The Riff - January 2010

Can "Superman" Save Our Schools?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 7:56 PM EST

Enthusiasts of wonky documentaries who turned out in droves to watch 2006's An Inconvenient Truth may have a new film to geek out on. Waiting for Superman, which premiered at Sundance late last week, is Truth director Davis Guggenheim's critical look at the public education system's prolonged faiure to educate the nation's neediest students.

Though Superman shows no overt political leanings, it has a clear villian—the powerful Democrat-backed teachers' unions. Guggenheim's criticism of teaching's perks (lifetime tenure, compensation based on seniority rather than performance) may not be a new idea, but the film takes a particularly tough stance against politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton, whom Superman characterizes as beneficiares of the unions. And such criticism may garner the film some unlikely supporters—the same conservatives who loathed Truth

In fact, for all its focus on underprivileged, inner-city kids, sections of "Superman" feel like they could have been cut together by Bill O'Reilly. Slo-mo footage of union leader speeches opposing reform that could help problem schools. Hidden-cam video of a teacher reading a newspaper and checking his watch as his class goofs around. New York educators being paid millions to not teach. A major subject of the film, reform-minded DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, runs into a crippling teachers-union road block in her effort to shift pay structures to reward good teachers." Reuters

An Inconvenient Truth for the O'Reilly set? Now that I'd like to see.

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God Hates #micro-blogging?

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:44 PM EST

Important news out of the Bay Area today: The Westboro Baptist Church, the quasi-cult from Kansas that protests at the funerals of dead soldiers and, well, everyone else, has finally found something it likes. But it's protesting anyway. The group will be picketing the San Francisco offices of Twitter today to remind the company of its higher obligation:

We're not protesting Twitter as a platform; that's like picketing televison! =) We're picketing the people who run @Twitter, who don't use their position & voice to warn a generation of rebels of the consequences of their rebellion. Same goes for those at Foursquare & Gowalla (tho I personally find their products useless -- at least relative to Twitter. =)

(For the definitive take on the WBC, check out MoJo's outstanding piece from 1999).

California's Fresh Prince of Bel Air

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 3:48 PM EST

It's a bit early for California's gubernatorial race to get weird, but this is a promising sign of things to come. For anyone who worries that they'll miss the Governator's accent, your candidate is here: Prince Frederic von Anhalt, A.K.A. the Duke of Saxony, A.K.A. Zsa-Zsa Gabor's ninth husband. And why should Californians vote for a psuedo-royal from Bel Air who claimed—incorrectly—to have fathered Anna Nicole Smith's baby? As the prince explains on his website, "We've had Irish-American, African-American, Amenian-American and Austrian-American Governors and now it's time for a GERMAN-AMERICAN to lead the state." California über alles! The prince's platform includes legalizing pot and Cuban cigars, opening the US-Mexico border, chucking out Prop. 8 ("Throw the Divorce Lawyers a Bone and quiet the Gays"), and "Mandatory Solar Panels on every New Building." And lots of gratuitous, haphazard Germanic Capitalization of Nouns. Now if we can just convince Gary Coleman to run again...

ESPN Scribe to Haiti: Drop Dead

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 2:44 PM EST

Until this week, Paul Shirley had built a nice career for himself as the globetrotting basketball player with a gift for writing. He'd published a well received first book about his benchwarming endeavors and parlayed his candid, down-to-earth style into a semiregular column at ESPN.com. That all changed on Tuesday, when Shirley, writing on his group blog, published a—let's just say contrarian—take on the situation in Haiti. "I do not know if what I’m about to write makes me a monster," he began. And then he very deliberately eliminated whatever doubts we might have had. Here's a taste:

Dear Haitians –
First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.

As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while? 

The response was swift: Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis called Shirley a "dumbass," which is a little uncouth but we can't really argue with it. And yesterday, ESPN released a statement announcing it had severed its ties with Shirley.
 

A Moralistic Pregnancy Pact

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 7:20 PM EST

I love a good morality play, and I’m always excited to see what new punishments Lifetime has dreamed up for the unchaste, the immodest, and the otherwise astray in its made-for-TV movies. So when I sat down to watch The Pregnancy Pact (just the latest in a rash of paranoid programming that includes The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Mom at Sixteenpregnancy suit manufacturers must be doing a very brisk trade lately) I expected high moral camp: fire and brimstone on the Eastern Seaboard, pregnant adolescents raked over the coals and tried as witches, mentholated cigarettes and juicy Judeo-Christian retribution. 

I must have forgotten that made-for-TV movies on Lifetime tend to be blandly judgmental rolls in the hay masquerading as objective two-hour Public Service Announcements. The whole affair turned out to be a boring festival of flim-flam that uses media reports of an alleged 2008 teen pregnancy pact in Gloucester, Massachusetts for its own drab, moralistic puppet show.

The horror begins immediately with a series of shots featuring high school kids canoodling around campus, their make-out sessions clearly indicative of a raging teenage sex epidemic. Before long, we’re introduced to our protagonista, a 15 year-old naïf named Sara (Madisen Beaty) who’s friends with a group of girls from the wrong side of the abstinence tracks. Sara soon finds herself drawn into a pro-abstinence league’s worst nightmare when she comes to believe—thanks in part to a generous serving of pregnant peer pressure—that getting knocked up by her slightly older boyfriend will keep him from moving away after he graduates. 

Filipino Prisoners vs. Michael Jackson, Part 2

| Tue Jan. 26, 2010 12:33 PM EST

The King of Pop is gone, but the Filipino prisoners who became an online hit with their faithful recreation of his "Thriller" video are back. Michael Jackson was reportedly a fan of the Cebu Provincial Detention And Rehabilitation Center dancers, and now his choreographer has taught them the routines from his posthumous concert flick, This Is It. It's pretty slick, but not real exciting unless you like giant human peace symbols made up of guys half-assedly fist pumping. Compared with the exuberant original, the thrill is gone.

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Music Monday: The Pirate Cat DJs

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 7:45 AM EST

"Abbracadabra means I create as I say," declares 30-year-old Abby Rubinson, who DJ's at San Francisco's Pirate Cat Radio under said name. For two hours every Monday morning, Rubinson—an out-of-work lawyer—interviews people "creating as they say, play, or otherwise do as they do," then splices these often politically charged segments with doses of indie, shoegaze, Brit-pop, and Brazilian Tropicalia fare. Even though all 70 Pirate Cat DJs are asked to incorporate interviews into their shows, it is Rubinson's assorted cast of local and political movers and shakers that offers a ripe picture of the substance behind the Pirate Cat hype. (Listen here.) While visiting the station recently to chat with Pirate Cat's founder, I also took the time to sit down with Rubinson and Music Director Katherine Kirby (a.k.a. DJ Canary Turd; listen here), who offered their own insights into the unlicensed station's FCC troubles and how complying with the rules could water down the eccentricities of a local cultural hub.

Music Monday: Gainsbourg Galore

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 7:30 AM EST

The world becomes slightly richer in Serge Gainsbourg mythology this month, thanks to both a new CD compilation and a biographical film from French cartoonist Joann Sfar. The prolific musical master and chain-smoking lothario was at one time best known for his hit "Je t’aime, moi non plus" ("I love you, me neither"), which featured breathy vocals by English actress Jane Birkin. Explicitly erotic and culminating in a simulated (as far as we know) orgasm by Birkin, it was banned from radio play in several countries, and denounced as obscene by L’Osservatore, the official Vatican newspaper—what greater endorsement could you ask for? These new releases build upon both the artist’s considerable legacy and extra-debauched mythos.

Before I use any more adjectives (and if I start doing it again, feel free to throttle me senseless with a spellbinding seven-minute centerpiece or some ethereal post rock), shall we take a moment with the video for "Je t’aime, moi non plus"? Yes, let’s:

Wasn't that obscene? Gloriously so. Anyone interested in learning more about Gainsbourg's ravishing, Gallic (spellbinding, too) degeneracy would be well advised to check out A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons, the first English-language biography about him.

Moving on! Serge Gainsbourg: Poet and Provocateur kicks off with the legendary Frenchman crooning (croaking, really, in the way that he does) a jazz-inflected, snappy number about fingers clicking upon a jukebox, and follows with a handful of relatively rare studio recordings—then a few live ones from a set at Théâtre Des 3 Baudets including "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas," a spirited lament of the quotidian working world through the eyes of a subway ticket puncher. We’re subsequently treated to a set of Gainsbourg songs sung by French actress Juliette Greco (the man did love his actresses—and they loved him back!), including the exquisite "Les Amours Perdues." The CD wraps up with Gainsbourg’s score for the film L’Eau à la Bouche and the soundtrack for Voulez-vous Danser Avec Moi? (See the full track list here.) After the jump, a short clip of Gainsbourg making his screen debut in the latter film, which starred Brigitte Bardot.

MoJo Keeps it Real With Michael Steele

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 10:09 AM EST

Gosh darn you, Taj Mahal.

And you too, Joan Walsh.

For the longest time (and I mean weeks and weeks), the women of Mother Jones held the top spot at keepingitrealwithmichaelsteele.com. We had a good run of it. I'm sure if you look at this photo, you can see why. From left, Michael Steele, Assistant Editor Jen Phillips, Editorial Fellow Sonja Sharp, and me.

Are we not beauteous?Are we not beauteous?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However. Our popularity has recently been bested: first by Salon.com's Joan Walsh, and now by one of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. The site, keepingitrealwithmichaelsteele.com, cropped up after Odell Photos made public an online album of RNC Chairman Michael Steele posing for a series of inexplicably goofy photos with interns. (As soon as word spread and traffic picked up, Odell made the album password protected.) And speaking of interns, making his own appearance in the most popular photos list is former TPM intern and current MoJo Editorial Fellow Ben Buchwalter at fourth place. (Don't mind the tin foil-wrapped books, it was his birthday.)

It has been a difficult week, and it's finally Friday. Lighten up for a second and keep it real with Michael Steele. I also encourage you to leave links to your pictures for us in the comments, but please do not to be so popular that you bump us down any further. Cheers.


UPDATE:
It appears that due to our readers' (completely involuntary) support, we are now back to second most real with Michael Steele. Thank you, and sorry Joan Walsh.

Garbage Dreams: One Man's Trash Is Another's Livelihood

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 3:30 PM EST

The memories are vivid. The dust, the heat, the pervasive stench. The children holding hands, the sweetness of cane juice, and colorful Egyptian weddings. And the garbage. Who could forget the garbage?

It was the summer of 2007, and I was in Mokattam, a garbage village on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. In small villages like Mokattam, 60,000 Zaballeen, or “garbage people,” collect and recycle the trash of Cairo's 18 million residents. Zaballeen manage to recycle 80 percent of what they collect. Most Western cities, in contrast, are lucky to recycle even 30 percent.

The village, and the stories of three local teens—Osama, Adham, and Nabil—are now the subject of an independent documentary film entitled Garbage Dreams, produced and directed by Mai Iskander. Tuesday night, as I sat in a San Francisco screening room, I didn’t know what to expect of a film that aspires to tell the story of a community very close to my heart. I knew to expect familiar faces. Of the three boys profiled, I knew two, and would recognize many others. Mokattam is, as they say, a place where everyone knows everyone.

While gracefully done, Garbage Dreams was not shy about pressing one central conflict: Cairo has contracted with multinational waste disposal corporations in an attempt to modernize. The move has dealt serious blows to the livelihoods of Mokattam's garbage pickers, and the documentary, filmed over four years, explores how Osama, Adham, and Nabil each find a way to cope—and even to hope—in a world that does not seem to be changing in their favor.