Why I Homeschooled

New York Magazine has an interesting piece in the current issue titled “The Opt-Outers.” It outlines the new Common Core system and New York’s various testing measures and reform movements through the lens of a group of parents who have chosen to have their young kids opt out of the state tests. The parents argue that they saw school curriculum increasingly focus on test prep, and that as a result their youngsters—who were, up until then, engaged students—started to hate school and become very stressed by the prospect of the tests.

I volunteer for an organization that teaches journalism skills to young kids—the youngest participants are eight; the oldest are thirteen—and a few semesters ago I had a rather jarring experience. One of the kids, Hayden, was disengaged throughout the whole program day and looked burdened by something. When I asked him what was wrong, he brought his tiny hand to his tiny forehead and exclaimed, “I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack!” I asked why. “The ELA test,” he replied. “I have to take it next week and I am so stressed.” Continue reading

Justice for the Intern?

I got into a bit of a debate with Best Friend Diva this morning about internships. A guy that I used to intern with is trying to organize former and current interns to push the organization we used to work for, which we will call Nonprofit X, to pay its interns minimum wage. Nonprofit X is popular because of its socially conscious message. Its support comes from liberals to the far left, and if it were to deny interns, who make up about seventy percent of its labor force, a living wage, it would likely garner some bad PR. I think the interns would have some leverage there, but my activist friend who is trying to organize asked me if I thought current interns would support us. I said I wasn’t sure; Nonprofit X is part of a very competitive job sector, and some of the current interns are trying to scale the organizational ranks and become paid staff members. I am not sure that they would be willing to organize while still part of the organization, which would undermine any fledgling movement for minimum wage. Continue reading

“Blue is the Warmest Color”: Food is Where the Heart is

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The best thing about “Blue is the Warmest Color,” for me, was the treatment of food. In most of the scenes centered around socializing, food is an important element: one of our first glimpses of the protagonist is at dinner with her family; Adele’s first date with her high school crush is over gyros; Adele and Emma have an interesting meal with Emma’s mother and stepfather that involves some pointed talk of oysters, countered by a more modest meal at Adele’s family home; Adele cooks for Emma’s friends at their celebration of Emma’s art.

Food represents different character or plot elements in many of these scenes. In the first two scenes listed above, our attention is drawn to the voraciousness with which Adele consumes her food. That voraciousness is a recurring theme in the film and extends to her sex life and the emotional dynamics of her relationship with Emma. The “meeting the parents” dinner scenes highlight class differences: Emma says something like “Simple, but delicious” as she slurps up Adele’s father’s pasta, a hearty, working-class dish that stands in contrast to the expensive shellfish the group consumes at Emma’s family dinner, accompanied by talk of art and wine. In the dinner party scene, Adele makes the aforementioned pasta dish. It’s a hit amongst Emma’s cultured friends; the camera lingers on their enjoyment of the meal, but the scene also establishes the passive, servant-like role Adele has taken on in her relationship with Emma, a role that she relishes but Emma resents.

The food scenes struck me because I think food, and what if signifies, is largely ignored in American film. Certainly, there are memorable food scenes in American films (I always loved the pasta sauce scene in The Godfather), but food is often most prominent in airy montages in Nancy Meyers movies. In those scenes, food is prepared amongst the glistening appliances of sprawling Southern California or Hamptons kitchens, but never consumed. In these rom-coms, the joy is in the preparation, and the food is presented as an indulgence. The chick flick may be the genre most associated with food, but if American audiences equate food with one actor, it has to be Brad Pitt. Many a YouTube montage has been edited to highlight “Brad Pitt eating scenes,” but what is the fascination? The unlikely picture of one of modern cinema’s Adonis figures actually, well, eating onscreen is notable to American audiences because in most of our films, actors shuffle food around on a plate despondently, trying to trick the audience into making it look like they’ve consumed something.

There are obviously cultural differences at work here. “Blue is the Warmest Color” takes place in France, where leisure is valued rather than stigmatized. Indeed, scenes centered around food would seem out of place in certain American milieus; the greatest fantasy in “Sex and the City,” after all, wasn’t Carrie’s wardrobe or Charlotte’s apartment, but the idea that four friends would have time for that many meandering brunches in a city where meals are often seen as a means to an end. But even if American culture deemphasizes downtime to a certain extent, food is still an integral part of our cultural and familial dynamics. It can be a signifier of myriad things, yet it’s often ignored onscreen. Perhaps standards of beauty are partly to blame for the exclusion—do we not want to see our matinee idols stuffing their faces? Do actors and actresses refuse to shoot multiple takes of a dinner scene for fear of loading up on deadly carbs? I don’t know the answers, but I’m certain that for some viewers the most shocking scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color” won’t be the graphic lesbian sex scenes; they’ll be the scenes of unabashed calorie consumption.

What’s in a Name?

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I saw 12 Years a Slave the other night at BAM. I don’t know that there’s much I can say that hasn’t already been said. Yes, it’s excellent. Yes, the shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor hanging from a tree while slave children play around him is incredible in a horrible way. Yes, Brad Pitt is kind of distracting. Yes, Michael Fassbender is terrifying. Yes, McQueen’s long takes are brutal.

I have had three moviegoing experiences where, when the credits rolled, the audience members stayed in their seats and just cried, or stared forward in stunned silence. Each time, the scene was the same: darkened theater, dead silent but for occasional sniffles. Those three movies were Brokeback Mountain, Beasts of the Southern Wild and, now, 12 Years a Slave. The particularly jarring thing about 12 Years is that, for an American audience, being confronted with our country’s absolutely brutal history is a real challenge. For me the fetishization and commodification of the Black body was particularly disturbing—in one scene, Paul Giamatti has his slaves stand naked around a house as he highlights their various physical attributes to potential buyers—because I think we still see some of that objectification of Black bodies today. In general, you just have to think about how slavery has impacted us today, has shaped our national identity, as you watch the film.

I was also struck by the tension between the horror of Northup’s experiences and the beauty of the composition. McQueen is a smart filmmaker because he seduces you with these breathtaking shots. You want to look away as Northrup hangs from a tree while slave children play behind him, but there is such immense power in the beauty of the composition that you keep watching. Which is also Michael Fassbender’s appeal. McQueen’s camera is addicted to him. Again, Fassbender’s slave owner is so brutal that you don’t want to watch, but McQueen’s camera luxuriates in the actor and the audience does, too.

Fassbender’s performance was not nearly as wrenching as Ejiofor’s, for me, and the part that brought me to tears was right at the end. Once he is sold into slavery, Solomon Northup is told he will be referred to from there on out as “Platt.” At the film’s end (SPOILER ALERT), he returns home after being freed to find that his grandchild has been named after him. His reaction to hearing his real name—after years of being called Platt and trying to resist becoming Platt and letting go of all vestiges of hope—was stirring. There was such power in the idea that despite the efforts of society at large, he had not fully lost himself, or if he had, at least his identity had lived on elsewhere, through his family, and could be reclaimed.