Archive for October, 2010

Film Review: Never Let Me Go

October 14, 2010

   Before a half hour of this film was over, I was struck by something that had nothing to do with the story, which was totally involving on its own terms.  I thought — “How do they do it?  How do the British keep coming up with these child actors who are already more poised, unaffected and skillful than many adult American actors who have been in the business for years?”

   I think the reason is found in the word “business”.  American films are dominated by the need to tell a story in multiple levels of action — especially special effects and jolts of spectacle from costuming, rapid editing, music and — even in serious films — cheap sight gags, because that is considered the best way to make a profit.  Films that depend on plain, honest acting, where people actually talk to each other, are considered too risky.

   Such actor-dominated films are undoubtedly cheaper to make than the special effects films, but marketing them is so hit-and-miss that filmmakers are intimidated, and feel that the story has to sweep across a broad, less demanding audience, with major stars and big money effects, in order to get financing.  Furthermore, the reviews can kill a film outright.  What if the critics are only lukewarm, or if two of these small films open at the same time and cancel each other out?  Too bad!  Such things have happened, and it never fails to chill investors.

   But I think there is another reason, and it has to do with the status of the acting profession in England, as well as the cultivated tastes of British filmgoers.  It seems that there is a dependable audience there for straight fine acting, and even child actors are encouraged to follow in that tradition.  Of course, this means a real training in live theater, and only doing films later on.  But even so, their child actors seem to have star quality before any extensive theater experience.

   I remember seeing Rupert Everett and Colin Firth for the first time in Another Country in 1983.  Barely out of their teens, they conveyed such ease and confidence that it made me aware of Britain’s superiority even then.  I remember, too, that even the young boys in small roles had that presence.

   The child actors in Never Let Me Go are essential for the success of the film.  They are Izzie Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe and Ella Purcell.  They establish the relationships shared by the three main characters, and we have to accept, without question, their sudden shift into their adult portrayers.

   And we do.  So now the big guns: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly and, most devastatingly, Andrew Garfield.  They deliver the full impact of this strange, but penetrating tale, under the magnificent direction of Mark Romanek. Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel, which I haven’t read, creates a fantasized Britain of the recent past where people are raised from birth to be organ donors, and destined for an early and pitiful death.  Alex Garland has wisely chosen to avoid “explanations” of this society in his adaptation; you believe it because you believe in Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, who are so achingly alive that their world cannot be anything but real.  You are aware that every element of the film is stripped down and refined to let the story advance by the truth and intimacy of its acting.  It is a treasure.

The Overvalued College Degree

October 7, 2010

   There seems to be a lot of attention paid to the nation’s education system at this time, mostly in the negative.  The general message seems to be that the schools are failing all of us, and that the United States will diminish as a world power because of it.

   But at the same time, we are distressed because the unemployment rate is the highest it has been in decades.

   Perhaps it is productive to consider how these two problems are related.  On the one hand, the country needs a trained, skilled and disciplined force of workers to keep us strong.  That, of course, requires an effective educational system.  A number of our emerging labor force will turn out to be the leaders, entrepreneurs and all around elite of the economy. But mostly, our educated labor force, whether college graduates or not, will be plain workers, employees who are hired to do a job.  Whether paid by salary or commission, or some variation, their careers will depend on how well they follow instructions and deliver what is expected of them.  But they are the backbone of the economy, and numerically, they will be the largest segment of our workforce.

   Looked at from that perspective, an important question is whether our schools are preparing them for success in that role, as plain workers, both blue and white collar, so that they can raise families and become independent and productive.

   This is a huge task for any country, but the thrust of the national debate seems to be focused on a very different question.  It seems, instead, to be focused on their chances of getting into college.

   I think this is a misplacement of priorities.  The well-being of this country depends on many things, but to channel all of our energies  into simply increasing the number of college students cannot be the wisest policy.

   In fact,  very little of the debate so far is about the actual skills and training that an educated worker needs for a career.  Instead, the focus seems to be on whether they are being properly “prepared for college”, as if that was the only meaningful standard for a healthy economy.  But should we expect the problem to be solved just because we have more college graduates? I challenge that assumption if it ignores the question of whether these graduates will have careers waiting for them that are necessary for a thriving economy.  I also question whether the skills they acquired while in college — which usually will take four of their most productive years out of the labor force — are really needed for the kind of work most of them will be doing.  After all, the ability to follow instructions, think independently and have competent work habits are things that used to be acquired in high school as a matter of course.  At least, that was once commonly accepted as the bare minimum of what you could expect of a high school graduate.  But that may have been some time ago.

   Instead of training future workers to become better test takers, why not prepare them for the demands of working at a job, every day, and using that experience to advance their careers?  Why not prepare them for LIFE, which is more of a challenge than being a good college student.

   I attribute this college mania to the assumption — which is almost never debated — that a person cannot have a successful career without a college degree.  But perhaps it is time to re-examine that.  Maybe the right analysis will include whether the SKILLS acquired in college are directly related to the job that the graduate actually gets.  If it is, then focusing on the college degree will have been worth it.  But if, as I suspect, the college degree is too often just a way for employers to “filter out” people, so as not to have so many to pick from, then it becomes just another artificial barrier based on habit.


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