Tag Archives: an inconvenient truth

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

6 May

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ director Davis Guggenheim and ‘Simpsons’ writer Billy Kimball collaborate for this investigation of America’s troubled education system. In 1999, Guggenheim made ‘The First Year’, a documentary about five young teachers struggling to adjust to life in an inner city public school. Ten years later, he is a father who drives past three public schools on his way to the private school where he has chosen to place his kids. This served as the impetus for Guggenheim and Kimball to explore the lives behind the statistics, interviewing notable figures and following children from across the economic spectrum to get some sense of the tangled, imbalanced nature of the situation.

Despite years of ‘lip service and political bickering’, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001 was intended to curb the gradual decline of America’s public schools, which had been amongst the best in the world until the ‘70s. Of the top thirty developed countries, America is 25th in maths and 21st in science. Eight years later, and the achievement gap continues to widen; the rate of child literacy and numeracy in certain parts of the country is as low as 12%. Certain inner city schools have been branded ‘dropout factories’ with a consequent rise in the prison population, costing the state $33,000 per year, per inmate – enough to pay for private schooling, with $24,000 left over for college.

Like ‘Sicko’, ‘Waiting for Superman’ addresses a domestic issue with global implications; the American model, for better or worse, is still looked upon by certain ideologues as an ideal to which they must strive – when America sneezes the world invariably catches a cold. For international viewers, the film is a chilling window into a world where opportunity goes hand in hand with inequality. Education is indicative of a wider trend where a child’s prospects are largely determined by the economic stability of their upbringing, the drivers of social mobility cease to function and the cycle of deprivation is reinforced. It is a tragedy to see the plight of children like Daisy, a precocious girl who wants to be a vet, and Bianca, who can’t graduate because her mother has fallen behind on the tuition fees.

Bill Gates sounds a note of caution on behalf of the business community, outlining that high-tech industries require a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce, and that demand is rapidly outstripping supply in this regard. But the picture is not entirely grim; there are those who are trying to prevent schools from failing the communities they serve. Geoffrey Canada’s story is an inspiring one; an educator with a vision for ‘education in the nation’, he established the Success Academy in Harlem, an area with twice the unemployment rate of the rest of New York. Canada is an expansive, charismatic figure who refuses to give up on kids who have been given ‘the short end of the stick’ by a ‘cold, heartless world’, and the results he has garnered for his pupils speak for themselves.

Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, is a somewhat more divisive figure. The chancellor of DC public schools – an area that provides a microcosm for the system as a whole – Rhee admits that the majority of kids in her district are getting a ‘crappy education’. However, her reform plans – firing thirty principles, cutting four-hundred jobs, closing twenty-three schools – are met with suspicion by the public and anger by the unions. One of the film’s major failings is its refusal to take Rhee to task on how her closure plans would affect the already poor communities in which these failing schools are located, and to simply paint her as a victim whose bold vision is crushed by a pact between organized labour and the political elite.

Unfortunately, the minuses outweigh the pluses, both stylistically and ideologically. ‘Waiting for Superman’ belabours its often obvious points; documentaries work best when they are succinct, and losing ten minutes from the running time would have helped – clips from ‘School of Rock’ and ‘the Simpsons’ only serve to trivialize its argument. There are some conspicuously staged moments, dramatic inserts and overly composed tracking shots that remove one from the reality of what is being depicted, while the animation used to present statistics has an air of condescension about it, as if the viewer cannot be trusted to assimilate the information without a jaunty graphic.

‘Waiting for Superman’s’ broad, glossy emotive sweep fails to take into account a number of pertinent issues, such as the rise of corporate sponsorship in public schools and the role of faith schools. Whether or not these omissions are part of a concerted pattern of obfuscation is unclear, but any authoritative study of the issue cannot fail to take these factors into account. The film presents a jaundiced view of unions, suggesting that their campaign contributions are aberrant, rather than standard practice for any corporation or organization, and implies that teaches are ‘disincentivized’ by job security and need inducements in order to perform better. The assertion that funding is not a problem is one of the film’s most ludicrous contentions, given the dire conditions captured in the ‘academic sinkholes’ they visit. Its intentions may be honourable, but for whatever reason, ‘Waiting for Superman’ shies away from some of the more contentious root causes and incipient problems of this increasingly unfair, arbitrary state of affairs.

Guggenheim and Gates on 'Oprah'.


Herzog Double Bill

12 Dec

A pioneer of New German Cinema, Werner Herzog has enjoyed creative peaks and overcome commercial troughs to settle on a duel artistic life, operating a ‘one for them, one for me’ strategy that allows him to parlay his work on commercial fare like ‘Rescue Dawn’ (2006) and ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (2009) into a slew of personal projects delving into the deepest, darkest recesses of human compulsion. A common thread in Herzog’s work is the exploration of existential, geographical and physical extremes.

From ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ (1972) to ‘Grizzly Man’ (2005), Herzog presents characters driven by inexplicable desires and consumed by implacable urges that place them outside the bounds of conventional behaviour, ignoring the portents to forge ahead to their doom, swathing their folly in divine purpose. His reputation in Hollywood’s portals of power as a feral merchant of ‘chaos, hostility and murder’ has been rehabilitated in the last few years by a series of remarkable films that guided the syntax of cinema into new and strange directions.

The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

Billed as a ‘science fiction fantasy’, ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is a difficult film to place within any accepted parameters, taking a fanciful subject and presenting it with such unerring immediacy and plausibility that it feels like a Von Daniken novel adapted by Errol Morris. Carried with admirable gusto by Brad Dourif’s central performance, Herzog delivers a requiem for a dying planet that is at turns playful and earnest.

Dourif is an unnamed alien, an intergalactic refugee from the ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ of Andromeda whose forebears settled on Earth in an attempt to lead the indigenous population in the right direction, occupying roles of influence in government and intelligence agencies. With the Earth now barely habitable, humanity seeks to escape the planet and colonize Andromeda. The Alien must watch in despair from Earth’s desolate husk as his home world is ‘adapted’ to humanity’s rapacious demands, delivering an impassioned monologue on the background to such a development.

‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is a remarkable example of taking footage without any apparent connection and from it assembling a narrative arc, expounding grand theories from the sparsest of starting points and utilizing a charismatic actor to unify the disparate elements. The film casually throws out ideas that could provide material for a number of films – from re-examining the Roswell Incident to positing that breeding pigs marked the beginning of the end for humanity.

Dourif delivers a tour de force as the forlorn ET, narrating the ten chapters into which the film is divided with a barely concealed anger and bitterness, railing against our hubris and lamenting the neglect of our most valuable resource. Herzog slyly plays with the nature of truth, presenting us with a number of phoney experts who present their ideas with a veneer of authenticity and conviction that would lead some to believe they were credible sources if viewed outside the context of the film.

‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is quite unlike anything that has preceded it. A particular highlight is Henry Kaiser’s footage from the base of the ocean, which is used to replicate the conditions of Andromeda. Kaiser captures the manifold life forms that reside there with stunning clarity, detailing an environment so eerie and otherworldly that it outstrips anything the human mind could create, a world where beauty and brutality have learned to co-exist. Herzog’s intentions are as unclear as ever; but whether consciously or otherwise, ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ presents an argument for environmental responsibility more persuasive than all the PowerPoint presentations in the world.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Inspired by Henry Kaiser’s underwater footage in ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, Herzog set off to Antarctica at the height of the Austral Summer; keen to understand the sort of person who would live in a place with five months of permanent daylight and determined not to make a mawkish anthropomorphic film about penguins. Herzog travels to the McMurdo research centre, where his romantic notions of Scott and Shackleton are shattered by the base’s prosaic environs, with its modern amenities and resemblance to a construction site. Stifled by the cosy modernity of McMurdo, Herzog sets off into the heart of the planet’s most inhospitable terrain, providing narration in his breathy, mellifluous timbre.

Along the way Herzog encounters all manner of striking scenes that repudiate the Disneyfication of nature and highlight the creeping homogeneity that is eroding our planet’s diversity – the Teutonic fatalist in Herzog comes to the fore as he details the cruel realities of a landscape that is brimming with life above and beneath the surface. The ultimate rebuke to those who seek to dull nature’s sharp edges and manipulate it for their own ideological purposes is the sight of a penguin breaking from its group, heading towards the mountains and certain death without any apparent motive.

‘Everyone who’s not tied down falls to the bottom of the planet,’ says William Jirsa, a linguist at McMurdo. Herzog meets a succession of ‘professional dreamers’, restless, obsessive souls who must keep moving, searching for something in the stillness and silence they failed to find elsewhere. There is the driver who was accused of kidnapping a child in Guatemala, the plumber whose fingers signify he belongs to the Mayan royal bloodline, the Iron Curtain refugee who is always packed to leave at a moment’s notice and the woman who travelled to Peru in a sewage pipe. That such stories are commonplace tells us much about those who are drawn to Antarctica.

Herzog laments the dilution of our adventurous spirit, how our innate curiosity and desire for personal glory has transmuted into fatuous pranks and ludicrous record attempts, using footage of Shackleton performing an unconvincing recreation of his quest on a soundstage to illustrate this adulteration. ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is a celebration of those hardy souls who remain on the fringes, enduring the hardship out of a desire to mitigate human damage and gain a deeper understanding of their surroundings.

‘It’s a horribly violent world,’ says Sam Bowser, a biologist studying life beneath the ice. We are treated to the full majesty and menace of the primordial environment that the Tetrapods clambered to the surface to escape. Equally primal is Mount Aribus, whose lava lake sends jets of magma shooting above the crater rim. A dedicated team studies the volcano, risking their health and sanity in an attempt to understand her awesome power and potential impact on humanity.

What is abundantly clear in ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is just how precarious our existence is, that if we wish to escape the fate of the dinosaurs or humanity in ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, we must respect nature and fear its capacity to inflict catastrophic damage. Herzog’s ambivalence is unmistakable; he shrinks from the sunlight but marvels at the callous configuration of it all, but even this most lugubrious of voices sees that it isn’t all chaos, hostility and murder.

Beautiful, isn't it.