Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl [Bryan]

There are few films that are nearly perfect. Ellie and I just saw one on Saturday night. It was called "Lars and the Real Girl." The premise is silly: A shy man buys a life size girl doll and treats it like a real girl friend. The film, while very funny, is anything but silly. It is a deep and heartfelt statement about family and community life, about growing up and becoming a man, and about the transformative power of love. I can't recommend it highly enough. Go see it. (And, for those of you that care, there is nothing "offensive" about the film).

Here is Roger Ebert's review. He gets it exactly right.

By Roger Ebert
How do you make a film about a life-sized love doll, ordered through the Internet, into a life-affirming statement of hope? In "Lars and the Real Girl," you do it with faith in human nature, and with a performance by Ryan Gosling that says things that cannot be said. And you surround him with actors who express the instinctive kindness we show to those we love.

Gosling, who has played neo-Nazis and district attorneys, now plays Lars Lindstrom, a painfully shy young man who can barely stand the touch of another human being. He functions in the world and has an office job, but in the evening, he sits alone in a cabin in the back yard of his family home. His mother died years ago, his depressive father more recently. Now the big house is occupied by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). She makes it her business to invite him to dinner, to share their lives, but he begs off with one lame excuse after another, and sits alone in the dark.

One day a co-worker at the office, surfing Internet porn, shows Lars a life-size vinyl love doll that can be order customized to specifications. A few weeks later, a packing crate is delivered to Lars, and soon his brother and sister-in-law are introduced to the doll. She is, they learn, named Bianca. She is a paraplegic missionary, of Brazilian and Danish blood, and Lars takes her everywhere in a wheelchair. He has an explanation for everything, including why she doesn't talk or eat....Lars does not use Bianca for sex. No, she is an ideal companion, not least because she can never touch him. With a serenity bordering on the surreal, Lars takes her everywhere, even to church. She is as real as anyone in his life can possibly be, at this point in the development of his social abilities.

The miracle in the plot is that the people of Lars' community arrive at an unspoken agreement to treat Bianca with the same courtesy that Lars does. This is partly because they have long and sadly watched Lars closing into himself and are moved by his attempt to break free. The film, directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Nancy Oliver ("Six Feet Under"), wisely never goes for even one moment that could be interpreted as smutty or mocking. There are, to be sure, some moments of humor; you can't take a love doll everywhere without inspiring double-takes. And Gus sometimes blurts out the real-world truths we are also thinking.

There are so many ways "Lars and the Real Girl" could have gone wrong that one of the film's fascinations is how adroitly it sidesteps them. Its weapon is absolute sincerity. It is about who Lars is, and how he relates to this substitute for human friendship, and that is all it's about. It has a kind of purity to it....

We all know a few people who walk into a socially dangerous situation, size it up, and instantly know what to say and how to set people at ease. My Aunt Martha could do that. She was a truth-teller, and all some situations need is for someone to tell the truth, instead of pussy-footing around embarrassments. Consider, in this film, the neighbor named Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty). She rises to the occasion in a way both tactful and heroic. While Gus is worried about what people will think, Mrs. Gruner (and Karin and Dagmar) are more concerned with what Lars is thinking.

As we watch this process, we glimpse Lars' inner world, one of hurt but also hidden hope. Nine actors out of 10 would have (rightly) turned down this role, suspecting it to be a minefield of bad laughs. Gosling's work here is a study in control of tone. He isn't too morose, too strange, too opaque, too earnest. The word for his behavior, so strange to the world, is serene. He loves his new friend, treats her courteously and expects everyone else to give her the respect he does.

How this all finally works out is deeply satisfying. Only after the movie is over do you realize what a balancing act it was, what risks it took, what rewards it contains. A character says at one point that she has grown to like Bianca. So, heaven help us, have we.

On School Vouchers

I've been asked a few times about my general views of vouchers, which are a hot topic in my home state of Utah right now. Notice that I'm not all that familiar with the details of the Utah plan, so these are just general thoughts.

1. Do vouchers improve academic achievement?

Vouchers have been tried in various cities and states at this point (most famously in Florida, Milwaukee, and Cleveland) and many studies have been done to figure out whether they help improve participating student performance. For various reasons, these are difficult studies to perform and the results are often contradictory. Overall, I would say that parents who use vouchers tend to be more satisfied than those in regular public schools. The best studies, however, find only minimal (if any) difference between students who use vouchers to attend private schools and those who stay in public schools. A report from the highly respected nonpartisan General Accounting Office (GAO) is perhaps the most trustworthy summary of the data, although it is a bit old now (published in 2001).

2. Do vouchers improve public schools by making them compete with private schools?

Again the data are complicated, but a recent book argues that there is no evidence from Milwaukee of long-term, competition driven improvement in public schools: "Our results are therefore mixed. Overall, Milwaukee public schools made a one-time gain versus other Wisconsin schools with somewhat comparable ethnic/social class composition. Yet, students in Milwaukee schools facing more competition from private voucher schools made no greater gains." At the very least, the competition arguments are not obviously true and may very well be false in the long run.

3. But aren't private schools more effective than public schools?

Overall, the surprising answer seems to be that public schools are actually usually more effective when family background is accounted for. See here and here. For what its worth, I personally found my public school experience to be excellent, with great teachers and opportunities (of course, with a few exceptions).

4. Aren't public schools places that promote atheism and immorality?

This largely depends on what you mean by "promote atheism and immorality," so it is hard to answer this question. Remaining neutral on questions of religion is not promoting atheism. I think part of the problem is that people hear about some odd-sounding event or policy in a far-away school and immediately begin to think that such events hold for all public schools everywhere. In reality, though, such cases are rarely even representative of that particular school district, let alone with all the schools in that particular state or or in the entire nation. An odd-ball school here or there is not good evidence for a decline in school morality (in fact, they may be the exceptions that prove the rule). When judging this issue, it is wise to rely on your own experience with local schools, rather than relying on sensational reports from talk radio or dubious circulating emails.

For what its worth, I should also point out that public school violence has been decreasing for over a decade -- a point that also seems relevant here. (see Dinkes, R., Cataldi, E.F., Kena, G., and Baum, K. (2006). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006 (NCES 2007–003/NCJ 214262). U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.)

5. What are my reasons for being cautious of vouchers?

My biggest reason has to do with my belief that common public schools can be a unifying force in a diverse American society. If we support public education, we also support the idea that we can come together with people who are different from us to learn from them. What vouchers and private schools often lead to, according to the research, is a homogeneous learning environment. If given a choice, after all, people choose to be with other people who are like them. Common public schools, in contrast, can be a symbol of our belief that we can learn from each other and from people who are different. In my Utah school experience in Salt Lake City, I met people from different religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds that really enriched my life. I realize this is a bit idealistic and that things do not always turn out so nicely in practice. But it is an idea I want to believe in.

Note that this is not a good reason to support the status quo in many crumbling, underfunded inner-city schools. The welfare of those children in such schools should take priority over my idealistic inclinations. This reason is more relevant to prevent vouchers from being used by students in good schools to escape people and ideas that are different.

6. Under what circumstances would I support vouchers?

First, if the voucher was big enough to actually give poor students a real choice. Second, if the vouchers only go to students whose schools that are truly bad places to be (rather than, say, to middle class parents who don't want their child taught evolution). Third, if guidelines were in place so that private schools had to accept the poor students who applied. If I were in Utah, I would see if the voucher plan fit these requirement, but I'm too lazy to do that right now. I just wanted to point out that I am not categorically opposed to vouchers.

There is my opinion, with that and $2.98 you can buy a gallon of gas today in Columbus.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bryan Humiliation Stories, Part 1 [Bryan]

I've decided that I want to become a better storyteller. When I talk about myself, I seem so vapid and lame, as if nothing ever interesting has happened to me. Well, there might be some truth to the idea that nothing interesting has ever happened to me. The thing is, an interesting life is not always just lived, but made after the fact through the process of storytelling. As you tell the story of your life, you start to realize things about your life that suddenly make your story interesting. Little connections here and there, a fleeting realization, the development of a plot. Suddenly a person is changed into a Lincoln, a Churchill, an Einstein. A parade of trivia is turned into a great life quest! At least that is my hope.

Here is the story I want to practice today: my first academic humiliation.

So there I was. The year was 2003 and I had just finished my masters degree at UIUC. I was, on the outside, young, confident, and intellectually brash, but inside I was a quivering mass of academic uncertainty. I had written a paper that brought together my interest in Greek literature with my interest in education. It was a wild little essay entitled "Creon's Decree and the Ethics of Educational Policy." I still think it was a good paper. It dealt with King Creon in Sophocle's play the Antigone and his tragic attempt to educate his city about civic duty. I was very unsure of my ability at presenting my work before critical audiences. I feared humiliation. I mustered courage, though, swallowed hard and sent off my paper to be reviewed at a small, regional conference. After a few weeks, I found out the paper had been accepted and, not only that, I had won the graduate student award for best paper. My confidence grew.

The day of the conference, I got up early and drove to Chicago. I arrived a few hours before my presentation and, since I had time to kill, went to hear a few other presentations. I was not impressed. The other papers seemed derivative and boring, especially in comparison to my award-winning essay on Greek political philosophy. I was ready to make my splash.

When it was time for my presentation, I went to the assigned room and waited for the audience to trickle in. And boy did it ever. Once person came in. Then another. And another. Soon the room was filled to capacity, standing room only. I was nervous to be presenting to such a large group, but it was clear that this was my moment to shine. There they all sat, looking at me intently, ready to hear about my award-winning ideas. They had come to bask in to glow of this young graduate student's wisdom, and I was determined not to disappoint them.

Suddenly, one of the conference organizers appeared in the room. "Excuse me," he announced, "for those of you who haven't heard, Prof. Jones's talk on education reform has been moved to room 329. In this room, Bryan Warnick will be presenting on ethics and educational policy."

In unison, the entire audience stood up and left. At least forty people made as quick an exit as they could, eager to hear Prof. Jones pontificate about education reform. I was stunned. Before me sat three people. One of the people was breathing with the aid of an air tank and another person was his helper. They were not in the position to be move very easily, so they decided to stay at my presentation. So, in my first academic conference presentation, I unveiled my work to a grand total of one interested person. She alone saved me from the ultimate academic disgrace: a no-show, an empty room, row after row of completely deserted seats. Bless her soul, whoever see was. I meekly presented my paper, and hurried home.

Best music video of the 00s

Friday, October 12, 2007

Go Indians! [Bryan]

Cleveland sports teams have always held a special place in my heart (at least the Indians and Browns). The reason is simple: my Dad, for some reason, has always been a Cleveland sports fanatic. Thus, I grew up watching Bernie Kosar get beat year after year by John Elway and the Denver Broncos. I also grew up hearing about the Indians mounting one dreary campaign after another. Needless to say, my Dad has chosen poorly: Has there ever been a sports city as forlorn as Cleveland? Has there ever been a city as forlorn Cleveland in general? Now that I live in Ohio, I have an addition reason for wanting Cleveland to succeed. Cleveland success = happy Ohio taxpayers who pay my salary. Go Indians!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My candidate, kind of [Bryan]

Based on this website, my policy views are most in agreement with Chris Dodd, the senator from Connecticut. As many of you know, my inclinations in the presidential race lean heavily toward Barack Obama. The reasons I favor Obama have more to do with intangibles -- character, intelligence, temperament, judgment -- than actual policy prescriptions. Maybe I will blog about Obama shortly.

Chris Dodd
Score: 49
Stem-Cell Research
Health Care
Social Security
Death Penalty
Line-Item Veto

-- Take the Quiz! --

My agreement with Obama actually wasn't too far behind at a score of 44. The candidate that I disagree with most according to this measure, apparently, is Fred Thompson. Finally, I also haven't really made up my mind about the "line item veto." I could be convinced either way on that issue.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Masterpiece of 1980s music videos [Bryan]

Whip Cream Ballet [Bryan]

So, a few weeks ago our ward had a "variety show." Ellie, together with her presidency, did a "whip cream ballet." Ellie was able to show the somewhat goofy side of herself that she often tries to hide under a facade of proper middle class respectability. Some friends of ours blogged about it (thanks Comins). Below is one of the pictures.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Grandma Warnick [Bryan]

Last week was a sad week for us. About a week and a half ago, my Grandma, Blanche Warnick, passed away. I was blessed with being able to get to know all of my grandparents very well -- better than many people, I suspect. My relationships with my grandparents have been some of the richest relationships of my life. Through them, I am connected to the Great Depression, to the War, and to years of perspective and experience. Through them, I was exposed to lives of toil, frugality, faith, and sacrifice. Through them, I know what it is like to milk a cow, to go fishing, to ride on a tractor, to water ski at Lake Powell, to wake up to the sound of farm animals, to work at a college, to drink real milk, to build an airplane. I will not demean them by pretending they are (or were) perfect. They are human. Their value to me does not reside in perfect fantasy, but in solid reality. It is because of them that I now lead a life of comfort and privilege. Their hard work and moral character served as a springboard, I think, for all of us in my family, launching us into lives of remarkable possibilities (from farmers, as it were, to philosophers).

I will always remember Grandma Warnick's welcoming personality. She was unfailingly interested in what I was doing and supportive at every step of the road. Her good humor was a perpetual part of her personality. It was always gentle, always with a bit of self-deprecation thrown in (she would always amuse the family with her continuous attempts to learn Spanish). She was an example of finding happiness in simplicity and treasures in humility.

Rest in peace grandma! A flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.