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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

and now...Run-DMC, Harry Chapin and Sara Mclachlan



I love exploring creativity with students in my Mass Communication classes. 

This semester I offered extra credit to students who had missed out on an assignment. They were asked to read  The Helsinki Bus Station Theory: Finding Your Own Vision in Photography.  They were asked to write an essay about how the ideas presented about being persistent with their creative voice applied to them as content producers in today's information age.

Later in the semester we continued the exploration into creativity. I assigned the four part  Remix series produced by Kirby Ferguson with assistance from Participant Media. 

Our class discussions about copyright and fair use led me to an exploration of these concepts in the remix that is touching as it is beautiful. The rapper, Darryl McDaniels started the ball rolling with a full-on emotional depression from which he climbed out from after years of painful self-discovery. He tells his story in a Moth segment released in 2014.  

The collaboration "remix" 1970's singer-song writer Harry Chapin's Cat's in the Cradle is a powerful example of music doing "what it's supposed to do."

Thursday, March 17, 2016

What you watch is watching you, Emily said.

"What you watch is watching you," Emily said. We are four friends who have driven for days to witness this arrival of sacred water through towering walls of stone, the Rio Grande's passage through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. On one side of the canyon is Mexico, on the other the United States. The sky, the currents, the ravens and the sun at Santa Elena pay no mind to the tempest over border walls.There are two beside each other guarding the river's passage and they were there before nations, conquistadores, first nations peoples or even languages. The politician's debates over immigration seem a million miles away.

Santa Elena Canyon's walls tell a story written by time and nature. Our eyes take in with wonder the signature of the river's steady coursing through silent centuries. We admire the sculptures created by earthquakes, the sharp upheavals from ancient eras. In our mind's eye we imagine the torrents of fiery rivers that flowed along the same canyon arms unfolding now as water, peaceful as a sigh

We humans are recent immigrants to this theater stage. Our journeys end, like everything, is uncertain. I imagine that as we stand on the gravel banks in prayerful awe, these walls of rock and timeless water currents without eyes or expression watch our ant-like antics along its skirt hem. They see us as we skip rocks and test the waters with bare feet or float upon its surface from upstream in canoes to where the river delivers its riders.  

We have traveled far to stand here and stop, like sudden Columbuses, at the ready. We look up and down the canvas, discovering what has always been. All the while, we are observed in the bouncing light by the meeting of rock, sky, and water, as just another deer or dinosaur come to drink that which sustains

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

One syllable from actor Gael Garcia Bernal


I've been a fan of Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal since I helped to judge the entries for CineFestival in the late 1990's and Amores Perros was one of the films entered into the competition. In the middle of screening the film I asked the festival director, Ray Santisteban, to please excuse me from the jury because of the dog fighting in the film. It was so realistic, as was the entire film, that I was sure it was real and could not finish watching the film. Santisteban assured me he had seen the film's documents insuring no animals had been hurt in the making of the film and I finished the film. I'm glad that I did. The movie is unforgettable in structure, pacing, story-telling and in the spot-on portrayals of Mexicans from disparate social levels intersecting in each others lives.

For my whole life I've complained there's no one on television that looks like anyone I grew up with in South Texas. I can't say that anymore.   

The real reason that a DVD of the film remains in my library is that Garcia Bernal looks so much like my childhood cousin, Luis Osuna, who was a supportive, loving pal during those awkward years. We'd sit and visit in my living room talking about the Beatles or movies, usually ignoring anyone else in the room.  

On the back of Luis' bike I perched above him, standing on foot supports and hugging his shoulders. We sailed through two miles of heavy downtown Nuevo Laredo traffic to buy firecrackers at the mercado, the city-block wide market. Avenida Guerrero is Nuevo Laredo's main street leading from the original bridge through miles of storefronts, garages, curio shops and residential neighborhoods onto the Monterrey highway that shoots through the desert to the mountains of the Sierra Madre.

My cousin Luis was a lover of music, fireworks, bicycles, cars, girlfriends and all such important things in life to a teenager. Unfortunately, Luis drank alcohol in excess and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in his forties.

This week while enjoying his second season on Amazon Prime's Mozart in the Jungle, I was again reminded by Garcia Bernal of my cousin in his youth. They not only look alike but their personalities seem to be similar.

I watched the episodes of the second season and appreciated the deeper portrayals and addition of cameos of famous and, even more special, retired symphony performers to the improved storyline. A performance of "Come to my House" by Bernadette Peters reminded me of her still-awesome singing talent.

But what shook me up even more than that was a moment in episode four when Garcia Bernal, in a typical conversation scene, responds to what someone says by taking his breath in sharply and subtly jumping back a fraction of an inch.  This quick pause of one breathy syllable,"aaeehhh?!" seems the quintessential Mexican expression of surprise and disbelief. It is felt both viscerally and cerebrally.  There's something in it that is feminine, too. I don't think I've ever heard this inward breath that reveals both disbelief and eagerness quite in the same way from any other actor before, male or female, in English or in Spanish. The intake of breath is cast aside as quickly as it comes, because there's more and the eagerness is part of what the sharp breath says, ' What? Really? Let's hear it!  C'mon!' 

With that one sharp inward syllable and all it includes, in my memory I was returned to the edge of adventure on the back of my cousin's bike,  catapulting over a roadway bump or a train track, we both catch our breath, regain our balance and speed up again, eager to keep going.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Why does Tamaulipas journalism matter?

After reading the excellent report about journalism in Tamaulipas in today's Washington Post, I am convinced that the media landscape is both more complicated and less predictable than the one I grew up following and then working in during the years before the arrival of the Internet.

Let's sort out the players.  We the consumers, want information that is factual. Journalists sell credibility with each issue of their publication in hopes of making a profit through sales and advertising. Less obvious is the silent player standing in sidelines, power.
Think of how power, politics and news are tied together. President Johnson used the press to push his agenda in Vietnam. President Nixon was eventually brought down by the press for dirty tricks and corruption in his administration.  Politicians since the time of the Roman Empire have used image and information to build power.  But politicians have had company from church leaders in their use of power and keeping the status quo.  Spotlight is a great film about journalism as a tool of the power of the church and established authorities in Boston.

Why bother to wonder about what is behind the newscast or the headlines on TV, radio or our favorite online news site? One reason is that what you see today may be gone tomorrow. 

The arrival of on-demand news on the Internet removed much of the value of newspapers. Why does that matter? With the end of newspapers and broadcast news ad revenues came the end of investigative reporting. Watching Spotlight is a painful reminder of what we don't have-- a fact made worse by realizing some people don't even remember when investigative news cleaned up corruption in Laredo or in the White House. 

Take Tamaulipas, the state in Mexico bordering Texas. Until the drug cartels moved in and the rule of law moved out, the press in Mexico operated under the same laws as journalism in any free country. There were news reporters, investigators, opinion writers, sports and society writers, all doing their work in much the same manner as journalists anywhere else.  There were important differences in salaries and influence, and these matter. Overall, however, the editors remained in charge. Today in Tamaulipas, that's what's changed. And we should worry the illness our neighbor suffers could infect our own media.

This article about Tamaulipas' fractured journalism shows what happens after after an uninvited new crime boss, not an editor, is at the helm. A crime boss has a vastly different objective than an editor, whose job it is to serve the public good and to promote the well-being of a community. Without a strong investigative role based on promoting, not plundering the public good, journalism loses its function in society.

The Tamaulipas example tells us who moves in to fill the vacuum when journalism loses its 'junk yard dog' function.  If Tamaulipas' story can be of some benefit, if it can serve any good purpose, it is to warn us that the same thing can happen here





Monday, November 16, 2015

Laredo native directs "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl"


In movies, one of the first and most memorable women to die on film is Camille, a victim of tuberculosis. The movie is made more memorable by Greta Garbo's stunning luminance. 

Dying girls have been in stories since the time of gods and goddesses in Greece and long before. It's the definition of tragedy that someone has to die, and how much sadder and more tragic can it get than to have a beautiful girl die.

In the 1970's Ali McGraw played an iconic figure of a dying college girl in "Love Story," who left only a slightly less tragic grief-stricken boyfriend.

In 2015, the genre evolves with some welcome leavening and imagination in the new award winning film directed by borderlands native Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl," is a film about high school seniors who step with equal parts reluctance and courage from the high diving board of senior year into the mysterious pool of adulthood

The story is about Greg, a senior who has perfected the art of flying under the radar through his years in high school, avoiding becoming a member of any of the cliques that populate his school.  Greg's mission is to continue being invisible through his last semester of high school. Instead of looking forward to college, he's  nearly paralyzed about the new people and experiences that await. 

He has one friend, Earl, with whom he has made dozens of film parodies. His other friend, a girl, was recently forced on him by his persistent if not down right nagging mother.  She is a childhood friend who's been struck with leukemia and who he is forced to visit. Their awkwardness and friendship is as funny as it is poignant.

There is no love angle in this teen movie. However, to accompany Greg as he steps cautiously forward with the help of his two friends is a rare and unexpected pleasurable journey. 

"Me, Earl and the Dying Girl" shows what it means to fly out from under the radar with the help of your friends and embrace your own brand of awkward That's as succinct a recipe for growing up as I've ever seen.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Voice of Guy v. Voice of God

Photo of Ira Glass, host of national radio series, "This American Life"

People of a certain age will easily remember the Voice of God. He was the assuring narrator of history and science films shown in schools in the 1950's into the seventies. 

Those deep pipes and stentorian tones were so calming, authoritative and necessary in the era of the Cold War when people took nuclear war threats so seriously that many families built backyard bomb shelters. 

At our Catholic grade school we prayed to defeat the evil Communists and learned how to drop-roll-and cover beneath our grade school desks. The Voice of God that narrated our weekly films said, "Whatever I say is true, and my serious, sober manner says, 'Trust me, I know'."

The story of how the melodious pipes of maturity left us for the media narrators we have today is one that's fun to explore. The reasons why the Voice of God morphed in the past 40 years from authority and confidence into relaxed, cool and collected Voice of Guy may be due to the arrival of inexpensive video tape cameras and recorders. Maybe it was the birth of the Internet era, where everyone is a broadcaster. It is part of the story of supply and demand for programs that flipped from scarce to limitless with the arrival of digital technology.

Voice-over narrations in podcasts today usually reflect a much more common man, though still male of gender and pale of complexion with few exceptions like James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman.

Another change is that today's media announcers usually represent a younger demographic. The Voice of Guy is more casual and youthful, reflecting the culture's young consumer orientation. Inflection in a sentence is rare. What is up with that? Are they expensive, or what?  Advertisers seeking sales and producers seeking ratings all gravitate toward "them that buys" or young people, for the sake of making money.

No doubt yet another style of speaking will become de moda in the future. Will it be an even younger version of the current hipster a la "This American Life"?

Or will history's twists and turns and world economy ups and downs require the return of the reassuring tone of a mature adult to comfort us again?


Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Hopes for Moving Forward From Ferguson




Television tells stories with pictures first and words second. In a world of disruptions, mortgage crisis, short-sells, derivatives and off-shore tax havens that are populated by ghostly characters who are hard to visualize, name or identify, Ferguson’s story is clear as black and white. It is easier to understand than climate change or the falling Euro.

We Americans have a history that is courageous, daring in human history and it is also complex. We financed our battles to end the rule of England with tobacco. We used slavery to grow our country and we fought the Civil War over slavery and whether to keep or end it. We cannot change the complicated past.

We cannot all even agree to what the past was yesterday, much less 150 years ago.

My modest proposal is that we move forward from Ferguson to a new future by taking time each year to focus on the past. I propose we create in our communities an annual day of grieving for racial injustices in our country’s history.

Whether the annual day of grieving is set up by religious groups or by civic or sports groups, what matters is that there be a space and time to mourn our losses under slavery and segregation. These are a part of our history and until we face them to mourn our collective losses, we will be bound to our history rather than to our futures.

Grieving about death, loss and hurts is a step toward healing. Being together to do so would offer us a time and place to pause, to lay our hearts down and give voice to the fear and grief that many of us have had to bear in silence for so long. When that day and night of grief is ended a new day will dawn. The grieving won't be ended but we might be transformed. 

Next year we can return to continue grieving for a day and then begin again.

In the Catholic traditions of Mexico, a death of a family member is followed by nine days of praying the rosary. The space and time are important for the departed soul as for those who are left to grieve.

Grief may be the doorway to a new way of defining ourselves with hope and connection, even if it means starting with tears and sorrow. Tears of sadness are expressions of our humanity that exceed the capacity of words.

For many Americans, moving forward from the scars of the Civil War and the eras of racism that mark our histories in the United States may only be possible by expressing our grief.

Will the day afterward allow us to move forward and leave the past behind? Will our grief relieve our hurt?

It’s not something we can know until we do it, but I believe it is worth trying. We’ve tried not doing anything for 150 years. We do know those results.