Friday, March 8, 2013

Return to Oz

A little later today, I'll be off the see the Wizard -- the latest one, as portrayed by James Franco -- without especially high hopes, as the film has been widely panned for all of the reasons -- unconvincing characters, jumbled plot, over-reliance on digital effects -- that I was most concerned about when I first heard of it last year.  Still, having seen every other surviving film version of L. Frank Baum's story (along with the musical Wicked), I feel a certain obligation to check in on my old favorite fairyland, if only to reflect on how it's changed.  Of course, no film will ever be able to complete with the glorious 1939 musical version, a film I have watched more than any other, starting in the 1960's when it was hosted on television every spring by Danny Kaye, and when -- since I didn't have a color set -- the "not in Kansas anymore" line wasn't about color, but about the slow greyscale panorama of plastic plants, concealed Munchkins, and the invisible, ethereal chorus (referred to in the screenplay as "optimistic voices"). It remains, for me, the most important film of my childhood, and one that I will always love more than any other.

But as critics have lined up to disparage this latest effort, they've been painting with a rather broad brush -- and in some cases, a roller -- as with Chris Heller's piece in today's Atlantic, where he laments the "Sad, Century-Long History of Terrible 'Wizard of Oz' Movies." And, though there there sure have been a few stinkers along the way, as well as versions that I simply personally can't for some reason, stand watching (The Wiz), there have also been some remarkable films.  L. Frank Baum himself staged his Oz tales as "Radio Plays," combining puppets, full-size actors, film, and lantern slides; he also licensed them to the Oz Film Company, whose efforts -- uneven at best -- can be seen on supplemental DVD's with most sets of the 1939 film as well as on YouTube.  A 1925 silent, featuring Larry Seman as the Scarecrow and Oliver Hardy (yes, that Oliver Hardy) as a rather rotund Tin Woodsman, is marginally better, and deserves remembering for its innovation of the "dream sequence" concept, in which the Kansas farmhands are played by the same actors as Dorothy's later friends in Oz.

The 1939 film, for all its wonders, was not an immediate hit; it wasn't until it started being shown on television in the late 1950's and early 1960's that it gained the wide audience of children who took it directly into their hearts; what other televised film can count among its fans both Denzel Washington and Salman Rushdie?

For Chris Heller, the greatness of the 1939 film forms a narrative bridge -- I'll resist calling it a rainbow -- from which to disparage every other film adaptation of Oz, even those I somehow suspect he hasn't actually seen. For, among the list of films he disparages there is in fact one true gem -- an adaptation of Baum's Oz stories that is richer, darker, and more faithful to the original books than even the 1939 film: Walter Much's 1985 Return to Oz.  Murch, for whom this has been, so far, his only turn in the director's chair, is perhaps best known for his work on sound design; in the years of difficulty Francis Ford Coppola spent editing Apocalypse Now!, Murch was perhaps his closest collaborator. Murch got and kept the Oz job at the recommendation of George Lucas, whom Disney at one point had wanted to replace him -- and thank goodness they didn't. Return to Oz is gloriously, richly, darkly, deeply true to the spirit of Oz, and Fairuza Balk in her film début is brilliant as Dorothy.

Heller makes fun of the frame narrative, in which Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, desperate to find a cure for their daughter's delusional chatter about Oz, take her to an "electrical" physician for what appears to be some early form of shock therapy. It evokes the dream-residue frame narrative, and deepens it -- this film is about a child's determination not to condemn and reject her love of a place she believes in with all her heart. Her new companions -- a talking hen named Billina, a wind-up man known as Tik-Tok, and a pumpkin-headed mannikin named Jack -- are perfectly brought to life from the pages of Baum's original stories. The villains are Mombi (a conflation of two other wicked Baum witches) and the Nome King (one of Baum's most original creations, whose one great fear is eggs -- played in a career-best turn by Nicol Williamson). The ending is far more satisfying and emotionally resonant than that of the 1939 film -- for Fauruza Balk's Dorothy knows, as do we, that Oz is in fact a really, truly, live place.

I don't want to spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it -- but if somehow, like most people, you missed this film (when I saw it in a theatre in 1985, it was just me and the guy collecting for the Jimmy Fund), you simply must see it.  If Oz the Great and Powerful turns out to be as bad as some say it is, I can't think of a better antidote.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Massively Odious Online "Courses"

Columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is the latest to add his voice to the chorus in support of the wonders and glories of MOOC's -- Massively Open Online Courses -- the lecture-driven streaming video productions which many élite schools (Harvard and MIT among them) are now touting as the next big thing in education.  Just think: millions of people around the world can hear the lectures of top-flight genius professors -- for free! Of course no one will get any course credit, or a degree from any of these fine institutions, but no matter! -- Maybe we'll have quizzes, and the students who do really well on the quizzes will get some kind of scholarship.  As Jon Lovitz might say, "Yeah, that's the ticket!"

Look, university education has evolved enormously since a few teachers and students rented some rooms in Oxford in the twelfth century.  In those truly "olden" days, the seven liberal arts -- Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy -- made up the essence of the curriculum. And, since Oxford (and Cambridge, and most other medieval universities) existed to prepare people for lives in the church or government, Theology was soon added. Professors stood at lecterns, and students sat on benches, with only the most senior students allowed at the front bench, from which actual questions -- at least, after the innovations of Peter Abelard at the University of Paris -- could be directed at those professors.  There was, in general, no tuition, although the cost of room and board, along with textbooks (which in those days had to be rented, being too expensive to purchase) made the taking of a degree prohibitively expensive, unless one were wealthy, or (like Chaucer's diligent Clerk) had friends to pay one's fees, in return for which one would diligently pray for the salvation of their souls.

One thing, however, has never changed, really: the idea that "education" (the word comes from the Latin ex-ductere, which, intriguingly, can mean either "to lead forth" or "to draw out or stretch") is something which takes place when teachers and students are in the same room. The UK system has evolved considerably, and now typically consists of a course of lectures, at which one sits, examinations, which are scored by fairly standard rubrics, and tutorials, which give students invaluable one-on-one experience.  In the United States, the first few private colleges (Harvard, Yale, Darmouth, Brown, and the rest) followed the British model for the most part, while the Land Grant Universities (established by the Federal Acts of 1862 and 1890) used a similar set of introductory lectures followed by smaller and more advanced classes, and expanded the curriculum at first to the more "useful" arts and sciences (such as agriculture and engineering) as well as professional certifications (education, social work, nursing, and so forth).  Universities sometimes had urban extension classes, and the UK system was made more accessible through the Open Universities scheme, made famous in the film Educating Rita.

But how to make education more "open" -- more available to the masses -- has remained a tricky question. Systems set up, such as the City College of New York, to provide college-level training to the less-privileged, eventually started charging tuition and fees, and once again access skewed along class lines.  The "Open University" system in the UK was preceded by regional institutions, the "Red Bricks," which sought to offer comparable on-site classes to those of the ancient universities.  Somehow, though, neither of these transcended the old "open élite" model: one educated the wealthy, and those who, from among the poorer classes, could be culled and promoted by 'merit,' leading both to their success and their co-optation by the ruling classes. For those who "made the grade," a lifetime of improved prosperity and prestige awaited.

Today, a terrible idea has begun to flourish: that an education should be measured by the economic benefits it confers. This is doubly strange because so many of the institutions of opportunity which sought to elevate those who strove to better themselves had also adopted the model of a 'liberal arts' education that had its roots in the ancient schools of learning. Education has always had some sort of economic benefit, but before now this was never its reason for being. A richer life, not a richer paycheck, was once considered its highest goal.

The MOOC madness well fits this new conception. Education is not for the enrichment of life for the many, it is for awarding laurels to the victors; it is not a mechanism to improve the intellectual life of  all, but a "race to the top" where the best and brightest will receive cash prizes.  The highly exclusive institutions which are poised to offer the widest array of MOOC's may seem, at first, to be the world's great benefactors: behold, they give away education for free!  But what they give is not in fact education at all; they give only a repeated, recorded message, like the lecture of one of the many dead professors at Hogwarts School in J.K. Rowling's universe.  Those who receive these lectures are, in fact, ghosts as well: they have no student ID's, cannot use the library, will receive no in-person advising or counseling, and the work they do will not accumulate.

Of course Harvard and MIT won't keep doing this for nothing.  Eventually, the MOOC's will have to be capitalized, will have to pay.  The first few tiers may be free, and then payment, or suffering through advertisements for cruises or medicines, will have to carry the freight.  A few people will, perhaps, be identified and elevated: come on down, you're the next contestant on This Education's For You! But in fact, the old inequities will be the same as ever: personal development and satisfaction for those who excel, and a broom and a mop for those who don't. And pure MOOC's, the ones that offer exams and follow-up but no in-person component, have a terrifically high rate of attrition and failure. "Blended" or "hybrid" courses which mix online and in-person instruction, fare much better, for reasons that seem to me obvious -- but in whatever form, the MOOC bandwagon looks set to march on, as our latest educational juggernaut.

Once upon a time, there were institutions in which many people, men and women, studied and prayed and lived a devout life which their communities believed redounded to the public good. But then one man, Henry VIII, asked cui bono? And the monasteries, abbeys, and religious foundations of England were closed at a stroke, the monks and nuns sent to fend for themselves, while the King's men rolled up the lead roofing and carried away the books.  What was left was pilfered by the local peasants, and all that remained were mere ruins.

If MOOC's become the way of the future, I fear for education in America, and the world: if no higher purpose than increased earnings can be found, then our system will, within a generation, be little more than a ruin itself.