Friday, May 8, 2009

The Road Less Traveled

They say you should follow your instincts and, believe me, I've learned my lesson. Last year, shortly before the opening of the San Francisco International Film Festival, I experienced a severe flare of sciatica which left me hobbling around town for seven months. Getting back and forth between Dolores Park and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas became a calculated exercise in measuring the number of steps I could take at any given time, finding places where I could sit down (suddenly, if need be), and trying to cope with a kind of pain I wouldn't wish on a dog. A trip to New York for my nephew's wedding last June taught me that when a person is coping with sciatic pain, spending a full day at the American Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art does not qualify as physical therapy.

This year, the sciatica was gone but a swollen foot resulting from a sprained toe was not helping matters much. Once again, I learned that the most logical and direct ways of getting to the Kabuki were hardly the most comfortable. Sure, I could try a combination of BART, MUNI-Metro and surface buses, but they all involved plenty of steps and stairs which aggravated my foot pain. 

One day, when I was late for a bus, did not offer good news. So I opted to experiment with "unconventional wisdom." On a hunch, I decided to try something radical by taking the #33 Stanyan outbound to Geary & Arguello (going the long, way around) and then grabbing a #38 or #38L heading inbound on Geary.  To my astonishment, the trip only took seven minutes longer, afforded quicker connections, less crowded buses, a calmer, more scenic jaunt around the city, and fewer steps from one bus to another. It made me think of Marlene Dietrich's performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) in which she sang this great Cole Porter song:

As a child growing up in Brooklyn, I was fascinated with New York's subway system. I once even tried to figure out how a friend and I could ride every bit of track on one subway token.  This turned out to be impossible because (a) our parents wouldn't let us stay out that long, and (b) the Rockaway line required an extra fare. Still, years of solving crossword puzzles and planning complex travel itineraries that imposed one triangle airfare atop another have nurtured a mental dexterity that allows me to examine a variety of possibe solutions (even though some may be highly unlikely) when trying to solve a problem.

Two documentaries seen at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival did a superb job of demonstrating how what we learn in our most impressionable years follows us through life. One offered a positive, upbeat view of how new trends in education are helping adolescents to prepare for a multilingual, multicultural future. The other offered a look into the past of a controversial figure whose childhood did little to prepare him for a responsible adulthood.

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Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff has made several documentaries about gay families and gender roles. It's Elementary (1996) and It's Still Elementary (2007) confronted the issue of dealing openly and honestly with educating students about gay and lesbian issues. That's A Family (2000) showed children growing up in nontraditional households where their parents may belong to different races or religions, be divorced, single, gay, or lesbian. In some cases, the children were living with adoptive parents or grandparents who were acting as guardians. 

Let's Get Real (2004) dealt with issues of harassment and bullying in schools. Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up (2009) showed young girls and boys experimenting with behaviors that, in the past, had been severely restricted by traditional gender roles. 

Although one might wonder how such documentaries relate to James Toback's new film, Tyson, audiences learn some things about the heavyweight boxing champion in this documentary that fill in some of the missing parts of Tyson's life puzzle. Most people think of Mike Tyson as a brutal athlete -- a formidable slab of vicious, aggressive, pounding muscle -- but he started off as a fat kid. 

Tyson's father abandoned the family when Michael was two years old; his mother died when he was 16. By that time he had become quite adept at petty theft and thuggery. Frequently ridiculed for his lisp and high voice, the teenaged Tyson was constantly getting into fights (by the time he was 13 he had been arrested 38 times). 
"I never saw my mother happy with me and proud of me for doing something: She only knew me as being a wild kid running the streets, coming home with new clothes that she knew I didn't pay for. I never got a chance to talk to her or know about her. Professionally, it has no effect, but it's crushing emotionally and personally.”
In his heydey Tyson happily boasted about meeting 'the President of Istanbul" and bragged that he could sell out Madison Square Garden just by masturbating. His basic illiteracy also allowed him to make asinine statements like "I guess I'm gonna fade into Bolivian," or "I really dig Hannibal. Hannibal had real guts. He rode elephants into Cartilage." 

Through most of his adult life Tyson remained a fearful man, afraid that lawyers, agents, and others would take advantage of his emotional and intellectual vulnerability. Although he earned $300 million during his boxing career, he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2003. In addition to his numerous boxing titles, he spent three years in prison after being convicted of rape.

When recently asked about the difference between "great men" and "good men," Tyson replied "Great is an entity. It's magnanimous. It takes a lot. It crushes everything in its path.  Good is giving. When I was young, I wanted to be great. Now, I want to be a good man."

At 43, and with six children, Tyson is in many ways a sadder but wiser kind of guy. But much of what he has become he owes to Cus D'Amato, who became the heavyweight champion's trainer, mentor, and father figure until his death in 1985. The loss of D'Amato was a heavy blow for Tyson, and the man's pivotal importance in building up the young boxer's confidence is continually shown throughout Toback's documentary.

When I first started interviewing celebrities (mostly classical musicians) I learned that I had a special talent. People opened up to me and gave me material that other interviewers never got close to. Sometimes it was because they trusted me. Often, it was because they felt I "spoke the same language" or was "one of them." What I soon learned was that interviewing is a bit like making love -- if you think you've gotten all the good stuff in the first five minutes, you're probably a lousy lay.

Having interviewed many performing artists, I was struck by something very special about Toback's film. Most celebrity documentaries are filled with sound bites and archival footage (and, to be sure,  there is plenty of that in Tyson). But Toback -- who has known Tyson for 23 years and had the boxer's total cooperation for his film --  frequently breaks the screen into multiple views of the boxer as his subject candidly discusses his checkered past. The result is a cinematic tone poem in which a rather world-weary celebrity bares his soul to the camera. In order to accomplish this, Tyson must have trusted Toback almost as much as he did D'Amato.

James Toback

Toback's documentary offers a great deal of insight into what made Tyson a world champion as well as the pressures that helped to make him a world-class schmuck. While the boxer is not the most sympathetic celebrity around, the film does give the impression that Tyson is trying to regain control of his life and learn how to be a responsible adult. After seeing the documentary for the first time, he told the filmmaker "It's like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is that I'm the subject."  Here's the trailer:

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One can't help but wonder how Tyson's life (or any of our own, for that matter), might have turned out differently if we had had the educational opportunities now being afforded to schoolchildren in some of the new total immersion language programs. Fifty years ago, the conventional wisdom was that by the time they reached junior or senior high school, students would be mature enough to start learning a second language. At that time, French, German, Latin, and Spanish were the top choices. Occasionally, someone might opt for Russian or Hebrew.

Today's educators think differently. Tests have not only shown that children learn a second language more easily in elementary and middle school, but that their other grades generally improve when they study more than one language at the same time. With the continued change in urban demographics (as well as political pressures to establish English as a national language), I can't tell you how thrilling it was to watch Speaking in Tongues, a new documentary by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider that focuses on four San Francisco children who are participating in a total immersion language program. 

Filmmakers Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel

As each child's world opens up, they develop a bicultural and bilingual fluency that will be invaluable as they mature and become citizens of our increasingly interconnected world. 
  • Durrell is an African-American kindergarten student from public housing who learns how to read, write and speak Mandarin. When taken to a restaurant in Chinatown, Durrell orders his first meal in Mandarin. His mother is hoping that Durrell's growing fluency in Mandarin will offer him an escape from economic uncertainty and afford him genuine career opportunities that would otherwise be denied him.  
  • Jason is a Mexican-American boy whose parents are not literate in any language but who embrace bilingualism as the key to living successfully in a land of opportunity. Jason becomes the first person in his family who can read and write (watching his father tear up as he photographs Jason's graduation from elementary school offers a moment of tremendous poignancy). He is well on his way to speaking professional-level Spanish while mastering English. 
  • Kelly is a Chinese-American girl who regains her grandparents' fluency in Cantonese (which her parents lost during their process of assimilation). While Kelly and her Cantonese-speaking friends have used their bilingual skills to great advantage in basketball games against all-white teams, her great aunt has strong reservations about Kelly's language immersion program, claiming that she doesn't think her taxes should be spent on teaching Kelly a foreign language.
  • Julian is an eighth-grade Caucasian teenager who hosts a visiting Chinese exchange student.  When Julian travels to Beijing to stay with new his friend's family, he has no problem bargaining in Mandarin with vendors who are trying to sell him goods in a street market.

Speaking In Tongues has many laugh-out-loud moments which are simply the result of kids being kids. Whether it is Jason's refusal to tuck in his shirt at his graduation -- or Julian's tentative first moments talking about sports with an exchange student from Beijing -- these moments are genuine and often hilarious. In their directors' statement, the filmmakers note:
"As their educational adventure unfolds, we witness how learning a second language transforms their sense of self, their families, and their communities. In a time of globalization and changing demographics, bilingualism offers these kids more than an opportunity to join the global job market.  They connect with their grandparents, they communicate with their immigrant friends, they travel comfortably abroad. They are becoming global citizens. We've witnessed the transformation in our own home.  Our sons are in their fourth and eighth year in a public school Chinese immersion program.  They cause a stir when they order in accent-less Chinese at local restaurants.  But they also have translated for a confused Chinese speaker lost at the doctor's [office], visited shut-in Chinese-speaking elders, felt at home in a traditional Chinese home, and (very important for us) helped us understand our film footage. When spoken to by a native speaker, they don't pause to translate; they think in Chinese, having learned it like a baby, by hearing it spoken around them. "
Children who are confident with language usually end up being confident within themselves. Watching the ease with which the stars of Speaking In Tongues handle challenges (compared to the difficulties faced by adolescents in many other films), one can only wish that more and more children would be enrolled in these total immersion programs. Speaking In Tongues was coproduced by ITVS and several public television networks. The filmmakers are hoping to start marketing a DVD of their documentary later this year. It's a wonderfully uplifting experience you'll want to share with friends, colleagues, and everyone you know.  Here's the trailer:

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