Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Back-To-School Politics - the Politics of Composition

One of my friends posted Stanley Fish's NYT article on college composition courses on facebook today. There are lots of well-informed comments from different perspectives on the NYT page.
Since I taught writing in the kind of composition department that Fish decribes,I feel qualified to school the bemused Professor Fish.

Part of Fish's assessment of trends in the teaching of college composition courses fits my experience. I taught college-level composition for six years - first as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and then during my first two years working as an adjunct at CUNY, where I also read and evaluated ACT exams. I share some of Fish's frustration with college comp classes; I often felt I was doing something more "old-fashioned" than what others did because I did teach grammar and sentence structure, and because I insisted that the course material could not consist of watching movies, but had to engage the written word. I was, as Fish is, appalled to find that some of my colleagues did not give their student any reading assignments at all.
The reason that people did this wasn't really political; it was a strategy for dealing with the existing skills of the students they met in their classrooms. The majority of people teaching college writing courses today are graduate students who do not want to alienate their students, and want them to enjoy their classes. Confronting students with difficult reading assignments and practice with grammar is not an obvious route to teacher-popularity.

Some of these courses my colleagues taught involved lots of direct instruction in writing; one model course that was very popular with teachers involved students critiquing each others' writing as a group while the instructor marked up essays on an overhead projector. Those teachers couldn't be faulted for not teaching writing; there was no content in those courses at all. However, I never used this approach because I thought that exposing students to really good writing was key to improving students' work. If the students aren't that familiar with written language, they aren't equipped to teach each other how to write. Their criticisms of their peers might not be anymore valid than their criticism of Joan Didion; (my advanced journalism major students claimed that her book Miami was full of "run-on sentences" because she wrote in long -grammatically correct- sentences.

In his article, Fish blames bad composition teaching for the tragically bad writing of American university students. However, the real problem is that as television has replaced print as the medium of news and entertainment, the majority of our students are not literate in "print culture." It is more common now to encounter college students who simply do not read - not newspapers, not magazines, not books. Those who do read don't often read models of what college classes ask them to produce. At the beginning of the semester in my history class, I ask students what the most difficult book they read recently was. Almost all of them listed works of Shakespeare which they had read (and had not understood) in their English classes, and a few named Harry Potter books. Very few of them read anything for pleasure - unless they were reading internet news or sports articles.

The problem that writing instructors face is not the result of bad schooling. If people do not read, they will not be good writers. If they are not familiar with written language, which is not like spoken language, they will not be able to produce elegant prose.

Why don't people try to familiarize their students with this more difficult writing that would be a model of what they want their students to achieve? Is it because of a multi-cultural agenda? no.
One group that seriously objects to teaching essay-writing by assigning essays to read are the English literature faculty who want to teach their students the great works of literature. They are on the canonical mission for which Fish criticizes ACTA. Those lit people are holding back the teaching of writing just as much as those who teach the smarmier versions of comp-rhet.
They're not teaching writing either; they're teaching the appreciation of literature - and the students be damned who don't appreciate it. In order to engage students at all, many of these literature teachers ask their students to respond with an experience they once had which was similar to something in the book that they just read - but teaching students how to write autobiographical narratives does not help them write better essays in their college courses - although it may help them "relate" to literature.

One of the comments on Fish's article comes from a student who just couldn't relate; he's not interested in literature, but who says he would learn to write better if he could write about something that interested him:

I have always found it difficult to write about writing or literature, but easy to write about things that exit in the physical universe.
So it appears to me that rhetoric and grammar should be taught incidentally as students consider other things. After all, people who are actually interested in grammar are destined to become English professors.
Or to put it another way, I always want to learn to write better, but please spare me from writing about, or even thinking about Moby Dick.

That's an example of a larger general truth; I recall reading about a shocking study that revealed that students' writing improved when they wrote about subjects that were interesting to them. Maybe it's tragic that everyone isn't interested in Moby Dick, but being so shouldn't be a pre-requisite for learning how to write a decent college paper. Comp/rhet scholars who do the "writing across the curriculum" and writing-intensive courses that ACTA finds disdainful agree. They say the goal should be to teach students how to write argumentative essays that will help them in college courses in many disciplines, and to assign readings that help them learn about argument.

Following this notion, I assigned reading to students in composition classes that were models of what I wanted them to write. I did not assign Moby Dick because I wasn't teaching them to write literature. I assigned essays - on the topics that Fish thinks are standing in for what should be the real content of the course.
One semester, I used sports writing as a focus to try to engage students' interest. Another semester, I had students do research on ongoing debates about their own university, reading the school newspaper and documents in the university archives. I taught "composition with a cultural diversity" focus that got students to write about racism, class, gender, and media bias - all using great essays - James Baldwin, Cherrie Moraga, Noam Chomsky. I taught them about the value of evidence and logical fallacies by assigning Pierre Vidal-Naquet's work on Holocaust Denial for a couple of semesters. I used some excellent composition anthologies and some newergrammar books.
My favorite grammar book of all time was Scott Rice's Right Words, Right PlacesR, which used sentences from canonical works of literature to teach sentence structure and style.
That book, now out of print, brings me to the last point: Grammar.
Everyone talks about how bad it is, and yet no one really wants to teach it. Grading students' papers one grammatical-error at a time is not teaching, it is editing. I met countless students whose main lesson from high school had been that they "couldn't write" and "didn't know grammar". They were actually traumatized by people's attempts to teach them grammar; they avoided writing at all costs, finding classes with no papers required. They didn't think of grammar as something creative or interesting, but only as a something that they would "mess up" without knowing it. They learned that they were "bad writers" and they believed that "good writers" were superior people who were born, not made.
Meeting those students is what causes writing teachers to avoid doing much about grammar; they don't want to compound the problem. If they can just get the students to engage a little with writing in a positive way, they hope, grammar correction can come later. This doesn't work either.
But how do you teach grammar - at a college level? If I stand up and give a lecture about parallelism, it is unlikely to result in improvement in students' writing. The best method is all the "active-learning" and "critical thinking" stuff that the ACTA people Fish cites would probably hate, especially in college. My approach to teaching grammar was to stress to students that written grammar was a set of rules that they weren't comfortable with, that "good writing" wasn't a natural talent, and that they would not improve without practice, much as if they were learning to play tennis, or the guitar. I used grammar books that had creative exercises or got my students into games involving sentence structure so that instead of focusing on error, students could engage with grammar as a tool that they could use to express themselves more clearly. These grammar lessons were quite lively - but they took a lot of their methodology from creative writing courses that I had taken in the past. The comp/rhet people probably thought that was old-fashioned of me; and the ACTA people probably thought that if the students still needed that work in college, they just shouldn't be there in the first place. After all, the thing that Fish really doesn't mention is that the teaching of these important skills is done by graduate students and now adjuncts, because the "real professors" think that teaching grammar is beneath them, along with the students who don't know it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What to Do, What to DO?

A number of third-party enthusiasts are gleefully pointing out all the ways that Obama has failed to live up to people's expectations of him. For an example, note the comments after Dave Lindorff's recent piece exhorting people on the left to get active for Single-Payer at the Town Halls. I don't think that this "I told you so" glee directed at Obama voters is any better than the "I told you so" finger-shaking I got from Dems following the election of George Bush in 2000 (I had voted for Nader.) The answer is still to put pressure on whoever is in power through grass-roots action for single payer all the while knowing that in the end, we will probably not get it.

I agree with Lindorff in general about the need for the left to out-organize the right at the health-care reform town-halls. In fact,I have read that single-payer advocates have been visible at every town-hall meeting so far, but the media is rarely reporting the story (note the previous blog entry). However I'm a bit puzzled by his recent comment on counterpunch that "obstruction" is the only viable option at the town-hall meetings. He goes on to say,
Instead of opposing the right-wing hecklers at these events, progressives should be making common cause with them. Instead of calling them fascists, we should be working to turn them, by showing them that the enemy is not the left; it is the corporations that own both Democrats and Republicans alike.
The only proper approach to the wretched health care legislation currently working its way through Congress at this point is to kill it and start over. At these "town meeting" staged events, Obama and the Democrats need to hear, in no uncertain terms, that we don't want no stinkin' ObamaCare. We want Medicare for all.

Given that one of the biggest fears of this group is that "Obamacare" is actually a "Trojan Horse" for single-payer (which is how Dems have tried to sell the plan to the left) this strategy seems unrealistic to me. Just as the media won't report the single-payer advocates already questioning the corporate Dem plan, the wisdom on the street (and on the Hill) if Obama's plan is defeated (or further watered down) is that America is not ready for a public-option, let alone single-payer.

My sense, based on what I've seen and read about right-wing protesters (beyond the anti-choicers and other religious fear mongerers)
is that
- They don't want "illegal aliens" to be insured and they believe that these illegal aliens will be covered by "Obamacare".

-They fear that if medicare is extended "for all" that it will go bankrupt or the U.S. as a whole will go bankrupt - and their coverage will be reduced - this is why seniors are prominent protesters at the Town Halls. This is not then, an irrational "keep your government hands off my medicare," it is a rational (but misinformed) argument: "I can't afford to share my medicare" (probably with them illegal aliens). Glenn Beck has recently been stoking these fears by suggesting that the health care plan, added to the bank bailout will send the US into an inflationary spin that will lead the government to the solutions offered by Nazi Germany, including euthanasia. One of pieces of meat he tossed out to the far-right base was the notion that the Federal Reserve will just "print money" in order to pay for the health care plan.
and that brings me to the third group:

- They are tea-partying libertarians who think that EVERYTHING is done better in the private sector (note: Ron Paul) and want to eliminate public schools, etc. The powers behind this movement are neo-cons, but the frothing at the mouth base are angry white men who think that the government is helping less deserving others instead of them.
If you want to understand these white anti-government types read Leonard Zeskind's book about them, or follow his articles on the tea-party movement. Don't believe me? - note the guy in confederate t-shirt pictured here, holding the sign reading "Abolish Federal Government."

It's hard to imagine how single-payer advocates are going to make common cause with this crowd.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Town Halls - Angry Mobs? Astro-Turfers? and What About Single-Payer?

If you look at most media coverage of this month's health-reform town hall meetings you would think that crowds are divided between people who support Obama's plan and the conservative opposition. This presentation, which Democrats also encourage, lends credibility to the notion that Obama is proposing the only universal-health coverage plan on the table. What that doesn't tell you, is that the most organized presence at the Town-Hall meeting are real grass-roots single-payer advocates, who don't support Obama's plan because it subsidizes private insurance companies.
Now that Pelosi has finally agreed to actually let the house debate and vote on single-payer plan, it seems even more reasonable that the discussion of Single-Payer at Town Hall meetings should be heard, or at least reported.
Despite the tea-partyish, anti-tax radicals' complaints, it does seem that people other than vetted plants are able to speak at these events (unlike the Bush meetings where people were kept out/expelled for wearing t-shirts or having a bumper-sticker on their car) but it's a shame that a bunch of wing-nuts are dominating the media coverage.

The Republicans and Democrats are both confusing the issue. On the hand, Republicans are arguing that the Obama health plan is a "trojan horse" for single-payer, which, according to most opinion polls, is actually what most people want. On the other hand, Democrats argue that single-payer is politically impossible because of American public opinion, while simultaneously arguing that the "angry mobs" currently disrupting health-care town-halls are a bunch of corporate interests in disguise. The sad fact is that the health-care corporations are likely to win either way. IF ONLY "Obamacare" were the Trojan Horse that the Republicans fear.
Once again, Democrats are in a bind because their corporate ties leave them incapable of defending themselves against right-wing "populists" or supporting the truly populist movement for meaningful U.S. health care reform.

For those who are uninformed, "single payer" means replacing private insurance companies with national insurance that would cover everyone. It is not the same thing as "socialized medicine" because doctors and hospitals are still private businesses, not publicly owned in this model. It is what they have in Canada and France. "Socialized medicine," where doctors are paid by the state is what they sort of have in England. (privatization has been slowly destroying the NHS)

** Just added: Paul Krugman's column has a good analysis of both the mobs and the anti-mob commentary here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

On the Radio

You can listen to me being interviewed about my book here:

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

TFF Films 9 and 10, From Palestine: "Salt of This Sea" and "Rachel";

I started my TFF weekend with two films about Palestine/Israel: the feature film Salt of This Sea starring Suheir Hamad, in the blurry photo below. Later that I day, I saw Simone Bitton's documentary about Rachel Corrie, Rachel.
Both these films were very good. Salt of this Sea, which told the story of a Brooklyn-born Palestinian-American taking her own "Right of Return," could serve as an educational film about the Palestinian situation as a whole, but wasn't didactic. It was also visually stunning, well-acted, had an engaging story, and didn't include a ton of violence, which was a relief. The most ideological element of the film is probably the loving panning of the scenery of the once Palestinian Israel. It was a feat to make the film because it was shot by Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans in both Palestine and Israel. As the writer/director, Annemarie Jacir explained, in several scenes, they would keep shooting until the police would come and stop them. I hope that this film can educate people about Palestine the way that the musical Sarafina did about Apartheid. Pyramide Films is distributing it and it should be showing in U.S. theaters this Fall.

Simone Bitton's Rachel, was about terrible violence, and presented a much grittier, grimmer Palestine and Israel than the beautiful landscapes presented in Salt of this Sea. An exploration of youth and commitment, the film told the story of Rachel Corrie's death through the eyes of ISM members who were with her in Gaza in 2003. I was so struck by it in the beginning: we hear Rachel Corrie's words from her emails and diaries and then go to close-ups on the face of a young woman reading. "What is your name? " we hear the film-maker ask, and "How old are you? How old were you when you were in Palestine?" A few minutes later we see the earlier image of one of the readers, screaming immediately following Corrie's death. This film also includes testimony from IDF bulldozer drivers and interviews with Corrie's parents and teachers. Her parents have created a foundation in her name, which you can go to here.
One of the strongest parts of the film is the showing of a section of video from the IDF surveillance of the area. Here's what Bitton had to day about it when she was interviewed by Salon magazine:

I knew that in the Palestinian territories there are military cameras everywhere, the whole territory is controlled by camera. There must be huge operation rooms in military headquarters with screens, you know. Even in the old city of Jerusalem, there is one camera after the other, there is no dead angle. So I knew for sure that the Philadelphi corridor and all Rafah [the road and city where Corrie was killed] were filmed all the time by these military cameras.

So obviously there should have been a recording of the mission during which Rachel was killed. I tried to obtain it, and it was very difficult, but in the end I got a tape from the Israeli military and I remember the young soldier who gave me the tape telling me, "Oh, I had to work all night to get it ready for you." I don't know exactly what they did, but what is for sure is that we see a little bit of the mission scene before [Corrie's death], and we see after, but we don't see it happen. When I go very slowly, image by image, I can see that it has been cut. Also there are conversations between the soldiers on this tape, and these cameras have no sync. Obviously the sound comes from another machine; somebody had put it together.

If we were in a court, this videotape wouldn't have any value. But I'm in a film, and in a film it has great value. It's one hour into the film and we've been talking about these bulldozers, this group of young people, this house which was standing and now has been destroyed, and here it is -- here's the place, here's the house, here are the bulldozers. It's very, very strong emotionally and cinematographically, and I chose to have it in the film with commentary by one of the young activists. He recognizes himself in this very bad-quality image because he was wearing a white T-shirt and there's a white spot of somebody running in the frame. It's a very strong situation, to recognize yourself on the image of a military video camera, when you were not aware you were being filmed.

This film was really well-done - sensitive, probing, and very moving. I hope it shows in American theaters or on television.

* * *

Friday, May 01, 2009

TFF Film #8 : My Dear Enemy

Last night at the Tribeca Film Fest, I hit the limit of my endurance. My boyfriend calls a certain look I get as I'm about to fall asleep, "sleepy face" and I think I was wearing that for the second half of "My Dear Enemy," a Korean comedy about a woman who comes to collect a debt of 3500 won ($2600) from her incorrigble ex-boyfriend. The film was subtle, enjoyable, and wonderfully acted, and I'd like to see it again when I'm more awake.
The drama unfolds as the two drive around Seoul, where the charming rogue of an ex-boyfriend borrows money from other girlfriends, acquaintances and friends in order to pay her back. Because of the series of vignettes with hilariously strange characters, the film reminded me of the classic 80s film, After Hours, although set in a lower key. The heart of the movie is the dynamic between the two main characters. I can't imagine a film like this being done in America, where "boyish" man / tough, unyielding females movies tend to be annoying and cliched. Perhaps it's a good thing that I was barely conscious for the ending, because now I'll enjoy it again when it comes out on DVD.

TFF Film #7: The Fish Child - Under the Surface of a Femme Fatale

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors said that what you needed to win a Pulitzer prize for literature you needed was a certain combination of sensational plot elements including incest. I don't know if that actually fits the prize winners between 1992 and 1999 when I was in Graduate school, but I thought about this argument after I saw The Fish Child on Wednesday night. I don't mean to say that I didn't like it, but the film did pile on just about every bad thing: incest, murder, prostitution, and there's more but I don't want to give too much away. One of the principle characters was also crying just about every time she was on screen.
The Festival guide hooked me by comparing the film to Thelma and Louise. I also saw it because the director's previous film, XXY won the Critics' week grand prize at Cannes (that one's about hermaphroditism, so there may be something to this Pulitzer Prize formula and big film critics).
So, although I liked the movie I was disappointed because I was expecting an exciting and thrilling movie filled with humor and lively female characters. This movie was more dreamy, slow, and depressing, and the two female characters were troubled, secretive and often silent. The story is told from the point of view of Lala, the rich daughter of a judge who's romantically involved with her family's Paraguayan maid, Ailin, who's about to turn 21. At the beginning of the film, the judge is mysteriously killed, and for the rest of the movie we seek the answer to his murder, and to the "real" identity of the Paraguayan maid. At about one hour into the film I started thinking of Ailin as a classic "Femme Fatale" - but I liked how the movie then undid this "type" and explored her character's origins along with slowly revealing the intensity of the relationship between the two young women. The film was very well paced and since good drama should emerge from believable characters it got away with the soap-operatic plot elements. Since telenovelas also play a role in the film, perhaps this was an intentional commentary on the soap opera as a genre.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

TFF Movie #6: Cropsey

The Documentary, Cropsey says it is about the exploration of an "urban legend" that comes true, but it is mostly a true-crime documentary about the cases of missing children on Staten Island in the 1980s and trials of Andre Rand, convicted in two kidnappings. The film conveyed the horror of these disappearances as well as the generally creepy atmosphere around the grounds of the old Willowbrook State School, where Rand used to work, and where he continued to camp out after it was closed down in 1983. It is also the grounds where the body of one of the missing children, Jennifer Schweiger, was finally found.
The film-makers worked very hard to track down people who knew Rand, and established a correspondence with him while he was in prison during his trial for the kidnapping of Holly Ann Hughes, who like the other missing children from Staten island in the 1980s has never been found. However, they were never able to get an interview with Rand, so the film has to rely on comments by police, neighbors, and the defense attorneys. Their treatment of Rand is balanced, and they present a nuanced analysis of the atmosphere around the trial by comparing Rand to the urban legend of "Cropsey" and describing him as a "perfect scapegoat" for a community traumatized by horrible, unsolved disappearances of children. These disappearances are truly tragic and I felt so terrible for the Staten Island community while I was watching the film. I had never known about these cases before.
Another truly tragic story in the film is about the Willowbrook state school, which is the most convincing connection between Rand and the missing children. Many of the missing children were developmentally disabled and Willowbrook was a school for the "mentally retarded" with a truly scandalous history. According to police, when they showed Rand footage from Geraldo Rivera's 1972 expose of the school, he became very, very disturbed - his eyes rolled, he drooled, and he began rocking. Having been so traumatized by working in a school where children were left naked, lying on the floor in their own feces, Rand then continued to live on the grounds of the institution, which has an elaborate underground tunnel system, after it had closed.
While the film-makers interweave a discussion of growing up on Staten Island with the tales of the abandoned grounds and tunnels of Willowbrook, which they tramp through several times, I think the film might have been more interesting if they had done more with their own experiences as kids growing up in a town where children disappeared. People talk about Staten Island as a "dumping ground" in a general way in the film, but that aspect of the story could have been elaborated more. To me, the most surprising story in the film was told by a Black man from the island who was, along with about five others, taken on a "trip" in a van by a man and didn't know at the time that he was actually being "kidnapped"! Was there a connection to Rand? We don't know. Instead of delving further into how people felt as these news stories about disappearances came out, they investigate truly ridiculous claims by police that Rand was the Jim Jones of Staten Island, the leader of a secret Satanic cult lodged in the tunnels of Willowbrook. That's where I thought the film really took a wrong-turn - literally, going back to the same tunnels again, where by that point, the dark images of dirty walls and trash had ceased to have an impact. Even though the film-makers don't wind up agreeing with the cult allegations, they don't weave them into their own "urban legend" analysis, which remained too superficial.
A more successful treatment of the impact on a community in such a case is the novel about Atlanta's child murders by Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta, which had much greater psychological depth. Of course, novels and films are totally different media, but without an answer about Rand, or going into greater depth about the surrounding community, it just became repetitive. I wearied of seeing grafitti-ed walls, clips of television coverage of the murders, the trial, and the Willowbrook school, and of the inconclusive hunt for the truth about Rand. This was an interesting film, but I thought it was foiled by an overuse of the generic conventions of "true crime" so that it felt more like a TV special than a feature film.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TFF Movie #5: Defamation

I just returned from seeing Yoav Shamir's documentary about the political use of anti-Semitism, Defamation. Shamir sets out at the beginning to explore anti-Semitism because it always gets major headlines in the Israeli newspapers, but he says he has never himself experienced it. Shamir goes looking for anti-Semitic incidents, and doesn't find much - though he does hear some odd comments from people, but most of the film is about how the Anti-Defamation League inflames people's fears of anti-Semitism without much justification. He interviews several rabbis who have very interesting and surprising things to say about the ADL and general anxieties about anti-Semitism. His conclusion at the end of the film is that it is not "good for the Jews" to be so obsessed with the Holocaust.
I'm glad that Shamir made the film and I think it was good, in fact important. Shamir is generally empathic with his subjects, which gives the film a feeling of balance, and is also probably why people open up to him. In one particularly interesting section of the film, three Black residents in Crown Heights start talking to him about the value of the book "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The best part of the film concerns the tour of Poland's death camps by a group of Israeli high school students who are warned by their guides that dangerous anti-Semites may try to break into their hotel rooms at night. He interviews several of the teens, and in one powerful moment, a girl says that even before the visit to the camps (which 30,000 Israeli teens now make every year), she was raised knowing that she is "hated" and that believing that makes her feel angry and feel hatred herself. "What is this doing to US?" Shamir said he wants the audience to think about. For that reason it's very thought provoking; I'd say it's a film that Jewish people really need to see.
The person who has done the most serious work on the exploitation of the memory of the Holocaust is Norman Finkelstein, whose book The Holocaust Industry, is a brilliant expose of the manipulation of the Holocaust for political and financial gain. Shoav includes Finkelstein in the film, but it is a pity that he did not spend as much time with Finkelstein as he did with ADL members, and that he did not do much to actually interview him about his research, or even show some clips from previous talks that Finkelstein has given, since Abe Foxman gets quite a bit of screen time. Because of his criticisms of Israel's foreign policy, Finkelstein lost his job as a professor at DePaul University two years ago.
Like the fellow who keeps this blog, I thought that the film was unkind to Finkelstein. It's interesting that he and I both reached for that word; I made that comment in the Q&A earlier tonight. While Shamir compares Finkelstein to a prophet, his editing makes the scholar seem unhinged; he says things that outside of context don't make sense. However, in the closing section of his interview, despite Shamir's somewhat dismissive framing, I thought he got the better of the film-maker. After he jokes that Abe Foxman is "worse than Hitler" (it's true that Finkelstein is a provocateur and his polemical style is part of the problem that he's had in academia), he goes into detail about the way that every politician in Israel calls every opponent Hitler. "Remember Rabin, before he was shot?" he asks Shamir. We do get a window into the source of Finkelstein's own abrasiveness, however. He says "At my house, it was always the food is worse than Auschwitz!" Since Finkelstein is known to be the child of Holocaust survivors, people have often engaged in a bit ofarmchair psychology about his passion about the issue.
It's also puzzling to me that Shamir was more sympathetic to Walt and Mearsheimer, of whom both Finkelstein and Chomsky were critical for their inflation of Jewish power over American foreign policy in the pages of the London Review of Books when their work originally was published some years ago.
I wonder if Shamir, who commented negatively about Finkelstein as not that original and kind of "crazy," will ultimately come to understand him better. Having made this film, Shamir too will certainly be called a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite and a Holocaust Denier. It's too bad that he couldn't acknowledge the contributions that Finkelstein has made to the study of the very subject that his film set out to explore.

Here's what the great historian, Raul Hilberg had to say when Finkelstein was denied tenure:

“ the substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because Finkelstein, when he published this book, was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that given this acuity of vision and analytical power, demonstrating that the Swiss banks did not owe the money, that even though survivors were beneficiaries of the funds that were distributed, they came, when all is said and done, from places that were not obligated to pay that money. That takes a great amount of courage in and of itself. So I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.”

The cost to Finkelstein has been obvious. I hope that the cost to Shamir will not be as great. His style is gentle, so he may get through to more people.

Monday, April 27, 2009

at the "City Island" Premiere

TFF Movie #4: City Island

During the Great Depression, Americans crammed movie theaters to see something known as the "screwball comedy" combining hilarity and glamor. If Raymond De Felitta's City Island is any indication of the kind of comedy our current depression will bring, we will at least be laughing on the weekends before we go back to our million-hour-a week-jobs. It's relatively early in his career, and it's high praise I know, but writer/director De Felitta may ultimately be compared to the great movie-comedy writers of that era: Preston Sturges and George s. Kaufman.
After reading the synopsis in the Tribeca Film Fest guide, I was a bit dubious. The film seemed to combine so many things: a teen-ager with a fat-fetish, a prison guard with a secret? I thought it would be weird and quirky, a sleeper. But no, this was the funniest movie I have seen in a very long time. The audience was howling for almost the entire film. What makes the film funny is not weird unlikely situations, but that it takes something we all understand to an extreme. The comedy of City Island stems from the fact that everyone in the family is lying about something, or as the previously linked official movie website puts it, "keeping a secret." The humor and the interactions in the film reminded me of Moonstruck, another Italian-American recession-era comedy from 1987. Both films could be compared to screwball comedies because of their madcap situations and characters, but instead of the glitzy parlor comedies of that era, both films center on working-class to middle-class Italian-American families and the humor erupts in big emotional exchanges rather than the "witty repartee" of the 1930s era films.
While there is much here that draws on 30s-style comedy, there are elements that mark this film as one specifically of its time. The main character in the movie, played beautifully by Andy Garcia, is a prison guard, and one of the other major characters in the film is an ex-con. The internet and social networking also feature hilariously in the plot. I won't say more. The film does not yet have a distributor, but I believe that it will get one. I also see this film as a serious candidate for Tribeca's audience award. We shall see....

Sunday, April 26, 2009

washington square park at 90 degrees in April

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back to my garden

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extreme close-up tulip

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in line for "Fear Me Not"

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TFF Movie #3: Fear Me Not

Last night I went to see Fear Me Not , a very suspenseful film by Dogme co-founder, Kristian Levring. I don't want to spoil it by saying too much here because the movie's best feature was its suspense. Not that much happens in the film and the pace is much slower than the trailer might lead you to believe. Afterward as my friends and I talked, we discovered that we all had terrible fantasies about what the main character was about to do for almost the entire movie. I was anxious for half an hour after the film ended, so if that's the mark of a good suspense film, I should have given it a "five" rating on my audience award ballot. If you want to see something elegantly made, disturbing and suspenseful, go see it.
However, while I thought the movie was incredibly well-made, I found the character's shift into "evil" - as the director put it in the Q&A - unconvincing, going too quickly from relatively "normal" thoughts into violent actions without any seeming underlying hostility, fear, or anxiety. The way that the violence was directed against women in particular didn't make psychological sense to me. The film-makers said that there was much of the film that was meant to be unknown to the audience, but I think that's a bit of a cop-out. As one rather dismissive young woman in the audience put it in the Q&A, "so this is basically a mean guy who likes doing nasty things to ladies?" The implied statement I believe was, in this genre, we've seen that film so many times that the standard has to be higher if we're going to give it props as an artistic statement.
Levring's debt to Hitchcock was clear in the movie's pacing and visual storytelling - both were superb. But the film-makers got the surface of Hitchcock without the depth. They were all too postmodern in their refusal to dig for the "truth" about this character. Hitchcock's films remain satisfying because we can identify elements of ourselves or people we know in the characters. Even his sometimes ham-handed 1950s pop-Freudianism gave his films a lasting impact that I don't think a self-consciously flat post-modern characterization of the "evil everyman" can achieve.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

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Double Tulips

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this year's tulips

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Tribeca Film Review #2 - The Swimsuit Issue

A friend of mine told me about her friend, Jane, who coached an all-male synchronized swim team in Sweden and that there was a film about them at this year's TFF called "Swimsuit Issue"
I had thought the film would be a documentary about this real team but it turned out to be a comedy based on their story in the vein of The Full Monty. (and in fact, the film-maker cites that film as an influence)
It was very crowd-pleasing and entertaining, and like the previous film, also made a somewhat serious point about men and their emotional boundaries. The guys in the film get the idea for their synchro team after holding a mock synchronized swimming party in drag for one of their friends. Following that, they begin to take themselves more seriously and want to practice, but claim that "reverse gender discrimination" is rampant in the sports world when the local pool denies them access.
The film doesn't stay with such a simple analysis. As the men are about to leave to begin competing for the first time, the female synchronized swimming coach tells one of the men on the team that they've gotten more publicity than she has in her entire career. Also, it becomes clear that homophobia, rather than "reverse sexism" is the reason behind the refusal of most people to take men's "synchro" seriously. If you look at youtube videos, you'll see that the majority of comments on men's synchro impugn the masculinity of the performers, and in the interview with the director linked above he says that men's homophobia (along with cold water) was the biggest challenge of making the film. The process of confronting homophobia among members of the team is one of the most interesting parts of this charming movie.

At the Q&A it became clear that the people involved were serious about promoting men's synchronized swimming - and they are not alone. There is real men's synchronized swimming and it is associated both with both Queer culture and non-athletes. If you look at the Youtube videos of men's synchro world cup competitions you'll see a certain campiness, which makes these swimmers entertaining. You may also notice that the people doing it are not quite as athletic as the women's teams.
However, if men could be accepted as synchronized swimming competitors, that could probably change.
The American male synchronized swimmer, Bill May, really camps it up, but he's very serious about this as a sport. He is currently performing in Las Vegas in a duet with a woman, and, according to the film-makers, is working hard on getting such "mixed doubles" into the Olympic Games. I agree with the mission. It would be great to see a queer-identified sport with openly gay men and queer-friendly decidedly un-macho straight guys reach a wider audience. As one commenter on the Swedish tv clip linked above commented, that really "conspires the objective of sports." (whatever that means).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca Film Fest 2009: "Here and There"

Last night, I went to my first Tribeca Film of the year, "Here and There,", a romantic comedy set in Belgrade and New York. It was the first time I had ever stood on the "rush ticket" line and I got in quite easily, though I did get to the theater more than hour before the film began.
The film was very good - a simple story told economically about a broke American musician who makes a deal with a Serbian immigrant to go to Belgrade, marry the man's girlfriend and then bring her back to the U.S. It was unusually graceful, I thought - music was part of the story and worked beautifully; the juxtaposition of events in New York and Belgrade was seamless; and the love-story was very touching. The minor characters were great - the nationalist Serbian cab-driver who hates America, the woman in the convenience store who wants to go to America, the guy who stood on the corner, the Puerto Rican mechanic. It was interesting to see a film that shows economic struggles that real people go through without being maudlin or didactic. Indeed, it was quite funny, and it made sense when the film-maker revealed that the idea for the movie came from his own experience as a "man with a van" (pronounced "wan" in the movie) running his own "moving company" to get by in NYC while he was studying at CUNY. (Yes, CUNY students and profs should all go see "Here and There" )
The film reminded me of Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise" because of its story of relatively ordinary events, its low-key humor, and its generally hip affect, so I wasn't surprised when I read this interview in which the director, Darko Lungulov cited Jarmusch as an influence.

There was a also a funny little comedy of errors at the screening last night, which showed the real-life amiability of the people who had made such an amiable film. I was sitting in the seats right behind those reserved for the film-maker and cast and because these are, of course, prime seats, people all came up and tried to sit in them. Most see the tape and the "reserved" labels and walk away. Eventually, an older Serbian woman ignored the "reserved" mark and sat in one of the aisle seats. She continued to sit their blithely as one theater manager after another tried to figure out where to put the very large crew (one from New York one from Belgrade) along with cast members (including Cyndi Lauper), given the small number of seats as more and more people came into the theater from the "rush" line. They evicted one group of people who had unwittingly taken the seats designated for the film's star and his friends, but left the older woman, who seemed not to understand what was going on. "Are you with the film-makers?" one usher asked her. I couldn't hear her response. Shortly before the film was scheduled to begin, it was discovered that the star's friends were stuck outside ("this is not cool!" he said to the usher) and the ushers started strategizing about what to do with the woman, who continued to ignore everything that was going on around her. The artistic director, sound editor and others all vacated the prime seats and went to sit by themselves in various parts of the theater, but still, the woman stayed. At this point I heard Cyndi Lauper ask the person sitting next to her, "Who's Mom is she?"
So, finally the woman, who was not a cast-member's mother after all, did move and the star's friends got their seats. I think they all enjoyed the film, as did I.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea-Baggers vs. Anti-War Protests, Numbers and Media Coverage

I was in a red-state gym the other day, forced to watch a cardio-workout's worth of teabagger coverage on Fox news. I couldn't help wondering, as I looked at the numbers cited why THIS was considered a "huge" and newsworthy event while anti-war protests of this same size, and even larger would be considered irrelevant. Especially when we consider that anti-war protesters have had to maintain stamina since 2002, they've been a much more impressive movement than the astro-turfing swell of the teabaggers.

Let's review:
October 26, 2002: 100,000 march on DC; 50,000 march in San Francisco

A few months later, on January 18, 2003, even more came out against the war in DC and more occurred in cities throughout the U.S. I marched in DC that day in 20 degree weather and talked to my Mom and step-mom, while both were at marches in other cities.

But it was February 15, 2003 that was the biggest of them all. In New York City, counts ranged from 300,000 to 1 million marchers against the war. I was at that one too. We could not get to the U.N. where the actual protest converged, but remained stuck on feeder marches up to ten blocks away, where there were taxi-cubs who could not move because of the massive number of people in the streets - so I'd say that 1 million is not an exaggeration.

At the RNC convention in NY, in 2004, according to police, 800,000 marched against both Bush and the war.

Since then, anti-war marches in various cities have numbered at least in the "tens of thousands."
The last really big anti-war march on Washington was the one in September 24, 2005 where Cindy Sheehan was a featured speaker, and which C-Span estimated at 500,000.

And even in April 2006, a year when anti-war protests were smaller (despite increasing opposition to the war judging from both polls and midterm election results), 300,000 people marched against the war in New York City.

By 2007, hundreds of thousands were STILL showing up to protest the war, and yet coverage in the mainstream media was almost non-existant.

While protest numbers may not have always hit the 500k mark (though they did at least three times - in cold weather- no less), they remained in the tens of thousands, and increased in regions across the U.S., while poll numbers told the story of growing public opposition to the war in Iraq.

So, now how do yesterday's tea-bagger protests stack up?
According to "FiveThirtyEight," the anti-tax protests yesterday hit 262,026 mostly based on rallies of about 1000 each in a number of Southern cities. That's not an un-significant number, but the overall total is much smaller than the cumulative numbers of anti-war protests for any given date of major mobilization since late 2002. These numbers were achieved with the help of beautiful spring weather, massive media coverage (and not just on Fox), and the advocacy of the Republican Party. In addition, they have spurred stories taking their potential political impact seriously, even by non-right wing outlets.
In contrast, the larger anti-war mobilizations which were organized independently of political party support, and in the midst of a significant divide within the anti-war movement itself, have been underplayed, routinely under-counted, and mocked by the mainstream media, even the so-called liberal media.
The NYT, MSNBC, WAPO, CBS, and CNN all covered the tea-parties and the criticisms of their own coverage much more extensively than they covered much larger, and much more significant anti-war protests or the anti-war protester critiques of mass-media coverage.

Once more, corporate media spins the day.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Justice for Vega and Rosario?

Tomorrow Morning at 9:00 am, the detectives, Patrick J. Brosnan and James Crowe who shot and killed Hilton Vega and Anthony Rosario in 1995 will be in court for the third day of their civil trial for wrongful death. The plaintiffs in the case are Vega's and Rosario's mothers. The Bronx-based Justice Committee encourages people to pack the court-room to show support for the families:
This Thursday, the civil trial will begin for the killings of Anthony Rosario and Hilton Vega by two NYPD officers. The trial will be held in Bronx Civil Court and we NEED to fill the courtroom starting Monday, March 9th at 9am - 4pm.

The reason that they went to the civil trial option was that despite the report by the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board that found the shooting an example of excessive force, the city did nothing to punish the officers involved. In fact, shortly after this critical report came out, Giuliani attacked the CCRB itself, leading to the resignation of its director, Hector Soto, who said they forced him out because he refused to defer to the police department. The case became an example of the complete unaccountability of New York City cops. According to the NYCLU, the CCRB is still failing to fulfill its mission because of police obstructionism.

I learned most of what I know about this case about eight years ago when I saw the film Justifiable Homicide. (read the NYT review here). What I found most interesting at the time was that the organizing done by Rosario's mother played such a big role in creating the massive protest movement that arose around the police-shooting of Amadou Diallo. Not only does the film show that the police shootings were unjustified, but it also reveals the power of collective action.
The movement led to independent investigations of the shootings and reports done by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. When I mentioned this trial to someone last night he was aghast to realize that the two officers had not been tried before for these crimes which were deemed, as the movie title says, "Justifiable Homicide" by a Bronx grand-jury in 1995. I hope that the civil trial come to a different conclusion.

Friday, March 06, 2009

If 50,000 People Demonstrate in Front of City Hall and the NYT and Daily News Barely Cover it...Did it Make a Sound?

Yesterday, nearly 50,000 union members, students, and families demonstrated for "fair share tax reform" in New York as an alternative to the huge budget cuts and sales tax increases currently being proposed by the governor and the mayor. At CUNY the current cut proposals are backed by tuition hikes for our students, the majority of whom come from families making under $50,000 /year. The majority of those tuition dollars won't even go to CUNY, but will fill gaps in the state budget. Check the budget fact-sheet here. In other words, the governor would rather tax the poor than tax the rich.
The "fair share" plan, sponsored in the legislature by assemblyman Eric Schneiderman, would roll back tax cuts for the wealthy that were passed over the last thirty years. This strategy would eliminate about half of the current state budget deficit. Despite the fact that most city unions support it and despite the fact that several legislators in the NY state assembly and senate support it as well, the proposal has barely been covered in the city's major newspapers.
In today's New York Times hard copy, there is a photo of the protest with the caption "A tax and spend proposition," and there is a brief item about the rally in the "City Room" section on the NYT's web-page. The New York Post had a very brief item on it, and the Daily News had nothing. What were the more important news stories that edged out a public response to an ongoing policy debate? If you check the regional/local sections, it appears the NYT thought that the sale of Gandhi's sandals, eyeglasses and pocket watch was more news-worthy, while the Daily News featured a lengthy article on Svetlana Pankratova's leg-shaving for charity. (In contrast, NY1 (linked above)and The Gothamist gave the rally more in-depth coverage. )
This rally, and the debate about the "fair share" reform bill deserve more coverage from major newspapers. After all, polls on this issue continue to show that the majority of New Yorkers support some sort of tax increase on the wealthy as an alternative to service cuts and regressive sales-tax increases. But if you check the NYT for articles about this reform proposal, which now has 22 supporters in the state senate, you won't find much.
Instead, people scratch their heads on call-in shows and write on blog comment boards about how the city is going broke because of over-paid public employees. Could this be because instead of reporting on what the majority of New Yorkers think or experience, the paper of record acts as a stenographer for the Republican mayor and the NY business interests represented by the "Citizens Budget Commission"?
To say that 3% cost of living raises "out-pace inflation" in NYC is laughable. That NY public-employee salaries are higher than average private sector salaries reflects the fact that NY's economy is fueled by a massive low-wage workforce (who rely on services provided by these public employees), while the fact that NY public employees make more than other public employees is a consequence of the high cost of living in NYC. Instead of bringing down those low-wages and cutting services to poor New Yorkers, the "One New York Coalition" that organized yesterday's rally is calling on the top 3% of New York earners to pay their fair share in the midst of a major budget crisis. Go to the Professional Staff Congress website to write a letter to your legislator urging support for Fair Share Tax Reform in New York state.

Monday, February 23, 2009

It doesn't take an "Orchestrated Campaign" to Know....

If you wonder where this "orchestrated campaign" line comes from, look no further than the Daily Telegraph, which has characterized historian Ron Rosenbaum's critical review of The Reader as a cabal set to deny Kate Winslet an Oscar.
I don't agree with Rosenbaum on much, but the characterization of an article in a newspaper as an "orchestrated campaign" strikes me as well, anti-semitic. After all, therewere actual demonstrations against Milk - and I haven't seen any coverage of that at all, except that Sean Penn mentioned people with "hateful signs" outside the theater in in his acceptance speech for Best Actor.

But the theme of two of this year's awards seem to be that for the Oscars, anything that even mentions the Holocaust will do.
The obvious one is The Reader, aka, "the poor little Nazi": Anthony Lane's reviewin the New Yorker back in December said what needed to be said:

[the novel it was based on] was pernicious from the start—a low-grade musing on atrocity, garnished with erotic titillation... Imprisoned for life, Hanna must read to herself, but are we really supposed to be moved by the thought—or now, in Daldry’s film, by the sight—of an unrepentant Nazi parsing Chekhov? That is not culturally nourishing; it is morally famished. There is a fine scene, near the end, when a survivor of Hanna’s crimes (the great Lena Olin) tells the middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) that “nothing came out of the camps,” that they “weren’t therapy.” Quite true, so why has the film pretended otherwise?

The less known Holocaust movie award winner this year was a German film called Spielzeugland (Toyland) - which may be among the most mawkish and manipulative few minutes of film anywhere. The story? During the war, A German and a Jewish family live next door to each other and the two young children take piano lessons together. One day, the German mother tells her son that the family next door must go away, he asks where and she answers, "to toyland." Little Heinrich sneaks out of bed and tries to join the family as they leave for the camps, thinking fun awaits. His mother finds him missing and goes on a search for him. Finally, the SS actually let the haus frau right onto one of the Auschwitz-bound trains, where she does not find her own son, but rescues the neighbor's child, pretending he is hers. (Heinrich wound up somewhere else). The two boys grow up in wartime Germany together as brothers and both survive the war. Presumably, the neighbors never rat them out. hmmm. It doesn't matter: a Holocaust film with a happy ending. As Art Spiegelman said when Schindler's list won, “The main dream image the movie evokes for me is an image of 6 million emaciated Oscar award statuettes hovering like angels in the sky, all wearing striped uniforms.”

Beyond the larger historical or moral problems, it's disappointing because not only were their great performances in good films (like Ann Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married and Melissa Leo in Frozen River) but there some quite good live-action shorts this year. One was the unnerving Auf Der Strecke (On the Line), which (unlike the Reader) showed real moral complexity. Another was the very artful Manon Sur le Bitume (Manon on the Asphalt) which developed several characters in such a short time that I found it simply brilliant. Similarly deft was New Boy, which won the Tribeca Film Festival short film award last year.

But no, the Oscar goes to: A hackneyed, completely unbelievable Holocaust tear-jerker!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Song of the Day

Democracy Now broadcast a story yesterday that military suicides are at their highest US history.
In light of that grim story, here's a song for the day. I've been wishing that we could substitute it for the fascist excrescence that's been showing in every movie theater in NYC during the previews.

here are the lyics:
"That Man I Shot" by the Drive-By Truckers:

That man I shot, He was trying to kill me
He was trying to kill me He was trying to kill me
That man I shot I didn’t know him
I was just doing my job, maybe so was he

That man I shot, I was in his homeland
I was there to help him but he didn’t want me there
I did not hate him, I still don’t hate him
He was trying to kill me and I had to take him down

That man I shot, I still can see him
When I should be sleeping, tossing and turning
He’s looking at me, eyes looking through me
Break out in cold sweats when I see him standing there

That man I shot, shot not in anger
There’s no denying it was in self-defense
But when I close my eyes, I still can see him
I feel his last breath in the calm dead of night

That man I shot, He was trying to kill me
He was trying to kill me, He was trying to kill me
Sometimes I wonder if I should be there?
I hold my little ones until he disappears

I hold my little ones until he disappears
I hold my little ones until we disappear
And I’m not crazy or at least I never was
But there’s this big thing that can’t get rid of

That man I shot did he have little ones
That he was so proud of that he won’t see grow up?
Was walking down his street, maybe I was in his yard
Was trying to do good I just don’t understand