Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Failing Grade

Like most people, I believe that teachers are wonderful people. They are entrusted with the weighty responsibility of shaping the minds of our young children. Bur for this vital job, they are paid poorly.

So when I learned of a documentary called American Teacher about this topic, I was quite interested in seeing what sort of insight the filmmakers would bring forth. Sad to say, after watching this film, there isn't much one learns about this subject that I didn't express in my first paragraph.

The less said about this film, the better, as it's a tremendous disappointment. The problem here is that director Vanessa Roth (who won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary as producer of the 2007 film Freeheld) treats this much like a CNN report; to me, this barely had enough insight to merit that comparison. We are given glimpses into the lives of four teachers across the country and they're mildly interesting, but again, they don't tell us anything new or even remotely fascinating.

Another big strike against this film is the dreadful musical score by Thao Nguyen. This is wall-to-wall music - if you can call it that. It isn't very melodic nor does it even remotely highlight what's happening onscreen. (I'd certainly hate to listen to this noise on its own). The score is another example of how music can ruin a film. Can't we simply listen to a teacher tell us his or her story without music, especially when that music is inappropriate? I realize that this might not be of concern to a good number of viewers, but this score drove me up the wall and lowered my opinion of the film even more (the composition that accompanies the end titles is particularly nauseating).

Matt Damon narrates the film and toward the end, he talks about comparisons between countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea - the three leading nations in terms of math, science and reading scores - and the United States. We learn that teaching is an honored profession in these lands and that most people there look upon teaching as a life-long occupation; this as opposed to the United States, where many teachers look upon their role in the classroom as merely a stepping stone to another position. This short section is valuable and gives us some insight as to what this film should have been.

Near the end of the film, we get the usual shots of talking heads mouthing clich├ęs such as the "amazing dedication" teachers have or how there is a "compelling public interest" for the best education for our children. As I said, this is low rent CNN stuff that tells us nothing.

What a waste of time. I give American Teachers a failing grade.

American Teachers will be shown on Documentary Channel on Saturday, Sep. 1 at 8:00 PM EDT.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jerry Lewis Marathon

Something tells me that if I were to host a Jerry Lewis blogathon, I wouldn't receive too many entries. I'll leave you to figure out the reasons why - after you stop laughing, that is.

So no blogathon on the brilliance of Mr. Lewis' directorial expertise - or his moving subtle performances - but I was intrigued to see that Antenna TV - one of the numerous television stations that show old tv shows and movies - will be featuring a Jerry Lewis marathon on Labor Day (I wonder how they came up with that date?). Four of Lewis' films will be shown; two that he directed and starred in: Three on a Couch (1966) and The Big Mouth (1967) and two, in which he starred but did not direct: Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968, directed by Jerry Paris) and Hook, Line and Sinker (1969, George Marshall).

I've actually seen three of these films previously and I have to tell you that I was prepared for the worst. There are some dreadful moments, but overall they're not that bad and I have to admit I enjoyed certain moments quite a bit. When you consider the stupidity of so many films over the past two decades that were quick vehicles for sitcom or Saturday Night Live performers, well, these Lewis films don't look so bad.

So you now know what I'll be doing on Labor Day (what does that say about my life?). I'll review the films soon afterwards. Seriously.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Working in Hell

"What was really frightening is that the soldiers I was with were quite clearly scared. They'd never been under fire before. I realized that I had been under fire more than any of these soldiers." 
Christina Lamb, foreign correspondent, Sunday Times, London

I will say this as simply as I can - Under Fire: Journalists in Combat is a brilliant documentary, a film that gives us remarkable insight into the individuals that deal with war on an everyday basis and how they deal with it during and after the atrocities. It is a film that anyone who needs to understand what is going on in the world needs to see.

What makes this work so special is the ease in which director Martyn Burke organizes this film, basically interviews with about a dozen journalists - reporters, videographers and still photographers - who have covered wars around the world over the past twenty or so years. Burke films these individuals against a simple black background, opting at times to display video or photographs behind the reporters, underlining their tales. 

As we listen to these journalists speak of their experiences, we are mesmerized by the intensity of their lives during their time spent in combat. Director Burke realizes there's no need to interview family members or anyone else here, as the stories told by these reporters are what make this such an absorbing film experience. In fact the only person we view in this documentary who is not a combat reporter is a psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, the producer of the film, who helps these individuals deal with their reactions to the madness they witness.

The remembrances of these men (Ms. Lamb is only one woman reporter that is interviewed) are chilling. Jon Steele, a videographer from ITN in London, speaks of the high he gets during his work in combat. "You're never feel as alive as when you're staring death in the face." He adds that war journalists are like "prophets of death and suffering. Like most prophets, we don't end up that well."

Ian Stewart, a reporter from the Associated Press, recalls the incident in which a bullet entered his brain (we also see the x-ray); he is still alive to talk about that moment, while his driver was killed. Several journalists in this film discuss particular incidents in which children or fellow reporters were killed, simply because they stopped in the wrong place for just a split second. The surviving reporters admit feeling a sense of responsibility for these deaths.

A section of the film deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that almost all of these journalists endure upon their return. Several tell us that they cannot embrace their spouses as they need to be by themselves; alienation is a common symptom of PTSD. Other speak of nightmares they experience, although Chris Hedges, formerly a reporter for the New York Times says that these moments "are not nightmares. They're a revisitation of trauma - much worse than a nightmare."

Burke ends the film with a lengthy reminiscence by Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson, who has worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Toronto Star. He recalls the story of how he took a photo of one of the most brutal incidents of the war in Somalia in 1993, when the mostly naked body of a dead American soldier was being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The photo earned Watson a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, but it has haunted him ever since, as he believes he had something to do with the desecration of this solider, an action (the desecration of a corpse) that he believes is as evil a thing that any human can do. He tells us how he tried to reach the mother of this soldier soon after the photo was published and the consequences of that experience. He explains why he had to take that photo (I will not give this detail away), but admits that he has never quite gotten over that day. "I don't feel like I'm a good person anymore," he frankly states. 

Early in the film, titles tell us that only two journalists were killed covering World War I, but that over the past two decades, almost 900 reporters and cameramen have died while in combat. The success of this film is that director Burke sits back and lets these people tell their stories simply and matter of factly; there's no embellishing needed to make this work. That these reporters would take the time to relive these horrific experiences in their lives is a testament to their inner strength.

Under Fire: Journalists in Combat will be shown on Documentary Channel at 8:00 PM EDT on Saturday, August 11.