Cumulus Partners

20. March 2011 16:37

Give Al Pacino a MacArthur 'genius' grant ...

20. March 2011 16:37 by mike barlow | 0 Comments

For some reason, HBO was offering "Looking for Richard" on demand for free tonight, so we watched it, and of course, it was wonderful. It helps if you're a fan of Shakespeare's "Richard III" and you enjoy watching actors like Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey and Vanessa Redgrave talking about the play and acting scenes from it. Which got me thinking: Wouldn't it be great if there was a movie like this for every Shakespeare play? And why stop at Shakespeare? There should be a movie like this for every play or novel that's difficult to read or understand without someone (or a bunch of people) walking you through it and explaining what's going on.

And this, I suppose, gets to the heart of my beef with high school education: It's ridiculous to teach plays and novels that are beyond the reach of most students. If a high school kid is required to read "Richard III," or "Henry V" or "Moby Dick," there better be a qualified teacher on hand to explain the plot, the context, the author's intent, the stylistic nuances, etc. There are plenty of books that high school kids can read, such as "The Secret Life of Bees," "A Separate Peace," "Animal Farm" and "The Great Gatsby." But asking them to read practically anything by Shakespeare is almost guaranteeing an unpleasant experience -- unless the teacher has the ability to guide the kids through the play, scene by scene. Asking them to read a novel like "Moby Dick" is really asking for trouble, since most adults can't even get through it. I waited until I was 58 to tackle "Moby Dick," and I'm glad I did. It's a genuinely great book -- but I would never ask a teenager to read it. Or a twenty-something, for that matter.

And that's why I'm nominating Al Pacino for a MacArthur "genius" grant -- so he can make another movie like "Looking For Richard," and then another, and another ...

19. September 2010 04:39

Meditations on Yom Kippur and Herman Melville

19. September 2010 04:39 by mike barlow | 2 Comments

Like many of my fellow Hebrews, I spent yesterday fasting, meditating and reflecting. I read parts of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. I also began re-reading "Moby-Dick" for the first time in many years. Somehow it seemed a perfect fit for Yom Kippur. It is powerful and beyond simple understanding. It is full of wonder, awe, amazement, and mystery.

The writer part of me was gratified (if that's the right word) to discover that "Moby-Dick" is constructed on a general framework that is familiar to traditional newspaper journalists: Introduce a character, tell a little story about him, and then start shoveling in background material. Repeat the process until deadline. I use a roughly similar framework to write the "narrative non-fiction/long-form journalism" business books that pay my mortgage.

When I was younger, I did not appreciate the sacred friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. When I read the book as a teen, I figured, "Well, everyone has friends. What's the big deal?" I also failed to notice the care with which Melville's builds our knowledge of Queequeg. Every word describing Queequeg's appearance and actions is so nicely chosen. He springs to life on the pages; you feel as though you have found a friend.

Back in 1970, I had an equally shallow take on Captain Ahab: As a young reader, I didn't find him frightening; he was merely the lead actor in cast of "colorful" characters. Now he is truly terrifying to me -- a force of nature, out of control, and deadly.

If you had asked me 40 years ago if "Moby-Dick" was a plot-driven book or a character-driven book, I would have said the former. Now I can see that Melville is the equal of Shakespeare in the character-development department. Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask -- I'd put them up against the likes of Macbeth, Othello, Iago, Falstaff and Richard III any day.

Blessings for the new year, no matter which stars or constellations you follow!