Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Video Review: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Article first published as Video Review: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) on Blogcritics.

In the bottom of my video cabinet, under old store bought DVD cases and VCR tapes, I have a stack of VCR tapes that I recorded over the years. I dusted them off recently and was pleasantly surprised to find Night of the Living Dead. Judging from the material recorded before and after the film on the tape, it would seem that I taped this one about twenty years ago.

I still retain an old VCR in my basement (since I do have an extensive library of tapes I have yet to transfer to DVD), so I popped the video in and hoped for the best. Despite the age of my tape and the inconsistencies of the original film print itself, the viewing experience was quite enjoyable. In fact, the bumped microphones, the slightly flubbed lines, and the head-pounding soundtrack only add to the fun. A character lights a match, and it sounds as if someone is lighting one right next to you. The film sucks us in this way, making us feel as if we are in that room trapped with the survivors.

The story still seems fresh to me. Looking at it from the perspective of the year it was made, it was daring for Romero to cast black actor Duane Jones as the lead character Ben. It is commendable that Ben is obviously a born leader, intelligent, sensitive, and compassionate – all the things his white nemesis Mr. Cooper (Karl Hardman) is not. Also, the lead actress, Judith O’Dea (Barbara), is perfectly cast as a neurotic girl who loses her brother in a cemetery and flees to a farmhouse to find someone to help her, only to discover the old woman murdered upstairs.

What is now a familiar trope (zombies trying to get at a few survivors trapped inside someplace) was a brilliant new idea back in 1968. Despite liking similar themes used in films over the years and now in the uber-popular TV series The Walking Dead, none can compare to Romero’s original film. The stark production values, the seemingly everyday people cast as the characters, the jarringly realistic news broadcasts, and the zombies themselves (many played by Romero’s friends from the Pittsburgh area near which the film was made) all add to a rather surreal documentary feel to the proceedings.

Knowing how the film would end, I still felt drawn into it and wanted the characters to succeed. Some of the acting is poor (Keith Wayne as Tom in particular), but Jones makes Ben a hero worth rooting for, O’Dea garners sympathy for Barbara, and Hardman makes Cooper one mean bastard. Put it all together and you have a recipe for all the films that have followed: the survivors who are fighting amongst themselves more than against the zombies outside the door.

The small group in that house is a microcosm of society at the time. Cooper and his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) obviously seem to have money, Tom and Judy (Judith Ridley) are simple local folks, Barbara comes from Pittsburgh and appears well-off, and Ben is an obviously well-educated fellow of simple means. Thus the stage is set for conflict, with Ben and Cooper going head-to-head numerous times. While Cooper never makes any racist comments (he calls Ben “that guy”), it is clear that he does not like Ben being in charge. Tom tries to be the voice of reason, and Cooper and Helen bicker constantly. When she tells him that he better work with Ben because they may not enjoy living together but dying together will be worse, you know Romero has ripped the fairy tale of happy suburban marriage to shreds.

One of the continuing conflicts in the film is Cooper’s assertion that “The cellar is the safest place.” Ben says “It’s a death trap,” and they go back and forth on this. It becomes an issue that eventually will cause Cooper to try and get the gun from Ben, and this will lead to a fight in which Ben shoots Cooper as things spiral out of control when the zombies begin breaking into the house.
Character development is key to the success of the story here, for we want these people to survive.

In many subsequent films, directors gloss over the human factor to get to the blood and gore. A film series like Friday the 13th devolved from the power of the original into increasingly more nonsensical sequels, and the viewer is almost always rooting for Jason to get on with it, mostly because the people are throwaway characters waiting to be sliced and diced. Here we want to see the zombies killed and the humans survive, if they can find a way not to kill each first.

There are some visceral scenes that make the film rise to iconic status, among them Ben killing a zombie with a crowbar (and then yanking it out of its head), one involving Ben and Tom trying to get gas for a truck, Helen getting bludgeoned by her daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) who has turned into a zombie, and zombies feasting on the recently dead Tom and Judy (Judith Ridley) after the truck goes on fire.

For a film made for about $100,000 and with a cast of unknowns, the impact of this film not only on the horror genre, but all other kinds of films as well, cannot be underestimated. Romero also brought in the now common theme of the importance and dangers of technology, with radiation from a failed space probe bound for Venus returning to earth as the cause for the “mutations” that wreak havoc all over the world.

Films with gigantic budgets, big-name stars, and tons of special effects do not come close to matching the intensity, grit, and palpable fear that this film generates. As I watched it I reveled in the hisses and popping on the audio, the over the top soundtrack (pieced together from sources such as TV shows and other films), the minimal special effects (chocolate syrup was used for the blood), and the dialogue that seems like real interactions between severely stressed out people. It all makes for a bumpy cinematic ride that is a delight.

The ending of the film (even after you have seen it many times) is still hard to take. While the police and volunteer citizens seem to have everything under control outside, Ben remains in the cellar (ironically it does indeed turn out to be the safest place) as the last survivor. He hears sirens and dogs barking and slowly ventures upstairs to look for his rescuers. One of the cops sees movement in the house and shoots Ben in the head. The sheriff callously says, “Put him on the fire!” We have to give credit to Romero for a bleak ending that resonates long after you have seen the film.

I remember when I first saw this movie as a ten year old boy on a late Halloween night. I was alone in my room watching on a black and white TV, and I couldn’t turn away from the screen. Though my parents were asleep in the next room, I felt fear crawl up my back and surge through my body. When it was over and I turned off the light, it was impossible for me to sleep because of the ending, and I heard all sorts of bumps and things crawling around in the night.

I must say that all these years later I still got chills watching this film again. It remains for me a dark, bloody, and ghoulish delight. It’s a perfect film to watch after all the trick-or-treaters have gone home, the kids are in bed, and you can sit down with a bowl of popcorn. Just hold onto the bowl because this film will make you squirm and jump, and isn’t that what a good scary movie is supposed to do to you?

Deep in the dark recesses of the mind, there is a place where we don’t like to go because it is too frightening for us. Certain films bring us down there and threaten to keep us from returning to the light. George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead is such a film, and it remains as one of the most chillingly adept exercises in churning the fears we try to repress. After all these years, I guess that is why I appreciate it so much.

Photo Credit: film poster-wikipedia; zombies-basementrejects.com

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Mother Nature's Trick or Treat

Article first published as Hurricane Sandy: Mother Nature’s Trick or Treat on Blogcritics.

Okay, here we go again. We New Yorkers are getting inundated with dismal reports about Hurricane Sandy and, faster than you can say “Irene” (as in Hurricane Irene), people are scrambling for the essentials to survive the storm. Forget the zombie apocalypse, this storm has everyone trembling in their Halloween costumes. This certainly won’t be the Halloween for which most people planned because they are too busy preparing for what seems to be the end of time.

A quick visit to the store early this morning only confirmed that for me. I grabbed what I could find of water, milk, bread, and eggs and a few other things, but some people had shopping carts overflowing with food. I saw one guy wheeling out ten cases of water (maybe he has lots of kids), and there were many people with cartloads of food, milk, water, and batteries. The line for checkout took up the length of the store, and why they didn’t put on more than two cashiers amazes me.

But are we, the average citizens of New York, really prepared? More importantly, are our government officials, who got caught off guard for Hurricane Irene, more prepared this time around? Governor Cuomo has declared a state of emergency already. Check. Mayor Bloomberg is talking about evacuating low-lying areas of the city. Check. There is talk about closing schools on Monday. Check. At least this is all a start, but when the heavy rains and high winds come – and according to the weather service they definitely will come, what do we all do when the power goes out? What do we do if it stays out for days?

I know this hurricane is not a zombie invasion, but in these spooky days before Halloween it certainly feels like one. The problem is a hurricane is not something you can shoot in the head. From what I see on TV and in films, zombies can be dealt with. Yes, it is a challenge, but mostly because the surviving humans cause their own problems. A hurricane is a completely different story, and many people do not act with grace under pressure.

From what I saw this morning, people were scrambling for things like zombies fighting over someone’s small intestines. It will only get worse as the storm approaches, and the best thing we can all do is stay inside, batten down the hatches, and hope it isn’t as bad as they are predicting. If we do face an extended period of no power, things are going to get ugly around here and make those zombies seem like Barney the dinosaur in comparison.

Mother Nature has prepared a killer Halloween for us, and it seems the chances for a treat diminish with each passing hour, meaning the trick is something we are going to have to deal with no matter how unpleasant it will be for us all. Stock up on everything and remember candy is not real food, but those supplies for anticipated trick-o’-treaters may come in handy this year in ways we never could have imagined.

Photo Credits: Sandy – NOAA; zombies – basementrejects.com

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Common Core Wars: The English Teachers Strike Back

Article first published as Common Core Wars: The English Teachers Strike Back on Blogcritics.

With the new Common Core State Standards now being recognized by forty-six states and three territories, there is a gradual awareness among non-educators that this is something big. Students and parents have been hearing about it for a while now. Schools have held meetings, and there are numerous resources online for people to find out what they need to know. My recent Google search gave me 10,100,000 links within three seconds, so there is plenty from which to choose if you need to know more.
The funny thing is that everyone has gotten so excited about the CCSS that they have lost sight of an underlying truth: no one has reinvented the wheel here. The best practices that teachers have been doing since the one-room schoolhouse are the same as always. The notion of reading, writing, and arithmetic may seem antiquated, but that is what the new standards are all about. This is just a new way to do an old thing, maybe not better, but with an awareness that was perhaps was not there before.

As it has been most of my adult life, my concern has to do with writing. The CCSS set the goal of teaching “skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” There is no more important skill students can have than to become proficient writers, with assiduous attention to things that matter like punctuation, grammar, and spelling. I do think that the standards lead students to the well, but getting them to drink is another story.

Let us look back a bit at how we all become writers. We do not sit and listen to our parents speaking as babies, and then as little kids decide to pick up a pencil and write. The in between step is that our parents “read” to us. Reading is the most essential part of the writing equation, and it is necessary and compelling for kids to be hearing books and seeing us read from them when they are in their infancy.
I recall sitting with my son and giving him a bottle with one hand while reading a book with the other. He did not just sit there and stare into space as he sucked down that milk; he had his first reading experiences. I also made sure that even when he sat on the floor playing with his toys that he could look up at me and see me reading books, magazines, and newspapers. I wanted him to know that I valued reading, that it had an important place in my life, and I wanted it to matter in his life as well.

Now there is a bit of a battle brewing because of CCSS, which indicates that more non-fiction material should be read than fiction in schools. Columnist Jay Mathews wrote about this recently in The Washington Post and described the academic battle, with lines clearly drawn by English teachers and professors who feel this is going to be a loss of a sacred right to teach the classic texts we have all been taught before.

There are a few problems inherent in this discussion. The CCSS is supposed to set-up standards that are “robust and relevant to the real world.” In that scenario, it is obvious that non-fiction would seem to be a more reasonable way to go. Students can study documents, read journals, historical texts, and essays that elucidate a selected topic. They are then expected to use what they have read to analyze, to find answers, to discuss them, and eventually write in meaningful ways.

All this is wonderful and essential. We writing instructors have been doing this for a long, long time and usually had students write research papers in which they cited sources. There is nothing wrong with any of this, yet there is a salient truth about non-fiction: students do not like it as much as fiction. All the standards in the world are not going to get students to enjoy Studs Terkel’s Working more than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The same can be said for the teachers, who for the most part want to teach more fiction than non-fiction. This is not because they don’t want to be good teachers, but rather because (as Mathews notes) they love what they were taught in school and want to teach it too. This is the reason many teachers become educators in the first place.

Of course, my concern about writing is intimately connected to all this. Young writers emulate the works that they read and love. I can remember saying, “I want to write a story just like Poe!” after reading “The Cask of Amontillado.” I then sat down and wrote a story about something very similar. How many students have done the same thing? We read Hemingway and then we want to write like him. There are even contests constructed around this kind of thing, including a Bad Hemingway Contest. Imitation here is not just done in a vacuum; rather, it is building skills as they learn to pace a narrative, use colorful language and metaphors, craft plots, and build conflict.

One of the things I like about this is that it gets students writing. I think the CCSS are meant to inspire this too, and its proponents want meaningful writing to be done in all subject areas. I am all for that, but one can argue that students get enough non-fiction in other courses like the sciences, sociology, social studies, and so on. Why not let literature still be taught by English teachers, professionals who are experts in their field as much as other teachers are in theirs?

It is an interesting debate and will not be resolved anytime soon. One thing I do know is that students will write in response to things that they care about; they will struggle writing about things they do not. Non-fiction can be written as beautifully as fiction (I am thinking of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes as a prime example of this), but we have a category for this known as “literary non-fiction.” Certainly, a distinction can and should be made.

Yes, in the real world students will probably never have to sit down and write a short story (unless they want to do it). They will have to write letters, respond to inquiries, and write essays for college aplications and later on for some job applications. The importance of non-fiction writing, and knowing how to do it, is an essential life skill. This can and should be taught, but my thinking is that new classes ought to be formed exclusively for this, rather than take away the literature component or making it less than 50 percent of the curriculum.

Years ago I remember teaching my first English composition class. I was given a reader (of all non-fiction essays) and a grammar book. In fifteen weeks during that semester I was to teach various essays (narrative, process, cause and effect, etc.) and also get them to understand proper usage. In my first attempt at a diagnostic quiz, I asked students to identify the parts of speech in a paragraph. Not one student in that class knew what a part of speech was, much less how to find a noun, verb, or adjective in a sentence. Why was that? Because these college freshmen were never taught that in high

Now I think we are trying to make up ground, and the CCSS are something that deserve praise for the essence of the standards is to teach our children and teach them well. No one can find fault with that; however, it is not only what you teach but how well you teach it. Most English teachers are letting it be known that literature is something that they teach well and wish to continue that pattern of success.

On the CCSS website we are told that the standards are “a key building block” in the process of education. Teachers are meant to take this and, just as a child does with Legos, contruct something wonderful. We must note that a teacher will only build the best lessons if he/she has the vision to do so, just as the child builds that castle, fortress, or house with the blocks. In this case most teachers of English feel that they want to teach great lessons, but they do not wish to lose the literature, which is something like sacred texts to pass on to the students in their charge.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the months ahead. CCSS, like any other new venture, must be tinkered with along the way. Just one thing I will note is that I see a good deal of people (including students) reading on their electronic devices, and if I ask what they are reading, I would say more than two thirds of them will respond with some type of work of fiction. This is by no means a scientific survey, but I think it highlights the desire of people to read what they enjoy, and most people enjoy fiction more than non-fiction.

In my opinion, I am happy to see students reading because when people read, they end up writing too, and writing is one of the most important skills of all. I think we need to teach reading and teach it well if we are ever going to teach writing well, so the battle between non-fiction and fiction may end up just being a good thing if it creates a dialogue and gets us to better place, perhaps one where students will not only be able to identify the parts of speech but also know how to use them properly in wonderfully constructed sentences.

Photo Credit: map - sadlier.com; nook - news.cnet.org

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Problem with the Presidential Debates

Article first published as The Problem with the Presidential Debates on Blogcritics.

I understand that the presidential debates are big ratings events on television, and if you bounce around the channels afterwards (everything from FOX News, CNN, to NBC), you would think that these analysts and TV hosts were like kids on Christmas morning, but there is something conspicuously missing from these interactions between candidates: humanity. They seem so worried about their performances that they have become robotic versions of themselves, put on autopilot and unable to veer off course.

The only one of the four men (President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Joe Biden) who seemed to have a pulse was Mr. Biden; however, he was more like a robot with the key broken off in his back. His facial expressions and suppressed laughter were at times comical, at times distracting, but maybe the most alarming thing was that Ryan didn’t crack a smile. He had a disturbing half-smirk on his face, as if what he was seeing did not faze him in the least.

Now, if I were sitting at that table across from Mr. Biden, I would have been laughing like crazy (as I was as I watched it). Biden was hysterically funny, almost like the kids I remember back in Catholic school who weren’t supposed to laugh as the nun talked about Lake Titicaca. It seemed Biden was in on his own joke, and Ryan was that kid who didn’t get it and was ready to raise his hand to tattle tale to Martha Raddatz.

When Biden did speak though, he went back to the robotic talk along party lines. All four men were caught into that as if the script were laser printed into their brains. Wouldn’t it be so refreshing for one of them to turn to the American people and speak from the heart? Unfortunately, judging by what I have seen in these first two debates, the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz has a much better heart than any of them. Perhaps that is the safe way to go, but it could also be their undoing.

And what about the pundits? After the first debate (depending which channel you were watching) it was either like a wedding or a funeral. Over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow looked like her best friend just passed away, while it seemed as if Chris Matthews was so angry that his head was going to launch off his shoulders as he screamed about Obama’s performance. Even Bill Maher says, “If I watch MSNBC all day I want to marry Ann Coulter and join the Tea Party,” so you get an idea about what you’re getting there. Change over to FOX News and they are dancing a jig. I thought Greta Van Sustern’s face might finally crack a smile, and Sean Hannity’s head was so swollen that it might explode with joy.

After the second debate different things were happening. It was either Hannity claiming Biden was completely “disrespectful,” while a less somber Maddow and Al Sharpton were claiming victory. Curiously, the best place to stop for a long time after both debates was CNN (where the best reporting continues to be done on a nightly basis). They have their panel of experts, seemingly an even mix of both sides, but the stand-outs here are John King and Wolf Blitzer. They get high marks for their professionalism, and they make me wish that they were the ones debating rather than the candidates themselves.

As for the moderators of both debates, Jim Lehrer (PBS) and Martha Raddatz (ABC) had the thankless jobs of trying to keep things civilized and moving. I am not sure you can compare the two, especially since the formats were so different, but Lehrer seemed to be doing it remotely, as if he could have been on conference call. Raddatz was up close and personal with her charges, but she didn’t seem up the challenge for the most part.

The upcoming debate is a town hall style meeting, which seems like it could be a dangerous endeavor for both candidates. Neither Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney seems up to the challenge of being off guard (and teleprompter) as they get encircled by an audience that wants to know more than just what facts and figures a candidate can roll out at them. I personally don’t find it impressive when someone talks about numbers; I care more about that the candidate can explain how he will make the next four years better for the country.

I am not certain if the presidential debates can ever be natural for the people who partake in them. For one, it is not the type of configuration that inspires the discourse necessary for the people; rather, it is a forced, artificial, and highly orchestrated atmosphere that inspires the observer to wonder how things could have come to this.

We know America has a long history of debating. Some can still recall the impact of John F. Kennedy debating Richard Nixon. Kennedy’s savvy use of a televised opportunity clearly helped the more photogenic and charismatic senator win the election. In my lifetime, the one that stands out most is the debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter came off as incompetent; Reagan came off as capable – and once again the charisma factor didn’t hurt.

Only recently I was reading about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and how I wish they could have been captured on film for us to view now. Douglas, known as the Little Giant, won the election for the Senate based on his performance, but obviously Lincoln learned something that helped him go on to win the presidential election in 1860. Still, those debates were something of a standard that cannot be matched today. They were long, difficult, and forced the speakers to be eloquent over many hours; now even ninety minutes seems like an eternity with these fellows.

The current debates are supposed to be a way for the American people to get to know the candidates, but I feel we are only getting to see characterizations, something that has been rehearsed ad nauseum and it is painfully obvious. Of course, I will watch the remaining two debates and hope for something more, but I cannot promise I won’t be longing for the results episode of Dancing with the Stars. This show is a great example of democracy in action every week (because people vote for their favorite dancers). Yes, things are orchestrated there as well, but at least all the participants know it and the audience knows it too. How sadly refreshing!

Photo Credits: Biden-motherjones.com; Lincoln-Douglas-nfltv.org

Monday, October 8, 2012

We Need a New Columbus

Article first published as We Need a New Columbus on Blogcritics.

On this Columbus Day I have been thinking about what Christopher Columbus did, and sometimes I have wondered what would have happened if he didn’t do it. Obviously, at some point someone would have strayed too far, and a European would have found the Americas. Perhaps it would have been a hundred or more years later, and that would have changed history in many ways.

Some people have blamed Columbus for things that came after his discovery. We talk about pre-Columbian Art, how the Americas were a paradise before the white man corrupted and ruined it, and so on. These perspectives are necessary in the conversation about Columbus, and there is no argument here because many of the changes that followed his arrival on San Salvador in the Bahamas were not favorable to the Native Americans who lived here, but there is no changing the past.

No matter how you may feel about him, there is also no disputing that what Columbus did changed the world forever. As I think about him, I think that we need a new Columbus – now more than ever. We need someone to light a fire, to inspire us to make exploration of space by humans not just a far away possibility, not something seen in movies or on TV; we need a new Columbus and we need him now.

Can you imagine some daring explorer with a dream appearing before President Obama and Mrs. Obama at a White House dinner? Just as Columbus once wooed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain with his vision, this explorer would hold up some handheld device and shoot a projection of his planned voyage on the wall. He or she would explain how the trip to Mars would go, that there would be indeed be a wealth of reasons to fund the expedition, and that it should happen within Mr. Obama’s presidency, not some future time when his children’s children might witness it.

Maybe I am wrong, but I think the technology is out there. I think we need the torch to be lit by someone with a passion, just as Columbus had, to search and explore and take a risk. Yes, a mission to Mars would be risky for humans, but that has never stopped us before. Humans have climbed the highest mountains, gone down deep under the blue sea, and have walked on the moon. Risk has not stopped us before and should not stop us now.

What would a trip to Mars do for us, you might ask? Well, there is a need for a game plan for humans down the road. We need a place to which we can take ourselves when earth becomes more inhospitable. Humans also require space to roam and wander, and think of Mars as not only a place to live someday but also as the ultimate tourist destination. Also, now that we know how to live responsibly and not ruin an environment, we can view Mars as the pristine place where we can put into action all we have learned from our mistakes.

Right now we need someone to step up and be willing to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before. We need a president who will listen and take the chance, and we need private funding to get the spaceship built as soon as possible. Most of all, we need a new Columbus to come forward and lead us into a new tomorrow.

Photo Credit: cathdal.org