Monthly Archives: July 2013

“This will be a HUGE problem for us”: the No Child Left Behind scam

Readers know my feelings about standardized testing: a racket, intended to hobble public education. For a few years now Florida’s testing standards have failed to meet even the flimsiest of rubrics.

Now look what we’ve learned:

Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold “failing” schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett’s education team frantically overhauled his signature “A-F” school grading system to improve the school’s marks.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan’s school received an “A,” despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a “C.”

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan’s grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.

A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.

This is the next battle, folks, and the alliances don’t straddle the liberal-conservative line. The question is to what degree the Obama administration (specifically Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) believes in No Child Left Behind. Diane Ravitch has written extensively on the damage wrought.

Ain’t gonna cop to that: Blurred Lines

I’ve heard it more than once: Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is the album that Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience should have been. But I question the premise. Should any artist make an album like Blurred Lines in 2013 — a “good” 20/20 Experience? Thicke, for years the creator of blue-eyed R&B who occasionally choked on the anxiety of influences, goes ham on the stupid lyrics that for soul wannabes like he, Timberlake, and the Beck of Midnite Vultures function as gestures of modesty; the lyrics signal the artists’ awareness that maybe they shouldn’t be trying this music. For many fans, though, the goofiness is precisely the point (and to Thicke’s credit, he’s excelled at goofy since helping Jordan Knight write 1999’s “Give It To You”). Without Timberlake’s star power he can present himself as audience proxy; all the “think pieces” in the world can’t smother the title track’s appeal as sound artifact and video to millions of consumers. It’s hard to call a man a misogynist who aspires to empyrean-level dorkiness. In it, “Give It 2 U,” and “Feel Good,” he comes off like the cousin no one’s seen in ages, suddenly dressed well and ready to dance – badly, but with heart.

Fleet and confident, but with a hint of anxiety, as if all concerned worried about how thin the ice on which they skated was, Blurred Lines whizzes past in a blur of Pro Tools and Dolce and Gabbana. The influence I haven’t seen anyone mention is Snoop Dogg’s 2004 “Signs,” a collaboration between the rapper, Timberlake, and Charlie Wilson that stiffed on the pop chart. Over syncopated horn charts and Timberlake singing the hook at the top of his range, Snoop celebrates a girl cool enough to buy his weed (no dancing-schmancing for him). “Signs” is, crucially, a Neptunes production: the peak of their Fisher-Price electrofunk craft. Blurred Lines’ “Ain’t No Hat 4 That” and “Get Out of My Way” follow suit; they suggest, in their elision of the years between 2004 and 2013, a continuance of the backwards glance, unworried about being turned into a pillar of salt. An approach breathtaking and depressing; the effort to conform puts a strain on Thicke’s twinkles. To explain what differentiates “Lost Without U” and “Feel Good” defeats me; I’m reduced to saying “He sounded fine in 2006 but he bores me now,” which, I suppose, I prefer to Thicke angering me. On the evidence of “Feel Good,” if you’re a white boy, you pronounce “me” so it sounds like “may,” shivered in the ear as if you’ve slurped down a snow cone too quickly. He gives the game away on “4 The Rest of My Life”: “I sang in your ear cuz I wanted you to know I got soul.” I’ve done my homework, so gimme an A, bitch. Blurred Lines deracinates the falsetto: the sweetest means to convey emotions beyond human mediation reduced to the functionality of a click track.

But Thicke will make a lot of money from this album. My advice is to drop the love man pretensions and build on, say, the electronic thwack of the percussion on “Go Stupid 4 U” and go all Fine Young Cannibals next time (listen to the former after playing this). Any genre in which he’s not required to posture. But he’s gonna be around awhile.

Henry Jaglom on Welles: “I always acted as if everything was going to go great for him”

Orson Welles may have been right: cinema is dead, it can only reconstruct its antecedents. From reading My Lunches With Orson, I can make a case for Welles for being the most frightening dilettante of the twentieth century: a man so bewitched by the great novels and poetry he’s read and the scenarios he’s unwound in his head that his first instinct is to talk them out. For hours. I can understand why Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson rejected the last overture before his death in 1985: why would they risk their careers on an Orson Welles production when Orson’s delineation of the project over lunch at Ma Maison is safer and quicker? A mind as febrile and a tongue as prolix as Welles’ understood the trap.

Recorded by a series of hidden tape recorders that would tickle Richard Nixon’s envy and the litigious instincts of surviving Welles relatives, My Lunches With Orson records the lunchtime chatter whose intermittent brilliance he kicks up like sea spray. The dishes are the best: vulgar denouncements of Joan Fontaine, Bogart, Huston, and archenemy John Houseman (whom Welles darkly suggests had or is having an affair with Virgil Thomson). Ethnic slurs get their place. Sardinians have ugly feet or something. Russians are “just dumb. Peasant dumb. Idiots that I wasted my time on” (Germans, by contrast, show a “mystic” bent: “People who don’t really understand German culture always think Germans are very literal. But they’re not literal at all.”). Laurence Olivier is by turns stupid, loutish, ignorant, vain, and insecure. Often the badinage subverts itself. A chapter devoted to the banalities of Charlie Chaplin the artist turns into a disquisition into Chaplin’s achievements:

What Chaplin did is — there are two basic kinds of clown. In the classic circus, there’s the clown who his white-faced, with a white cap, short trousers and silk stockings. He has beautiful legs and is very elegant. Every move he makes is perfect. The other clown, who works with him, is called an auguste, and he has baggy pants and big feet. What Chaplin did was to marry them, these two classic clowns, and create a new clown. That was his secret — that’s my theory.

A plausible theory! Devoid of knowledge of the comic caprices of the nineteenth century, I can only look at Chaplin in City Lights and Modern Times (Welles: “It is so coarse, it is so vulgar”) and think, “Yeah, that sounds right.”

Fortunately Jaglom, whose sensibility in his own movies marries Cassavetes and a stolid reifying of Rohmer, resists the snake’s hypnotic powers. In This is Orson Welles, scarf wearer Peter Bogdanovich was a courtier, awed by His Vastness but like all flatterers a streak of Uriah Heep lay ready (by 1983 Welles is accusing him of being rude to the help). By contrast Jaglom sees himself as a fellow filmmaker, part of a “community,” and thus has his own opinions about actors and movies and literature, some of which are as terrible as Welles’. Both thought James Mason was an actor of limited range and barely adequate for Odd Man Out — Welles needed a look at himself in Jane Eyre and The Lady From Shanghai to know how an actor out of his depths flailed. They laughed Rear Window away. But he isn’t afraid to call Welles out on his shit. But Welles’ last original script, the hustling of which lurks in the background like the waiters preparing Orson’s glum fish courses, got Jaglom and no less than Gore Vidal’s attention: the story of an FDR power broker who molds a young homosexual senator. No wonder Jack and Warren leapt at the chance to play him. Jaglom understood:

I always acted as if everything was going to go great for him. I needed to act that way to feel that way, so that I could make him feel that way, and hopefully make someone else, or some combination of someone elses, give him the money to work.

Pull up your pants, don’t use the n-word, don’t litter, and other advice

CNN anchor Don Lemon, who has been outspoken on the issues confronting black Americans, particularly since the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, surprised some viewers this weekend by endorsing Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly’s recent commentary on black culture — and saying the commentary “doesn’t go far enough.”

On Saturday, Lemon said it was time for some “tough love on the subject,” building off of O’Reilly’s statistical breakdown of the issues facing blacks in the U.S. The host laid out five recommendations for African Americans, and others, to better themselves and their community: Pull up your pants; don’t use the n-word; respect one’s environment by not littering; finish high school; and don’t have children out of wedlock.

Follow these five guidelines, black America, and you’ll be fine.

Dishwater: Ginger and Rosa

A pokey melodrama about two schoolgirls (Ellie Fanning and Alice Englert) maturing sexually at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ginger, the worrier of the two, shows an interest in poetry and politics, nurtured by a radical father (Alessandro Nivola). Writer-director Sally Potter is best when capturing moments of tension, most of which happen when Annette Bening as a proto-feminist American poet is in the picture, which isn’t long enough and she’s peripheral regardless. Budgetary constraints may explain the film’s anachronistic look, but there’s no excuse for the flatness of Potter’s dialogue; it’s as the creator of the polymorphous Orlando hadn’t a clue about politics. “We must do everything we can,” says a would-be pacifist with long curly locks during one meeting. “You do realize God is an invention,” Ginger’s father twinkles over breakfast (Nivola, whose looks are hardening as he ages, is fine as the smug and rather dim radical, if that’s Potter’s point). When Ginger divines the secret of her father’s romantic life, Potter’s prosaic narrative skills and camerawork do their best to serve the hysteria as unleavened as possible. With Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt as gay godparents, and Christina Hendricks, comically miscast as Ginger’s mother.

I’m about to lose control and I think I like it: Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited

Crude, juvenile, and stupid, I’m So Excited is unlike any other Pedro Almodovar film since the late eighties, and one of his best. This is a film in which a Pointer Sisters routine performed by three gay flight attendants and cum on the side of the mouth are foisted on an audience used to respectable fare like The Skin I’m In and Volver, and, I must admit, a considerable percentage of the film’s attraction is the energy with which it reminds the audience that sexual ambiguity, fart jokes, drugs, and promiscuity comprised essential components of Almodovar’s work.

The plot — a flight from Spain to Mexico City must look for an available airstrip to land after its landing gear fails — is a McGuffin for an exegesis on blowjobs. Like in Chaucer, drink triggers the expression of repressed sexual energy, but with mescaline tossed in for good measure. The pilot (Antonio de la Torre) is a bisexual having an affair with a steward. The co-pilot (Hugo Silva) doesn’t know whether a drunken tryst Means Something. A psychic (Lola Duenas) who “smells death” on the flight looks to get deflowered. A dominatrix (Cecilia Roth) whose trysts stretch back to the eighties might get rubbed out by a hit man. The other stewards will have sex with anyone. Limiting the roundelay to the business section of an airplane allows Almodovar complete tonal control. The couple of scenes shot in Spain, even one bravura scene involving an expertly timed falling cell phone, are the film’s weakest; they’re sentimental and expositional.

In an era of gay marriage and increased conservatism about the limits of family, I’m So Excited stands as a fabulous refutation; it’s no more anachronistic than Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, but as a redress to lifeless cineaste crap like The Skin I Live In and Broken Embraces it hasn’t gotten the enthusiasm it deserves. I have to admit, I’m stunned by the reactions to I’m So Excited, the most puritanical of which is by Anthony Lane, a heterosexual who can’t believe that Rabelaisian stereotypes are suitable for adult entertainment in 2013. And it cuts. No more potent symbol of boom-and-bust economics in recent movies exists than shots of he abandoned airport at which the plane eventually lands, shot by José Luis Alcaine as if it had the energy to raise a protest. Fortunately, the film suggests, we can fight austerity with sex beneath safety foam.