Ivory Tower Documentary Review

My review of Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower, the new documentary by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times), posits itself as the long-overdue expose on the as-broken-as-our-healthcare higher education system. Sadly, this far too diffuse and roving film takes on too much, in the end, not really succeeding in offering a cogent, tidy argument. It would have benefited from a strong dose of good ol’ critical thinking and thesis-honing.
The film opens on the premise that there are problems in all sectors of higher education, problems so large that they are undermining the very idea of higher education and its life value. We are introduced to an African-American freshman with a rather compelling story–”from homeless to Harvard.” Ivory Tower follows his experience through the hallowed halls of Harvard, which actually appears to be well-deserving of its rarefied status and remains one of the last remaining bastions of meritocracy in higher ed. It also is a part of a rather small group of only 1.25% of U.S. colleges that grant full-need financial aid packages and have fully transparent, need-blind admissions.
Ivory Tower then launches into a meandering argument that fails to explain the feedback loop of sky-rocketing higher ed costs. It argues that since colleges are competing against each other and seeking to expand their markets (yes, get used to the idea that American college education is a business), they are driven to create more programs and build more (and fancier) facilities at a faster rate than their competitors. Enter Arizona State University, which has “luxury suites,” with pools and DJs for the privileged few who have come to college for the “student experience,” a thinly-veiled euphemism for beer and circuses ala Spring Breakers (what happened to the simpler days where that meant the more grown-up version of Dead Poets’ Society!?).

The film cannot possibly expect the viewers to think that college tuition is rising so exponentially (1120% increase since 1980; more than any other good in the economy) because colleges built more modern buildings, paid their presidents six digit salaries, and hired a few more administrators, do they? Ivory Tower‘s focus on these construction booms and colleges being turned into mini cities, while a valid point, really does not cover the scope of a system whose issues are so endemic that the explanatory variables are many and they are very, very enmeshed.
The thorny beyond measure issue of student is explored rather shallowly here. All we find out is that it has now reached the hair-raising 1 trillion mark. There is one really salient point, however–unlike with the mortgage crisis, there is no “safety valve.” There is no foreclosure or bankruptcy; the interest keeps accruing inexorably, saddling students and generations after with a debt that is onerous beyond measure.
Past that point, Ivory Tower starts to digress even more, launching into a shallow exploration of whether college has any value and focusing on the “hackademic” movement in San Francisco and the Thiel Fellowship, created by the founder of PayPal. Again, while incredibly interesting as a piece of information in itself, it is not particularly relevant. It also explores the rather ill-fated experiment that San Jose State University conducted in having Udacity teach most of their entry level math classes. The case study of the students at Cooper Union’s struggle to maintain the tuition-free status of the university is explored fat too in-depth.
Ivory Tower would have been a much more compelling film had it not chosen to focus on so many subjects. As it stands now, we are still left unsure why is tuition rising so astronomically (and not just at private schools but also at fund-strapped state schools) and where *are* tuition dollars going if most of the classes are taught by near-minimum-wage earning adjuncts in cavernous classrooms of hundreds of students. We are also left with a cursory, at best, glance at the implications of a trillion dollar student debt. Instead, the tangents of “do we really need a college education,” and “is the college education now just another excuse for partying,” and “can technology save us all,” are delved into in a rather questionable stroke of directorial decision-making.

AFI Documentaries Preview

AFI Docs 2014

112 Weddings
Filmmmaker Doug Block spent two decades working as a wedding videographer. In 112 Weddings, he revisits some of the couples he saw walk down the aisle, looking to find answers about the nature of marriage and whether the proverbial wedded bliss materialized for them. The premise seems rather interesting; unfortunately, the stories of the couples are not particularly compelling. One theme that emerges is that almost all of them had kids and that, boy, having children is really hard (serious newsflash here) and has the potential to really rock a relationship. Aside from that, it becomes pretty obvious that it is hard to encapsulate married life into sound bites culled together from brief interviews.
Some of the couples featured are a pair of Burner-types, who post a “partnership ceremony” and 13 years together decide to go traditional and marry; a comically uptight American married to a Korean violinist; some Brooklyn hipster-types; and  David Bromberg, screenwriter of the indie flick Dedication, whose love of prescription drugs and general manic-ness make for some tragic scenes. And of course, we have the requisite “my husband is cheating on me,” couple as well. Overall, the couples featured, lesbian couple notwithstanding, are fairly homogeneous. Longitudinal study this is not. And for the fun subject that this is, this movie is surprisingly not terribly fun. On the flip side, it is also not gloomy enough to make one get serious cold feet-itis about marriage or to denounce “the institution,” for that matter either. It’s fairly light fare, but it does leave the viewer longing for a little less fluff.

Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum

My article: Urban Peripheries and Politics of the Slum
The world is over half urban. In 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2050, this proportion will increase to a staggering 70%.

The bulk of new urban population growth will be in the so-called Global South: Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an increasing number of people across the class spectrum settling in peripheral and suburban areas in both megacities and smaller towns. The nature of that growth, however, will not follow a familiar pattern. Dr. Malini Ranganathan, an Associate Professor at American University’s School of International Service and an expert on urban geography, says informality is the “new normal” of urbanization. This new kind of growth defies binary terms like “slum” and brings questions of equality to the forefront of the discussion on city planning and development, making the very concept of citizenship incredibly malleable and negotiable.
Ranganathan’s recent research focused on Bangalore, a city of over ten million people, where much of the growth is occurring in the so-called urban peripheries—the outskirts of town, where people are securing their claim to urban land through a series of negotiations and adaptions that while informal in nature are reshaping the very notion of “right to the city.” The discourse of the slum, Ranganathan explains, is incredibly limiting and doesn’t recognize informal land tenure. “We are referring to something akin to occupancy urbanism, where the people first occupy the space and then start to put in place the mechanisms of livelihood and the infrastructure. Many of these occupants might purchase what is initially considered farm land and then through negotiations and forming a relationship with bureaucrats are able to create a sort of an ambiguous ownership, which is in a sense advantageous to both the state and the inhabitants.” Much more noteworthy, however, is that while home owners associations in the United States are usually preoccupied (or rather, obsessed) with safeguarding property values, the ad-hoc neighborhood welfare associations she observed in Bangalore formed to make demands on the state. By banding together in groups, occupants gain the power to advocate for critical services such as water access and sanitation. As one of the residents described it, “The ‘we’ feeling has to be there.”
While informal urban growth seems to be especially prevalent in the developing world, it is certainly not foreign to the United States. Every day in American cities street vendors spread out their wares on sidewalks, food trucks serve lunch from the curb, and homeowners hold sales in their front yards. “Squatting” or adverse possession, as it is referred to legally, is becoming a little bit more prevalent, especially in cities like Baltimore and Detroit. “Baltimore is full of buildings artists have used over time to solve their problems,” says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. “Many of them live illegally in buildings where they rent studio space.” All of these ground realities would require urban planning to be less top-down and more responsive. “The question remains about the extent these lofty goals can stir political action—how can the right to the city be institutionalized and to not rely so heavily on tech fixes. This issue is not just an environmental or technical issue but also a heavily political and social one. It is about social dynamics such as making public transit more accessible, new sustainability initiatives, and providing more affordable housing,” says Ranganathan.
Ranganathan also discussed a recent shift in the discussion on urban inequity. ”Urban inequity is now front and center on the urban policy agenda. Inequality is proving to be bad for development, period.” At the most recent World Urban Forum, the theme was Urban Equity in Development—Cities for Life. The concept paper of the forum argues that, “unequal cities are all-around inefficient, politically volatile, unsafe, and unsustainable, and just plain bad for human development.” The recognition that inequality is detrimental to overall human well-being is a notable shift away from decades of mainstream development policy guided by trickle-down economics and top-down ideas meant to simply offer band-aid solutions to the have-nots while simultaneously focusing on them as the problem. More importantly, the notion that growth and equity are antithetical is fast losing ground: “The OECD dismissed the assumption that the benefits of economic growth automatically filtered down to the poorest in society. The Economist has just affirmed that inequality has reached a level which makes it inefficient and bad for growth. By the same token, the IMF has recognized that inequality slows down economic growth, weakens the demand and contributes to financial crises. When Henry Lefebvre wrote about the “right to the city” in 1968, he was referring to far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources. Right to the city is a common rather than an individual right; it relies on collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. It is the right to inhabit the city, the right to produce urban life, and to right of inhabitants to remain unalienated from the urban life. Yet, on a practical level, making these lofty ideals a reality requires political commitment. Until the time the powers in place wake up to the trenchant realities on the ground, informal settlements and their safety issues and environmental hazards will continue to exist and workers who build glitzy skyscrapers in global cities will still only be able to live in them while working on their construction.

The Signal Film Review

The Signal

The Signal, directed by William Eubank, is a stylish sci-fi thriller that epitomizes the “less is more” ethos the genre could use a lot more of. It has a singular visual style, reliant on fairly minimal CGI that nevertheless packs a serious punch, quite literally–the scene in which one of the characters punches the ground is breath-taking in the most subtle of ways. The trailer of the movie riffs on some familiar Matrix-like motifs, not the least of which Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus-channeling turn as a Hazmat-suit-wearing doctor. Yet, you are not watching The Matrix nor District 9, as the surprising ending reveals.
The Signal starts amiably enough as a road trip movie of sorts: M.I.T. students/hackers-in-training Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving cross-country to help move Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), to California. Along the way, they are taunted by a mysterious hacker named Nomad, whom they trace to a remote area in Nevada. What they encounter there is…a Catfish scenario gone really, really awry.

Nic wakes up in a secure underground facility, surrounded by Hazmat-clad scientists. Haley is in a coma, and Jonah is only able to communicate with Nic through an air vent. In the mean time, Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne) asks Nic such trenchant questions as “are you from Earth?” and “how many toes do you have?” and informs him that the group has made contact with an “extraterrestrial biological entity.” The interaction between Nic and Dr. Damon is especially compelling and leaves the audience unsure of what is actually taking place or has happened; at first glance, the “bad guy” appears to be, yet again, “the government.” The set up is Area 51-like, where Nic and his friend are trapped and made to roam in a particularly cruel game of cat and mouse/lab rat.
Yet, the end of the film will have you talking about it for hours as you unpack all of the clues that led to a fairly innovative take on the alien trope. The cinematography is breath-taking and perfectly in sync to the adagio of the plot line. The biggest challenge for the viewers is to not leave the theatre with the same sinking feeling we were left with on the season finale of The Sopranos and to instead take the time to unpack the trail of clues. While a lot of the recent alien movies have sought to make bad guys out of either the humans or the ETs, The Signal manages to rather elegantly dodge that concern in favor of exploring the more interesting territory of “what do we have that is of interest to the aliens?” The Signal seems to point to some unexpected emotional terrain.