Friday, June 25, 2010

The Whispers Of Night

As of this writing, I have not yet had the opportunity to view two of M. Night Shyalaman's (hereafter referred to as MNS) films, Praying With Anger and The Last Airbender. The latter is merely a matter of time, and the former has yet to be released on DVD, his first feature length film.

Of his films, it is Wide Awake which I feel to be weakest, although weak is not really a fair assessment of the overall work. It is, however, the only film MNS has made that was not scored by James Newton-Howard. The soundtrack is fine, nothing against that composer: it is the collaboration between MNS and Newton-Howard that is a kickoff point for looking at the body of work of MNS.

There has not been such a flawless and richly rewarding pairing of composer and filmmaker since Hitchcock and Herrman.

A brief backtrack/annoying autobiographical pause: as an only child, I had a lot of time on my hands, and found the regular offerings of older movies to be a relief from boredom, as well as a means of avoiding loneliness. The more of them I viewed, the more I began to develop a cache of favorites, the blending of light and sound. At first, it was the actors that stood out, the studio system focused on faces that caught light and held shadow. Their voices were unique, and as I grew older, I began to deliberately speak with a slightly sibilant "S" like Bogart and Karloff did.

As I grew older, I began to focus on the genres. Bogart lead me to noir, and Karloff to horror. Certain themes and subtexts began to stand out, and fitted into my developing worldview perfectly. Just as important, I also noticed certain films were more to my liking, and rather consistently, the films I loved the most had the same thing in the opening credits: Directed By, and the actors were then paired with certain directors. Howard, Lang, Whale, Mamoulien... the list grew.

My tastes continued to grow, and the single name that consistently stood out was Alfred Hitchcock.

Even the Master's "lesser" works was worth at least one viewing, and the first film of his that I recall seeing, and it took my breath away was North By Northwest. My mother was a Cary Grant fan, and I liked his smooth, suave style, and there was James Mason, Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau. It was here that I first noticed the editing of a film, the images pieced one by one, perfect.

It was also here that I noticed the opening titles of the film. The titles were in and of themselves entertaining, names and words merging into the visuals. More, and back to the point, was the music.

The images, the words and names and the music all fell together in a flawless, seamless and (seemingly) effortless manner. The titles of a film are often ignored, but here they were given up in such a manner that I was immersed.

Bernard Herrmann's name was added to a growing list of names to look for, names that would mean to me that a film, unseen, would be worthy of the time to not merely sat through but studied.

Back to MNS...

MNS makes "old" movies, and by "old" I mean he is returning film as a medium to its glory days. While others may not agree (feel free, I won't change my mind), I feel that MNS is one of the few current filmmakers producing work that I know I will want to see, and see again.

His films are gentle, even his horror films. They are smooth, and have a sense of timelessness that most other filmmakers reject. The characters rarely raise their voices and rarely if ever curse. Violence is hinted at, and often is off screen. Even when it is shown onscreen, as in The Happening, it is shown swiftly, enough to allow the audience to piece together the details and then move on. His films are not about flash and assault, but about telling a story, as fully and completely as possible.

There is a strong undercurrent in all of his films that suggests MNS has an understanding of the past of the medium of film, and a deep and abiding respect for his audience.

There is a deep and abiding sense of classicism to his films, bringing the sense that these films have been around for far longer than they actually have been, but also bringing with them the feel that they are 21st century in theme.

The scoring of Newton-Howard underlines this sense. Many directors and studios have fallen to simply using existing music for soundtracks, like Quentin Tarantino. I like QT's soundtracks, in fact I love them. With QT's success though, seems to have followed the near-death of the original, scored soundtrack, and Newton-Howard has brought that richer, fuller sound back.

A little known fact: Thomas Edison was focused on created a motion picture device, not so much as a medium unto itself as a means by which he could sell more of his audio recordings. This connection can be seen in the works of the best filmmakers when assisted by the scoring of a great composer. Again, Hitchcock created masterpieces, but with Herrmann, his works transcended his own creations, the blending of perfect sound with the visual component causing the mind to lock the film as the jointly accepted dreamscape of the audience.

MNS has created such deeply woven Hitchcockian tapestries of story, all character driven, that to casually dismiss his work is a crime against the medium of film itself.

While The Sixth Sense remains his most popular work, his film Unbreakable is to this writers sense, a far deeper, far more complex film.

Unbreakable is, first and foremost, part of a growing subgenre of the action film, the comic book movie. It is also, quite possibly, the single best and greatest comic book movie ever made, as well as the primary reason for this post.

Originally planned as the first part of a trilogy, it is considered a box office failure when compared to The Sixth Sense. It was damned with the faintest of praise at the time, and apparently for no better reason that it wasn't The Seventh Sense. It did not contain the now-infamous MNS Twist Ending. The audience was not "surprised."

Of course, we weren't: he was telling us the myth of modern times, the origin story of a superhero. Myth, according to Aristotle, is the primary focus of the dramatic art, and myth is part of the collective subconscious. MNS takes us down that path, leading us deeper and deeper into the greatest mystery of call, who we are and what our place is in the universe. The Samuel L. Jackson character underscores this, saying the "worst thing in the world is to not know who you are." Every frame is perfectly composed, and the soundtrack is astonishing. The music whispers, swoops and builds, bringing out every nuance and subtlety.

MNS took us into the cave and showed us the shadow on the wall, saying, Look: that is who we really are. Newton-Howard brought the music that (should have) prevented us from looking away.

What makes MNS such a personal favorite is that in watching his films, I always have the feeling that he is not pandering to us, he is a teller of tales, and he wants us to join into the process of storytelling, bringing our inner Self to the dark and letting him orchestrate a collective moment.

Friday, June 18, 2010

US Educational System Jumps The Shark And Why (part II)

I am not a Teacher. That needs to be said, right up front. Why?

First: it is the Truth.

Second: anyone who reads this and disagrees with me will want that Truth to be brought forward. (Insert howl of "You aren't a Teacher and thus don't know what you are talking about!")

Never having been a Teacher, and never having the desire to Teach, does not mean I am completely ignorant of what it is that they do, how they do that which they do or what nigh impossible barriers they must face every day.

I want this as a matter of public record: Teachers are, in my understanding of the United States educational system, Public Servants. We believe in a free educational system, that all children of a certain age be sent to publicly funded schools, and there the children will learn the basics: Comprehension, Expression and Logic. Having stated that rather boldly, I will then support what I believe with the following: Of all of the Public Servants to which our collective taxes supply a foundation for an income, the following, in reverse order, should be the single, highest paid Public Servants: Teachers, Police Officers and Firefighters/Emergency Medical Personnel.

To what extent?

The President of The United States should not make as much as they do. They should have the best benefits, highest pay and most available time off as needed.

They should also be the most vigorously inspected and regulated. (Like that would matter... consider the means by which we track our more highly paid, highly visible "public servants"...)

Returning to the point, however: I have passed through the United States Educational System, from K-12 to my BA. My wife and I have three children, and we have seen all of them pass through the system, K-12 for two, one in college, one with a degree and now seeking another. (The third is a US Marine, which I believe can be considered an education in itself, if only a "tad" more intense.) My wife also went from K-12 and has her BS.

My parental in-laws both taught, my mother in law taught kindergarten and my father in law taught high school math. My wife is the eldest of seven, all graduated, all have various degrees (I think... I could be wrong; it has been known to happen!), three have BS in education and one of the three has a Masters.

While pursuing my own degree, I often had to attend classes with men and women who already had a BS and were required by Indiana state law to gain a Masters to continue to be able to teach in this state.

Their collective experience, watching them progress forward, discussing the things they were learning, hearing their frustrations... as well as my own experience both as a student and a parent... I have come to the following conclusion: Teachers cannot teach if they are acting as the parental units of other people's children.

The notion of in loco parentis ( has become so perverted as to prevent the very function of Teaching.

Here, then, is personal experience number one, and it remains one of the most disturbing things I have ever experienced in the entirety of my life. (This includes three suicides, slow death by cancer of grandmother and mother...)

The event: A "Chili Bowl" was set up at a local middle school (junior high, for those unaware of what a middle school is...). There would be a meal (chili, go figure, right?), then a presentation, then an open discussion.

The presentation could have been titled: Why We Cannot Teach Your Children.

Social engineering is one thing; this was something else entirely. The classroom as we gathered parents knew it was a thing of the past, and not likely to return anytime within this or the next generation. Possibly never.

The single, primary reason: the family unit is no longer father/mother/children. The divorce rate, we were told, has become so high that in the majority, if that nuclear unit existed, it was as a blended family: step-parent/parent/child/step-child. In fact, we were told, the nuclear unit as we knew it was also outnumbered by single parent/child and/or step-child.

Jumping ahead, later that evening I was ranting full strength about how the profession of teaching was the only group of so-called professionals who cannot do their job without assistance. My wife (God love her) was biting her tongue, and when I was frothing about the Death Of The Nuclear Family Unit and what a crock of fecal matter I perceived, my daughter stopped me with one sentence.

"Dad, we are considered freaks in school because none of our friends have the same parents."

In other words, Dad had to eat some well-deserved crow. I had to think about it, and it was true. Looking over the family units of their friends, I saw nothing but blended families or single parent families. We, as a family, were indeed freaks. My wife and I brought forth all three of our children, and we, and we alone, remained as parental constants in their lives.

It was about this very moment of epiphany that I recalled an underscoring of this notion: one of my sisters in law, as mentioned, taught. To be precise, she taught in an elementary school, preteen students. She had already told us of the number of times the school would find children (preteens, remember) waiting outside the schools before the schools were open... because the parents dropped them there and left. Worse still, was the story that one of her students had attempted suicide by hanging.

Recalling, then, these tales of front line combat experience, as well as the others I had heard, combined with my own experience... something inside my soul was starting to boil.

The Chili Bowl (to return to that topic, the crux of the matter) ended with a discussion between parents and teachers.

Much was said, and many parents were sent off into a frenzy not unlike the one re: Satanic abuse and/or rock music (who needs an intellect when one can merely be prodded along by the media into a hysterical mob, right?). I listened, and frankly I fumed (not because of the chili, although that happened later). Finally, I looked at the teachers and principal that was at table with me.

Said I, "Look. I am not a teacher. I don't have the degree or the training. You all do. After all this time, and all this discussion, I cannot answer one question, and as I am surrounded by people that have Masters and at least one Doctorate, I am going to ask this question. What does it take for a person to be considered "educated?"

Before I proceed to the response, dear reader, please consider the following phrase: She (or He) is an educated person. That was a phrase that once held a certain meaning, a certain social weight if you will. An educated person was one with... education. So, the question, then (which I had to re-phrase in this manner) was: at what point can we, as citizens, say this person or that person is "educated."

The distressing thing was that I had to re-phrase the question several times. I only Comprehend one language (unless one allows me to revert to my original, native tongue of Gibberish), and I was struggling mightily with Expression (trying to keep from screaming never helps) and realizing that Logic was slipping away...

The final answer was: One is never "educated," education is a process.

So: by this standard, doctors, plumbers, mechanics et al... are not "educated," they are all either in process or have ended the process.

I refuse to second guess the profession of Teaching other than I have just implied. What concerns me more is the terrifying lack of responsibility, and as I have personally seen it, up close and personal, that is my real concern, and where I believe the issue begins and where it needs to end.

The family unit, father/mother/child is dead: requiescat in pace. So be it, selah.

I believe that blame is pointless, I have better, more important things to do with my limited life time left to point fingers. What I will do here, though, is approach the one issue that I can address, have seen, etc., and use it as a starting point.

man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." -- Don Vito Corleone. (The Godfather, 1972)

We, as men, have allowed ourselves to become nothing more than a societal footnote. We have allowed ourselves to be put into the background. We have, for so long, defined what it meant to be "a man" via our means of generating an income that we have forgotten that the highest title a man can hold is that of Father.

Fatherhood is a profession, and any man who approaches it needs to do so with caution. A man does not enter into a boxing ring with no understanding of what may happen there or the political arena with no notion of the scrutiny one will face. We, as men, need no permission, need no accreditation or fanfare. To enter into Fatherhood is to enter into a life of sacrifice and service.

I could have begun a tirade against the notion of Feminism, but I have always been a Feminist, even when that term began to mean something more akin to Fascism than empowerment and hope. I will point here, though, to a "clever" saying, not as a form of blame, other than the point I am making: A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.

The blame is not on the women who endorse that mindset, but worse, on those of us men that have so utterly failed at being truly Masculine that the mindset exists in the first place.

We, as men, need to stand, to fight. We need that Fire In The Belly that brings forth Warriors and Statesmen, the giants among us that shake the earth when they walk past.

We need more men who want to be Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird. All men cry. We don't like it and are loathe to admit it, but we do. For myself, the single most powerful scene in all of film is when, in the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird Gregory Peck as Finch is left standing in the first floor of the courtroom, a man who has faced his most ugly and fierce opponent and been cheated. He turns, jaw set, taciturn and walks out. Above him, a gathering of oppressed people stand, one by one, and from their group, a minister of the faith touches his child on the shoulder and says, "Stand up child. Your father is walking past."

THAT, friends and neighbors, is a defining moment, the kind of glory all men seek, but have forgotten or worse, forsaken for mere notoriety.

If we want to save our children, we, the Brothers Of The Fraternal Order Of Fatherhood, need to be that kind of man. We need not seek the affirmation of others or the approbation of the populace at large. We do not need permission. We need to stand, one by one, and take responsibility for our own children, be involved, and rear them instead of merely siring them.

Any man can impregnate a woman. A Real Man sees the project through to the completion.

Until this mindset becomes part of the hearts and minds of all men, regardless of skin color, religion or lack of same, political view point... nothing is going to change other than change for the worse.

US Educational System Jumps The Shark And Why (part I)

Is there anything on the face of the earth more detestable or disturbing than to have a heartfelt belief expressed in words so stupid as to drive one to thoughts of rage and violence?

The subject here: What Is Wrong With The Educational System In America.

The thing hated: We need to get back to the three R's, readin', 'ritin' and 'rithmatic.

Egad. Do shut up. The basics are, indeed, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, but for the love of God, stop calling them 3R because only one word starts with the letter R. (Or maybe that is the point: to show how ignorant and uneducated one is... but no, that would be too self-effacing.)

Now, I understand. Truly, I do. I agree, wholeheartedly. However, I hate stupid people and the only thing I hate worse is when I find I am thought to be among them.

It is like being a true and faithful (fill in the blank with religion or political belief of choice here) and having to be compared with one of The Infinite Legion Of Yahoos that take to the soapbox and begin ranting and raving.

*Like this blog, for example.*

To be more to the point: Teachers are those who teach. Here, you, dear reader, should be responding with something akin to the guttural "DUH!" and perhaps following with "Yuh think?" I refer here, though, more to what Hemingway once said: A writer is one who writes. The profession, thus, is separate but permanently attached to the action itself.

Teachers cannot teach when they are not teaching, but are instead forced by the nature of both the educational system and our social order to take the notion of in loco parentis to the extreme, and the schools are used to fill in the gaps of failed parenting and a total lack of parental responsibility.

More on that later.

The 3Rs (shudder) are the first point, and I will babble here as I see fit.

To begin, then: Reading.

Reading, by the very nature of the verb, implies both identification and comprehension. One can read a map or a musical score as one can read printed words. The identification is tied to comprehension thus: I, personally, can read Latin, French, German, Spanish, Italian... but only in so much as I know enough of the languages as I can identify (for the most part) which language I am looking at, and have had enough exposure to them to pretty much be able to pronounce the words.

I will, of course, have no idea whatsoever what I am reading. I can do the same with certain higher mathematics and music.

Identification, while important then, is meaningless without comprehension. So, the focus of learning to read is: Comprehension.

One R gone...

Writing (or for the semi-literate: 'Ritin')

Writing, again, is a verb. While pen or pencil to paper is swiftly becoming a thing from a bygone era, the concept remains steadfast with fingers on keyboards.

Implied here, then: Expression. First, one must be able to Comprehend, then, one must prove that Comprehension via Expression.

Expression need not be confined to language. Again, music, mathematics, etc.

Last: Arithmetic.

The most basic, most elemental form of arithmetic is the most simple of all equations: 1 + 1 = 2. From this basic root, one will travel along until one reaches a x b = c, and from there, E=mc2.

What is implied here is thing most distressingly missing from the views expressed in the United States: Logic.

If one is given one apple (1) and then one is given (+) another apple (1) then one has (=) two apples. Simple. The Logic progresses along higher lines until one reaches Einstein.

Here, then, is the crux of the matter, the point if you will... Reading, Writing and Arithmetic are not what should be taught in the schools.

Instead, we should be demanding: Comprehension, Expression and Logic... from kindergarten forward.

Allow the Teachers to teach... which is the point of part II.