windows dropped, the cold wind tore in, drawing close the swirling, pungent smell of sage and wild grasses. The gamey, powerful notes of the sax solo in Pink Floyd’s “Dogs of War” shook the rearview mirror, wiry and lanky and strong, undeniably charismatic. Like Dan.

But Dan is gone.

The thought made no sense. Victim of a soul-search gone awry, with another in the hospital perhaps not far behind, it felt achingly stupid and all kinds of wrong.

A chiseled and wilder-looking version of his younger brother, Dan embodied the “flow” he so earnestly practiced--in his movements, his worldly fearlessness, his written words, his skill in carefully drawing out and inspiring others. His ability to create profound imagery, to imbue a story with a potent sense of place, was impressive. (See "everything I do" on Dan's site for more.)

Dan was fit and active, a risk-taker, embracing the dangers inherent in deeply discovering life. Fire was more than his art form. It was his totem. He gave warmth to those who surrounded him, illuminated a path for those who followed, and was as beautiful, powerful, and mesmerizing as any spinning torch. He appeared entirely unafraid of life’s vicissitudes.

There was something innately childlike and charming about the immediacy and depth of the fraternal devotion between Dan and his younger brother, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, when I saw the two together. Having seen Joe’s unself-conscious idolization of “My Big Brother, My First Super Hero”, my heart aches.

As a sister, I remember how deep-seated was the need to protect my brother from harm, when we were kids. And although we’re now adults, the feeling stubbornly persists. With 6 years between us, I can remember a time when my brother was not yet in the world--the thought of his passing out of it again seems all too real and scary, and he’s been close more than once. Joe has not ever known a world without his older brother in it. Like losing a limb, I can only imagine the ache of neurons remembering replete what is now negative space, reaching out for the physical entity that slips like the last tendrils of smoke from a flame consummated. The only recourse for those that remain is to huddle together in that empty place. As our collective warmth grows, it does not replace Dan’s heat, but diminishes, in however small a measure, the chill felt at losing him.

When a soul leaves behind family and friends, the loss is deep--and burning. When the circle of that person’s energy and influence is as wide as Dan’s, like a low-lying grassfire it travels swiftly and leaves an extensive scar. Yet it does not kill the way we think it does. In the chaparral-covered hills of southern California, the ecosystem is fire-adapted; much of the biota actually need fire in order to complete a full life cycle and make room for the next generation. In the same way, our sorrow over the loss of Dan Gordon-Levitt will eventually give way to regrowth, new ideas born of his influence.

It feels like an eternity from fire season to winter rains. But when those clouds come, they eventually bring life-giving moisture, driving nutrients back into the soil. Memories once again become the seeds of renewal and inspiration. And the sun’s return refocuses its light on rebirth.

Dan’s circle of fire has not drawn to a close. A circle never ends. It is a symbol of the universe’s cyclical nature, a reminder that energy is never created or destroyed, merely changed in form and location. He is, perhaps, more present than he has ever been. May all who knew him, in whatever capacity, remain inspired by Dan’s spirit, his fiery ring of light, and share that inspiration as our circle grows, burning brighter with each laugh, each kind word, each cheer. WE have become the circle, now.

With joyful leap and Cheshire Cat grin, Dan would surely have appreciated that thought.

Fire photo: copyright Dan Gordon-Levitt, burningdan.net, 2006 (borrowed in grateful memory)

From sorrows to celebrations, Angela has written numerous posts about surviving life with a little inspiration at the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog. When she isn't practicing Wing Chun Kung Fu, she also shares her training trials at From Basic Training to Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey. This is an original post to World of Words. You can follow her on Twitter: @AngelOrr

Although Angela has been on a semi-hiatus while she builds a new web site, she's constantly creating something somewhere.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Hey! Wackos! Leave Them Stars Alone.

In a world where everyone is increasingly becoming part of the fish bowl, some fish are definitely bigger than others. More and more kids want to stare at them, point, and go "Oooo! Aaaah! Look at that one!"

Robert Downey, Jr is one of the Big Ones. Few share his acting prowess, his back-story is compelling, and his recent triumphs are inspirational. I'll admit to being a fan. But I'm certainly not the kind of crazed weirdo (or paparatzi) who stalks celebs through the power drink aisle of the grocery store, trying to get myself noticed on the Internet by capturing a few annoyed, famous glares.

So the dude hangs out at the beach just like everyone else. BFD.

I don't want an autograph. I don't need a photo. I don't have piles of Iron Man merch in a drawer awaiting signatures and a quick sale on e-bay. I like to think I'm a different kind of admirer, one who shares a passion. I am a fellow student of Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Surrounded by movie posters from from film festivals, love notes from my kids, and articles on geography is the only picture of Mr. Downey I've ever displayed in my home. The May 2010 cover of Men's Journal is on my wall solely because the man on the cover has his guard up. It's a daily reminder, the way some people scribble morning mantras on the bathroom mirror or put notes on the refrigerator to remind them to eat less. It's time to train.

We all search for inspiration. I believe it is a human psychological need, a survival mechanism. Our brains tell us, Find the most successful animal and copy it. We begin with our parents, our caregivers, and other family members. We turn to that "cool" kid in school, a favorite super hero, or an Olympian. We dive into books about historical figures who risked everything to achieve some great aim. And, sometimes, our encouragement comes from pop culture media. All I can say is, choose carefully.

A positive role model is understandable. But there is also some twisted part of us that wants to tear down those same people we put up on pedestals. Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy. President Obama. It's the part of us that wants to believe we are better than everyone else because it makes our tired, petty little hearts feel superior. "I'm better than that," you think to yourself. "I would never do what that person did!" Some of us read tabloid-style newspapers and web sites because we want to know that these rich, privileged people are no better than we are, that they suffer the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that they sometimes act like dumbasses just like we do. And we can vilify them with impunity.

The typical, sneaky candid photos these tabloids rely on really turn my stomach. I can understand why Mr. Downey trains so hard. He has to find peace for himself and his family, in a world of diminishing privacy, amongst crazies who feel they deserve to own a piece of him because his face is splashed 15 feet high on a glowing movie screen.

Some nut job once faked his way into an interview with Tom Cruise, then squirted him with a water-filled microphone. It could just as easily have been acid. It could have been any celebrity.

Most of us enjoy a measure of anonymity on the street, especially if we travel outside our home towns. Imagine being followed by people with cameras and Flip vids every time you left the house. There is no privacy for celebrities in public. For the more successful, there's no privacy anywhere.

Before you start whining that you'd happily put up with all of that if you could make the kind of money these people make, remember the old adage that money doesn't make a person any happier. Prince Siddhartha Gautama (a.k.a. Buddha) knew it, and based an entire religious practice on the notion.

A good fraction of the money celebrities earn probably pays for lawyers, some of whom are charged with watching over the money managers who are supposed to keep that money safe. (We've all heard stories about those money managers, haven't we?) It also pays for the security necessary to be sure no one kidnaps your kids or breaks into your house looking for treasures to hock. It pays for the guards to keep away the real wackos, like the woman who stalked Paula Abdul and eventually committed suicide down the block from Abdul's home.

Is all that money really worth it? Tough call--you'd have to ask the person who earns it.

The reason we love celebrities isn't because we wish we had that kind of money. It's because we want to be loved. We want to be important. We think we know these celebs because we see their interviews and watch their movies and we think they'd want to know us, too, because Gee, if only Angelina Jolie knew that we're just so alike! she'd surely call us up to hang out, shopping in Beverly Hills.

Stop kidding yourself.

Yes, you're a good person, a lovable person. You're also a person with faults and foibles and skeletons in your closet, just like the rest of us. You have the right to be known and appreciated for who you truly are, by those that you want to know you. But NOT by everyone.

Celebrities deserve the same.

So the next time you see this guy and his wife buying groceries, give them a break, will ya? Wave hello and leave it at that. Go hyperventilate on aisle 5.

And paparazzi, I'd suggest you folks rewrite your "Code" before you end up on the wrong side of a restraining order. Or a roll punch.

Neither the money nor the portfolio are worth it.


UPDATE
6/5/10: Errrhm.... All that stuff I said about the Downeys and their privacy? I take it all back. After listening to Robert and Susan Downey on Howard Stern (this audio is reeeeally NSFW!), it's clear they don't give a damn who knows what. Holy smokin' canole.


Angela writes about surviving life with a little inspiration from her family at the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog. When she isn't practicing Wing Chun, she shares her training trials at From Basic Training to Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey. This is an original post to World of Words.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Asif Akbar; Mark Seliger; X17online.com

Friday, 16 April 2010

Peace At the Eye of the Tempest: Remembering Sgt. Maj. R.J. Cottle

"If at the eye of a tempest peace lies, shouldn't at the heart of darkness light await?"--Bradley Kayl


Every badge is covered with a black band. Every hand that touches the casket wears a white glove. Flag draped, the remains of USMC Sgt. Maj. Robert James Cottle slowly process down the streets of downtown Los Angeles, led by a pipe and drum band. He is followed by his wife and baby girl, family, police officers, Marines (“More Sergeant Majors than I’ve ever seen together in one place,” marvels my Marine Corps uncle), and firefighters. Every eye along the route stops to watch. The six pallbearers, all SWAT officers, walk purposefully alongside the rustic open wagon—the shortest of them is my father. The man in the casket is his SWAT team partner and Brother Warrior.

For several blocks around Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, the streets of Los Angeles are shut down. My mother is ready to jump out and hot foot the last few blocks, heels and all. But the off-duty SWAT officer in the front seat manages to weave his SUV through traffic in record time and flash his VIP badge at the final check point. Every major news station is covering the event—even the flags at the state capitol were set at half-mast, this week. KNX 1070 Radio News comes on with an update on the somber procession approaching the cathedral. They mention Dad by name.

Today, my father walks one of many routes he’s followed, both physical and emotional, since March 24th, when the call first came informing R.J. Cottle’s loved ones and closest companions that his recon group had been hit by an IED in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Dad has flown across the country and back, following R.J. and accompanying his wife, Emily, and baby girl. He and his SWAT brothers have shared stories and drinks, laughter and tears. And after nearly four weeks, it doesn't seem to have gotten one iota easier for any of them.

Everyone deals with grief in his or her own way. As parents, we deal with our children’s sorrows, large and small, on a daily basis. Sometimes it also falls to us as children to console our own parents when they walk through the Valley of Darkness. I knew there wasn’t much I could do. I’ve never been on a call-up or shared more than a dinner with most of my father’s buddies; he has never made good on his promise to take me to a shooting range. Although I’ve heard countless hours worth of war stories, I’ve never been more than a peripheral part of that world. But I can send flowers and leave a loving note. I can call and listen. I can show up with hugs, share a black-and-tan, take out the trash, and offer a pat on the back while he tweaks the eulogy. I can be there for my distraught mother, who has been with Dad through it all. I can slip Dad a Power Bar after the Hearst pulls away and he lowers his final salute. It isn’t much…it feels like nothing. But sometimes just being there is half the battle.

I look down, straighten the creases in my slacks, and hope that it’s enough.

As we leave the parking garage and walk out into the open courtyard of the cathedral, my mother halts mid-sentence to grab the hand of the first Marine she sees and thank him for his service. Startled, he puts his hand to his heart in grateful appreciation and smiles. “You caught me off guard, there,” he says warmly. A Vietnam vet, my father’s brother remembers a time when people spit on returning soldiers. As my mother walks back, Uncle Gerry takes her under his arm. He’s clearly proud. “If you keep that up, here,” he says wryly, “you’re going to be a very busy lady, today.”

We swim into a sea of uniforms and black coats as we enter the concrete and marble hall of a church built for giants. Someone hands me a program with R.J.’s handsomely-uniformed picture on the front. Looking at his picture, I can imagine his deep voice. He’s leaning on Dad’s bar, looking at me with unblinking eyes, probably teasing me about one of my lame college boyfriends, his adam’s apple bobbing as he laughs. We continue down the hallway. I am afraid to look at his photo again, lest I lose all decorum and begin to weep.

Dwarfed and subdued, we make our way to one of hundreds of pews. I’m overwhelmed by the brown, concrete walls, the massive emptiness, the clouds letting only vague hints of daylight through the opaque windows. I know I should feel cold. Wedged in among thousands of people, instead I feel comforted and calm. Looking around, I wonder if this cathedral can contain all of the grief that is palpably held barely in check.

The officers lining the hallway outside suddenly snap to attention, saluting. The first chilling strains of a lone piper’s dirge echo off the high, flat walls. Having lived in Scotland, I still connect strongly with that distinctive, lonely sound. It tears at my heart. This same piper, Sergeant Matt MacWillie, played “Scotland the Brave” at my wedding. In fact, he sat next to R.J. at my reception. These won’t be the only tears of the morning, but they are some of the most deeply personal, for me.

R.J. ultimately receives not one eulogy, but seven, from his father, sister, and boyhood friend, as well as LAPD’s Chaplain, the Police Chief Charlie Beck, a fellow SWAT Team Element Leader—my father, and a fellow Marine Corps Sergeant Major. Each of them carries within them a part of R.J. Together, they paint a vivid picture of the man, breathing life into their stories of the tall, lanky, “one hundred forty-eight pounds of twisted steel”, as R.J. once described himself.

When my father stands to speak about his partner, it’s clear from his very first words he is only marginally coping. Unlike the others who speak that day, Dad doesn’t need a microphone. His voice booms through the cathedral in what my mother calls his “work voice”, the one that cuts through high-stress moments and gets done what needs doing, the good, the bad, and the worst. Even laughing about R.J.’s Twinkie-driven escapades, he is torn up. We all are. The weight of every one of R.J.’s SWAT brethren is my father’s to carry, their sorrow his to express. When he promises R.J.’s widow and baby girl that he will never forsake them, the soul of the entire Department is behind his husky-throated words. Chief Beck echoes the same: “The Los Angeles Police Department will stand by you until the end of time. This organization is a family. And you are part of that family. If you didn’t understand it before, understand it now.”

R.J.’s wife, Emily, and his 9-month old baby girl have been met at every airport, cared for at every turn, and promised by both the LAPD officers and Marines who knew her husband that they will never be left behind nor forgotten. Because R.J. was not killed on SWAT duty, Emily Cottle would not, under normal circumstances, receive death benefits from the City of Los Angeles. That’s the cold nature of paperwork. But, true to his word, Chief Beck has taken the unprecidented step of listing Officer Cottle's death as "on duty". A family, indeed.

It hurts to see those we have always seen as a source of strength torn apart by heartache. But these are our parents and we continue to learn from them, even after we go on to raise our own families in our own ways. We are reminded that our mothers and fathers have deep, difficult, overwhelming challenges, just as we do ourselves. And it helps us to remember, in our own moments of darkness, that someone we know and love has been there before us, trampling the path, perhaps illuminating the obstacles ahead, showing us how to cope and accept our grief as part of the natural cycle of life. Without that darkness, we cannot know how valuable is the light.

My father has finally returned from Arlington, Virginia, having followed the Sergeant Major to his final rest. I’ll meet up with him soon for a black-and-tan and a Twinkie. That’s just how R.J. would want to be remembered.

Please remember the men and women of our police departments and armed services who protect you every day from dangers both global and local—shake a hand and thank them for their service. Some rarely hear the words and you have no idea how much it means to them. Don’t wait until they’re gone.

To join us in support of Emily and Kaila, please make checks payable to “Blue Ribbon Trust for Robert J. Cottle” and send them to: Los Angeles Police Federal Credit Union, Attn: Blue Ribbon Trust for Robert J. Cottle, P.O. Box 10188, Van Nuys, CA 91410.

Photo by Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times - April 13, 2010 - All rights reserved by owner - no copyright infringement intended.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Crowdsourcing at Sundance 2010: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the hitRECord Production

Every creative person has, at some time their lives, agonized over the conflicts between their creative impulses and the need to survive. Some go to art schools, take acting classes, or move to places far from home where a greater chance of securing an artistic livlihood exists. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer, Hesher) has presented a new business model: share your gifts (and your work), collaborate with other artists, and partake of the profits of the final product--and you never have to leave home.

So how does that work, exactly?

To put it simply, you agree to allow other artists to alter what you've created and (hopefully) make it better. Dan Gordon-Levitt, Joseph's brother and business partner, points out that some artists are good at coming up with creative ideas, but are stymied when it comes to execution; others may never come up with an original idea, but are great at powering up someone else's imaginary universe. So the two get together online and make something; then a third person adds music, someone else plays with the color, someone adds opening and closing credits. Everything is open to critique and alteration and the community decides collectively what works and what doesn't. It's the ultimate in online "crowdsourcing".

"Art snacks," Dan calls these short films, ripe and ready for consumption by the Internet public.

If you really want to chew on the bones of this new production company, visit the hitRECord.org website and watch "The New Deal", which explains the whole concept in detail. Here at Sundance 2010, many of the hitRECorders, as they call themselves, have come together--both at Sundance and on the Internet, from parts distant--to complete a series of short films that illustrate how the whole thing works.

They are hunched over banks of wide-screened computers, sprawled on the carpet over keyboards, leaning against walls with laptops perched on their knees. This is the REC room, in the basement of the New Frontier venue on Park City's Main Street, across from the famous Egyptian Theater. Here, surrounded by other eye-catching visual art installations, finishing touches are being applied to the collaborative film screening in New Frontier's Microcinema on Saturday night. Though the conversations are hushed and they barely move, the energy in the room is so concentrated, I can smell it.

One white wall continuously replays pieces of Morgan M. Morgansen's Date With Destiny, starring Gordon-Levitt (or Regular Joe, as he calls himself) and the outgoing Lexy Hulme. But calling Joe and Lexy the "stars" of this film is misleading--the actors are actually two stars of a grand constellation. The rest are made up of countless people who have contributed to the creation of this project, some of them from places so removed from the traditional film scene, they might as well be downloading, altering, and sharing their work from the same moon that watches over Morgan and Destiny.

The script for this short, for example, was written by a woman named Sarah Daly, who uploaded the original text from her home in Ireland and has never personally met either of the actors. And, it's entirely possible, may never meet them.

One of the longest, continuously-contributing members of the group, Tori Watson lives in New Castle, England. She had only met two other hitRECorders prior to her arrival at Sundance, and then only briefly. "I don't get very many chances to collaborate with people in real life," she says. So the opportunity to work with an entire creative community was overwhelmingly attractive. And her involvement was what landed her here.

Like the other artists in this tiny room, Tori has been powering through the last week and a half, oblivious to the films and panels and parties going on all over town. Part of the crew had been running errands and grabbing food for the rest of the group, but lately the collaborators have taken to volunteering as runners just to get a break from the frantic online activity. Yet she doesn't appear as stressed as I imagined she should be, given her hectic schedule. It's obvious that she and the others in the room are just as passionate and excited as they are dedicated to their work.

When I tell her I have been watching the progress of the group for some time and am truly impressed by how far they've come in the last year, she suddenly switches gears. Had I recorded myself sleeping, yet? she asks. It's for another piece the group is working on, of course.

Jessica, known in the hitRECord community as TeaFaerie, floats to the floor like a multi-colored anemone, the fabric tendrils of her signature hat swirling around her elbows. As she opens her computer, she, too, encourages me to record something and upload it to the site. I had captured some low-quality footage of Joe speaking at last night's event, I tell her. But I was forced to sit in the back and all of the heads in the way made it difficult to get a clear view with my iPhone. Joe's face was also washed into invisibility by the spotlight. I doubted the film would be worth using.

"We want heads!" someone enthuses above me. Joseph Gordon-Levitt smiles as he swivels around in his chair. "It proves we were live," he says.

Well...maybe his whited-out features could be enhanced or drawn in... TeaFaerie agrees that would be a cool project and the ideas begin rolling out of her brain. At least until co-Producer Jared Geller steps in, his frustration palpable, and asks me to please let everyone get back to work. Kindness and apologies, layered over an all-business demeanor, he seems a man with a creative talent for making sure deadlines are met.

At the door, Dan Gordon-Levitt continues his personable, non-stop dialogue while shaking hands and taking pictures with bystanders. So intent is he on educating the curious, he has talked straight through chowing on the first half of his sandwich. An hour later, the other half still sits, untouched, atop the stool on which I have yet to see him alight. I could imagine he rarely slows down and happily burns the candle at both ends to make something he loves come to fruition. He reminds me of my own brother--loyal and dedicated, a great teammate for his brother, Joe.

The final project will be screened on Saturday the 30th at 6 p.m. at New Frontier's Microcinema venue. I plan to continue watching them, both here and from home; I see it as a rare chance to follow a creative business idea from its inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn't plan to stop here. From publishing, to a music label, to a physical venue, if it can be recorded, he wants to be involved.

I'm beginning to believe Joe and company just might have their own Date with Destiny.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes Review (Spoiler Alert!)

Watching weekend Tweets during the opening days of Sherlock Holmes, I noticed mixed reactions. So now that I’ve seen Sherlock Holmes twice, I wanted to share my own, detailed thoughts on this great movie and some of its best—and worst—moments. (Full disclosure: the film’s Fight Coordinator is also one of my martial arts instructors.)

Maybe it’s because we’ve had some Wing Chun Kung Fu training and knew what to look for, but the first thing my husband and I agreed upon right away was that the fight scenes were a lot of fun. My husband especially loved the way the audience was let into Holmes’ head with the slow-motion “planning” of each strike. Although I could see other audience members squirming at the slow-motion, full-contact shots—and these were, indeed, filmed full-contact—the brawl in the ring was one of our favorites, a scene which, according to an inside source, wasn’t even in the original script. When Robert Downey, Jr. advocated for the inclusion of such a scene, Fight Coordinator, Eric Oram, suggested Holmes would surely take as methodical an approach to his fighting skills as he does to the other bodies of knowledge he pursues. He called the bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred match Holmes’ “fight lab”. His suggestion paid off.

The script itself was good. While movies with great ending twists, like The Usual Suspects, are fun to watch, I prefer a script that carries me along with just enough of a hint that I feel like I’ve started to figure some of it out myself—that, “I got it, I called it! Dude, I called it!” moment that makes the audience feel smart is worth its weight in ticket sales for the groundlings. Yet the movie left enough unexplained that Holmes still had the stereotypical “here’s how it was done” moments, enough to keep hard-core fans of the original author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from moaning in distress. (Keeping the fanboys and –girls happy seems to be Mr. Downey’s specialty, afterall.)

I thought the mysteries of the case fit Conan Doyle’s standard fare, the dialogue was true to what I’ve read of the books so far (well done all, going back to the stories for those geek-pleaser lines), and the details appeared to stick to the canon. The humor and timing were just right, though given Holmes’ strong sense of irony in Doyle’s original portrayal, I think the script could have taken even more without becoming a comedy. (Holmes, trying to convince Watson to help him pursue the case: “No girl wants to marry a doctor who can’t tell whether a man’s dead or not.”)

Granted, I’m no expert, but I happen to possess two amazing volumes of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, (“upon [which] I can thoroughly rely”) containing four novels and 56 short stories, and filled with copious notes, diagrams, illustrations, maps, photographs, etc., and deeply-detailed analysis by the leading experts of the Holmes canon at the time of its publication (1967). The forefront of Holmes research has surely advanced in the 43 years since then (and the book as been updated, of course), but the historic photographs alone, taken of real places mentioned in the stories that now no longer exist, are priceless. I’m curious to hear what the Baker Street Irregulars and their ilk thought of the movie. I imagine them picking the story apart with the most fine-toothed combs, assuming as they do that Holmes and Watson were real people rather than characters in a novel. Then again, as long as they buy movie tickets and aren’t beating any real corpses, who cares?

The casting was wonderful in all the places that mattered. Robert’s amazing range securely held Mr. Holmes in a snug embrace, though he was (uncharacteristically) humble when discussing his portrayal in interviews. His accent (a point on which he was not humble) was as spot-on as he had bragged about. (It’s always nice when an actor lives up to the hype he creates for himself.) The only time I couldn’t understand him was when he was in his Carl Malden-with-an-eye-patch disguise, but that seemed to be primarily the result of the drunken street accent he was imitating (to get it right or to be understood—that is the question).

In one of my favorite scenes, Holmes semi-intentionally insults Watson’s soon-to-be fiancé; when she throws her glass of wine at him and Holmes is left to eat his dinner alone, he does not wipe the drink from his face. Rather, he calmly tucks his napkin into his shirt and cuts into his meat—his penance becomes the dinner’s emotional dressing. A classic Downey acting choice, that one simple omission delves into the deeper emotional conflict Holmes struggles with—he doesn’t want to lose his best friend to a marriage and is satisfied that he may have further driven a wedge between them, yet is self-recriminating enough to accept the hurt he’s caused Watson’s Mary (and, by extension, Watson) with a little self-flagellation.

Mr. Law was a perfect Watson, my reservations about his athleticism to the contrary. Though I never saw him as old, stupid, or bumbling, I initially believed he was more frail than he was portrayed in the film, due to his shoulder injury and bout with what may have been typhoid fever during the Afghan War. I’m still researching that one, but Jude Law himself
effectively makes the case that an 1890s military man like Watson would have seen “some hardship” that surely would have toughened him up (see minute 2:12, onward). Both men could act their way around just about anyone, given the opportunity and the right script. And their chemistry was so thick you could chew on it. I’d wager they’re set to become one of the best screen duos in a very long time. If there was any fault in the film, it certainly wasn’t Robert’s or Jude’s. I wondered whether Irene Adler’s American accent fit the actual sound of the time, but on that point I know very little, beyond listening to the oldest “talkies” and a general understanding of the ways in which the sounds of a language can shift over time. I know nothing whatsoever about Adler from the stories, having not gotten that far yet in my reading. Rachel McAdams manages to turn her little-known criminal character into a vivacious woman far ahead of the time and place in which she finds herself. I do wish Downey and McAdams had offered us a few more intimate scenes—when she ends up in handcuffs I’m afraid I don’t care too terribly.

The other supporting actors did a fantastic job, for the most part. Lestrade perfectly fit the man I imagined from the stories—he looked and sounded as if he had leaped off the page. (I assume his literary partner, Mr. Gregson, was removed from the script from the outset to tighten things up.) And the gigantic Dredger was played with more heart than most oversized baddies. My father was a career officer, so I have a special place in my heart for Constable Clark (“Clarky”)—my favorite supporting character. Perhaps make-up could have given him a wee bit more color, though. Make-up also needed to decide just how to portray a healing cut on Holmes’ mouth. I assumed at first that it was the result of the
hit he took during filming, but as I understand it now, the six-stitch injury he sustained was on the inside of his mouth. So the waxing and waning of his cut lip was an annoying distraction (continuity screw-ups tend to unsuspend my suspension of disbelief).

Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Lord Blackwood is my biggest gripe. I had to agree with a friend of mine—he was not nearly menacing enough to fit the diabolical nature of the character. With little physical connection between him and those who assisted him in his intricate machinations, he seemed to float through frame after frame, looking anachronistic in his tight leather trench and half-slicked, half-shaved head. It was as if Guy Ritchie forgot which movie he was making. The rest of the period costuming was thoroughly Victorian—as it should be, given Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (“A Room With a View”) was in charge—which makes Blackwood’s appearance clash even more. Given Beavan’s otherwise faithful dressing, I have to assume this was a directorial choice, one which I hope Mr. Ritchie will learn from before moving on to the sequel (which is already moving forward).

The arrangement of most of director of photography Philippe Rousselot’s shots showed his Oscar-winning talent (“A River Runs Through It”) and my favorite shot, hands-down, is one that begins tightly focused on a box that says “This Way Up”, then flips over into an overhead view of the chase scene between Dredger and Holmes.

The rest of my gripes were quibbly ones. For example, when Holmes and Watson jump out of the boat and head for the factory, they end up in water up to waist and chest, respectively—but once they’re in the factory, they appear perfectly dry. Adler and Watson pin the map onto the floor with heavy objects—twice. And how did Lestrade know where to find Holmes in that attic? Where was that attic, anyway? The same place where Holmes had been fighting in the ring? How Holmes knew about the glass knife held by Blackwood in the opening scenes was never explained. While it didn’t detract from the story, the fun of Holmes is hearing him show off what he knows and how he knows it. And the electrical device with which Holmes zaps Dredger frustrated the heck out of me—what the hell IS that thing?

And I hated the stupid crow that kept appearing at Blackwood’s crime scenes. Either Blackwood is a “magician” or he’s not. If he’s not, then leave the crow for an artistic statement in another film. In my opinion, the visual cue was distracting and sophomoric.

Finally, I noted a number of places where the trailers (both
the first and second) contained scenes that were cut from the movie: The white-clad female victim from the opening scenes of the movie appearing to “fall” upward. Lestrade reproving Holmes for his methods. Holmes struggling with a scantily-clad Adler as he admonishes her to “Be a lady.” Adler’s line, “They’ve been flirting like this for hours.” (Was that last referring to Watson and the boatman, or Watson and Holmes? Was it taken out after the ridiculous homophobic flap began?) Changing the movie after the trailer’s been released is of course nothing new in the industry, but I’ve always found it annoying. And it speaks volumes about how the editing of a film has played out. I wondered whether the scenes with Adler had contained more of the sexual tension that would have added a deeper dimension to the relationship between her and Holmes.

Overall, I loved the film—along with enough movie-goers to give the inventive Avatar a good run for its money. I’d love to hear your reactions.

Happy New Year to all!

Photo credit: Warner Brothers Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Shifting Sands of Educational Policy: San Mateo Community College District

In my ten years working as a part-time faculty member at the College of San Mateo, I had never been to a Board of Trustees meeting at the San Mateo Community College District. Had I known it might stretch on from 6 p.m. to 10:45 p.m., I might have thought twice. I’m glad I stuck around much later than the rest of the students and faculty who came to make their voices heard, because I discovered just how little of what was said (and said quite eloquently and movingly, in some cases) was internalized by the members of the Board. Although they claim that they maintain a policy of not directly addressing the statements made during the open comments section, in fact, they spent a great deal of time addressing them—long after the speakers had left the building.

College of San Mateo English Professor, Merle Cutler, delivered a laudable speech identifying struggling students served by CSM who have gone on to reach amazing heights in their academic careers. Unfortunately, were these students to arrive at CSM’s door today, with the current budget crisis stripping the programs that could assist them in bettering their lives, none of them would be where there are now. She went on to praise the San Francisco City College and its Chancellor, who took a 25% voluntary pay cut, in marked contrast to our own Chancellor and administrators, who have collectively raised their salaries, on average, 30% over the last 5 years. Would she support the policies of a man willing to make these kinds of sacrifices? “Yes, I would,” Ms. Cutler answered emphatically.

I'm not sure that I fully agree with Ms. Cutler's high praise of SFCC, but she did make some important points. It should be noted that the College of San Mateo, which serves roughly 11,000 students, receives just over $25M allocated from District funds; the District Office receives just under $8M—almost one third as much as the entire college. At last month’s Student Budget Forum, CSM President Mike Claire made the case that, were we to get rid of every administrator in the college, we would still have a shortfall of over a million dollars, because administrators have “retreat rights”. This means they can return to their teaching positions with seniority intact if they are no longer working in administration—it also means other faculty members with less seniority may be bumped from their positions. (Note that the college is also required to retain a certain number of administrators in order to maintain its accreditation status.)

What this doesn’t address is Ms. Cutler’s confidence issue. Taking a pay cut or pay freeze isn’t so much about the money saved. It’s about the gesture. It’s about showing your constituents and those who look to you for leadership that you’re willing to be a part of the solution, no matter how small that part may be. It’s a basic social principle: Each of us gives up a little so that no one has to give up a lot. (Near the end of the long evening, Trustee Holober offered, “I may be opening Pandora's Box... There is room for cutting at the District level and the college level if we’re talking about benefits and wages.” Cut wages and benefits at the District level? Given their history, I have to wonder how seriously that might be considered. And at the college level? Pandora’s Box, indeed.)

Of much greater concern to me was the issue of the Board’s adoption of a document entitled “Reaffirmation of Core Values and Principles” (click here to read the full text). While the concept of restating decision-making criteria is sound, there already exists a well-defined mission for this District (click here to read it in full). In some of the first statements made that evening, District Shared Governance Council Co-Chair, Patty Dilko, mentioned Skyline’s “Letter of Concern”, written to protest that evening’s planned adoption of the Core Values document. Ms. Dilko felt, however, that faculty, as represented through the Academic Senate, were satisfied that their voices were being heard and that the process by which budget cuts were being planned and reviewed was working well. (As a faculty member sitting at ground zero, I’m not sure “working well” is the phrase I would use.)

Board President Patricia Miljanich acknowledged receipt of numerous emails pleading to hold off a vote in order to run these Core Values through the shared governance process. She responded, “This is setting a policy, which is what we do.” The Board plans to use this document to deal with upcoming issues, she said. “We have not created this in a vacuum.” Ms. Dilko noted that the District Senate is not asking them not to vote, but said the Senate will be discussing in their upcoming meeting the items contained within the document. “We are engaged in understanding them,” she said.

I would be happy to offer my own assessment of just a couple of parts of this document, in the interests of furthering the Senate’s “understanding”, especially in light of the fact that the visiting speakers seemed not to have made a dent in the understanding of the Board.

The most impassioned orators of the evening were students from Cañada and Skyline Colleges who spoke out in opposition to budget cuts in general, and in defense of Student Services in particular. Katy Rose, who has been recruiting fellow students and encouraging activism at Cañada, spoke not to the Board, but to the rest of the assembled, urging that they not be complicit in allowing cuts. We need to stop accepting the idea, she said, “that we take whatever we can get.” Instead, “we will get all that we can take.”

The rest of the students had come from Skyline to plead for the colleges. David Walters suggested that there is enough money in state and local coffers, but it is being misspent. Noemi Perdomo worried that immigrant students, currently able to take classes as a result of Assembly Bill 540, will suffer under cuts to EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs & Services—a state-funded program assisting underrepresented, non-traditional, low-income and educationally disadvantaged students to gain access to, and successfully complete, a higher education). They will not be able to work or go to school without such programs, she said. I would further like to point out that workers pay taxes which then fund local programs and services—highly-skilled workers with college degrees pay even more. Those who do not work often require the use of social services, which are then less well-funded. It is therefore in the region’s interest to continue to pay for these programs at the college—the return on investment is significant.

Several students advocated for DSPS (Disabled Students Programs & Services), which continues to face draconian cuts of up to 70%. Fernando Gomez claimed the DSPS program helped him conquer the setbacks his learning disability had created and allowed him to move from earning Ds and Fs to As and Bs. “This is not money that is being flushed down the toilet. We are working hard every day, every night.” Michelle Araica spoke through freely-flowing tears, “I know everyone keeps saying that these cuts aren’t personal…I am a DSPS student. And it’s starting to feel personal.” Tom Wong likened it to “taking away a guy’s wheelchair and building more wheelchair ramps.” This put me in mind of the construction projects on all three campuses, seen by many as completely incongruous, given our financial situation—construction during the recession has been a real PR battle for the District. In a sense, Mr. Wong is correct--by unfunding our DSPS programs, we may lose our wheelchair-bound students as we add more ramps.

But the statements of these three students hit the mark in other ways they could not have anticipated.

It is generally agreed that the Board members do not respond to open comments. However, Trustee Richard Holober asked the Board’s indulgence to make a statement. The normal process in these meetings, he said, is for students and faculty to come to the meeting, tell the Board what is on their minds, and then, often, they leave. “And we get down to the nitty-gritty of dealing with these budget cuts. And I think that creates a disconnect.” He asked the students to go out into their communities and apply the same passion in support of the fund-raising initiatives the District plans to push in the near future (a maintenance assessment district, general obligation bond, and parcel tax were all floated as possibilities, later in the meeting). While I agree that we need to move beyond our neighborhoods and even beyond our county borders, I also think we need to turn our attention inward. After sitting through the rest of this meeting, I feel we need to examine under a microscope every step being taken by the Board.

Sure enough, Mr. Holober’s prediction came to pass. By 8 p.m., none of the student or faculty speakers were still in the room. And the Board did indeed “get down to the nitty-gritty,” sans opposition.

The vote to approve the Core Values document happened quickly and without further opposition. Once adopted, The Core Values document became the defining element for the rest of the evening’s discussions. Note the following language:
“Student support services and staff are also important and help ensure the success of our students in their pursuit of a postsecondary education; however, the Board believes that, in order to preserve the greatest number of classes and programs to meet student demand, the College district may need to reduce, consolidate and/or automate student support services.”
In keeping with this document, Trustee Holober stated that the college needed to serve as many students as possible and he further intimated that students who require significant financial input were a burden on the system. He offered the following example: If closing the child care center at Skyline inconveniences 40 students who will no longer be able to come to school, and the costs of keeping that center open means cutting classes that impact 350 students, he would rather remove the child care center.

On its face this seems logical. But is this the same rationale being used for cutting the colleges’ Disabled Students Programs and Services or its EOPS programs? In other words, because it costs more to assist a student with a disability—from dyslexia to an autistic spectrum disorder to, as Tom Wong pointed out, a physical challenge requiring a wheelchair—we are no longer going to fund these programs? Because a recent immigrant or an at-risk student requires additional financial input, we are no longer going to serve these students? I personally find that rationale unconscionable. It flies in the face of the actual mission statements of all three colleges. And it is wholly un-American.

“We have an obligation to try to do something proactive to try to relieve the situation we’re in in the District,” said President Miljanich. If the colleges are not organized enough to make decisions on their own about where cuts should be made, Vice President Dave Mandelkern suggested, the Board will do it for them. “Face it, the budget train’s leaving the station. And people need to be on board.” VP Mandelkern requested an organizational chart of all of the programs being cut and all of the programs being kept, while Trustee Karen Schwarz further asked that the rationale behind these decisions be included in the chart. However, it was pointed out that in order to make equitable, reasonable cuts, the Board would need a lot of knowledge and expertise—and this is the job for which they’ve hired their college Vice Presidents. VP Mandelkern replied, “If you’re going to need us to be experts, we’re good students…we’ll get there.” Pres. Miljanich replied, “We’re never going to be the experts that we’ve hired others to be…but we are going to be proactive and we are going to be involved.”

So some members of the Board are willing to become experts with enough depth to choose between courses and programs at the college? Are they ignoring the fact that faculty have primacy over instruction? Are they not also able to see that there are accreditation standards that need to be met in order to keep our colleges operational?

Given the magnitude of the cuts to DSPS, EOPS, and similar programs across all three colleges, VP Mandelkern asked whether there are even viable programs left and whether we should in fact consider consolidation of these programs at one of the campuses. The Board’s continued insistence on consolidation of student services, especially services for the physically disabled, would create transportation and logistical issues. It might even inconvenience our students to the point that we end up in violation of state and federal laws.

Another reason why I find this document so grave is the institution of substantive changes to the District Mission Statement, the Preamble of which provides a useful summary:
“The District is committed to leadership by providing quality education and promoting life-long learning in partnership with its community and its surrounding educational institutions. It actively participates in the economic, social, and cultural development of San Mateo County. In a richly diverse environment and with increasing awareness of its role in the global community, the District is dedicated to maintaining a climate of academic freedom in which a wide variety of viewpoints is cultivated and shared. The District actively participates in the continuing development of the California Community Colleges as an integral and effective component of the structure of public higher education in the State.”
Note the words “…promoting life-long learning in partnership with its community…” in the very first sentence. Yet, in the very first paragraph of the body of the new Core Values document is this statement:
“While lifelong learning classes have long been an important part of the community college mission, in the current situation, these courses cannot assume the same importance as transfer and workforce development courses.”
The second paragraph goes on to state:
“…the most important consideration as budget reductions are proposed is whether or not the proposed action will unnecessarily reduce our core mission courses in transfer and workforce development.”
The Board has now identified a “core mission” that no longer includes community education. I wonder how their constituents within the county feel about that change? (Note that these are the same citizens the District wishes to tax to pay for its upkeep and programs, and who they hope will purchase memberships at its new fitness center.) Are they intending to change the mission statements for the three colleges, too? Is this the kind of policy they intend to set? (And by the way…if this is the “core mission”, what do we call the rest of the Mission Statement? The “secondary mission”?)

This was all the more amusing in light of that evening's presentation showcasing art commissioned for the buildings recently completed at Skyline. The slides included renderings of several mosaics which tastefully incorporated words from the District's Mission Statement. Ironically, included in these mosaics were the words “lifelong learning”, which the Board of Trustees had just voted to de-emphasize!

I would argue that the San Mateo Community College Board of Trustees is not taking a “proactive” stance. It is taking a dictatorial one. In light of the current crisis, members appear to be taking the opportunity to make changes that will have wide-ranging, long-lasting implications.

If you're able to attend a Board meeting, I suggest you bring coffee and pay attention, right up to the end. I can promise you an enlightening experience, watching the sands of educational policy shift beneath our feet.

Watch your step, my friend.