Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blue Nights*

On a recent Saturday, I attended the funeral of a sixteen year old girl. In the space of a single week, she had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, had surgery, and died. One week to go from being full of life to ashes. As I sat in the cold church watching the service, I realized that her parents had been transposed into an entirely different reality, one that most people could not access, and one that haunts every parent every day: the death of a child. Parents should never have to bury their children.

It was a coincidence that at the time of this funeral, I was reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (Knopf, 2011), a book that takes as its theme the death of a child, although Didion’s daughter, Quintana, was not a child when she died. For Didion, her death launched an inquisition of self, a clear-eyed, unsparing review of life and parenting, and of course, loss. The book follows Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005), a meditation on the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The two deaths are deeply entwined; Quintana suffered a series of illnesses and was in the hospital when Dunne dropped dead of a heart attack at his dining room table one evening after visiting his daughter. In a very short period of time, Didion lost two-thirds of her immediate family.

Didion is the rare writer who works in a number of genres. Together with Dunne, she wrote movie scripts including Panic In Needle Park (1971) and Up Close and Personal (1996). Her novels include Run River (1963), Play It As It Lays (1970), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). However, it is her nonfiction that stands out, a genre often called New Journalism, but is simply composed of sharp observation and razor-edged nonfiction prose that utilizes the first person. Didion is not a polemicist like Christopher Hitchens, but a writer who conveys the emotional and physical truth of a scene and allows the reader to draw conclusions. She gives us the world through her eyes, and she does not shy away from the dark matters of the human heart, the slippery slope of the center disintegrating beneath us. Her nonfiction books, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), and After Henry (1992) contain some of the best essays of the late twentieth century.

In Blue Nights, Didion uses a circular and fragmentary style of prose poetry to examine both Quintana’s life and death as well as her own parenting. Her daughter was adopted, and loved to hear the story of how she came to them: the birth at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica; the way the hospital would give them no information about the baby’s family; the way John told the story of “Not that baby…that baby. The baby with the ribbon,” as if choosing a beautiful jewel in a store window. For Didion, it was then that the questions started: “What if I fail to take care of this baby? What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?” The worst question was almost too much to contemplate: “What if I fail to love this baby?”

Early on, Didion had a foreshadowing of the things to come: “It is horrible to see ones self die without children. Napoleon Bonaparte said that,” she writes. “What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripedes said that. When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children. I said that.” She goes on to write that now that her husband and daughter are dead, she fears not death itself, but not dying.

Foreshadowing the end of things, the decay of culture and society, are the threads running through Didion’s work. This from Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing.” Not far off from today, with our gunman firing indiscriminately into cars in Hollywood, workplace shootings, and mothers who fail to report their children missing, whose children later turn up dead, and for whose murder, they are acquitted. Seventh graders execute each other in classrooms. Joan Didion’s work was never more prescient.

In this book, Didion turns her pen on herself only to discover, there are no easy answers. The blue night of which she speaks is the way the light dies at twilight during early summer in New York, where she now lives. She connects the blue night to “illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.” She returns to this motif at the end of the book, writing to Quintana? John? Herself? “Go back into the blue…what is lost is already behind locked doors. The fear is for what is still to be lost. You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”

This is what I wanted to tell the grieving family. There will never be a day when the pain of loss subsides. There will never be a day when you won’t think of your child. But that is the way we live now, with loss and absence and sorrow, even in spring.

The Buddhists tell us that pain, suffering and loss are part of life, and must be accepted as such. Still humans go on and on, raging against the dying of the light, reaching out to hold on for just one more second, the blue light of memory.

*Writer Annie Wyndham was nice enough to mention this post today (12/22/11) on her blog. Access her piece here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Arguably (Updated 12/16/11)*

There is no doubt that the world of arts and letters will be a poorer place without Christopher Hitchens. His latest book, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, 2011) is another brick in the wall of his substantial oeuvre. Coming in at well over 700 pages, filled with 107 essays, and spanning what appears to be every subject known to humankind, the book works well as a doorstop or tool for blunt force trauma as well as for literary enlightenment. But these are superficial matters. The deeper truth is that Hitchens is a formidable literary critic, an historian, a raconteur, and a social critic bar none.

Hitchens’ work can be found in publications such as Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times Book Review, and of course, Vanity Fair. In that last magazine, Hitchens is nearly the voice most recognized, and in fact, his writing has served to establish that Vanity Fair style, a kind of intimate storytelling voice that is “in the know.” He seems to have read every book, every journal, indeed every word published in the literary journalism universe. He can write with depth and insight, and often wit, about politics, the military, history, science, philosophy, and literature. He is the very definition of the life of the party.

Arguably is stunning in the sheer breadth of what he has covered over the last decade. Hitchens is most comfortable when writing about the world and not himself. His recently published memoir, Hitch-22 (Twelve, 2010), is an excellent book, but never completely escapes a kind of self-consciousness, and reveals Hitchens’ penchant for name-dropping. In Arguably, Hitchens is at his best, stabbing into the heart of the matters at hand, ripping apart facades and fabrications, and cutting to the bone of literary icons and posers.

His section on history, “All American,” assesses the legacies of literally every significant American from the Revolution forward: Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, John F. Kennedy, Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and his frequent sparring partner, Gore Vidal. Considering that most of the essays are brief, Hitchens dives in and brings us to the sharpest of points with energy and verve. His word pictures are often not pretty. “As president, Jefferson began to suffer intermittently from diarrhea (which he at first cured by what seems the counterintuitive method of hard horseback riding), and though he was unusually hale until his eightieth year, it was diarrhea and a miserable infection of the urinary tract that eventually carried him off.” Historical details that our teachers left out back in school. He speaks of Lincoln’s life long struggle with spelling and pronunciation, and details how the great president’s clothes were often shabby and ill-fitting.

Several figures make recurring appearances throughout the book. Hitchens has long been a fan of George Orwell, and the British writer is a touchstone for him. There is a deep and abiding connection between Orwell the essayist and Hitchens, and in this collection in particular that communion is acute. His interest in communism is also apparent as a through-line in many of the essays, as is his strong feeling that Saddam Hussein had to be removed and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were justified.

Hitchens makes no excuses for his beliefs, nor does he allow himself to be pigeonholed. Many people have been confounded by his latest forays into neocon territory, but Hitchens does not play favorites. He follows his heart and mind wherever they lead, and he appears to not care a whit whom he offends. Here is a guy who supports the war on terror, but also allowed himself to be water-boarded in an effort to determine if the procedure should be considered torture. It is quite clear from the title of the essay which way he comes down: “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”

In a collection of this magnitude, it is expected that there will be a few missed notes, but for the most part here, Hitchens is true to his contrarian nature, and a joy to read. He challenges us to be better readers, deeper thinkers, more worldly students, and he never panders or condescends. I take that back; he is not kind to idiots and liars, but they deserve what they get. Along the way, jihadists and terrorists also do not fare well. What I found most startling here is Hitchens’ love for his adopted country, America. However, any thoughts that he has mellowed or become sentimental should be left at the door.

Over the entire book hangs the pall of Hitchens’ battle with cancer. “I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live,” he writes in the introduction. “In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last.” Rest assured that Christopher Hitchens will go to his grave as one of the best social critics of the age, unbent, unapologetic, and razor sharp. Arguably, he is an enlightening voice in a darker age.

*Update 12/16/11:  Christopher Hitchens died yesterday.  He was 62.  Please read this reflection on his life and writing by his good friend and Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

American Teacher Fights To Survive

Competing for space in the American mind, which Allan Bloom famously declared closed more than twenty years ago, we have unemployment, a recessed economy, two wars, and a confederacy of dunces vying to be the next leader of the self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth.” Somewhere in the middle of that pack is American education. Every yahoo running for political office from dog catcher to president wants to be known as the education candidate. Yet once in office, those same politicians offer the old tired mantras of standardized test scores and teacher accountability. We must return America’s students to the top of the heap in math and science, they bray. Let’s hope they can read, too.

We have been treated to a number of documentaries in the local cinema over the last few years regarding our education problems in America. There was the much ballyhooed Waiting For “Superman,” (2010) by the people who brought us global warming and the Al Gore PowerPoint lecture; there were also a number of lesser known films like The Lottery (2010) and Teached (2011). Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn have been flogging their take on the education crisis with American Teacher (2011).

The film follows the lives of several teachers as they navigate the emotional and difficult waters of a typical school year. To be fair, Roth and McGinn are not breaking new ground. The film, The First Year (2001), which aired on PBS, did a much better job of packing the emotional wallop of the daily life of an educator. That film was directed by Davis Guggenheim, who went on to do An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Waiting For “Superman.”

American Teacher was inspired by the Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, and Dave Eggers’ book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (New Press, 2005). Eggers went on to help produce the film. Look, one would have had to be living under a rock for the last few years not to know that teachers are the republic’s version of the sacrificial lambs. They work for little pay, even less respect, and in dire circumstances to educate our children. We pay the big salaries to our corporate CEOs and professional athletes while our teachers put in eighty hour weeks and work part time at Home Depot. So the film tells us a story we already know and for which we can easily predict the outcome. However, the portions of American Teacher featuring Jamie Fidler and Erik Benner are exceptionally moving.

Fidler begins the film very pregnant while attempting to teach her class. She purchases her own supplies, and works endless hours for her students. She looks haggard and worn, and one has to wonder if her exhaustive preparation and teaching will harm her baby. Once she returns from giving birth, a miraculously short few weeks, we see her wandering the halls looking for an empty classroom or office in which to pump her breast milk. Other scenes show her spending her limited lunch break on the phone with her medical insurance carrier, determining the procedure for her upcoming pregnancy leave. But she is a diehard teacher through and through, a woman who is fiery and passionate about her work.

Benner works his time in a Texas classroom, while simultaneously coaching school teams and working evenings and weekends at the local Circuit City. He is a bear of a man, appearing to have fathomless reserves of energy. Then, his job at the electronics store is cut, and he moves to a tile and flooring emporium. His days are long and draining, and his hard work forces him to pay a price: the loss of his family. His marriage crumbles and he agonizes over whether to take on extra shifts or spend the time with his children.

Director Brian McGinn says that the film purposely avoids politics, or assailing any one party, such as teachers’ unions. This film does not participate in the same dust-up instigated by films like Waiting For “Superman.” They did not interview union leaders or charter school entrepreneurs. Education secretary Arne Duncan sneers his way through a comment on teachers, and Bill Gates performs his rumpled version of Steve Jobs on stage talking to an audience, but that’s it. Gates contributed some money to this production, says McGinn, but only at the end when the film was finished. He did not know if Gates had even watched it.

I wonder how many Americans will sit through another documentary about teaching. This country loves the feel-good stories, the films like Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995), and even To Sir With Love (1967), none of which were documentaries, but were purported to be based on true stories. The story of education, and its failure in America, defies the classic cinematic narrative. The audience wants the white hats and black hats, the cowboys and Indians. When the house lights come up, there must be a catharsis, and an upbeat ending. We want to know that we are on the right track, and that there’s a workable solution around the next bend. We do not like stories that are downers, and this is why so many films and television shows get the drama of the classroom wrong.

In American education, the happy ending is proving quite illusive. There are no easy solutions, no quick fixes. There’s graft and waste and mismanagement. There are slimy politicians and shady characters waiting to make a fast buck in the rush to privatize our schools. Meanwhile, the kids languish and suffer, and we fall down as a nation.

The film makes a big deal out of other countries who have better education systems. Although they fail to give much detail about what exactly they are doing that works, it seems like the best solution might be to copy what those nations are doing, and build on that. Instead, we get the almost lemming-like focus on standardized test scores, with the resulting cheating scandals when teachers teach to the test because they are always aware of the loaded gun pointed at their heads. Teachers in America kill themselves, buy their own supplies, work outrageous numbers of hours, forego family life, and in the end, find their jobs eliminated in the latest budget bloodbath.

We do not need another documentary to tell us how bad things are. We know: the system is rigged, the fix is in, and nothing ever changes. More and more, bright, compelling, excellent teachers find other careers that offer not only a decent salary, but a chance to work more than five years without a nervous breakdown. Americans do not really want to know the true story of education, because that one isn’t going to end well, and with everything else that is going wrong, we can’t stomach all that darkness.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Here There Are Only Ghosts

For many of us, “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies. Nobody that matters, that is,” as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in 1937. It is in our sepia-toned memories of childhood that our futures are born. Never is this nostalgia for our remembrances of things past more evident than in our literature of reflection, the coming-of-age story so prevalent in our life of letters.

Giuseppe Tornatore, writer-director of the Italian film Cinema Paradiso (Miramax Films Presents, 1988; Miramax Classics, 2004), explores his remembrances of his post-war childhood through the experiences of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita, a fictional, well-known movie director who is forced to re-examine his life’s journey upon the death of his mentor, Alfredo.

“Tornatore pays homage to the American, Italian, and European films that influenced him as a child and as a director,” Stanislao G. Pugliese writes in The American Historical Review. The film had a troubled, but ultimately successful history. The first cut was 185 minutes, and when shown “in 1988 at a small European festival…received a mixed response along with an ambiguous award for ‘best artistic contribution to the first part of a film,’” says Stephen Holden in The New York Times. Tornatore continued to work on the film, trimming it down to 150 minutes for general release in Italy. The cut did not do well at the box office. Returning to the editing bay, Tornatore cut it down to two hours in a last ditch effort to find an audience.

Holden quotes Tornatore: “This was the autobiographical film I had waited my whole life to make, and it felt like the failure of my life.” However, the two hour version was greeted with acclaim. “The shorter version proved a surprise hit at the 1989 Cannes International Film Festival,” Holden writes, “where it won the special jury prize. Cinema Paradiso went on to win the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best foreign film.”

However, Tornatore was to have his director’s cut after all. He released an extended cut of his film in theaters in 2002. According to Bill Desowitz in the Los Angeles Times, “It’s like watching another movie. We get a sense of closure, and the story takes on greater depth and complexity. The disparity between movies and life becomes more ironic, and the great friendship between the young boy and Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the local film projectionist who serves as his father figure is much darker.”

The shorter version plays to nostalgia. It is a whimsical film, full of the magic of cinema, and the humor and subtle irony of real life. However, the 2002 film is indeed richer, darker, and even more realistic. To examine this film as literature, as history, as a reflection of changing values, of developing technology, of culture itself, we must look closely at Tornatore’s cut of 2002.

Tornatore’s cut differs from the two hour version by adding about 48 minutes to the end of the film. Up until that point, the versions are basically the same.

The film opens with a long pull back shot of a flower pot on a sunny veranda overlooking the sea. Tornatore, throughout the film, makes good use of his location and the bright Mediterranean sun. He shot the film on location in his hometown of Bagheria, Sicily, (Giancaldo is the fictional town in the film), and also in Cefalu on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

As the shot pulls back, we see an elderly woman on the phone. She is looking for her son, Salvatore Di Vita. She has an urgent message for him, but she fails to locate him. Her daughter, sitting across the table from her, tells her to give up her search, but she knows her son would want to hear her message, so she persists.

The film cuts to a man driving through Roman streets at night. In his apartment, we see the weariness in his walk, and in his bedroom, the woman in his bed tells him his mother has called. Someone named Alfredo has died. The man is Salvatore Di Vita, and he lies awake thinking, and the film shifts into flashback.

We see life in a small Sicilian town, post-World War II. The Catholic Church is the supreme rule, even more powerful than the government. Salvatore is nicknamed Toto as a child, a small boy serving Mass in an ancient church. After the service, the priest goes to the town’s one movie theater, Cinema Paradiso, to preview the flicks that will be shown that week. Observed by Toto, the priest rings a bell during each intimate kissing scene, informing the projectionist of what he finds objectionable and what therefore must be edited out before the public sees the movie. This is our introduction to Alfredo, the projectionist, and his relationship with Toto. Alfredo is a middle-aged man with little education. He has become a father, or even grandfather figure to little Toto.

Tornatore does not delve too deeply into the historical background of the time period. He effectively alludes to the historical context. We see water rationing and a street vendor selling nylons, which could only be had at a premium after the war. Toto’s father has not returned from the front lines in Russia, and we are led to believe he is probably dead. This is later confirmed for us in a heartbreaking scene where Toto and his mother are informed of his death and walk home through the rubble of the bombed out town, passing movie posters for the Italian-dubbed version of Gone With The Wind.

Actually, the films we see playing at Cinema Paradiso serve to establish the timeline of the piece. “In recycling fragments of favorite movies, including Jean Renoir’s Lower Depths [Films Albatros, 1936], Luchino Visconti’s Terra Trema [Universalia Film, 1948], Fritz Lang’s Fury [MGM, 1936], and John Ford’s Stagecoach [United Artists, 1939], Mr. Tornatore treats them as beacons of enlightenment to a benighted culture riddled with fear and superstition,” says Holden.

Tornatore perfectly illustrates issues of class and economics in the film. The Bourgeois intellectuals sit in the balcony of the theater above the peasants, and one takes great pleasure in spitting on the rabble below. And from that rabble, we see something akin to Shakespeare’s groundlings. Some are illiterate. They fight, fall asleep, roar epithets at the screen, throw things (including a feces-laden diaper at the spitter), mimic the actions they see, speak the lines of their favorite films, have sex both intimate and illicit, and of course, laugh and cry all while the dream-life of celluloid plays on the big screen in front of them.

Out in the town square, we see a socialist denied a chance at work—“Go ask Stalin for a job,” he is told. When Toto’s friend, Peppino, leaves for Germany with his family, some kids refuse to say goodbye to him because his family is communist. A mentally ill man roams around screaming at people and claiming the square is his property. The Neapolitan Ciccio wins the football lottery, and a citizen remarks that “It’s always the northerners who are lucky!”

Old women wash tables. Children have their heads shaved because they “have a lice factory up there.” Then they are hosed down with bitter insecticide to finish off any remaining nits.

The centerpiece of this story, however, is the relationship between Alfredo and Toto. In the beginning, it is a tug-of-war: Toto wants to be in the projection booth, but Alfredo wants to keep him out. He bugs the older man for the kissing clips that Alfredo must remove. Alfredo promises him he can have them one day, but for now, they must remain in the booth. So the boy steals pieces of film to play with at home, reenacting scenes verbatim while holding them up to the lamp light. These are his movies, his way of playing and make-believe. When the highly flammable film accidentally catches fire—it was made of nitrocellulose up until the mid-twentieth century—Toto’s hobby nearly costs his sister her life. For that, and his almost unhealthy obsession with movies, Toto is banned from the projection booth and Alfredo is admonished for allowing the boy the freedom to steal film.

The punitive sentence does not last long. Toto schemes to get back into the booth, and good thing, too, as the small boy saves Alfredo’s life when the projector catches fire and the theater burns down. Ciccio with his lottery wealth returns to rebuild the movie house, ending the era of Church censorship and control.

Post-fire, Toto runs the booth himself until Alfredo returns, blind and scarred. He encourages his protégé to stay in school, knowing from experience that a lack of education traps one in places like Giancaldo. Alfredo is the classic character ignorant of book learning, but rich in the wisdom of life and experience. “Now that I lost my sight,” he tells Toto, “I see better.”

As time passes, Toto becomes a teenager, and Cinema Paradiso takes on a more mature, titillating atmosphere. Ciccio books racier and more violent films. A prostitute operates openly in a closet, and Toto samples her wares. The manager catches boys masturbating to the nudity in a film, and Alfredo reveals that when his first wife died, no one told him until he was done with his shift so the evening’s showings would not be interrupted. A small time gangster is murdered in his seat. This is a gritty movie house, not nearly as magical as Toto’s childhood Cinema Paradiso.

Technology also advances. A new type of film doesn’t burn, and Alfredo laments that “Progress always comes too late.” He continues to offer Toto wisdom and advice, especially after he meets Elena. While watching some film footage Toto, himself, shot, Alfredo has him describe Elena to him. “Ah, the blue-eyed ones are the worst,” the older man tells the lovesick teenager.

Toto’s relationship with Elena develops slowly. She comes from a wealthy family, and they do not take kindly to their daughter dating a poor projectionist from a single-parent family. Again, we are reminded of class struggles in post-war Italy. Even as the 1950s progress, we see reflected in the life of Giancaldo the struggle to recover and rebuild. Cars and buses travel through the town square with herds of sheep. The old ways and the new do not meld easily.

In a particularly moving and poignant scene, Alfredo and Toto sit in a doorway. As the camera slowly moves in, Alfredo passionately relates the story of the soldier who falls in love with a princess. To prove his love, the soldier agrees to wait outside her window for a hundred nights. The weather beats him down, “birds shat on him,” and by the ninety-ninth night, “He didn’t even have the strength to sleep.” The soldier abandons his vigil on the final evening, never to return, and letting go of his princess forever. When Toto asks what this story means, Alfredo says he has no idea. The power of the story, the poetry with which Alfredo tells it, and Tornatore’s deft camera work, enhance the scene with cinematic brilliance. The comic payoff is that neither knows what the story means.

Toto is so impressed with the story that he emulates it outside Elena’s window. Elena has told him she does not love him, so he decides to prove his love for her in hopes of winning her heart. It is sentimental and romantic, and Tornatore revels in it. Toto ends his one hundred day vigil at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. There are fireworks in the sky, and the citizens of Giancaldo throw plates and dishes out of their windows to crash in the streets. Out with the old, in with the new. Alas, but Elena never appears. Later, at Cinema Paradiso, she comes to Toto, kisses him, and swears her love in an emotionally cinematic embrace. The projector spins in the background as Toto and Elena twirl together. This is the marriage of cinema and life, two worlds existing in the same space in the projection booth. One is only a projection of reality, a fiction, while the two lovers are real, and although this would make for the perfect fade out at the end of a movie, in real life, things do not always work out this way.

The lovers’ relationship continues to face obstacles. At the theater, television arrives, and Ciccio invests in a receiver to show the broadcasts on the big screen. Alfredo expresses his disgust with game show programming. During the summer heat, Toto shows films outdoors in a seaside amphitheater, and the cinema continues as the prominent medium of mass entertainment and culture.

Toto and Elena are eventually separated when he is drafted and she is sent off to school. In a last ditch effort to see her before they both leave, Toto abandons the projection booth, leaving Alfredo in charge, while he goes to search for Elena. He promises to return before the end of the film, since Alfredo cannot see to change reels. However, Toto fails in his quest, and when he returns, Alfredo tells him it is better. He must follow his destiny and not hold back for a girl whose parents do not want the relationship to continue.

The largest leap forward for Giancaldo comes while Toto is serving in the military. Upon his return, someone new is working the projection booth. The town is drier, more deserted and desolate, more bleak and small, especially for Toto. And Elena has disappeared. All of his letters are returned, and he has no way of locating her. Alfredo has become a recluse, rarely venturing out from his stifling rooms. Toto goes to see him and asks why he does not speak much anymore, or get out more often. “Sooner or later,” the old man tells him, “a time comes when it’s all the same, whether you talk or not.”

He takes his elderly mentor down to the seaside, and there, in a field of twisted ships’ anchors, Alfredo tells him he must flee Giancaldo. The land is cursed, he says, and there’s nothing left for Toto there. “The thread is broken,” Alfredo sighs. Everything has changed. When Toto asks what actor said that in what movie, Alfredo tells him nobody said it. They are Alfredo’s words. “Life isn’t like in the movies,” he says. “Life is much harder.” With intensity, the blind man leans toward Toto. “I don’t want to hear you talk anymore. I want to hear others talking about you.”

Tornatore cuts back to the present of the film with Salvatore sitting up in the dark of his bedroom, remembering. He cannot sleep because he is lost in the past. He jump cuts back to the train station in Giancaldo as young Toto leaves. Alfredo tells him not to come back, and as he pulls him close in an embrace, whispers, “Whatever you end up doing, love it, the way you loved the projection booth at Cinema Paradiso.”

This action leads to an airplane landing on Sicily. Toto, Mr. Salvatore Di Vita, has come home for Alfredo’s funeral. True to his mentor’s wishes, he has not been back for thirty years. His elderly mother greets him, and he finds his bedroom preserved like a museum. His mother tells him she remodeled the house with the money he sent her.

In his old room, Tornatore sweeps his camera lens over the pictures on the wall, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s lyrically sad score. There is the lost father, Toto’s first Holy Communion, and finally, the child Toto with Alfredo. The camera lingers before we cut back to see Salvatore’s eyes welling with tears.

At the funeral, Salvatore sees all the old faces from Cinema Paradiso, out to pay their last respects to the projectionist. They are grey and weathered by time. They pass the theater, now closed and dilapidated, about to be torn down to build a parking lot. Nobody goes to the theater anymore, a wizened Ciccio tells him. “The old movie business is just a memory.” The rise of technology killed Cinema Paradiso—television, videos, et cetera.

Later, in an eerie, haunting moment, Salvatore goes inside the shuttered theater. As he walks through the destroyed interior, he hears the cheers of the audiences of the past, the echoes of history through the dusty curtain of memory. Jacques Perrin’s acting is superb here. With simple expressions, no dialogue, and Morricone’s melancholy score, he conveys every heartache his character experiences in his walk through the abandon movie house.

From here, Tornatore’s additional 48 minutes come into play, and the differences between the 120 minute and the 174 minute versions are clear. In the shorter version, Elena never appears again and is a wistful memory for Salvatore. Cinema Paradiso is demolished and the famous director returns to his life in Rome.

In the 2002, 174 minute film, Salvatore sees a girl on the street who appears to be Elena as he remembers her. He follows her, and wonders if she is somehow connected to Elena. Back at his mother’s house, he watches his films of Elena taken back when he was a younger man. It is clear she was, and is, the love of his life, a colossal missed opportunity that has haunted him now into middle age.

He sits at the dining room table to have a talk with his mother. He apologizes for not having come home sooner. She tells him she understands that he had to go away. “Here there are only ghosts,” she says with glistening eyes. Then she drops a bombshell—when she calls him, she knows none of the women who answer truly love him. She wishes he was settled, in love, happy.

Salvatore continues to follow the girl and discovers she is Elena’s daughter. His former love is now married to one of Salvatore’s school friends. He calls her and they meet up in the field of anchors where Alfredo told him to leave Giancaldo. There, in Elena’s car, Salvatore tells her of his lifetime love of her. She tells him that she came to Cinema Paradiso that day to say goodbye, but Alfredo told her that he, Salvatore, did not want to see her anymore. Dejected, she left a note for him, but since he never got in touch with her, she had no choice but to go on with her life. Alfredo, he realizes, may have thwarted his happiness for the good of his future. According to Bill Desowitz “Alfredo seems to betray Toto since it is he who pulls the strings of the young man’s life to the point of making him sacrifice the great love of his life on the altar of another love, that for the cinema.” This renders the Alfredo-Toto relationship in much darker tones. The story shifts from sentimentality, comedy, and nostalgia, to bittersweet nostalgic postmodernism.

The reunion scene ends with a tryst. Tornatore backs his camera off, and we see the car in the distance, illuminated by the spot lights from the sea coast, and we hear the crashing of waves. As Elena makes clear in subsequent scenes, this long-delayed union of these two characters is a one-time thing. Cinema Paradiso, like the possibility of their lives together, is demolished, and Salvatore returns to Rome.

Giuseppe Tornatore maintains his famous conclusion in both versions. Alfredo has left a reel of film for him. Back in his screening room in Rome, Salvatore has the film cued up, and sits in the empty theater to watch. What follows is a montage of all the intimate scenes of lovers kissing that Alfredo had to remove from the movies by order of the Church. It is a beautiful denouement, cutting back and forth from the action on the screen to Salvatore’s face. Once again, Jacques Perrin’s expressions and Morricone’s score create magic. The scene distills the power of cinema to move us and reveal the scope of human emotion. It is a sad, brilliant, bittersweet moment worthy of its place in the pantheon of exquisite cinematic moments.

When analyzing film, we find three levels of quality: flicks, movies, and films. Flicks are lighthearted, explosion-and-car chase extravaganzas, or horror pictures; movies might be character-driven, romantic comedies. Films are serious works akin to literature, and therefore can be analyzed with a critical eye like good novels or poetry. Cinema Paradiso is most decidedly a film, especially Tornatore’s director’s cut.

There are several key aspects of the film that we can examine using literary terms and ideas. Tornatore is a master of literary symbolism in film. His central character is Salvatore Di Vita—“salvation of life” in translation—his doppelganger who shares Tornatore’s love of film. He begins with Salvatore transitioning to memory after learning of Alfredo’s death. The journey into the past is symbolized and initiated by wind chimes hanging outside his bedroom window. Tornatore imposes the shadow of the chimes, gently buffeted in the breeze, across the actor’s face even as their melodic tinkling can be heard.

The Catholic Church plays a key role in the life of Giancaldo as the moral and instructive force in daily events. Tornatore uses the icons and statuary of the religion to reinforce the presence of the Church in every day life. We see a Sacred Heart statue in a priest’s closet, and when Cinema Paradiso burns, Tornatore gives us a tight shot of the Virgin Mary surrounded and consumed by flames. The fire ends the Church’s influence on the theater and lessens its control of the town. The priest no longer censors the movies scheduled to play there, and Ciccio brings in racier and more erotic films when the theater reopens.

In the summer scene where Toto as a young man projects films outside in the amphitheater, he is lovesick for Elena. He can see nothing else in his life. “Will this summer never end?” he sighs. The film he is showing is the story of The Odyssey. The scene is Ulysses’ battle with the one-eyed Cyclopes, who, like Toto, can only see the world one way and suffers for this lack of vision.

The piece de resistance of symbolism in the film is the anchor scene where Alfredo tells Toto he must leave Giancaldo. The ships’ anchors take the shape of crucifixes. This small town, provincial life will keep Toto from achieving his dreams, and if he stays there, he will sacrifice his future for others, much as Christ did on the cross. It is ironic and symbolic that Alfredo tells Toto he must flee Giancaldo and never look back amid a field of anchors used to moor ships in the harbor.

In the same way, when famous movie director Salvatore returns home for Alfredo’s funeral, his mother rushes to the gate to greet him. She drops her knitting, but a thread catches on her clothing. Tornatore gives us a tight shot of the cloth unraveling as she hurries downstairs to greet her son. Our lives are often unraveled by our past. This also plays into Alfredo’s earlier admonishment to his protégé that he must leave Giancaldo because the “thread is broken.” However, the image of the unraveling cloth tells us that we can never entirely break free of the past.

Tornatore also uses themes to deepen the resonance of his work. Love, of course, is most prominent. Unlike other more religious views of paradise, Cinema Paradiso is a paradise of imagination, of dreams and schemes played in celluloid on a forty foot screen. Meanwhile, all strata of human life are on display on the floor, the balcony, in the projection booth, and in the vice-laden nooks and crannies of the theater foyer. The theater is all of human life, brimming over with the stench and beauty, the familial and erotic, the lonely sadness and communal joy of being alive.

Religion, specifically the Catholic Church, is a thread that runs through the story. Bert Cardullo, writing in The Hudson Review, says “To be sure, the Catholic Church is still a force to be reckoned with in Giancaldo—we see the villagers at confession, at Mass, and at funerals, and Toto, himself is an altar boy to the vigilant Father Adelfio—but the Church must be content to attract believers with the promise of salvation in the hereafter, whereas the cinema can lure them with the guarantee of salvation from the here and now.” Cardullo sees the movie house and the Church as “two faiths” that “manage to exist side by side.”

In the face of Jacques Perrin, we see the theme of regret clearly in play. It is in this theme that we find the film’s “richly textured realism,” as Rita Kempley notes in The Washington Post. In the character of Salvatore, we are made aware of the sacrifice one makes to achieve his dreams. Often, this regret is a barrier to total happiness and satisfaction in life. “Toto had to give up something in order to get something,” Cardullo writes, “had to give up the community of tiny Giancaldo for the individual achievement of a career in the wide world, and had to leave the village, paradoxically, in order to discover the extent of its benign influence on him.” It is debatable whether one can go home again. Tornatore posits that we can, but we will find neither the place nor ourselves the same.

The biggest regrets come in Salvatore’s feelings for Elena. Their separation, although necessary to his success in the future, was not of his own choosing. There is a point in life when missed opportunities transition into fate—things necessary to our advancement into the future. Salvatore had to let go of Elena to seize his destiny. Yet in the last 48 minutes of the film, we see the price of this separation. That is what makes the director’s cut a better film than the earlier, shorter version.

Lawrence Kasdan, in his film, Grand Canyon (20th Century Fox, 1991), writes that “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” Indeed, even the most exotic of science fiction films tells us about ourselves. When it is done well, film tells us what it means to be alive and what the purpose is of our existence. Cinema brings us to the altar of sorrow and joy, loneliness and communion, bitter vitriol and love. Sitting in the dark, staring up at the screen, we witness the scope and heft of our lives. This is who we are, lest we ever forget where we’ve been, or what we have dreamed for ourselves.

Cardullo concludes that “Cinema Paradiso, then, is a paean to the cinema at the same time that it is an elegy for the cinema, a bittersweet film whose bittersweetness is underscored by Ennio Morricone’s music, which neatly combines the pensive with the buoyant, and Blasco Giurato’s cinematography.” Let us not forget the brilliant writing and direction of Giuseppe Tornatore. This is his film and his parallel universe, and his work ultimately leaves us glowing in the warmth of human experience.

Film can be a reference to history, a pageant dedicated to the spirit of humanity and the human condition. Film can be literature and a window on a culture. Cinema Paradiso is all these things and more.

So, after Alfredo is gone, and the substance of memory has turned to dust, Cinema Paradiso, like all films, must end. The screen fades and the house lights come up. We are startled out of our reverie. Off we go, into the harsh light of our lives, leaving behind the ghosts and landscapes of a parallel universe, the tender kisses of lovers, and the rustling leaves of regret. We are gently reminded that, like all movies, we, too, end. And so it goes.

"Saint Cinema" by Bert Cardullo, The Hudson Review (Autumn, 1990).

“Movies: A Deeper Vision of ‘Paradiso’” by Bill Desowitz, Los Angeles Times 13 June 2002.

"A New ‘Cut’ Only Deepens The Nostalgia" by Stephen Holden, The New York Times 09 June 2002.

"Cinema Paradiso" by Rita Kempley, Washington Post 16 Feb. 1990.

"Untitled" by Stanislao G. Pugliese, The American Historical Review (April, 2001).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

One Day I Will Write About This Place

It is always interesting to pick up literature originating in another culture and find echoes of our own. In that spirit, I was intrigued by Binyavanga Wainaina’s coming-of-age memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf Press, 2011), set on another continent and within a completely different culture.

Wainaina writes about growing up in Kenya, the tensions among tribes and factions, his own mental breakdowns and inadequacies, and finally, his triumph upon finding his path in life centered on the twin suns of writing and literature. Even in his darkest moments, it is reading that saves him, and writing that allows him to capture the fertile decadence of his African life. Wainaina writes how he loses himself in literature, devouring books like a man steeped in hunger. This rabid reading habit comes at the expense of his social life and education. “I do not concentrate in class,” he says, “but I read everything I can touch.”

The echoes of American cultural influence come in the form of television. He cites cultural icons like the 1970s TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors, reciting the show’s distinctive opening narration: “Steve. Austin. A me-aan brrely alive,” he writes in dialect. “Gennlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the tek-nalagee. We can build the world’s frrrrst bi-anic man.”

His experiences in Kenyan schools also echo American institutions. There are the tests that act as gateways to universities and higher education. There are the expectations of his parents that he will choose something lucrative, and their pressure on him to do something with his life. He struggles to find his own path.

In the first two-thirds of the book, Wainaina adopts a highly poetic, fragmentary style of writing. He mixes up descriptive words and sensory perceptions, making for some stunning prose. He speaks of his mother’s voice “like shards of water and streams of glass.” Examples of sound description include, “One bee does not sound like a swarm of bees. The world is divided into the sounds of onethings and the sounds of manythings. Water from the showerhead streaming onto a shampooed head is manything splinters of falling glass, ting ting ting.” He uses creative juxtapositions of adjectives and modifiers as well as interesting combinations and spellings of words.

His poetry is beautiful and effective especially when he writes of his reading life. He closes his eyes to the hot African sun, only to open them a few seconds later and return to his reading. “If I turn back to my book,” he writes, “the letters jumble for a moment, then they disappear into my head, and word-made flamingos are talking and wearing high heels, and I can run barefoot across China, and no beast can suck me in, for I can run and jump farther than they can.”

His language is mesmerizing, intricate, crystalline, simply beautiful. “Science is smaller than music, than the patterns of the body; the large confident world of sound and body gathers. If my mind and body are quickening, lagging behind is a rising anxiety of words.” He captures the rituals of the Catholic Church, which he says are “all about having to kneel and stand when everybody else kneels and stands, and crossing and singing with eyebrows up to show earnestness before God, and open-mouthed dignity to receive the bread.” By far the best line is the one where he assesses his fear of ending up as a school teacher, something he calls “A fate worse than country music.”

Occasionally, the language can be overdone, too obscure and obtuse for its own good. An example: “The sun is the deep yellow of a free-range egg, on the verge of bleeding its yolk all over the sky.” An egg does not “free-range,” only the hen laying it. I am not sure a supermarket egg might not be able to bleed the sky yellow just as competently.

Wainaina does not shy away from his more difficult moments: his breakdowns where he withdraws from everything, including his family, to hide away and read books, avoiding responsibilities or facing his own failures. These difficulties lead to statements of startling wisdom. “If there is a miracle in the idea of life,” he writes, “it is this: that we are able to exist for a time, in defiance of chaos.” He manages to get a handle on his “chaos” and emerge as a writer and journalist.

In the last third of the book, he shifts to a more concrete language as he struggles to write and publish. Noticeably, the tension increases. He realizes the purpose of his journey. “It often feels like an unbearable privilege—to write. I make a living from simply taking all those wonderful and horrible patterns in my past and making them new and strong. I know people better. Sometimes I want to stop writing because I can’t bear the idea that it may one day go away. Sometimes I feel I would rather stop, before it owns me completely. But I can’t stop.” The emotional peak comes when he returns to life and embraces family and country, no longer afraid of the dichotomy. It is then that he decides that “One day I will write about this place.”

The book is by turns moving, poetic, full of grace, tinged by anger and humor. Like the African art that adorns the cover, the book revels in the color, the bloodshed, the tribal conflicts that are so much a part of Africa today. Out of the heat and dust, we are indelibly marked by Binyavanga Wainaina’s poetic prose. His words are infinitely earthy, primordial, ethnic. Yet, his book is filled with a tragic, desperate beauty. His story is that of a young man developing a life of the mind while never truly escaping home.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Personal Matters

I spend my days working with individual writers on papers for their college classes. For the most part, these papers are research-based analysis of topics within the disciplines of sociology, medicine, and psychology. I spend time reading through the essays, marking them up, correcting grammar and format, and making suggestions on how to bring out the strengths and minimize the weaknesses in the writer’s work. I have, however, learned to go easy on one aspect I always find missing from scientific research and analysis: the first person pronoun “I.” Most teachers do not allow the use of “I.” “You must be objective,” they tell the students. “Only the facts and your analysis.”

Some of the papers this semester focused on the film, Mysterious Skin (2004), a rather intense and graphic depiction of child sexual abuse and its effects on the lives of two boys. Many of the students found the film disturbing on many levels, and a few struggled to even write about it with any kind of depth or discussion, subconsciously trying to avoid confronting the horrific acts depicted in the film. The startling realization I came to when speaking with each writer is that many of them had experienced or witnessed some kind of abusive situation, either sexual, physical, or verbal, and the movie served to dredge up those memories and refresh the trauma.

When it came to writing an analysis, the students were asked to take on the case of the two leads and discuss how they would approach the situation as social workers. In their essays, the students were to write in third person—“a therapist should…”—and avoid reacting on a purely visceral, personal level. To show anger or any emotional reaction could make the patient shut down, or feel as if some kind of judgment was being rendered.

But here, I have a problem. I understand the need for an academic approach, an objective scientific stance when observing a case. However, as a writer, this goes against the grain. The personal is always important, even when it is subconscious.

A journalistic essay requires the who, what, where, when why, and how, the solid lead, the salient facts, the descriptive details. In true third person objective journalism, personal feelings about the events must be left out. Yet, is this practically possible? A writer can choose which facts to emphasize, which, in a way, can evoke emotions in the reader. Through an objective, carefully organized telling of the facts, the journalist can subtly influence the effect on the reader of the writing.

Readers of journalism are seeing the story through the writer’s eyes. It is the world “as seen by,” and even reaction to a film clip of a news event can be influenced by the editing of the tape. Often, journalists will say, “I want to be a fly on the wall, a neutral observer of the story.” By his very presence in the space, the journalist alters the scene.

Writing is a personal act. Even a “just-the-facts” rendering has strands of the personal buried in it, and the personal matters. If the writer removes herself from the page, if the writing is merely an academic exercise, readers will turn away. So, how does one bring in the personal, and how much “personal response” should be allowed onto the page before objectivity is corrupted?

Writers are entitled to an opinion if they have done the homework—read the text in question, read articles and research about the subject, witnessed the event, and/or thought about it and considered all points of view. Too many teachers tell students, “You have no right to an opinion. You need to listen to me because I am the expert, and you are only a”—insert here: child, amateur, etc.—and thus begins the “expert lecture” where students tune out and check their Facebook page while the sage on the stage drones on and on.

Good writers find a way to write from the personal to the world. A good personal essayist resonates with readers. The writing strikes a chord. A narcissist resonates only with himself. He whines and complains, but in the end, doesn’t give a shit about the rest of the world. He’s only interested in airing his grievances and showing how smart he is.

Joan Didion, one of my writing heroes, was taught that she was the least important person in the room, and she believes this role serves her well in her job as a journalist. It is okay to be unobtrusive, but a writer is always present. The writer’s eyes see the world for us. She is the witness. That is the success of the writing—the reader feels the experience as if he were present. That’s not narcissism; that’s good writing. Didion also insists that she writes to find out what she thinks. Writing is always about self-discovery. The additional obligation is to bend that revelation so that readers discover something as well. Good writing must resonate. That, in the end, is the only criteria that matters.

We are all on a journey—separate and together—and that journey has a finite end. We are singular in the way we live as part of the plurality. It is a paradox. Therefore, writing is not about the “me” or the “other.” It is the singular “I” or “eye.”

For example, the student writing about theories of hospice care for her nursing course should not avoid the experiences she had while interning as a hospice nurse. This could make for a fascinating essay as well. How can she bring in the “I,” (eye) to her research essay? It will take a bit of slight of hand, and a clever disguise, but her direct experiences with the theories in practice are too valuable to leave out. So, the writer must work to bring some of what she saw into the essay without compromising the third person objective research.

In the end, writing in a vacuum without the “I” (eye) is pounding sand. It is mental masturbation, the ultimate narcissism. It’s showing off. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Leaving out the “I” can actually be narcissistic. But it is true. That kind of writing is stillborn, vapid, mere facts without context. Like a masturbatory experience, it has a beginning, middle and climax, but the writer still wakes up alone, bereft of the communal experience of being alive. In the end, it is the personal that fosters the connections to the readers. Good writing is the solitary tone that is universal, the sacred sound that resonates with all existence. In the end, it is the personal that matters most.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Selling (And Saving) Catholic Schools

According to Monsignor Charles Pope, writing from the Archdiocese of Washington this past summer, “over 6,000 [Catholic] schools have closed since 1970.”

Andy Smarick, in National Affairs (Issue Number 7, Spring, 2011) tells us that the decade of the 1970s saw 1,700 schools close. He goes on to say that Catholic schools are as American as George Washington, and were here before the Revolution began. In fact, he says, “these schools long pre-date the American founding.” The first Catholic school, started by Franciscans, opened in Florida, circa 1606. The Jesuits “founded a preparatory school for boys in Newton, Maryland” in 1677. “In the early 1800s, parochial schools—those affiliated with parishes—emerged and became the foundation for Catholic elementary schools.”

Across the country and around the world, millions of students have been educated in Catholic institutions. They have gone on to give back to the world as doctors, lawyers, artists, thinkers, and business leaders. A Catholic education is synonymous with higher test scores, greater achievement, and effective learning. And all of this was done on a shoe string budget, and with none of the bloated bureaucracy of public education. These teachers taught values, ethics, moral codes, as well as Latin, mathematics, literature, English grammar, government, history, biology, and all the sciences. Students graduated from Catholic high schools prepared for the rigors of college.

Today however, Catholic schools are in trouble. “Dwindling enrollment and other challenges have decimated urban Catholic schools nationwide…” writes Carla Rivera in the September 27, 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The days of classrooms staffed by underpaid nuns are over. Now schools come with lay teaching faculty, men and women who must be paid a decent salary and receive basic benefits like health care and retirement. The cost per pupil is also on the rise. Education costs are climbing, and the reasonable tuition of most parish schools is not so reasonable anymore, especially if one or both parents are out of work, like many Americans across the country. There is competition from Charter schools and non-religious private institutions. So-called “helicopter parents” examine every facet of their child’s education, and are quick to jump ship if they think the school across town might offer the key to the Ivy League. So education is a competitive market, and Catholic schools can no longer afford to rest on their laurels.

So it is with that in mind that a crowd of Catholic school teachers, administrators, parents, and support staff gathered at Bishop Alemany High School in Los Angeles this past weekend to participate in a marketing think tank led by Dennis Polito and Caron Willits. The facilitators were part of a program called MAX LA, or Marketing Archdiocese Excellence in Los Angeles. These men and women who worked a long week teaching kids, grading papers, planning lessons, and running schools became Mad Men, marketing their schools in an effort to boost enrollment and grab the brass ring of financial stability.

Saturday’s topic was preschool outreach. How do we bring in more students? How do we keep the students we have? How do we get the word out about the quality education we offer? With a lot of energy and no cynicism, every school representative in the room focused on finding answers to these and other questions.

Participants willingly shared ideas and strategies: updated websites help, and teachers, even with all their other duties, should have class pages that are refreshed weekly with news items and pictures. Social media now plays a greater role: if a school is not on Facebook or Twitter, someone better get on it.

People who normally talk about books and papers and lesson plans spoke succinctly about “branding” and community outreach. Some spoke of unique and clever strategies to recruit students, like visiting local mommy hangouts and selling DVDs of school activities to parents in the hope that they will pass along copies to extended family members. Never under-estimate word-of-mouth.

One principal advised participants to make creative payment arrangements with parents who struggle financially. “Just get them in the door,” she urged. Some schools stay open during the holidays as a way of offering extended day care. Another principal said she opened the doors to her school at six in the morning and did not close them until six at night so children could stay until parents finished work. One school offered incentives to students to plan news-worthy events, and when the local channel sent a reporter, the kids got free dress.

The high point came when Archdiocese Chancellor of Schools, Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt, B.V.M., announced that for the first time in ten years, enrollment in diocese schools was up. “We were losing a thousand students a year,” she said. But the marketing efforts begun last year seemed to be making a difference. Sister then drew a name from a hat and sent one educator home with a $250 gift card to an office supply store.

In an age of failing schools and deep concerns about the future of American education, these participants were willing to devote weekends and additional hours to writing ad slogans, creating brochures, and formulating grant proposals. That is the new paradigm of teaching today, and even though a Catholic education has been the gold standard for decades and should need no huckstering to save a school from closure, teachers, administrators, parents and staff are more than willing to step to the plate and sell. It may be the only way to save their schools.

Logo courtesy of National Catholic Education Association website.

For additional articles about this subject, see the post here.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Blue Mornings

This piece was written for the Daily News in Los Angeles on the occasion of the paper’s centennial.

I will never forget flying through the dawn. In many ways, those mornings in the eastern San Fernando Valley delivering the Daily News shaped my entire life.

I started my delivery service when the paper published on selected days of the week. By the end of my time, the Daily News was a seven-day-a-week publication with a unique valley slant. There were no mornings off for us carriers. I pedaled my ten-speed furiously through the neighborhood, racing the sun to get all my papers delivered and get back home to get ready for school. My salary helped pay for my Catholic school education and relieve the financial burden on my working class parents.

My daily journey was an adventure, fraught with a hint of danger and full of hidden secrets in the darkness.

There was the vicious mutt that stalked me. He ran loose in the neighborhood and would lie in wait to launch himself out of the dark shrubbery to attack me with gleaming fangs and horrible snarl. His teeth nipped at my frantic legs, and once he had a hold of my jean cuff, he tried to tear me off my bike. As a twelve year old who had just read about Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, I feared being torn apart by this beast. In a last ditch effort to survive, I loaded a plastic squirt gun with ammonia, and when the dog leaped at me the next morning, I managed to nail him in the face. He slid away into the darkness, never to harass me again.

There was the body on the sidewalk. I nearly ran over him and thought he was dead. Staring down at him, my chest heaving, I heard him moan and realized, as my nose registered the stench, that he was only drunk.

There were the mishaps, mostly due to my bad aim and weak throwing arm. The guy who demanded his paper on his porch or he wouldn’t pay me received a slamming wake-up call every 5 AM as I furiously hurled his paper against his screen door. Until I developed some skill, papers landed on roofs, in flower beds, and one time, through an open window with a crash of broken dishes and who knows what else.

Little did I know, when I returned home smeared with ink and smelling of newsprint, those days of delivery, in rain, cold, heat, and dust would lead me to a life centered on words as a writer and English teacher. But they did, and I would not trade the memories for anything.

I’d like to think that somewhere in another dimension of time and space, that twelve year old boy is still pedaling his way through another blue morning. In that place, people still read newspapers, children feel safe at school and on the streets of their neighborhoods, and a child flies through the dawn’s early light, launching a bundle of newsprint through the air to land on the front porch to inform the world.

Photo: Getty Images

Saturday, September 24, 2011

La Seduction

Americans have their stereotypical views of the French, which is why every American should read Elaine Sciolino’s book, La Seduction: How The French Play The Game Of Life (Times Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2011).

Sciolino is the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times and was once a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. Currently, she lives in Paris with her husband, an American lawyer who practices with a French law firm.

Her goal in the book is to examine the way seduction is an integral component of French culture and behavior. She begins with the custom of the male kissing the hand of a woman to whom he has been introduced. The kiss is not romantic or passionate; it is offered like Americans offer each other their hands in greeting, but it is intimate and unique to French custom. It is all part of the way France integrates the fine art of seduction into every day life.

“In English,” Sciolino writes, “‘seduce’ has a negative and exclusively sexual feel; in French, the meaning is broader. The French use ‘seduce’ where the British and Americans might use ‘charm’ or ‘attract’ or ‘engage’ or ‘entertain’…The term might refer to someone who never fails to persuade others to his point of view. He might be gifted at caressing with words, at drawing people close with a look, at forging alliances with flawless logic.”

France remains an enigma for many Americans. This was never more clear than in the days leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which France opposed. French President Jacques Chirac saw his country’s approval rating in the U.S. fall from 80 percent to 30 percent. “French products were boycotted,” Sciolino writes. “French wine was poured down kitchen sinks. Vacations to France were canceled. French fries became ‘freedom fries’ in the House of Representatives’ cafeteria.” Sciolino characterizes the incident as “the most serious diplomatic crisis between the two countries in nearly a half century.”

In France, philosophers appear on television and enjoy the status of rock stars. The country vigorously embraces a café culture, of thought over action, and the life of the mind is prized far more than physical effort.

Arguably, France has one of the most distinct cultures on the globe. However, some might argue that it is in decline. Sciolino believes this as well. “And yet the French still imbue everything they do with a deep affection for sensuality, subtlety, mystery, and play,” she writes. “Even as their traditional influence in the world shrinks, they soldier on. In every arena of life they are determined to stave off the onslaught of decline and despair. They are devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and the need to be artful, exquisite, witty, and sensuous, all skills in the centuries-old game called seduction.”

Emblematic of the need for seduction in every day life is the palace at Versailles, to which Sciolino devotes a chapter. She calls the wondrous chateau “France’s national monument—to love and to power.” She interviews a gardener there who wrote a book about the palace which included such details as: “the famous actress who loved to visit there to expose herself; the older politician who had sex in the garden with a young woman whom he had tied to a tree; the elderly couple who complained when one of [the] gardeners fell from a tree, landing on them as they were in the throes of lovemaking.”

She devotes a chapter to the magic of the Eiffel Tower, explaining the complex method of repainting the monument every seven years. To complete the job takes sixty tons of paint. The color formula is a state secret, but Sciolino learns that there are subtle differences in shade moving up the tower: light color on the bottom moving to darker tones at the top to create an optical illusion of a uniform look.

What baffles most Americans, however, is the behavior of the French. “For the French,” Sciolino says, “life is rarely about simply reaching the goal. It is about the leisurely art of pursuing it and persuading others to join in.” America is a land of finished projects, of goals realized. At the end of the day, we want to see accomplishment, whereas the French are content to let it ride, especially in appreciation of the journey.

Sciolino believes that as deep as the work ethic is embedded in American culture, the life of the mind is imperative to the French. She writes, “France’s history and literature reflect centuries of crafting ideas and intellectual concepts. The French have long pushed to persuade the rest of the world to consider and even adopt them. Modern philosophy originated in France, with Descartes. The eighteenth-century French philosophes—Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot—forged a set of values for society that gave preeminence to reason, democracy, and freedom. In the twentieth century, existentialism bloomed with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir.” France cannot escape its mind-life anymore than America can abandon its obsession with achieving goals and objectives.

Tourists, especially, have differing reactions to the French and their culture. Both men and women in France are expected to please each other on the street—men by verbally complimenting a woman for her beauty, and women by receiving the compliment and enjoying the attention. On American streets, this is tantamount to sexual harassment, the wolf whistle of the working man to the unfortunate beautiful woman pedestrian who happens by the job site. Americans are put off by French behavior. The confusion, says Sciolino, has to do with a smile. “Smiling is complicated in France. Americans are accustomed to smiling at strangers; the French—particularly Parisians—are not. This helps explain why some Americans find Parisians rude.”

By far, the most interesting chapters in the book are the ones devoted to hallmarks of French culture with which the world is so familiar: perfume and cuisine. Sciolino delves into the importance of scent to Parisians especially, giving us a history of the industry. She tells us that perfume has been used in France since Cro-Magnon days, when men rubbed themselves with mint and lemon to remove the taint of body and wild game. In interviews with French perfumers, she finds that Americans value scents of cleanliness and power, meaning deodorant and perfume that can be detected from several feet away. The French, she says, are more subtle and mysterious with their pleasant odors. And food is an orgasmic experience, she writes, full of subtle tastes and textures. The French raise the work of the vine and the labors at the stove to an art form, and tourists should close their eyes and surrender to the experience.

Sciolino also takes us through the gallery of French presidents, explaining how each managed to seduce the world, and where they tripped up in their efforts. Nicholas Sarkozy comes off as one of the worst in history. She brands him as “unskilled as a seducer in the classic French mode.” He is “frank rather than indirect, prone to naked flattery and insults rather than subtle wooing, perpetually in motion rather than taking time for la plaisir. He is contemptuous rather than enamored of the complicated codes of politesse.” He “contracts his words and salts his sentences with rough slang. In a country where food and wine are essential to the national identity, he prefers snack gobbling to meal savoring.”

The book ends with a grand salon dinner party, a fitting finale to a book so connected to good food and seductive culture. In the preparation for the event, we learn that French apartments come with bare kitchens, often with only a water source and maybe a sink. It is custom that the new tenants will install their own fixtures, appliances, and cabinetry. Then there are the rules of etiquette for the dinner party itself. I’ll save a little something for the reader to discover, but let’s just say that the biblical Ten Commandments are positively spare in comparison.

Elaine Sciolino has given us a veritable treat, a meal in itself, in her book. French culture still has much to reveal to the rest of the world, and in an age of global connectedness, it serves us well to be handed such an intricate and intimate study of a country once a super power, but now more of a philosophical influence on the rest of the world. It is not our similarities with the French that should be stressed, but that culture’s uniqueness which should fascinate and intrigue us. France, like a good meal, always surprises, always delights, and Elaine Sciolino prepares a banquet for us, with the depth and nuance of the journalist’s eye on the world.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rage (And Hope) Against The Dying Of The Light

For a week now, I’ve been trying to write something about 9-11 and the last decade. Perspective eludes me; optimism is hidden in the darkness; disappointment and frustration have been my companions. The more I think about that day, watch the replays and tributes at Ground Zero, hear the personal stories of the victims and survivors, I am filled with rage.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, I was uncomfortable with the celebrations on the streets of America over the death. I felt it was crass and jingoistic. Then, I heard a Port Authority police officer speak on television last week of spending days digging, sometimes with bare hands, his colleagues out of the rubble, uncovering their broken bodies piece by piece so they could be returned to their families for burial. He said bin Laden’s death was most definitely a moment to celebrate. In his telling, I made the journey with him; I, too, saw the necessity of celebrating the vanquishing of this enemy. I am deeply conflicted between my unbridled rage and my better nature, and some days, I think rage is winning.

By the time I arrived in my classroom on that day ten years ago, the towers were down and the Pentagon was on fire. The world had literally and decisively changed on our thirty minute drive to work. In the classroom, even before the first bell, several seniors were in my face. I wasn’t supposed to see them until third period, mid-morning.

“Mr. Martin, you have to postpone the test today,” said their leader, a girl who normally slept through class.


“Because the World Trade Center was hit,” she yelled at me, as if the logic of her demand was so obviously rational. She smirked. “You can’t give us the test because we’re too traumatized.” At this point the dean came over the loudspeaker and decreed that all tests, quizzes, and homework were indeed cancelled for the day.

Later in the day, I stood watching a television with some faculty and staff members. The image on the screen was one of Palestinians dancing in the streets over news of the attacks. “This is what the United States gets for the way they’ve treated Arabs and Palestinians all these years in support of Israel,” a staff member said. “America deserves this.”

I turned to face him. “Don’t forget where you live,” I said. “They attacked your country, and like it or not, you’re an American. If you were on one of those planes, or in one of those buildings, none of those hijackers would have given a shit if you agreed or disagreed with your government. They would have killed you just because you’re American.”

When the news broke many months later that we had invaded Iraq under a veil of lies and deception regarding weapons of mass destruction, a student in one of my classes said he did not feel sorry for American soldiers who gave their lives in the war. “They knew what they were getting into when they signed up. Being lied to comes with the job.”

At the close of the decade, where do we stand? The wars have bankrupted us. More people live at poverty level, unemployment stands at almost ten percent, our children sit idle in our schools, our culture rots from the inside as we gorge ourselves on fast food, reality television and celebrity gossip while the sun sets on the empire. We are bereft of leaders and ideas, mired in the muck of our entropy.

Sometimes, though, we get a glimpse of hope in the eyes of a child.

This year, a young man in my wife’s English class, barely a teenager, wrote an essay about his hopes and dreams for the coming year, and for the future. His essay was written as a meditation on the themes of S.E. Hinton’s novel, The Outsiders.

“I have achieved a lot throughout my life,” he begins, “but what I am most proud of is placing 1st in the spelling bee when in 1st grade. I am also proud of being on the [academic] decathlon team, having an undefeated season with the school soccer team, winning track races, and participating in all kinds of sports. Although I have achieved a lot, I still need improvement…” He also speaks of the need to strengthen his “work ethic,” the desire to be more responsible, and more neat. These are his goals for this year. Long term, he says, his “life long dream is to have my own house, with a good paying job that I enjoy, and a family that I can share my happiness and memories with.”

He closed his paper with the words of Robert W. Service, poet of the Yukon, and his poem “Success”:

"The haply seek some humble hearth,
Quite poor in goods yet rich in mirth,
And see a man of common clay
Watching his little ones at play;
A laughing fellow full of cheer,
Health, strength and faith that mocks at fear;
Who for his happiness relies
On joys he lights in other eyes;
He loves his home and envies none. . . .
Who happier beneath the sun?"

Sometimes we must put down our rage and look to the far horizon. We must, against our darkest hours, realize the smallest joys, the mysteries of love, the comfort of friends and family. In the midst of ignorance, cynicism, cruelty, and dissembling, we must embrace hope. There is no closure, no solace in our tragedy; there is only one tentative, yet brave step, into the future.

I have written previously about 9-11.  You can access that piece here.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Listening Thing

Some time ago, as winter slipped away into spring, William Michaelian asked if I would interview him for the tenth anniversary edition of his novel, A Listening Thing (Cosmopsis Books, 2011).

William is a force to be reckoned with, a great, eccentric ball of energy who publishes his writing and art in book form and on the internet. He blogs every day at Recently Banned Literature.

Our friendship goes back to the early days of The Teacher’s View when William contacted me about my review of Aram Saroyan’s poetry. He has become a source of wisdom in my life, and simply through our discussions, he has made me a better human being. Reluctantly, I must share him with a myriad of readers, writers, and artists around the globe who have discovered William’s incredible work as well as his deeply soulful insights into life and the human condition. I consider his friendship a blessing, pure and simple.

He sent me copies of his books and I found his writing riveting and beautiful. My favorite of his published works is The Painting of You (Author’s Press Series Volume I, 2009), a collection of poems, essays, and literary fragments detailing his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease. The book serves as William’s account of his round-the-clock care of her and his meditation on the fragile, often ephemeral joy and sadness of this life. In the tragic loss of a parent’s mental stability, one might not expect to find optimism and beauty, but it is there on every page, giving us as much a celebration of what was as an elegy for what is passing away.

It is difficult to pick favorites with William’s work. It is an embarrassment of riches. However, when he sent me one of his collector’s copies of the galley proof of A Listening Thing, I knew I’d found a classic. I was shocked to learn the history of his novel, the almost publication, the bankrupt publisher, acclaim so close yet so far. But what a book, indeed.

As I enter mid-life and realize there are fewer days ahead than there are behind, I find deep resonance with Stephen Monroe, the central character of A Listening Thing: regrets, mistakes, and like all of William’s work, a profound sense of the beauty of life and the hope intrinsic in each new year, each new day. The book is wise and sad and joyful like its creator.

I am also proud to have been offered the chance to co-author the interview William and Cosmopsis Books included in this new edition. My goal in taking on the assignment was to get out of William’s way and let him tell his story. I wanted to observe literary journalist Joan Didion’s rule to be the “least important person in the room.” I sent William a set of questions. He refined, sharpened, and then answered them. I followed up and offered a few additional topics. William shaped and integrated the material together. When I came to write the introduction to the finished interview, I nearly quit my writing career then and there. What could I say to match William’s words and his novel? I felt his hand on my shoulder. Just write, I heard him say. Words have never failed me, and they remained true on this project as well. The finished piece is included along with some new words from William. And of course, Stephen Monroe’s story is complete in this authorized print edition.

Fiction has the power to create a make believe world that resonates in our reality. William himself has often posed the question, what is real and what is dream life, and he has taken the opportunity in many of his works to explore the nature of reality, to push against the often blurry line between what is real and imagined. A Listening Thing will bring you into the fictional world of Stephen Monroe’s interior monologue, but it is ourselves we will find on the page. I invite you to embark on a journey, and like Odysseus returning, you will come to know yourself a little better upon reaching the end of Stephen’s story. In reading William’s work, that is the promise and the treasure.

For a complete list of William Michaelian's books in print, go to his website here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Grammarian

I am performing my yearly ritual as school starts: cleaning out my files. I happened upon a gem. The article was a Los Angeles Times obituary from February 18, 2005. Eleanor Gould Packard, grammarian for The New Yorker magazine for 54 years, was dead on that day at age 87.

In my life as a teacher, I have been deeply disturbed by my colleagues’ and students’ disrespect for grammar. Nouns, verbs, active voice, pronoun-antecedent agreement—these are the building blocks of our language. When grammatically correct, writing has a symmetry and beauty that supports meaning and nuance. Teachers disparage it—grammar is pointless when it’s taught in a vacuum, they say. Teaching whole writing is better. The bottom line is, they can’t teach it. It does not lend itself to touchy-feely writing assignments that stress putting down feelings, putting down anything, really, on paper. Corrections to grammar and spelling come later, they tell their students, if they come at all. Grades are awarded for writing something, not for a grammatically correct, logically sound argument of an idea.

Teaching grammar is hard work. There is a right and a wrong answer. The rules are concrete, and must be committed to memory or looked up when needed. And yes, the teaching of grammar must be connected to writing so students can learn the rules and then apply them as they revise their papers. Students must learn that when writing is grammatically correct, logically sound, coherently developed, the essay soars. It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, to borrow from the poet John Keats.

As a writer, I strive for correctness with grammar. I actually become angry when I catch a mistake in my work. I consider it a ding to my credibility. How we speak and write indicates our level of education, as my teachers taught me.

But I wasn’t always a receptive student.

In high school, we had a separate class in grammar, and only grammar. We did no writing at all. Our assignments each day were to complete all the exercises in the Warriner’s Complete Course grammar text. I had yet to realize I was headed for a life of words and sentences. I slouched in the back of the room and either slept through class or lured flies to land on my open book so I could squash them between the pages. Later, when I made tentative forays into writing, I looked up how things were done in the books I was reading. I learned much grammar from those writers—Louis L’Amour, Mark Twain, and John Knowles, among others.

As a teacher preparing my first grammar-writing classes, I realized some of those lessons from the fly-filled, drowsy days had actually seeped into my brain. Teaching made me a student of grammar, finally.

All of these memories came flooding back due to a newspaper clipping in a file. Eleanor Gould Packer “read every nonfiction article scheduled for publication. She saw the galley proof after the assigning editor, fact checker, copy editor, and lawyer went through it. She still found reasons to fill margins with questions and comments.”

The obit goes on to quote Packard: “I do grammar, I go for sensible sentences, I avoid awkwardness, avoid ambiguity, try to make a thing hang together.”

In her margin notes to writers, she was all vinegar and spice: “This clear? (not to me).” Or, in challenging an assertion: “How so?” And when catching an error, she wrote the unequivocal “NOT grammar.” She even had a sense of humor: “Have we completely lost our mind?” she wrote in response to an error in logic.

In her 54 years at the magazine, she rarely took a day off, inexplicably woke up deaf one morning, and retired in 1999 after a stroke. She was one tough contrarian grammarian. We should all be so diligent and meticulous as writers, and especially, as teachers.

Photo: Eleanor Gould Packard as photographed by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times.