What 21st Century Films Will Be Remembered Decades From Now?

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One thing I’m interested in is how perceptions about works of art change, and how reputations can slowly rise. Let’s look at this with movies. Some films are immediately acknowledged as being among the best of the art form. Schindler’s List made the AFI top ten within a few years of its release. Others take longer. Raging Bull was in 23rd place in the 1998 list, and fourth place in the 2007 list. Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction have started to do very well in modern rankings. Films from the late 90s and onward haven’t done as well, as some movies from the first half of the decade (Forrest Gump, Unforgiven, Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs) and it’s worth considering why that happened.

Did it take a while to realize which of the films that was pretty good would stand the test of time? Were particular eras weak? Did it take a while for slightly older films to be seen as classics, and for earlier films once solidified as classics to be seen as dated?

The implicit theory I have is that films usually hold up because a combination of factors, rather than just one big thing. For example, Some Like It Hot was a great comedy, but it was also a great work by a notable writer/ director, and it was also the best screen performance by Marilyn Monroe. 2001: A Space Odyssey was an innovative sci-fi epic, but it also had one of the all-time great villains in Hal, and an excellent score, and it was by Kubrick.

I’m wondering what films of the 21st Century are going to be rated highest in the future. This is slightly different from the question of which films are the best. One thing that matters a lot is whether a film can have a slightly bigger devoted following than another. The main aspect I’m looking at is films that seem to have the best combination of factors.

My top ten…
10. Selma: It’s a very good film that hits a lot of sweet spots for certain critics/ film professionals, with a female director covering the strategy of activism in the Civil Rights movement. It also tells the story of someone who will still be considered significant decades from now.

9. There Will Be Blood: Daniel Day-Lewis seems to have developed a well-earned reputation as the best actor of the modern era. This is probably his finest performance in a film that’s about something.

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8. The Social Network: I might be biased because I really liked this film. The director is a critical favorite, the writer has a major following,  and it’s about something modern and interesting. The young stars are on the rise, which means if any of their reputations increase significantly, it helps this film. Rooney Mara got two Oscar nominations; Andrew Garfield just got his first, and Armie Hanmer is getting acclaim for Call Me By Your Name. So that’s all happening.

7. The Avengers: This was a massive success critically and commercially, and the most notable of the MCU films. It also did something that’s groundbreaking by merging four film franchises together for one massive crossover. A slight issue with the MCU is that there may be a splitting of the vote with future lists, and I think the Avengers marks a compromise for those who might otherwise go for Iron Man (the first of the MCU films) or Captain America: Civil War (a particularly acclaimed and high-profile one.)

6. Moonlight Last year, I would have put Brokeback Mountain in the top ten, since it was probably the most notable film to deal with gay issues, and the reputations of the stars (Ledger, Gyllenhal, Williams) and director (Ang Lee) have only increased after the release. Then Moonlight came out and won Best Picture, and got a higher Rotten Tomatoes score, while providing racial milestones (first Best Picture winner directed by an African-American.)

5. Django Unchained: It gets the support of the people who like Tarantino (to say nothing of Leonardo Dicaprio and Samuel L Jackson, both of whom have memorable performances) and it does deal with a serious topic (slavery.) It also has the best buddy pairing of the decade with Django and Schultz.

4. Wolf of Wall Street: This is probably Dicaprio’s most iconic performance, and he is the most important actor right now. It’s a film with an A-list director, and a great supporting cast. It’s about something relevant to the modern era (capitalist excess) and if you want something fun and Hard-R, there really isn’t any serious competition.

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3. Wall-E: It’s slowly getting the reputation as one of the best Pixar films. Cinephiles like the completely silent first act. And it’s probably the best science fiction film in a generation, so it’s going to get support from that crowd.

2. The Dark Knight: Generally acknowledged to be the best example of a type of movie that is very popular right now, with an excellent supporting cast and one of the best cinematic villains ever.

1.The Lord of the Rings: These were all filmed back to back, so I think this is going to go down as one series, the way some combine The Godfather & The Godfather Part 2, to avoid splits by critics when they’re trying to figure out if they should vote for The Fellowship of the Ring (which kicked off the saga) and Return of the King (which won all those Oscars, brought the saga to a successful conclusion, and had a bigger role for Gollum, arguably the best character.)

As I noted, these aren’t the best films of the 21st Century, nor are these my favorite films.

But I think these are the ones that are most likely to pop up in Top 100 lists made twenty years from now, often for reasons that have little to do with quality.

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Effects of Shared Curriculla

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This was an incident I observed while shadowing a teacher (let’s call her Ms. Smith) for mandatory observation houts.

In the school, there was a decree that everyone in the seventh grade read The Outsiders, even though half the students had read it before for sixth grade. The principal had been concerned that in previous years when separate classes read two different books, it became obvious which classes were more advanced; the ones following the lead of the Honors classes. To avoid this situation, he determined that every class would read the same book. The choice was between The Outsiders and To Kill a Mockingbird. The feeling of the Special Ed teachers was that the latter was too advanced for those students. Ms. Smith believed that this was incorrect, but that there was also another way to avoid the problem from earlier years: Allow teachers to select the material for their curriculum.

This is an area where I clearly feel that the school administration was mistaken. Given the consensus that students in the United States often don’t get material that pushes them cognitively, ensuring that every student has the less challenging text is simply a bad policy. I am unaware of any evidence that a small potential boost to the self-esteem of some students is worth compromising on rigor for everyone. If I was a teacher, and every student in the school was expected to go with a particular text, I would go along with that, and argue for the other text when the decision is being made. And I’d keep it as one more example for my magnum opus on what’s wrong with education in the United States of America.

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Movies Watched in 2017 Part 1

 

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I set a challenge for myself on a message board this year to watch at least 100 movies. And as a way to encourage myself to watch older movies, I went with a sub-challenge of picking ten films per decade (counting the silent era up until 1929 as one full decade.) The message board thread died down, so I’m posting the first 25 films here.

I’m cheating a bit by counting variants of films as distinct films. This would include commentary tracks. I decided to keep track of various aspects of films more for my own benefit than anything else (IE- How many films are about a particular genre/ theme?)

Movie #1/ 2010s Movie #1/ Sci-Fi Movie #1) Max Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome Edition
This is my second time watching the film, and the time it cemented its reputation as possibly the best of the last few years. It is often spectacular in black and white, but in any format, the world-building, action sequences and storytelling would be astounding.
10/10

Movie #2/ New Movie #1/ 1980s Movie #1/ Sci Fi Movie #2) They Live
A fun sci-fi movie with a very clear sense of its identity, and clever conceits (the subliminal messages, and the secret invasion) even if the behavior of the bad guys isn’t always quite sensible.
8/10

Movie #3/ New Movie #2/ 1970s Movie #1/ Movie About Politics #1) Being There
There’s an excellent sustained performance by Peter Sellers as a simpleton who only knows the world through TV, and stumbles into high society when he’s kicked out of a townhouse he has inhabited for decades. Some of the subtleties may be a little dated, and a few subplots aren’t fully cooked, but the cast is quite good, and it’s consistently clever.
8/10

Movie #4/ 1930s Movie #1/ New Movie #3/ French Movie #1/ Criterion Collection #1) L’Atalante:
It’s an okay story of two newlyweds drifting apart, elevated into a great movie by the unique setting (a French barge) and various interesting episodes/ supporting characters.
10/10 (A Grade I’d give the entire Criterion Jean Vigo collection)

Movie #5/ New Movie #4/ Silent Era Movie #1/ Movie About Politics #2) Birth of a Nation
This has to be viewed as a historical artifact more than anything else, both in terms of the evolution of the cinema, and the astoundingly racist historical revisionism of a film that ends with the KKK as the good guys.
No Grade (I just can’t grade this after one viewing, due to questions of how to assess the technical aspects and the bonkers racism of the second half.)

Movie #6/ 1950s Movie #1/ New Movie #5/ Theatrical Adaptation #1) Separate Tables
A well-made ensemble piece about lonely people in a hotel, affected by two scandals that you might not expect to see in a 1950s film (a middle-aged military man is on probation following a sexual assault, Burt Lancaster’s character spent several years in prison for beating his wife and she comes to look him up.)
8/10

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Movie #7/ 1930s Movie #2) L’Atalante Commentary
I rewatched L’Atalante with the Criterion collection’s commentary track, as Michael Temple, the author of the book on the director gives an overview of Vigo’s career, and some interesting stuff on the making of the film. The backstory is quite fascinating.

Movie #8/ 2010s Movie #2/ New Movie #6) Brooklyn
Lovely period piece about a young Irish girl’s struggles in New York, and a conflict when she has to return home. Smart script with solid performances from the lead and the supporting cast in Ireland and New York. The lack of antagonists (for the most part- the film is bookended with her bitch of a boss) is refreshing, but there is still effective conflict.
9/10

Movie #9/ New Movie #7/ 2010s Movie #3/ Animated Movie #1: Sausage Party
Messed up take on Pixar’s what if inanimate objects had personalities theme. Funny and earns the R rating. Not better than you’d expect, but not bad either.
7/10

Movie #10/ New Movie #8/ 1950s Movie #2/ Theatrical Adaptation #2/ Movie About Politics #3: Born Yesterday
The Pygmalion style comedy takes a while to get going. Holden’s lead is a bit underdeveloped, a Capra-esque incorruptible reporter, but Judy Holiday’s story is remarkable, playing a ditz who gets wiser to what’s going on.
9/10

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Movie #11/ New Movie #9/ 1960s Movie #1/ Western #1: The Great Silence
I sought this one out on its reputation as the best spaghetti western not by Sergio Leone (it’s by another Sergio; Sergio Corbucci; a list of the best spaghetti westerns also cited Sergio Solima so the name has a weird dominance.) It seemed to have a big impact on Tarantino, with a story about bounty hunters and a blizzard. The cast was terrific with excellent performances by Klaus Kinski as the villain, Jean-Louis Trintignant as the hero, and Vonetta McGee as the love interest. The villain’s nasty, the lead is well-developed even if in a particular heroic mold, there’s some interesting social commentary, and a stunning ending.
9/10 (possibly 10/10)

Movie #12/ New Movie #10/ 1940s Movie #1: Letter to Three Wives
Solid domestic drama exploring what happens to three flawed marriages when the wives get a letter saying that one of their husbands is running away. Smart script and decent cast. It’s a well-made classic Hollywood film.
8/10

Movie #13/ New Movie #11/ 2000s Movie #1/ Spanish Movie #1: Bad Education
I got a slightly censored R rated version from the library. This is a messed up film that plays around with structure in some interesting ways, while handling a very serious topic (sex abuse in the Catholic church, and the ramifications) in rather messed up ways.
9/10

Movie #14/ New Movie #12/ 1940s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #2: Ministry of Fear
Fritz Lang’s direction is frequently interesting, although the story sometimes goes overboard with some sudden disruptions/ twists crammed into just under 90 minutes.
7/10

Movie #15/ New Movie #13/ 1990s Movie #1/ Movie About Films #1: Barton Fink
I wouldn’t have expected to take so long to get to a film from the 90s. It’s a decent Hollywood satire about a socialist playwright totally lacking in self-awareness that takes some messed up turns. Excellent cast.
8/10

Movie #16/ New Movie #14/ 2010s Movie #4/ Science Fiction Movie #3: Star Trek Beyond
This sequel continues with the solid cast dynamics of the Abrams Star Treks with some fantastic action set pieces, even if it covers territory we’ve seen before (the villain’s kinda like Khan, Kirk & Spock are trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives.)
8/10

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Movie #17/ New Movie #15/ Silent Era Movie #2/ Swedish Movie #1: The Phantom Carriage
A Christmas Carol type story that’s even bleaker. The myth of the phantom carriage, driven by the last man to die on New Years Eve, makes for some stunning visuals. It shows quite well the destructiveness of a screw-up of a man (an alcoholic willing to endanger his own children), even if the ending is a bit too pat. It takes some truly dark turns, and has some interesting connections between the folks involved.
9/10

Movie #18/ New Movie #16/ 1960s Movie #2/ Estonian Film #1/ Movie About Politics #4: Madness
Since the version of the film I found on youtube is in Estonian, and lacks subtitles, it’s not that many people are likely to be appreciate. I hope they make a release of this for international audiences in some forms, because this is quite good. It’s a moody piece with multiple opportunities for the various actors playing lunatics in an Asylum during World War 2, as a Nazi Commander investigates rumors of a British spy. It goes into expected territory (the Nazi Commander starts going a bit mad himself) in a well-executed way, with a few allusions to the flaws of government that make it understandable how the Soviets quickly banned this film.

My mom came from Estonia, and never saw this film, despite the impressive cast (lead Jüri Järvet arguably has the reputation as the best Estonian actor, and the rest was recognized from other work). When it came out she was a teenager, and it was quickly shelved due to Soviet pressure. She had moved to the United States before Estonia gained its independence, and the film was rereleased there.
8/10

Movie #19/ New Movie #17/ 1970s Movie #2/ Movie About Politics #5: The Man
A political drama written by Rod Serling with James Earl Jones and Burgess Meredith? I was immediately intrigued. It’s a bit dated and the production values are low, but it shows interesting reactions to a man becoming the first Black President (in 1972) by fluke, and an international controversy about an assassination attempt in South Africa takes a few surprising turns that keep the story from being simplistic, and that modern writers might not have the balls to do today.
7/10

Movie #20/ New Movie #18/ 1970s Movie #3/ Documentary #1/ Criterion Edition #3: Grey Gardens
The famed documentary about the nutcase elderly mother and middle-aged daughter (cousin and aunt of Jackie Kennedy) living in a crumbling Long Island mansion. The documentarians give them a noose, and they do their best to hang themselves.
9/10

Movie #21/ New Movie #19/ Japanese Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #4/ 1970s Movie #4: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
It’s interesting to watch some of the big moments from my favorite manga adapted into what is clearly a B-movie. The performance quality varies, but there are flashes of powerful imagery, although it is often kinda dated.
7/10

Movie #22/ New Movie #20/ 1980s Movie #2/ Science Fiction Movie #4: Time Bandits
It’s a fun time travel caper, with some Monty Python weirdness.
8/10

Movie #23/ New Movie #21/ 2010s Movie #5/ Movie About Films #2: La La Land
Worth seeing in theaters due to all the sets and choreographed numbers. Decent music and central performances in a film about aspiring young people in LA that balances the beauty of dreams and the pitfalls quite well. It plays with expectations very well, and has some moments that are truly magical. I didn’t feel too bad about the Oscars it got, although Moonlight was better.
9/10 (possibly 10/10)

Movie #24/ New Movie #22/ 1990s Movie #2: The Spanish Prisoner
A mystery film with some flat performances (not the first Mamet film to do this, so it is often intentional) but some interesting twists. A Hitchcock pastiche in the hands of a writer/ director with a clear personality.
8/10

Movie #25/ New Movie #23/ Swedish Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #5/ 1970s Movie #5: Cries and Whispers
It’s kind of weird to see what is very recognizably an Ingmar Bergman film in color, although he uses it extraordinary well to capture particular moods. This is an effective depiction of class and family and raw honesty (soon denied by the characters) as three sisters and their maid prepare for one’s death.
10/10

I’ve seen a few more films this year, but I’m cutting the first entry off at 25.

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Philosophy on Teaching

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This was from a piece I wrote for a grad school assignment on my philosophy of teaching, especially in a multicultural setting…

There are currently two conflicting developments within the field of education. On the one hand, policies such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core have demonstrated a push for national standards, to ensure that students all over the country get the same quality of education. On the other hand, there is a greater official understanding of the need to provide students individual attention with inclusive settings, and the reconciliation of different cultures. Diversity comes in many forms, as the system has to accommodate the diversity within the country, the state, the city and the individual school. This leaves teachers with a lot to figure out, especially when it comes to their individual philosophy. They have to provide appropriate support for each student, while meeting national and state standards.

Students spend most of their lives outside of their classroom, and they’re shaped by factors that educators are unable to control. The book Freakonomics brought my attention to correlations between a student’s academic success and the amount of books in the household, or the age of the mother when her first child is born (p.174). This all occurs before the student enters the classroom, a reminder of the limitations in discussions about what educators can do. It’s important for teachers and administrators to be as effective as possible, but there is more to education than what they provide.

Teachers are expected to weigh different needs, and to find the right balance in different categories. They have to come up with a curriculum for an entire classroom while determining ways to allow individual students to achieve their full potential. From a policy perspective, they have to determine when it’s necessary to implement rules set from the top-down, and when it’s appropriate to execute policies from the bottom. When change occurs, they have to avoid going too far, be it in implementing new technology or dealing with transitions in cultural norms, especially in fighting bullying and discrimination, or in embracing diversity.

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Standards are a significant source of controversy, because the stakes are so high, as in anything to do with education. If something goes wrong, an entire generation is unable to achieve its full potential. I’m sympathetic to all sides when it comes to Common Core. I can appreciate the arguments that individuals on the local level know what is best for their community so that there are numerous advantages to bottom-up approaches over a national top-down initiative. However, there are certainly benefits to a national approach. Families move, kids go to universities out of state, and it will be essential for adults entering the workforce to be able to meet the same standards as contemporaries from other states and other countries. I’ve read about the numerous mistakes with implementation on the national level, although this would not have been necessary if education leaders on the local level had been able to provide appropriate management.

There are occasional stories of honors students who fail a standardized test, exposing the weakness of a curriculum. Bridget Green of New Orleans is the prototypical example. She was a high school valedictorian accepted by a state university, who had difficulty meeting the minimum ACT score. Her education had left her completely unprepared for the higher expectations outside her school. The trouble isn’t that the national test was too difficult, but that her curriculum had been so unsatisfactory.

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On occasion, I’ll read about success stories of schools where children initially failed new standards, but after a change in policy, were able to demonstrate remarkable improvement. This does always make me skeptical. I wonder if a random success is given outsized publicity, or if another factor such as a change in student composition contributed to improved statistics. Another concern is that administrations may have figured out how to teach to the standard to the exclusion of everything else, which raises the possibility that the pattern will repeat itself when new standards are implemented. For example, let’s imagine a test that measures students knowledge of current events by their ability to name US cabinet officials. Soon you’ll have schools drilling students about the cabinet officials, ignoring the rest of the news. Then the standard changes to test current events knowledge by familiarity with Supreme Court justices. A school could change instruction to meet the challenge, but the students won’t be more informed. For all the complaints about the difficulty of meeting benchmarks, the schools that suffer from new standards tend to have significant existing flaws.

Some of the biggest problems do seem to have fixes, which suggests that the problem is with the shortcomings of standards rather than their existence. It is unrealistic to expect students who are not at grade level to meet national standards within a year, but there have to be alternatives to continuing with a system that wasn’t working before, and expecting success with that. Rather than expecting kids in tenth grade reading at a sixth grade level to be at a tenth grade level within a year, perhaps there should be initiatives to help them.

National standards have to make room for the particular strengths of localities. New York City has a high population density, which means that every student is able to travel to multiple schools. That does allow for unique approaches. For example, if eighty tenth graders within the city could benefit from the same specific approach, it might be worth sending them all to the same school. New York City schools are diverse, so different schools will fill different needs for their populations. In areas with high immigration, there may be a greater need to educate kids on American social norms. In areas where children rarely leave the Bronx, it could be advantageous to expand their horizons with regular field trips. There is a concern that administrators who stumble into positions of national leadership will grasp onto something that worked in another country, and insist that everyone in the United States try it, neglecting the obvious differences, to say nothing of the subtle variations. New York City schools may have a much higher immigrant community than nations where citizenship is more restricted. These will be populations with divergent needs.

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As teachers, we have to acknowledge our ignorance at times.  There will be cultural norms students don’t care for, as well as priorities that we haven’t considered. Educators will have to be sensitive to all of this. Well-meaning people will make mistakes when determining policies where the goal is to acknowledge diversity. Sometimes, officials will be ignorant of specific cultures, as may occur with East Asians. They may also forget the differences between subcultures. A recent Chinese immigrant may speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Fuijanese, or Uyghur (they’re considered an ethnic minority in China, but their population there exceeds that of the populations of Sweden or Hungary). The designation African-American applies to groups that have different communities: the descendants of southern slaves, Caribbean-Americans, recent immigrants, and their children. An earnest desire to help kids understand their culture ignores children of varied cultures, such as mixed race kids. I can understand the frustrations of a teacher who just wanted to teach Civics, and didn’t want to think about all of this, However, it is necessary.

I studied to be an English Teacher (7th-12th grade) so what I’ve learned was considered in that context. As in a math class, students are expected to build on prior knowledge, but there’s much more flexibility when it comes to material to cover. It can lead to students coming to class with very divergent background knowledge. There really isn’t a canon, allowing teachers to use material that they’re more invested in, although there is also the risk that students will consistently be exposed to the same short story. There has been a recent shift with a greater focus on information texts, and communication, which requires modifications in curricula.

One strategy I’ve come across in numerous places that is appropriate for Intermediate or High School ELA classes is to carefully select subject matter that involves individuals with similar backgrounds to the students. Several of the articles in Annual Editions suggested selecting diverse reading material, something also mentioned by students in a multicultural club chaired by a teacher I interviewed. This is a consideration teachers will have to be aware of.

I cotaught a 10th grade English class in the a Harlem summer school, using material selected by the supervising teacher. We focused on short stories: two by dead European authors, and two by Harlem Renaissance figure Langston Hughes. It was an effective combination, and it may have helped to have material with connections to African-American students.

The most important thing is to figure out what works. I was an English major in college, and it shows at times. However, I have always been interested in data. There are certain teaching strategies that I might find worrisome, but the results are more important than personal preferences.  It’s always easy to admit that others may be biased and mistaken, but there is also the possibility that I’m wrong.

I’m concerned about the approach with a program described in the article “Life Skills Yield Stronger Academic Performance Reflection.” It suggests creating a separate curriculum for children of a particular race, in order to provide greater connection to the subject matter. That strategy has led to subpar education in the past, and goes against the Supreme Court’s conclusion on education that separate institutions are inherently unequal. I also believe that it’s advantageous for students entering the adult world to have similar frames of reference, which only works when children have similar educations regardless of race. It could contribute to a troubling perception that those unfamiliar with their syllabus are ignorant, when they simply covered different material in their classrooms.

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I didn’t learn about individuals who fit my background in any of my classes, since there aren’t prominent short stories written about Estonians, nor do I recall anyone from the Baltics being important in history class. I wasn’t bothered by the idea that there hadn’t been any Estonian-Americans who had succeeded in the industries I wanted to work in. That said, I did still learn about my culture outside of school, and it’s certainly possible that I identified with numerous Caucasian brown-haired boys (IE- Tom Sawyer).

I can appreciate that some students have different needs. One of my classmates related an anecdote of a professor troubled by a student’s query about whether the fact that the only black women she heard about in classes meant that she was supposed to be a slave. I’m sure many teachers want to end that conversation as soon as possible, telling the student “Of course not!” and sending them back to their assigned reading. But it may often be up to teachers to explain to certain students their culture.

It has become clear in the classroom discussions and reading that many of the problems and solutions are political. Teachers are limited by the decisions of the departments within their school, and those departments deal with city, state and national orders. For example, I may think that it would be best if some kids are held back a year, but that might not be possible, and there wouldn’t be much that an individual teacher can do about it.

At this point, I’m learning what I don’t know. Teachers have to be prepared for difficult discussions on topics where they’ll be uninformed. There may be parents with different priorities. On one extreme would be parents who are outraged that their child only has a 96 average. On the other extreme will be parents who simply don’t prioritize education. Anyone involved in education will have to be ready for these, and other cultural differences.

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Nate Parker VS Casey Affleck

Film Review The Birth of a Nation

Once upon a time, there was a lot of buzz for Actor/ Director Nate Parker as a potential Oscar winner, due to his lead performance in Birth of a Nation, a film about the Nat Turner rebellion. That film broke Sundance records, and presented a major African-American cast with several potential nominations after two years of #oscarsowhite. Then came the reports about an incident in Parker’s past, when he had been tried for rape. In the end, Birth of a Nation didn’t take any nominations. However, many black actors did, as well as director Barry Jenkins.

There were similar questions about Casey Affleck, who had settled out of court regarding accusations of sexual abuse several years ago. He ended up winning Best Actor, leading some to speculate that there is racism in Hollywood that will punish black actors for discretions forgiven white actors. The question worth asking is whether this is an accurate summary?

I’ll note at this point that I saw Birth of a Nation. I thought it was a fine film, on the level of movies that have won Oscars in the past. My comments are more about perception than an actual comparison of artistic merit.

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I am of the view that the only thing that matters is the thing being graded. If you’re determining whether a performance was good, it really doesn’t shouldn’t matter what the actor does in their private life. So, I’d disagree with Constance Wu’s view that the academy shouldn’t nominate someone with a troublesome past. This doesn’t mean that anyone should be happy to hand over an award to someone who may be a reprobate. There’s nothing wrong with Brie Larson’s lack of applause.

Birth of a Nation was initially rewarded for things that didn’t have anything to do with quality. Hollywood wanted to give awards to a film by a young black director, as well as a movie about racial issues in which minority characters had agency, after criticism that the only nominated films were about slaves or servants. There was a narrative that the film’s initial flaws were ignored until the skepticism, with detractors afraid to give their honest opinions until that became a politically correct option.

New Yorker‘s Vinson Cunningham noted how people wanted it to be a hit.

I first saw “The Birth of a Nation” in April, at the News Corp headquarters in New York. As I waited for it to begin, I heard someone sigh loudly and say, “You know, I almost don’t want to see this now. When you know something’s gonna be so good—and so important—you kind of wanna wait.” That word, “important”—along with its cousins “powerful” and “necessary”—had figured in the first reviews of the film. Even critics who expressed a slight ambivalence about the movie’s artistic merits had chased those worries away by reminding readers how important it was to have Nat Turner’s story finally presented on an epic scale. Given the chronic exclusion of blacks in entertainment, it’s easy to understand the prevailing critical view that a work of art by a black artist about the bleakest episode in our history must, on these grounds alone, be worthy of our attention.

Birth of a Nation was the creation of the actor, and his codefendant was a cowriter. This leads to questions about their view of the world. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody summed it up.

An artist’s conduct alone, no matter how deplorable, doesn’t prevent him from making art that has significant merits. But a work of art is made by a person, and in this case by the same person who has gone on the road and spoken, inadequately and irresponsibly, of the event in his past. Here, too, the showcase for Parker’s character, intentional and otherwise, is all the broader: he directed the film, produced it, wrote the screenplay, and stars in it. Parker’s vices and virtues and those of the movie itself are dishearteningly inseparable.

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Variety‘s Owen Glieberman suggested that the format of the film allowed audiences to project onto it, something that left the movie’s reputation vulnerable to being shaped by a new, darker narrative.

From the moment of that original standing ovation, the movie has been a placard that invites the audience to project things onto it, and that’s what’s still happening. Only now the possibilities for projection have multiplied. Is “The Birth of a Nation” The Fearless Indie Movie That Tells The Great Slave Rebellion Story? Or is it The Sleazy Cover-up Of Nate Parker’s Collegiate Descent? Or is it Parker’s High-Minded Act of Atonement? Or — if it does indeed get shut out of the awards race — is it the victim of a collective media conspiracy, a kind of #OscarsSoWhite: The Sequel? The question, at this point, isn’t even how good or bad, provocative or banal a movie like “The Birth of a Nation” is. The question has become: Which lens are you going to see it through?

The reason the movie was tailor-made to be a set of symbolic signifiers has to do with how Parker, as a filmmaker, fails to draw us inside the story he’s telling.

There are a few differences between Affleck and Parker. The accusations and response weren’t equivalent for the two men. Parker’s cowriter was found guilty of the rape, and the woman went on to kill herself, which makes the story more horrifying and sordid, even if there is the counterview that the case had to be dodgy if a black man was acquitted of rape, and another black man was successfully able to appeal his sentence. Affleck also didn’t have to be a good man for the purposes of an Oscar nomination narrative. Hollywood isn’t going to be as excited about elevating a 40-something white guy; they’ve got plenty others. His performance will be judged largely on its own merits. He’s also not involved with writing or directing, so there isn’t the sense that it reflects his world view.

Birth of a Nation was the first film last year with a largely minority cast to get tremendous buzz. But this was an year with more, and that’s a forgotten aspect of the discussion. Loving quickly came along with high buzz, but was shut out of most major nominations for reasons that had nothing to do with a backlash against the people involved. Three films with primarily African-American casts: Fences, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures were nominated for Best Picture, and for five acting performances (in addition to one for Loving). Those films were credited for featuring the stories of African-Americans who weren’t slaves or maids, so in this environment, Birth of a Nation might still have been derailed by its leads being slaves at a time Hollywood decided they wanted something different.

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A Bad Standardized Testing Experience

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This came from an essay on my educational background and philosophy. It tied into the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s concerns about IQ tests having a measurable impact on the students.

When I was going for my education masters, I realized the effect badly administered assessments have had, and that I’m no exception to this. As a student, I usually tested well, but there was one bad experience that my mother describes as her least favorite situation involving one of her three children and an academic examination (medical exams too, come to think of it.) I was sick towards the end of fifth grade, on the day of a test that I knew to be significant. However, my mother felt that it was important that I take the test, determining that the thing that mattered was that I pass.

We were unaware that the test would determine what classes I would take when I went into sixth grade. The intermediate school I went to essentially had tracking (where kids are grouped according to perceived academic ability and kept in those groups), so the students would be staying in the same class for the three years. So the 601 class would become the 701 class would become the 801 class. And there was a hierarchy, with 6SP1 and 6SP2 above the standard classes, and higher numbers indicating lower expectations (the 610/ 710/ 810 class was at the bottom.) I was in the 604 class, mainly due to the exam and partly due to some preferences (Spanish over Italian as a foreign language class, Art over Music) which determined the group for the three years. Because I had been sick during one examination in fifth grade, that’s where I was stuck. I had not appreciated the significance of the test, nor was I aware that I could have made up for it later.

There was a satisfying coda a few years later, when I had the highest score in the school for the Specialized High School exam, confusing members of the PTA who wanted to know why their children in the SP classes did not do as well. My younger brother was in the 601 class at the time, and was promoted to the 7SP1 class the next year, which meant there was less explanations when he got into Stuyvesant as well. My youngest brother started out in the SP class. I’m not sure if it’s because of his scores on the fifth grade test, or because the school determined that the performances of the other Mets brothers were a better indicator of academic potential than their exam. I feel obligated to mention that he was another Stuyvesant alumnus.

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An obvious mistake my school had made was having such a clear hierarchy. The designations for classes were different in the schools I observed. I don’t recall much gloating in middle school about who is in the smarter class and who isn’t. It seemed to matter much more to the parents. It could also be that students spent most of their time with classmates, so there wasn’t as much opportunity for anyone to make others feel bad.

The attempt at tracking did have one slight downside when I went to High School. The SP classes had received a slightly different program that seemed to be the norm for incoming Stuyvesant freshmen. Their math classes were more advanced, and they all took Earth Science courses, which were typical for High School Freshmen outside of the specialized schools. In a freshman class of about 600+ students, I was one of 30 who took Sequential Math I. The majority of the students were on Sequential Math III. I started biology in Freshman year, so I never did make up for missing that Earth Science course. This was all the result of one bad assessment in fifth grade.

I could understand Gardner’s concern with the IQ tests that claimed to measure intelligence in 4-5 minutes. (13)

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The End of Oscars So White

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There were two Academy Awards in a row in which all twenty nominated performances were by white actors. The most recent had seven nominated performances by actors of color, two of whom ended up winning. Best Picture was won by a film where all the major characters were minorities. So, what the hell happened?

There are several factors that contributed to the white nominating slate in the preceding two academy awards. Several biases hurt Straight From Compton and Creed, two well-regarded films shut out in the acting and directing categories. The Oscars tend to nominate slightly older actors (the ten acting nominees in 2016 includes one guy in his early 30s, two men in their late 30s, five men in their 40s, two men in their 50s and one man in his 60s; it wasn’t much different last year) which disadvantages films with younger male leads. The Oscar voters don’t seem to care about “urban” culture, which excludes films about rappers and contemporary African-American athletes.

One conversation that seems mostly under the surface is whether the Academy should be shamed into considering certain subject matter to be Oscarbait in the way that films like Carol (period forbidden romance), Spotlight (reporters investigating institutional cover-up) are. One reform might be eliminating the concept of Oscarbait, and encouraging wider recognition for good work in its varied forms, which might help with the ratings problems. There’s also a preference by Academy voters for films that don’t make a lot of money as there’s the perception that those films don’t need support getting made, which could end up hurting blockbusters with African-American cast and crew.

Then there’s the peculiarities of the Oscar campaigns, where so much depends on the support and resources of the studio. That probably screwed over Beasts of No Nation, Netflix’s first effort. Selma didn’t finish production until relatively late in the process, missing several of the early fall festivals that help build buzz for similar films. When Bennett Miller was unable to finish Foxcatcher in time for the festivals, Fox delayed its release by an year. It was rewarded with nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, which Selma was shut out of (although strangely not Best Picture, which suggests Channing Tatum really had to suck.)

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There was some criticism of how white people got nominations for some of these films anyway. Sylvester Stallone was the one nominated actor in Creed, although there is a lot of precedent for it. He was the mentor with cancer. Father figures with health issues do get nominated often enough (Christopher Plummer in Beginners, Nick Nolte in Warrior, Robert Duvall in The Judge, Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton.) Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff were nominated for Straight Outta Compton, although the numbers were more favorable for them than any other category. Ten films will nominated for screenplays every year in contrast to other categories, where there are greater limits, and where the actors might be competing against one another. It was telling that people arguing that Straight Outta Compton should have had a nomination for Best Supporting Actor were unable to single out any particular performance, and the most notable actor in the film was middle-aged white guy Paul Giamatti.)

After the controversy last year the Academy made some changes to membership, although it’s not absolutely clear that this helped. The whole point of the Oscars is that accomplished peers get to vote, except the peers are white and old (average age of 63.) Even if the new additions to the academy represent the diversity of the industry, there are still a lot of people who got in decades ago when things were even worse, and when talented minorities were prevented from getting the jobs that lead to membership in prestigious organizations. And the rules for getting rid of the old white people are pretty lax, as anyone with a credit in the last decade, or a nomination at any point in their career, gets to stay.

The first time around the Academy could pad its membership with the low hanging fruit of relatively qualified minorities, but it wasn’t clear who they would go after for the second round (after this year they might say mission accomplished, although they could also add any new actors from Moonlight and Lion.) It can take a while to be accomplished enough to be considered for membership, which otherwise prevents some of the younger people from getting in. Some of the rising stars aren’t spring chickens. Recent additions to the membership will include Mark Rylance, a British theater star in his mid-fifties whose film credits were relatively sparse. So one new guy is going to be part of the same demographic as someone who got in as a young actor in 1980.

The fact that some great black talents aren’t recognized until they’re middle-aged might also suggest a problem with how the film industry operates. By not recognizing Samuel L Jackson and Viola Davis until they were in their 40s, we missed out on all the films they could have done in his 30s. And it’s possible that there are similarly talented actors who gave up.

Some might think politics plays a factor, with many African-Americans from Hollywood involved with various activist groups, but Mark Ruffalo’s not hurt by his reputation for helping progressive political candidates (Zephyr Teachout, Bernie Sanders.)

One problem is the fragmentation of pop culture, which means that everyone has their own niche (IE- more people are watching TV but there are more options than ever, so no show penetrates the overall pop culture to the degree that MASH, I Love Lucy or Seinfeld did.) I think it may be a reason why there isn’t a film in the last twenty years with the reputation of Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption, a topic I pondered earlier. There is a question of what to do with the Oscars in this environment, with the Academy Awards as one of the last signifiers of quality in film that enough of the public pays attention to, even if they’re unlikely to go out and watch Birdman, Spotlight or Moonlight.

There’s a legitimate question of whether the #oscarsowhite years were primarily the result of bad luck, and that last year was the result of several lucky things happening at once. 2011-2013 were okay for black actors when it came for nominations. 2011 saw Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer nominated for The Help (Spencer won) along with Mexican actor Demian Birchir for Biutiful. 2012 saw Denzel Washington nominated for Flight, and Quvenzhané Wallis nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild. 2013 saw nominations for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o (who won) for 12 Years a Slave, along with writer John Ridley (who won) and director Steve McQueen, who lost to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. If Denzel Washington’s Fences adaptation, which he had been trying to make for years, came out a little sooner, it would likely have gotten the same nominations. This time, films that had been in production for some time were released to major recognition.

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