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Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Sep162010

In Which Every Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way

Call of the Wild

by SARAH LABRIE

Animal Kingdom

dir. David Michôd

112 minutes

David Michôd built his career on the mostly ignored genre of short films, which is probably why, until recently, not many people outside Australia knew who he was. This year he surprised everybody by taking the cinema world jury prize at Sundance with Animal Kingdom, his first full-length feature. Not unexpectedly, the film depends on all the things that make dramatic shorts work: relentless forward motion, an obsessive attention to detail, and characters so deeply rendered you want to duck when you see them coming.

Animal Kingdom opens with a boy watching Deal or No Deal on television next to the body of his dead mother. An indifferent camera flickers from the TV screen to the boy to the corpse. We understand little about the world we’re in, apart from the fact that it is empty of sentiment. The boy, Josh (James Frecheville), calls his grandmother to tell her absently that his mom has overdosed on heroin. "I’ll come right over," she says. The grandmother’s voice is the first pleasant note in this grim, washed-out universe and we think, for just a moment, that everything is going to work out fine. Together they will bury his mother and she will lead him out of his uncertain present. It doesn’t dawn until later that, as a reaction to the news of her only daughter’s death, her response is unsatisfactory. "OK." Josh answers, and then: "Do you remember where we live?"

Things might have turned out better for everyone if she didn’t. Josh’s new home turns out to be a wasps’ nest populated by his mother’s estranged brothers, the Codys: Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), whose twitchiness makes him seem always on the verge of accidentally murdering someone, the perpetually stoned Darren (Luke Ford), and the sociopathic Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). Together, their energy creates an atmosphere permanently on the edge of combustion.

At the heart of this chaos sits the grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), the family matriarch whose demands for affection and overlong kisses from her sons indicate that, somewhere along the way, her maternal instincts went awry. Her rouged cheeks and perfectly arched eyebrows give her the air of a faded film star, but her instincts are sharp and she acts on them with merciless precision.

Later, when she comes to see Josh as a threat to her sons, and consequently, her way of life, she will hunt him down with single-minded fury. Even then, her smile doesn’t crack. While on one level Michôd’s film is about testosterone unchecked, on a deeper, more important one it’s about what it means to be trapped in a family you didn’t choose.

It doesn’t help that seventeen-year-old Josh is a passive, lumbering man-child committed to never putting up a fight. Within days of his arrival, he has, at the request of his uncles, stolen a car and threatened a stranger with a loaded gun. If he’s troubled by any of this, he doesn’t let it show. It is a testament to Michôd’s direction, and to Frecheville’s acting, that we sympathize with Josh anyway. As he falls deeper and deeper into trouble, we feel a kind of desperate pity for him, if only because we know he would never feel it for himself.

At the other end of this spectrum is Mendelsohn's Pope. Something about his face lets you know right away that he is irreparably broken. His on screen presence makes you feel as though small creatures are burrowing their way beneath your skin. Where Josh is a walking blank, Pope is a mass of frenzied externalized id. Here is the best modern movie villain since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

Pope has a thorough understanding of the power of cruelty. He uses his own lack of a moral compass to manipulate his brothers and his nephew into a messy revenge plot against the local police. When two cops wind up dead and detectives come snooping, Pope grows convinced Josh will crack under questioning. The boy, he and Smurf decide, must be got rid of. As Josh takes to the streets with Pope on his trail, we begin to wonder if the film’s title is ironic. Though we’re treated to a monologue about the laws of the Melbourne jungle, Josh and Pope seem less like lions than lab rats, destined to complete the same mazes and die in the same cages their fathers were born in.

Until, that is, the last, delicious minute of the film, when Josh takes every crime Pope has committed against him and serves them back tenfold. This moment make the entire movie worth watching. It also underlines the point Michôd seems to be making, maybe in spite of himself. Animal Kingdom isn’t a gangster film. Or, it is, but it is also something else, a sort of warped bildungsroman.

Like the shorts Michôd made his name on, Animal Kingdom asks what happens when a child prematurely crosses the threshold between youth and dark, unwelcoming adulthood. In Crossbow the neglected son of narcissistic parents takes on the law with tremendous consequences. In I Love Sarah Jane, a little girl cares for a father who can’t return the favor because he is, literally, a zombie. The benign malice of flawed adults, and the damage it causes as their offspring grow up, drives much of Michôd’s work. Animal Kingdom takes on the same theme under the guise of a leather-jacketed neo-noir/thriller.

Before he was a director Michôd worked as a journalist, and it shows. Words matter in his shorts, which are mostly shaped like visual flash fiction. Likewise, there is a care given to language and silence in Animal Kingdom that viewers will notice because it is so rare. The scariest moments take place in between the shots of bloody carcasses and police squads, when Pope gazes longingly at the sleeping form of Josh’s girlfriend, or when Josh’s deadpan face cracks, for the first and only time, in a claustrophobic suburban bathroom.

But the elements that make this movie work are also sometimes its downfall. Michôd’s aesthetic- simultaneously stark and highly detailed- lends itself well to stories that go in one direction. When he takes on subplots and tangents, he loses us. Halfway through the film, after Josh gets taken under the wing of a sympathetic detective (Guy Pearce), a handful of events take place that don’t fit anywhere. Smurf collaborates with a corrupt lawyer to blackmail a cop into helping her organize a hit on Josh. Josh, meanwhile, is in a witness protection facility with people we’ve never seen before. Several police factions are suddenly involved. It’s as though we’ve been dropped into somebody else’s movie.

Animal Kingdom’s plot is ambitious, and threatens to be sprawling. Its strength lies in the perfectly formed characters who manage to hold the whole thing together. So when the cast grows to introduce people who pop in and out with no discernible function or meaning, Michôd undermines the subtle balance that makes the whole thing work. Nevertheless, we forgive him everything, since what he gets out of an Air Supply ballad layered over a long, skin-crawling stare is more than most living filmmakers can draw from 120 minutes of film.

I walked into this movie expecting something like last year’s A Prophet, a gritty French prison noir I found inaccessible but almost every boy I know adored. Instead, Michôd takes the tropes that define movies like that one and uses them to build a metaphor around the isolation that marks the end of adolescence, that bewildering experience of coming face to face with a reality whose rules no one ever explained.

Sarah LaBrie is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Match Point.

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"Hands" - The Ting Tings (mp3)

"That's Not My Name" - The Ting Tings (mp3)

"We Started Nothing" - The Ting Tings (mp3)

Wednesday
Sep152010

In Which All They Know Of The World Is What You Show Them

Acting Up

by LETIZIA ROSSI

I am a product of the Oakland Unified School District (Glenview Griffins!), home of the Ebonics controversy. In 1986 our teachers went on strike for what seemed like forever (got to hang at a friend's grandma's house, it was awesome). In 1989 MC Hammer filmed his video for "Help The Children" at my elementary school, also we had an earthquake and the A's swept the World Series (big year). I would not be lying if I said that we studied Too $hort lyrics in class: "600 million on a football team, And her baby dies just like a dope fiend." The Raiders returned in 1994.

Personally I care about the children, not because they are 'the future' but because they make the present worthwhile. It is an anthropological truth that children are cute so that we will love them, with the idea that our love will nurture them into thoughtful adults. That working with children is rewarding emotionally, if not monetarily, derives from the fact that children are generally just better than adults. If you don't appreciate that it takes a village, you must at least acknowledge that we should hope some of these children grow up to be smart enough to cure our cancers.

Did you read There Are No Children Here in the 90's? Did it break your heart? Did you go out make your own "I <3 Birdleg" T-shirt with those iron-on fuzzy letters?

Geoffrey Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone. Canada is doing Whatever It Takes

to get every child in Central Harlem to college. "Called "one of the most ambitious social-service experiments of our time," by The New York Times, the Harlem Children's Zone Project is a unique, holistic approach to rebuilding a community so that its children can stay on track through college and go on to the job market. The goal is to create a "tipping point" in the neighborhood so that children are surrounded by an enriching environment of college-oriented peers and supportive adults, a counterweight to "the street" and a toxic popular culture that glorifies misogyny and anti-social behavior.

Paul Tough's book about Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone displays blurbs from a cast of characters that reads like a roaster of well respected Americans: Bill Clinton, David Brooks, as well as blurbs from the authors of every book you have seen every single person on the subway reading: Elizabeth Gilbert, David Eggers, Stephen Dubner, Michael Pollan.

photo by Alex Tehrani

During his campaign Barack Obama promised that if was elected he would replicate the Harlem Children Zone in Promise Neighborhoods in 20 cities around the country. This was without Canada's endorsement (Canada was after all a friend of the Clintons). Part of Obama's Change is more Geoffrey Canada. As Tough writes, "Kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society."

photo by Alex Tehrani

The HCZ pipeline begins with The Baby College, a series of workshops for parents of children ages 0-3. The pipeline goes on to include best-practice programs for children of every age through college. The network includes in-school, after-school, social-service, health and community-building programs. The pipeline has, in fact, dual pathways: on one track, the children go through our Promise Academy charter schools; while on the other track, we work to support the public schools in the Zone, both during the school day with in-class assistants and with afterschool programs.

- HCZ Mission Statement

In a speech at Amherst College, Canada explained that many of his rich donors visit his schools and say "This school is better then MY OWN kids school," to which he responds, "Of course it is, these kids need this. Your kid doesn't need this. Your kids have all this other stuff."

Baby College

The Baby College offers a nine-week parenting workshop to expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. Among other lessons, the workshops promote reading to children and verbal discipline over corporal punishment.  —  This American Life: Going Big

Victor Boria Jr. and his young father represented two separate generations of Harlem youth. Geoffrey Canada’s staff had one program that would help Victor Jr. complete all his immunizations and another to help Victor Sr. complete high school. But while the Harlem Children's Zone was prepared to work with both Borias, the prospects of the infant and those of the young man seemed very different. (Victor Boria Jr. became eligible for the Promise Academy lottery in August 2010.)

Visitors to my public charter school often ask how the students feel about the signs on the walls that say: 'Failure is not an option.' They are surprised to hear that the signs are really for the staff. 

Efiom Ukoidemabia, or Mr. U, was the math coach at the Promise Academy Middle School. Back in September, Chastity was obsessed with math, always going to Mr.U for extra problems and special math games. For the past few weeks though, she and Mr.U has been feuding she acted up in class one day, he called her mother to report her misbehavior and Chastity decided she couldn't stand him. ("We're both Geminis," Mr. U said by way of explanation.)

If Canada's model was one of contamination, in which positive ideas and practices spread within a family and throughout a neighborhood, the KIPP model sometimes seemed by contrast to be one of quarantine, walling off the most promising kids from a sick neighborhood's contagion.

As Canada often said, he was tired of programs that helped a few kids "beat the odds" and make it out of the ghetto; his goal was to change the odds, and to do it for all of Harlem's kids. The idea that Promise Academy might stand as an island of success in the middle of Harlem's ocean of failure - that felt entirely wrong to him.

Charter Schools are a controversial issue. Teachers are notoriously underpaid and in exchange belong to a powerful union and a contract that regulates the both the minutiae of school system and larger issues such as the length of the school day and year. Charter schools who chose to institute 'whatever it takes' methods, including longer school days and classes on on Saturdays, have been picketed by Acorn. (While wearing Abercrombie & Fitch no less, if one were to point out ironies.)

Families in Harlem want desperately to get their children into charter schools, which are only available through a lottery. If the final scene of The Lottery doesn't bring you to tears you are officially dead inside. "This is a call to all those in charge at the Department of Education,” shouted Esperanza Vazquez of Morrisania. "Do your work for our children."

promise academy/HCZ  BO in 2007: "The moral question about poverty in America — How can a country like this allow it? — has an easy answer: we can't. The political question that follows — What do we do about it? — has always been more difficult. But now that we're finally seeing the beginnings of an answer, this country has an obligation to keep trying."

The radical idea behind the Harlem Children's Zone is that poor children deserve the best, of everything. The best education, the best health care and the best resources. Canada decided to do everything for the children of Harlem that he would do for his own child. The fact that we continue to accept that children growing up in the most powerful nation in the world, are something that require "saving" shows the true perversity of our system. We should feel an outrage akin to Katrina victims referred to as "refugees." To quote Ras Baraka, principal of Central High School in Newark, "This is not normal."

Letizia Rossi is a contributor to This Recording. She is a master's candidate at the Hunter College School of Social Work. She last wrote in these pages about nail polish blogs. She tumbls here and blogs here.

self portrait with teeth brushers Mission Head Start 2003

Those Awkward Years Have Hurried By

To Sir With Love

A story as fresh as the girls in their minis. . .and as cool as their teacher had to be!

Dead Poets Society

He was their inspiration. He made their lives extraordinary.

They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? — Carpe — hear it? — Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.

O Captain! My Captain!

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.

Stand and Deliver

In 1982, a new troublemaker hit Garfield High. He was tough. He was wild. He was willing to fight. He was the new math teacher.

The day someone quits school he is condemning himself to a future of poverty. — Jaime Escalante

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Stuff White People Like #62: Knowing What's Best for Poor People

Lisa's Substitute

Miss Hoover: He didn't touch my lesson plan. What did he teach you?

Lisa: That life is worth living.

Mr. Bergstrom: "That's the problem with being middle-class. Anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more."

Dangerous Minds

Q: Is the movie true?

A: Sort of. The movie is based on my book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, but the Hollywood guys made up a lot of stuff because they thought it would be more exciting. You'll have to decide what you think.

"Gangsta's Paradise" - Coolio (mp3)

"To Sir With Love" - Lulu (mp3)

"Gin and Juice (acapella Snoop Dogg cover)" - StuRap (mp3)

Tuesday
Sep142010

In Which It Comes Back To Us Corrected

A Letter to the Editor

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Womanhood is an exception to every rule, much like irregular verbs in French. I was always taught that to master these grammatical anomalies, one must first learn the rule and then how to break it expertly, and never the other way around. “After all,” my teacher said, “we learned to fly by keeping our feet on the ground.” The only catch to being a constant exception is that the exception then becomes a rule in itself. French verbs can only be so irregular; after a while, they have to follow some kind of structure. A man couldn’t bleed for a week every month and live, but a woman can.

If the stories are true, woman has been an alarming exception from the very beginning. Eve bloomed from Adam’s rib and never forgot it — why else would she have listened to the serpent, who told her she could again be transformed, and this time into the likeness of the divine? Adam was cursed because he did not live up to his manhood, but Eve was cursed for trying to be God — the ultimate exception. The curse changed her ability to create into a painful endeavor, something that to a woman is a deep and disquieting irregularity. Since then, to be a woman means to be painfully and abnormally conjugated, and to bleed for it.

The day it happened to me, I wasn’t prepared and it took me a while to come to terms. I emerged into the world finally with a sort of half-resignation and disdain, and was shocked when I found chocolate cake and gifts waiting on the kitchen table for me. My mother hung up the phone as I slid into a chair and smiled at me like we were in on some sort of cosmic secret, just the two of us.

"Your aunt says, ‘Congratulations’," she beamed.

"Thanks," I said, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right word.

She looked at me for a moment, almost indulgently, and then stepped over and kissed my forehead in blessing. "Now you're a woman."

That cosmic secret only goes to show that sometimes our bodies are much further ahead than the rest of us. I was twelve and felt no more like a woman than I had before the blood. Yet when it happened, it was somehow much more than a simple biological transformation enabling me to carry children. It was the ticket to a new period of life, one in which I would potentially be allowed to attend sleepovers, wear makeup, and flock to the restroom with other females. And I found, secretly, that I was proud of it — proud not only of its symbolism, but also of the pure physical fact. I was proud to be the exception to a rule, proud that I could lose something so essential to life and yet somehow create life with it. This form of hubris, I believe, all women inherited from the beginning, if only to cope with the fact that they will never be divine.

A sort of shy self-awareness followed, as new curves found their shape as gently as fine penmanship. First shaky and then smooth, they were the outward expression of this lovely and hidden thing, like a beautifully written letter. I learned to use them like I learned to use new words: syllable by syllable, meaning by meaning. At first I was as concerned about my femininity as I was concerned about my writing — worried that it all promised a unique and engaging story that I would never be able to tell. I perfected my handwriting, spending long hours copying my notes from class, giving the proper attention to spelling and grammar. Je suis, j’ai, je suis, j’ai, je suis, j’ai…

My mother warned me about the stories I should never tell, namely that I should never look a man in the eye on the subway and that I should never respond when they called from doorways or alleys. I learned to look through people on the street as if they were windowpanes, to pretend that they didn’t exist except as modifiers in time’s sentence. Once a man put his hand on my knee in the train and I whispered fiercely, "Don’t touch me!" I was terrified of being a direct object and even more terrified of becoming an indirect object, one that men followed or whistled to on the streets. I learned to keep my face impassive and to tell stories only to those who would listen, behavior that was later reinterpreted as aloofness.

For a few years, I had to commute a great distance to get to school and left home early in the morning, long before the sun came up. The streets were empty and I was lonely in the way a woman is lonely when caught in the tension between what is and what should be, stretched and parsed both descriptively and prescriptively. I was younger and taller than most of the men I took the bus with, and I wondered what they thought of me standing there with them before seven o’clock. I imagined the stories that my clothes told them, the stories I would have told if I thought they would listen.

It was during those morning commutes that I began to feel as if I were being followed. I remembered what my mother had said and refused to look back over my shoulder, keeping the story to myself in defiance. Yet I was fascinated by the thought of someone knowing me by another name than I knew myself, calling me elle instead of je — "she” instead of "I" — conjugating me in a tense I had never known since I could not step out of my own skin. I flirted with this idea and punctuated it by taking a different route to the train; after all, I had always been told to avoid the predictable when being followed, just as I had been taught that all good stories start with beginnings that taste like champagne. The follower, a strange conglomeration of parental authority and romantic ideals, slashed a red pen through my charade and reminded me that I had to play by his rules. I began to wonder if he thought my scarf was askance, that I used too many semi-colons.

Loneliness in a woman is a bitter thing, bitter because Adam’s loneliness was solved and hers was not. It is lonely to be the subject of every sentence you write, no matter how long they are or how many modifiers you find it in you to use. Loneliness, too, is a form of hubris — a blatant refusal to acknowledge the shame in being an exception, which is a crime worse than simply refusing to follow the rules. For a long while I let the Editor prescribe my goings and doings, and loved when my day came back free of red ink. I found the irony in the French term les règles and decided that to be a woman was of no greater significance than the difference between a dash and a hyphen.

I worried that my perfume was too sweet, that I had forgotten to check for split infinitives.

When I turned twenty, somebody asked me to tell them about a time I was the only one not dancing in a nightclub in Barcelona and I found myself wondering why they wanted to hear it. Since it was no longer possible to see people as windowpanes, I used everything I had learned about tone and told stories as if they were for the people I was telling them to. It was with surprise, then, and disappointment that I ultimately realized I had preferred being considered a direct object than being considered a subject. As a result, I unwittingly uncovered the difference between the way men interact with women in America and the way they interact in France.

When I moved to Chicago, I found that men would come and talk to me if I had a book in my hands and a cup of tea on the table. None of them would sit down, though; they were content to ask me what I thought of the book, if I liked it or not, while standing awkwardly with their hands in their pockets. The Editor wrote notes in the margin on how they would think I was one of those people if they caught me reading Stieg Larsson, and a hipster if they caught me reading Ayn Rand, and how I should just stick with the tea and remain aloof. Besides, I was reminded, in all likelihood none of them had read Pascal.

Loneliness, however, is a more brutal editor than self. I continued to bring books to coffee shops, and I found the men to be kinder critics; unable to tell the difference between a dash and a hyphen, they would only see curves like gentle penmanship, writing all the words they loved and understood best.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here. She last wrote in these pages about the second handers.

"Burden of Tomorrow" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)

"The Drying of the Lawns" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)

"Love Is All" - The Tallest Man On Earth (mp3)