2011 - %3, September

Film Review: American Teacher

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

American Teacher

THE TEACHER SALARY PROJECT

81 minutes

When Rhena Jasey decided to become a public-school teacher, her friends were appalled: "You went to Harvard!" she recalls them saying. "You should be a doctor or a lawyer." Jasey is one of four teachers profiled by director Vanessa Roth and coproducers Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari as they address the hottest question in education reform: how to attract and retain great teachers? That, education experts agree, is the single most effective thing a school can do to boost student achievement. Real wages for teachers, the filmmakers argue, have been in a 30-year decline. One subject, a history teacher and coach, makes just $54,000 after 15 years on the job. He supplements that by driving a forklift—indeed, the film reports that 31 percent of US teachers take second jobs to get by. But instead of support, they get the blame for lackluster test scores. With more than half of the nation's 3.2 million public pedagogues coming up for retirement in the next decade, American Teacher succeeds in reframing education's abstract ideological battles in terms of kitchen-table realities.

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Jersey Governor Just Not That Into "Jersey Shore," Vetoes "Snooki Subsidy"

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 1:23 PM EDT
Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, of "Jersey Shore" fame, is not one of Chris Christie's preferred pop-culture heroes.

Sure, progressive types can grumble plenty about the things Chris Christie has done. For starters, New Jersey's Republican governor has proposed reckless gutting of his state's Medicaid program, compared teachers' union reps to drug cartels, and lavishly spent taxpayer dollars on himself along the way.

But at least he doesn't like MTV's Jersey Shore. Reuters reports:

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey vetoed on Monday a $420,000 film tax credit dubbed the "Snooki Subsidy" for the reality show "The Jersey Shore," citing the state's budget crunch. ...

"As chief executive, I am duty-bound to ensure that taxpayers are not footing a $420,000 bill for a project which does nothing more than perpetuate misconceptions about the state and its citizens," Christie said in the letter. ...

The response from MTV...was sober and brief. "The governor's decision will not impact the show," MTV spokesman Nathaniel Brown said.

In other words, the governor is refusing to subject anyone to a government-sponsored this:

That's something even the most Christie-hating liberal in the Garden State should be able to proudly support.

Bon Iver Takes It to the Greek

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

For a man whose path to musical success started with him alone, sick with pneumonia and a broken heart, in a hunting cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has become quite the rockstar. Since 2008, when Jagjaguwar Records released his debut indie-folk album, For Emma, Forever Ago, he's been lauded by critics, adored by fans, and even sought out by Kanye West, who asked him to collaborate on West's latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

But even now, Vernon doesn't have many of the standard trappings of a music god. Tall and bearded, he looks more like a dude you'd find drinking PBR in a small-town bar more than a guy you'd expect to see touring big venues in support of his second album. Vernon seems to feel that way a little, too. Facing the sold-out crowd at Berkeley's Greek Theatre last Thursday, he kept on repeating how awed and lucky he was to be there.

That Handsome Devil, Godforbid

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

When Esquire published its list of "50 Songs Every Man Should Listen To," one reader responded that the editors had left out one crucial band for the XY set. It was That Handsome Devil, a gonzo-punk outfit out of Boston, whose music sounds as if a jowling, snarling creature had crept down from the rafters to join Mr. Toad on his wanton hell ride. But on the band's second (or fourth, if you include EPs) album, The Heart Goes to Heaven, the Head Goes to Hell, the musicians are in full control of their Haunted House-macabre sound. "Charlie's Inferno" is an unintentional nod to the TV show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. "Adapt" sounds like a back alley fist fight about to bust out. "Inside You," finds lead singer Godforbid mastering that clinging-to-the-bottle drawl the band's become known for. When I caught up with Godforbid last Friday, he regaled me with talk about hustling beer at Coney Island, milking tall tales, and his struggle between pure intentions and royal douchebaggery. 

Mother Jones: One of my favorite tracks is "How to Get Money." Any tips for readers who are broke and pissed off? 

Godforbid: [Laughs.] If I had gobs of cash I'd have plenty of ideas. But I've given all my tips up on that track. Well, there's an insane hustle in New York. I've got three jobs to keep the wheels spinning. But you can get creative with it; there are always fun little hustles out there. You can take beers and sell 'em down at the Coney Island Beach. Just walk around with a cooler and have a buddy walk 20 feet in front of you to cop watch. You can sell them for whatever price you'd like because people are just too lazy to stand in line.

MJ: What sort of work are you doing?

GF: I don't have many commodities other than the fact that I can write and perform. I've got three jobs where I'm making the same amount of money I would if I were 16. I press records at Hit-Bound Records, but it's hard working in a hot factory like that. I've got to meditate for a bit, turn into a robot for eight hours, to be able to do that job. And I do janitorial work for a plastic surgeon—you'll find fat globules and blood spatters, but it makes for good song writing. And depending on the gig, I'll do construction here and there.

"Three Famines" Presents an Anatomy of the F-Word

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

In foreign policy vocabulary, the word "famine" pretty much functions like an expletive. Two months ago, the UN brandished "the F-word" when it declared two parts of southern Somalia official famine zones. Soon, four more regions were bestowed with the dreaded title.

This curse word of sorts, though, can't be tossed around lightly. Before using it, the UN requires serious number-crunching to show that at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages, that acute malnutrition exceeds 30 percent, and that the death rate is more than two people per 10,000, daily. Given its weight, a declaration of "famine" is a serious call for global awareness and aid. And yet, while reports of other natural disasters have jam-packed American news-pages, "famine"— this rare word, for what is supposedly a rare natural calamity—has barely flickered across the daily newscycle.

All this is why Thomas Keneally's latest book—Three Famines—couldn't have come out at a more appropriate time. In it, Keneally, the Booker Prize-winning author of the novel Schindler's List, has set out to prove that famines are borne of man-made disasters, not natural ones. Sure, natural flukes are the starting point, he writes, but it's politics that feed famine's terrifying momentum. If you follow the situation in Somalia—where tallies of the starving are going up, not down, and where Western aid stands blocked by militant group al-Shabaab—you'll get the sense that Keneally’s hypothesis is legitimate even before he's launched into the evidence.

The Machine Gun Preacher: Saint or Scoundrel?

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Today, moviegoers will meet a new action hero: the Machine Gun Preacher, the eponymous protagonist of a just-released film starring Gerard Butler (300) and directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, The Kite Runner). Butler plays Sam Childers, a shotgun- and smack-shooting biker who hits rock bottom, gets religion, and travels to Sudan, where he discovers the devil in the form of the Lord's Resistance Army, the nihilistic child-kidnapping guerrilla group. Childers builds an orphanage and rescues kids from the LRA, then arms himself for all-out war on the group. "Hope is the greatest weapon of all," goes the movie's tagline. But judging from the trailer (watch it below), a rocket-propelled grenade will do in a pinch.  

"Hope is the greatest weapon of all": Relativity MediaHope is the greatest weapon of all, but an RPG will do in a pinch Relativity MediaThe Machine Gun Preacher is a familiar Hollywood character: The white Westerner who stumbles into a foreign land, discovers locals in desperate need, and embarks on a mission to kick ass in their name. (For more examples of this trope, from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar, check out this clever video of Anglos Valiantly Aiding Tragic Awe-inspiring Races.) One reviewer, unimpressed by the movie's predictable righteous-Rambo plot, sneers, "Did you guess that there was a scene where Childers screams to the Heavens as he clutches the legless corpse of a child?"

None of this would really matter if Machine Gun Preacher weren't "based on the inspiring true story of one man's extraordinary journey." That man is a gruff 49-year-old whose arc from hell-raiser to holy warrior pretty much matches his celluloid version's. Since 1998, Sam Childers' orphanage in Nimule, near the Sudan-Uganda border, has provided shelter to more than 1,000 kids. After building the orphanage, his website explains, "Sam began to lead armed missions to rescue children from the LRA. It wasn't long before tales of his exploits spread and villagers began to call him 'The Machine Gun Preacher.'"

Until now, Childers has been largely unknown outside of evangelical circles. The new movie promises to make him a celebrity and fill his charity's coffers. But it's also inviting scrutiny from those who suspect his claims are exaggerated and that his gunfire-and-brimstone tactics, which reportedly include arms trafficking, are a disaster.

"Death hides in the tall grass of South Sudan," opens Childers' 2009 memoir, Another Man's War, the inspiration for Machine Gun Preacher. The book burnishes his hard-charging humanitarian image, though from the start it's clear that Childers has no use for turning the other cheek. "Less talking and more shooting would bring this whole conflict to an end sooner and save who knows how many lives," he writes in the first chapter. Should you find such blood lust un-Christian, Childers adds: "The important thing to remember is that it wasn't me doing all these incredible, even miraculous, things. It was always God." 

The book recounts many miraculous occurrences, such as an episode in which Childers hears that 200 LRA fighters are raiding a village and decides to ambush them with his four Sudanese bodyguards. "I liked those odds. I figured each of us was equal to forty of them," he recalls in pitch-perfect screenwriter-ese. Childers hops into the driver's seat of his truck, AK in hand. "That way I could pick it up and shoot one-handed while driving. Fully automatic, three- and four-shot bursts. I've done it plenty of times." The gamble works, and the LRA fighters (30 of them, it turns out) flee. Childers later shrugs, "I should have died in ambushes a hundred times."

Beyond Childers's book and website, the most detailed picture of his work is in a profile by New York Times reporter Ian Urbina in the April 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. It portrayed Childers as a loose cannon who stockpiles weapons at his orphanage and moonlights as an arm dealer. Childers tells Urbina that he's sold guns to armed groups in Rwanda and Congo. Pressed where he gets his arms, Childers snarls at Urbina, "You ask me another question about the arms dealing, I'm going to throw you out of the car." When Childers comes across a Sudanese man whose baby is in desperate need of medical care, he barks, "I ought to beat you right here, you know that?" Intimidated, the man agrees to let Childers take the child to a clinic. The child lives, but Urbina is left wondering if Childers has ever taken a child from her parents against their will.

While Urbina uncovered no holes in Childers' story, some find parts of it too good to be true. Brett Keller, an international-development blogger, looked closely at Childers' increasingly slick promotional materials and found that his claims of death-defying exploits have multiplied over the past few years. Earlier versions of his charity's website depicted him as a peaceful do-gooder; he now says he's dedicated to hunting down LRA leader Joseph Kony and claims to be an honorary member of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (one glowing profile described him as its "only white commander"). But two different SPLA generals have said Childers has no connection with the group, which is the dominant political faction in the newly formed South Sudan. Even if Childers is actually part of the SPLA, Keller notes that it is hardly squeaky clean: "While better than the LRA, the SPLA also has been known to use child soldiers during the period Childers sold them arms." (Childers has since told Keller that he has never sold weapons to anyone.)  

"Sam and the SPLA on patrol.": MachineGunPreacher.org"Sam and the SPLA on patrol." MachineGunPreacher.orgWhile Keller didn't find solid evidence that Childers is guilty of the kind of fabrication or financial shenanigans ascribed to Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, he's certain the Machine Gun Preacher is up to no good. "We can choose to believe that Childers' claims are true, in which case he is dangerous, or that they're false and he's untrustworthy," he writes. "The reality is probably that he's a bit of both."

Childers has also been denounced by aid workers—the kind who don't carry submachine guns. The humanitarian-aid blog Tales From the Hood dubbed him a "douchenozzle," explaining that "every time he fires off a few rounds (you know, for the children), he further cements in the minds of insurgent groups around the world that humanitarian workers are also mercenaries." Similarly, an aid worker in South Sudan describes him as "batshit insane" and finds his tales of pursuing the LRA across Sudan's borders "AWESOME. Except by AWESOME, I mean horrifying." She continues: "Don't get me wrong, the LRA is an awful group and Kony is an egotistical maniacal nutjob, but somehow I think that some arrogant American 'leading' the SPLA across borders might cause just a touch of international outrage. Which is why I, like many others, have doubts as to the full truths of his claims."

It's unlikely that any of this criticism will dampen the excitement surrounding Machine Gun Preacher. But it certainly raises the possibility that the action-movie version of Sam Childers' life is a lot more morally and factually tidy than the real thing. Three Clips of Ammo, anyone?

Update: The case against Childers just got some added ammo from an investigation by Christianity Today, which reports that things are going badly at his Sudanese orphanage: "A government inspector in Nimule confirmed this week what community leaders have told CT: Childers is rarely on the premises and many of the children are living in poor conditions, lacking food, medicine, and proper hygiene." Locals who have become disenchanted with Childers also say that he's staged photos of combat and and child-rescue scenarios "to make his story sound more compelling and to attract more donors to his ministry." The whole piece is worth a read.

 

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What Gloria Steinem Got Wrong About "The Playboy Club"

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 9:05 AM EDT
Amber Heard, left, as Bunny Maureen in the pilot episode of "The Playboy Club."

The Playboy Club, the new NBC drama series that premieres Monday at 10 p.m. EST, has already provoked a salvo of pre-emptive controversy. Back in June, the interfaith nonprofit Morality in Media led the charge for a boycott after determining—without having seen the show—that the series would "contribute to the sexual objectification and exploitation of women and encourage greater acceptance of pornography." The group's president Patrick Trueman also said that "sexual exploitation has its cost and its time the promoters of such harm feel the pain."

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who famously went undercover as a Playboy Bunny in 1963, accused the series of normalizing "prostitution and male dominance" and whitewashing "horror stories" of the rough conditions and the rougher chauvinism of the Playboy Clubs and Playboy Mansion.

And the Parents Television Council weighed in with the most overtly political statement, declaring that the NBC program "underscores the critical need for President Obama to direct the Justice Department to appeal the Second Circuit's obliteration of the broadcast decency law," and that "[i]f the administration fails to act, broadcasters will be given the green light to air indecent programming at any time of day, even in front of children."

But for all the bad publicity over skimpy Bunny costumes framing ample cleavage on network TV, the series' pilot proves that the outrage was monumentally overblown and that the show is actually rather tame.

That's precisely the problem.

The Playboy Club, set in the early 1960s before radical became chic, follows Maureen (played by the fresh, talented Amber Heard) as she navigates her way through the exclusive Chicago Playboy Club as the newly minted "cigarette girl." In the fast-paced pilot episode, the audience gets a glimpse into the sybaritic milieu of 3 a.m. pool parties, naughty women, and the men who lust after them. Packed tightly into the 42-minute running time are: closeted lesbians, a slain gangster, blood splattered all over a Bunny, public sex, and a performance by Ike and Tina Turner.

The plot can be summarized as such: Bunny Maureen accidentally slices open the jugular of a handsy mob boss with one of her high-heels (yes, that's right), and big-city lawyer Nick Dalton (played by Eddie Cibrian) helps her cover it up and get back to a life of carousing at the Mansion with the other jolly Bunnies. A state's attorney election and sexual politics subsequently unfold in multiple subplots.

Hearing the elevator pitch for this series must've been pretty swell. Unfortunately, the potential goes untapped. The prospect for a sleaze-filled guilty pleasure or a gritty, frank examination of the era is torpedoed by the show's soap opera slant. The melodrama never quite sizzles, stalled by generally underwhelming acting and a cookie-cutter script. Possibly the least enviable aspect of the writing is the dialogue, which sounds like a rough blend of the guys club confab of Mad Men and the chitchat from season three of The O.C. Just try absorbing one of the many spectacularly failed attempts at dry wit: "Smart? Who needs 'smart?' You're the only man I know who puts his hand up a girl's skirt looking for a dictionary," the nightclub manager says to Dalton as the pair blow smoke rings and sip Alka-Seltzer while talking about the women.

One of the very few bright spots is actress Amber Heard (Pineapple Express, Zombieland, and the hugely underrated slasher flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), who does her best to portray the fun, sassy side of shattered innocence. Unfortunately, the writers' room didn't give her that much to work with; the fact that it takes just one day for Maureen to get over killing a man with her shoe does not bode well for character development.

It's pretty clear that NBC—a struggling network trying to get its hit-drama groove back—wants to sell this show on risk-taking and novelty. The snag here is that the premiere doesn't take a single identifiable risk, and dodges every opportunity to be truly provocative or original. There is little to be wowed or offended by, simply because there is so little to care about.

Note to Ms. Steinem: A boycott would be giving this show far too much credit.

CANT's Dreams Come True

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

CANT 
Dreams Come True 
Terrible Records/Warp

You can get the thrust of Grizzly Bear's intimate and subtle bearing from one of the quartet's most hauntingly beautiful tracks, "Shift." In a video of the song played live inside a cramped Parisian bathroom, a door opens on multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor's clarinet intro, heralding an acoustic rendition as effortless as vocalist Daniel Rossen's swig from a bottle of beer. For Grizzly Bear fans expecting that same understated feel with Chris Taylor's new solo project, CANT, you may have to look elsewhere.

Dreams Come True, from Taylor's own Terrible Records label, finds the Grizzly bassist relying heavily on analog synthesizers and MPCs to craft an indulgently '80s new wave sound, unveiling a penchant for mixing trashy disco bits with modern tribal harmonies—necessary audial flourishes for anyone trying to create that contagiously popular bedroom-ambient sound.

Creole Choir of Cuba's Homage to Haiti

| Sat Sep. 17, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Creole Choir of Cuba
Tande-La
Real World

The Creole Choir of Cuba is indeed Cuban, but its 10 singers are all descendants of the Haitian diaspora who have set out to rediscover their musical heritage from a new cultural home base in Camagüey, Cuba's third-largest city. While many artists and musicians struggled with censorship during Cuba's so-called Special Period (earlier this year, Tiempo Libre told me how they scrapped together a makeshift radio with a coat-hangar antenna in order to hear American music), CCC director Emilia Díaz Chávez says his group never ran into any such trouble.

Maybe that's because CCC's singers gravitated toward the island's Creole culture, as opposed to US pop music. They also pepper their songs with traditional Cuban congas. "As Cubans, we've made an effort to bring in elements of son and salsa," Díaz Chávez says. "Marcelo and Teresita, our composers, have written new songs using the paradigms of Haitian music, using modern subject matter with older concepts."

The Gutsiest Campus Newspapers of 2011

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Whether they were covering the Alabama tornadoes in depth, pissing off James Franco, or exposing undercover drug busts, these campus newspapers boldly broke the news.

Watch This Space: In April, La Salle University in Philadelphia demanded that an embarrassing story about a business prof who'd hired exotic dancers for a class not run above the fold in the Collegian. The paper's solution? It left the top of its front page blank and ran the story below the fold, gaining national attention. Well played, friends, well played.

Eye on the Storm: The University of Alabama's Crimson White provided real-time coverage of last spring's tornadoes, offering eyewitness accounts and a photo slideshow to highlight the destruction.

First Responder: After Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others were shot in January, the University of Arizona's Daily Wildcat snagged one of the earliest interviews with UA student Daniel Hernandez Jr., the first person on the scene to aid the wounded congresswoman.

Higher Ed: After a TV news outlet exposed an undercover drug bust that snagged frat brothers for dealing on Columbia University's campus last December, the Blue and White got the full story behind "Operation Ivy League."

Tweets and Geeks: Actor/writer James Franco usually keeps his cool, but the Yale Daily News succeeded in riling him up. After a columnist mocked his Twitter feed, Franco tweeted a photo of his face covered in red scrawl reading: "Fuck the Yale Daily News."