Educators as Self-Directed Learners and Collaborative Communicators


I had the pleasure of spending three hours with Marin County educators and our special guest, George Couros, the Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning at Parkland School Division in Alberta, Canada. The discussions and presentation that George brought were thought-provoking, and I’m sure everyone who attended had a busy mind throughout the hours after the meeting.

Update: Eric Saibel spent his post-George evening putting together a very good summary of the roundtable and presentation.

Here are some of the ideas I took away from the afternoon:

  • Everyone in the education community needs to be on a continual learning path (students, teachers, administrators, board members and parents). When you get to the point where you know it all, you really should change jobs. If administrators and teachers can model learning themselves, it will start to create a culture of innovation.
  • To explain to others why innovation might improve learning for students, you have to be convinced yourself and communicate ideas from the heart. Blogging and getting involved in discussions can help hone your ideas.
  • There is tremendous power in one-on-one learning for staff (or even small group learning) where teachers and administrators can ask questions and work on solutions relevant to their practice.
  • Isolation is a choice that educators make. Sharing through blogging and Twitter makes learning happen faster; we can learn so much more from sharing with others and from others.
  • There’s also a great benefit of transparency if teachers and educators consistently use a district Twitter hashtag to connect educators, students, parents, community, as well as to invite in educators from around the world to share their learning. Everyone in George’s district uses the #psd70 hashtag whenever they post information about what they are learning.

Right before I went to George’s roundtable and presentation, I had been working on our new elementary school report cards, which were developed collaboratively by our teaching staff and a consultant from the County Office of Education. The teachers decided that two profiles that students would be assessed on are the “Self-Directed Learner” and the “Collaborative Communicator”. I suddenly had a brainstorm that these categories would also be relevant for our staff, and that maybe I should start assessing my own abilities and actions according to these profiles. For example, here are the standards that we will be assessing our fourth graders on:

Self-Directed Learner

  • Works toward personal best
  • Demonstrates self-control
  • Respects classroom expectations
  • Respects school expectations
  • Works independently
  • Stays on task
  • Organizes self and materials
  • Completes classwork on time
  • Completes homework on time
  • Checks work for accuracy
  • Presents work neatly and legibly

Collaborative Communicator

  • Recognizes and respects authority
  • Communicates respectfully
  • Follows directions
  • Listens attentively
  • Contributes relevant ideas to discussions
  • Works with diverse partners
  • Applies constructive feedback

When I thought of how I would start to evaluate my own performance, I also thought of the norms that our Board of Trustees grades itself on:

  • Focus on the best interest of all students at every grade level
  • Begin and end on time
  • Work as a team
  • Respect and listen to all options, opinions, and styles
  • Actively participate in meetings, workshops and district events
  • Come prepared and be fully present and engaged
  • Be open to new ideas
  • Exhibit positive body language, mannerism, and tone of voice
  • Engage in active listening; do not interrupt; avoid side conversations
  • Disagree agreeably
  • No surprises
  • Assume good will

So maybe here is the beginning of a self-assessment report card for educators, incorporating what I learned from George:

Self-Directed Learner

  • Is open to new ideas
  • Is always looking for ways to improve student engagement and learning
  • Is always looking for ways to reach each student or staff person in his or her own learning process
  • Questions his or her own comfort
  • Is not afraid to play and experiment if he or she doesn’t know the answer
  • Is persistent in finding solutions to problems
  • Reaches out to peers and mentors face-to-face and through social networks to learn from others

Communicative Collaborator

  • Communicates from the heart
  • Avoids isolation
  • Shares with others regularly face-to-face and through social networks
  • Respects and listens to all options, opinions, and styles
  • Is not afraid to disagree agreeably
  • Builds teams with peers

So, for you educator readers, what other standards should we be using to gauge our effectiveness as learners and communicators?

Portraits Worth Traveling For

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger
Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

Fresh from a fascination with Henry VIII, thanks to Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the Korda brothers’ Private Life of Henry VIII, I started thinking about how Hans Holbein’s the Younger’s portrait of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was powerful enough to change history.  I guess Hans was the instant messenger of his day, sent over to the continent to bring back a picture for Henry’s Facebook wall, a picture that Henry’s friends could comment on and persuade him of Anne’s overwhelming beauty (which according to legend did not measure up in real life, leading to a quick annulment, but that’s another story).

What impresses me is that a simple portrait could have so much power.  The painting, a watercolor, is now in the Louvre’s collection; I may have seen it on a visit to Paris eleven years ago without knowing about its legends.  In any event, it’s now on my portrait bucket list, so that if and when I return to Paris, or if it ever travels to a distant shore as Anne herself did, and lands in San Francisco, I will seek it out.

And that got me thinking on what other portraits I would consider worth traveling to see.  I’d start with the ones I’ve already seen, that have captured my attention for long minutes when the rest of the gallery has faded away and I have been left one-on-one with a vibrating image a few feet away from me.

Virgin Annunciate, by Antonello da Messina
Virgin Annunciate, by Antonello da Messina

Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.

John Singer Sargent - The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit 1882
John Singer Sargent - The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

John Singer Sargent’s Daughters of Edward Darley Boit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Of course if I ever do see this painting, it will require a revisit to the Prado for the Velasquez original and to Barcelona for Picasso’s meditations on Velasquez).

Angelina, by Edouard Manet (Detail)

Edouard Manet’s small portrait, Angelina, in Velasquez’ black palette that I saw at the Musee d’Orsay’s traveling exhibition, The Birth of Impressionism.

Walk on the Beach, by Joaquin Sorolla
Walk on the Beach, by Joaquin Sorolla

Any and all of Joaquín Sorolla’s loving portraits of his wife Clotilde at the Museo Sorolla in Madrid.

Giovanna Tornabuoni, by Ghirlandaio
Giovanna Tornabuoni, by Ghirlandaio

And the entire portrait collection at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The Ghirlandaio portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni is just an example of the depth of this collection (which also has one of Holbein’s Henry VIII).

Side note: this article is the first of my participation in WordPress’s 2011 “post a week” project.

Great men aren’t always world movers

Roger Hooper, 1917-2010
Roger Hooper, 1917-2010

My father-in-law, Roger Hooper, died earlier today at age 93.  While I don’t expect to be eulogizing him at his funeral, I would like to note why I considered him to be a significant person in my own life and a great man in his.

Roger attended Groton and Harvard (Art History as an undergraduate, Architecture in graduate school) in the 1930s and 40s with names that have made headlines: statesmen-to-be such as JFK and Bill and MacGeorge Bundy; and influential architects like Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, and I.M. Pei.  His own father wanted him to follow family tradition and become a Boston Brahmin lawyer, but Roger had fallen in love with the Pacific and the promise of postwar California. So instead of having his name etched in hardwood in the hallowed halls of a law office overlooking the Boston Commons, he left his mark by creating his own architectural partnerships in the back-alley haunts of North Beach and the San Francisco waterfront.

How liberating and engergizing it must have been for him to explore the possibilities of modern design in wood and glass in the era when building codes were not restrictive, redwood and fiberboard were cheap, and clients could afford spectacular settings in the San Francisco Bay Area, Big Sur and beyond. Competition must have been fierce; I picture Roger winning over prospective clients with his sociability and good taste, and giving those clients a 110% effort after the contract was signed.  Listening to Roger and his architect partners, you could tell that he loved all of it–discussing the program, sketching the designs, producing the construction drawings, making decisions with clients and contractors, working with the amazing landscape architects of those times, getting the photography and publicity for the finished projects.  And there was his ongoing appreciation of great European architecture; after each of his extensively photographed trips to France, Spain and Italy, his family (now including me) would be treated to his entertaining slide shows that might go on for two or three hours. That was a great lesson for me–that you must love your calling and profession if you want to live a happy life–and certainly reinforced my own decision to go to architecture school after college.

Balancing his dedication to his work was the energy he gave to his home life.  He and his wife created and lived the Bay Area dream in Marin County, moving their growing numbers from Sausalito, to Corte Madera, to a run-down but unique Bernard Maybeck house in the then-sleepy town of Ross, to a summer place in Inverness, and finally designing and building their stunning glass-house home for the next 45 years on the top of a Ross hill.  His son and daughters grew up learning to hike, swim, sail, go horseback riding, and play tennis, all in the great outdoors of Northern California.  When I met Roger (he was in his 50s, my future bride his daughter in her early 20s), it seemed that every weekend, he was dedicated to sharing the fantastic opportunities of Marin County with his family–I was immediately recruited for small sailboat races on Tomales Bay, or asked to informal doubles matches at the local tennis club, or to barbecued steak dinners cooked on the porch of their Ross house. He enjoyed life and his surroundings, but more importantly, he wanted his family and friends to enjoy it with him.  This I also consider an important lesson.

Finally, Roger gave his family and friends important daily lessons about appreciating and enjoying the natural environment.  Because of his interest in Democratic politics, he and his wife became intimate friends with many important leaders in the environmental movement in San Francisco in the Rachel Carson era, at America’s awakening that strong political action had to be taken if the destructive effects of development and industrialization on the environment were to be reversed.  Many of Roger’s close friends in the 1960s and 70s, such as Clem Miller, Peter Behr and Marty Griffin, helped create the incredible coastal preserves of Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate Recreation Area.  Roger gave what free time he had to the cause by becoming a board member of the Marin Conservation League and a supporter of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in their efforts to channel Marin’s necessary growth into areas and practices that would create the least damage.  He passed on these important environmental values to his wife and children, who are all involved in one way or another with environmental efforts small and large.  This is another thing about great men: they don’t have to do everything, but if there is something they see as wrong that they can help right, they step in.

So I will think in awe of Roger Hooper as a great man long after his death, by looking at his architecture, his family, the open space that was saved in Marin County, and that my wife is saving throughout California in her profession as an environmental lawyer. I have no such feelings of respect for most of the conventional “great men” whose autobiographies fill the best-seller lists.  Roger’s passing leaves me with immense admiration for what he accomplished in a lifetime of 93 years, and humbles me.

Plan B for Spain: How to get robbed in Barcelona

Spain's Plan E
Spain’s Plan E

My wife and I just returned from an extremely pleasant vacation to Spain, which like most of the industrialized north, is trying to cope with the economic recession by (too little, too late?) pumping money into public works.  We were really impressed to see how many freeways and bright blue highway bridges are popping up to connect underpopulated areas of Aragon, and it’s starting to look like Spain might out-TGV the rest of Europe in the near future.  The Zapatero government’s response is called Plan E (E for Estímulo, Economía, Empleo and Español–they really know how to alliterate in Madrid!).

We did our best to enjoy Spain by spending as many euro as possible in shops, hotels and restaurants, but felt that just wasn’t enough.  I worried that our stimulus money was probably being filtered through management, portions going to the IVA, banks, etc.  So I personally took the initiative while my wife was checking into our hotel in Barcelona to implement Plan B (B for Bufone in Barcelona) and let the marvelously well organized BCN underground take advantage of me and remove a few trinkets from our rental car in broad daylight at a busy street corner in the trendy Born district, which like so much of Barcelona, is a bit of upscale SOHO overlaid on a former working-class neighborhood.

For those of you visiting this wonderful city (no sarcasm intended), I wanted to provide some advice on how you can help if you want to transfer a bit of wealth directly to those who need it most, the drug addicts and petty criminals working for the Barcelona union of organized pickpockets and car thieves.  Here’s the eleven-point plan I worked with (see if you can improve on it).

11 Steps to Success

1. Ignore All Those Warnings and Bits of Advice

Of course I had been lectured many times about bag-grabbers and other nastiness in Barcelona (which is running ahead of Naples now as the prime picking for tourists; my guess is that BCN still has a way to go to catch up with, say Istanbul or São Paulo, but it’s still a world-class city for parting with belongings).  So my wife and I considered safety belts, wire-mesh-reinforced fanny packs, and other ridiculous apparati, but supposing I still had some New York smarts still with me, we never used them.

We arrived in Spain after 29 hours of flying, and picked up our pretty new diesel Renault Clio at the Pamplona airport; the plan was to visit the Basque country and then drive to Barcelona.  The first thing I noticed when getting into the car was a small notice placed on the dashboard (Europcar’s form E-20919), proclaiming in four languages:


Organised gangs who rob rental vehicle users have been reported in the area.  The most usual ways they act are:

Stealing luggage at the counter while the documents are being prepared and/or in the parking lots while loading or unloading luggage from the vehicle.  PLEASE WATCH YOUR LUGGAGE AT ALL TIMES.

Puncturing the vehicle tyre. They then tell the driver from another car.  When the driver stops, they “kindly” offer help to change the wheel and tack advantage to steal your belongings. PLEASE DO NOT ACCEPT HELP IF IT IS NOT FROM THE POLICE OR CIVIL GUARD AND DO NOT STOP UNTIL YOU REACH A PETROL STATION OR POLICE STATION.

Do not leave or hand over the keys to your vehicle at any time, as there are cases of thieves ransacking houses or apartments [you’ve got to be kidding–Ed.] and taking the keys and the vehicle and people passing themselves off as rental company employees and asking you for the vehicle keys.  Remember that you remain responsible for the car and its keys until Europcar has taken reception of these.  PLEASE KEEP THE VEHICLE KEYS WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES. KEEP THEM IN YOUR HOLDAY HOME’S SAFE WHEN YOU ARE OUT OR AT NIGHT AND DO NOT HAND THE KEYS OVER TO ANY PERONS, EVEN IF THEY CLAIM TO BE AN EMPLOYEE.  RETURN THE KEYS TO THE CAR HIRE OFFICE.

Of course I looked around and severely doubted that Pamplona airport was the spot for people to ransack me for car keys (well, maybe during the San Fermines, but not now in September).  Make sure to ignore any thing that the car company tells you.  I would wait until arriving in Barcelona to seek out those organised gangs.

2. Arrive in Barcelona by Car.  Never Take Plane, Train or Taxi

Barcelona is like every other great old city–there is no place to park. When you first arrive in a rental car, unless you’re staying at a 5-star hotel, you are basically stuck with your car on the street until you find out where to dump it.  If you come in by some other means of transportation, how are the street gangs going to be able to rob you?

3. Find A Place to Stop the Car That Is Easily Spotted by the BCN Syndicate

The theives of Barcelona are constantly cruising popular spots.  My careful observation (after I was robbed) is that there are spotters who prowl around, whistling and calling for backup on mobile phones when they think they have a good opportunity.  So you want to make sure to park your car somewhere with many sight lines, just to make it obvious that you want your stuff to be lifted.  I think the intersection I stopped at (Carrer de la Princesa and Carrer de Comerç; see map link) was pretty good in this regard.  It was pretty much a 5-way (maybe 6-way) intersection and Carrer de Comerc has got a lot of traffic.

Looking to get robbed
Looking to get robbed

4. Safety in Numbers – Not!

There are going to be at least three of them, so you don’t want to scare them off by keeping your wife, kids or other travelers with you; make sure that you are alone with the car.

5. Make Sure You Are (and Look) Dog-Tired

We came in on a Friday afternoon, after about 5 hours of driving in pouring rain through mountain passes, and then finished up in the usual Friday afternoon traffic.  This ensures that you will look and feel completely out of it–they can spot this bleary “where am I” look and it will definitely increase your chances.  Get out of the car and wander around aimlessly for a while as well to make sure you are spotted.  And any little touches that can add to your look of innocent stupdity can help thieves dial you in.  I chose to wear alpine gear (fleece vest, sweater, heavy jeans, hiking boots) and of course the weather in Barce was the usual 80 degrees F–but you have so many other choices to make you stand out in the crowds; be creative!

6. Advertise Your Presence by Turning on Emergency Lights

Just in case they can’t figure out that you’re a tourist, turn on your emergency flashers.  Of course no Spaniard would ever do this; if they want to double-park, they just leave the car there.

7. Leave the Car Windows Open and All Doors Unlocked

It helps to forget where the window controls and emergency panic button (the one that locks all doors instantly–it’s right next to the emergency flashers you just turned on).  Then open at least the driver’s side window–that’s where they will want to get your keys.

8. Showcase Your Treasure

This really helps. Now that the car is completely vulnerable, open the trunk and start moving your belongings around.  Take interesting things (iPhone accessories) and move them from one bag to another.  Lift your backpack out of the trunk, unzip it, and stuff things into it.  By now you should notice that four  young guys on the corners are starting to drool and flash hand signs back and forth.  You are almost there.  Put the backpack back in the trunk (but don’t lock the car–remember!) and then just stand around aimlessly again.

9. Action! — Handling The Approach

By now, you want to get to know the group that will be robbing you.  The tall, ugly, threatening guy is the one who will be distracting you; he’s supposed to scare you.  The normal, “Barcelona-cool” guy on the bike (with castellano features and the inevitable baseball cap) is the getaway guy.  And there’s the rest of the team: the lookout and the assistant who will be executing the hand-off of valuables to the bicyclist.  Make casual eye contact with these folks so they know you are ready for them.  When the scary guy approaches for the set up, get back in the car defensively and politely say, “No thanks, I don’t need your assistance” (following the Europcar guidelines to “not accept help”).

10. The Handover: Accomplish The Transfer With Feigned Protest

While the scary guy is pulling on your unlocked door handle, complain loudly (but still leave the car unlocked; resist the logical thing which would be to press the panic button).  Keep this up for at least 30 seconds.  This is the time required for the assitant (with the cooperation of the lookout) to open the trunk, remove your backpack, and hand it to the nonchalantly pedaling getaway guy.  Now you can start cursing at the top of your lungs (I used the “f-word” for authenticity) or honk the horn, etc., since they have gotten what they want.

11. Finale: Lock Car and “Chase” the Thief

Since by now you have an audience of amused tourists and locals (who are probably seeing this for the third or fourth time today) watching the whole thing, it looks a little more convincing if you chase after the getaway guy.  He has to blend in, so he’s wearing your backpack and just treading along on his beater bike at a few km per hour, looking like any other resident.  Walk, do not run, after him.  Sadly accept the advice of locals who know him when they warn you, “Whoa, don’t go there, man”, and then tell them what happened.  “Where did he go?”  “Right down there [Carrer dels Assaonodors].”  “What did they take?”  “My backpack.” Etc.  This kind of conversation helps make your gift look more convincing.  Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and head back to your hotel for “consolation”.

Reflections and Continuous Improvment

When you tell the bemused hotel deskperson about the incident, she will refer you to the Comisario of Police, located somewhere “underground in Plaça Catalunya”.  I did actually pass by Plaça Catalunya the next morning, and although I found the underground Metro station, parking garage, and official tourist office, there was no trace of a police desk, nor any signs of where it might be.  Needless to say, I saved my self hours of precious tourist time by not reporting the crime and having to fill out papers, bring the car down for fingerprints, get Europcar involved, etc. etc.

Luckily for my wife and me, as soon as we changed out of our mountain gear and went back on the street, there were numerous immediate opportunities to quaff cava, rueda, rioja, ribera del duero, txakoli, mojitos, and caipirinhas (more mojitos served in BCN than Habana, more caipirinhas than Rio, I’m sure), as well as the unworldly Gaudí architecture to take our minds off material things.

La Pedrera
La Pedrera

Looking back on the incident, about the only thing I didn’t do correctly (in order to accomplish maximum transfer of wealth) was to put anything of real value in the backpack.  When the theives got to the trunk, they had several choices of pickings: a monstrously heavy suitcase, several plastic bags containing ugly US running shoes, a small point-and-shoot camera case that I foolishly left obviously empty, and the backpack that they had seen me stuffing with goodies.  As it turned out, the only things that were in the backpack they stole were a terrific new novel written by a friend of mine (and not available yet in Spain–maybe that was the attraction for them), a few outdated guidebooks, a couple of pairs of socks, and the chargers for my iPhone and digital camera battery.  (By the way, I can highly recommend the excellent staff at fnac, the Spanish national department store, to help with the replacement of any kind of electronic devices you may lose while in Barcelona or Madrid.)  Sure, the items that we lost will no doubt help the needier elements of Barcelona find their way around town and learn about 19th century history, and might even fetch a few euro at a flea market; but next time I should stuff credit cards, passports and wads of 50-euro notes in there to really help out.  But all and all I consider the operation a great success.  My wife and I were able to spend the next four days in the city of Modernisme enjoying the food, shopping, and ambiance knowing that we had done our part.

It’s really every visitor’s duty to participate in whatever way he can–here’s hoping you can make Plan B a success!

La Mercé
La Mercé

Other Views and Resources

I like this justification (and the speed of transfer), from a British visitor:

“The thieves of Barcelona seem to be operating a one-city crusade to recover from English tourists all the treasure lost to the British Navy in four centuries of war (native Barcelonans blame most of the crime on Morocan immigrants, in which case much of the booty would drain out south across the Straits of Gibraltar). Eve and I went to take some pictures in the Parc Guell. Within minutes of our arrival, a pickpocket had opened her purse and taken her wallet.” [Philip Greenspun on]

Even George Orwell remarked in the efficiency of young Barcelonans to lighten the loads of foreigners during wartime:

“The younger militia boys, who seemed to regard the whole affair [the 1937 armed riots in downtown Barcelona] as a kind of picnic, were prowling round and trying to wheedle or steal rifles from anyone who had them.  It was not long before one of them got my rifle away from me by a clever dodge and immediately made himself scarce.” [George Orwell, “Homage to Calalonia”, p. 124]

Bob Arno is in the business of researching and interviewing thieves and scammers. Besides the car dodge I got going here are a dozen other ways to lose your loved things in Barcelona.  He doesn’t have much to say about the vehicle thief however:

Summer 2010 Update: “I was robbed in Spain” Facebook Page

The author of this Facebook Page asked me to post a link.  I guess he collects such tales of woe to share them with the rest of the world.  Enjoy the schadenfreude.  Also, you might want to read a Google Knol on the subject.  (Hat Tip to Andrew Korff for this one.)

Flamenco update

Rocio Molina, from
Rocio Molina, from

It’s been nearly a year since I posted about being swept away by Belen Maya in Carlos Saura’s “Flamenco”.  Maya and her young Malaguena dance partner, Rocio Molina, recently performed their latest exhibition of Flamenco energy, “Mujeres”, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass.

Due to good fortune (who says 2009 is unlucky?) the stars aligned, and my wife and I made a quick getaway/pilgrimage to the East Coast to see the show.  We and our friends were not disappointed. Experiencing in person the tremendous accomplishments of these two women is something I find akin to the feelings I sometimes get while watching this year’s Tour de France every morning: here are athletic artists at the top of their form, giving every moleculue of their body and soul to their craft.  And there is the danger that the young artist presents to her mentor, as well.

Once again, I am out of my league as someone who knows absolutely nothing about dance.  But you cannot avoid being affected by the physical and emotional confrontation of these two women, or by the music of the cantaores and guitarras who back them up.

You can’t really describe these ephemeral passages of sweat, anger, motion, and despair, with a bit of happiness.  After coming home, I got around to reading Alastair Macauley’s words from the New York Times review.  There was an extract that resonated with what I cannot put out of my memory of that June evening.  “[Rocio Molina’s] shoulders are on the high side, but there’s no undue tension in them or in the neck.  Just the side tilt of her head or the isolated roll of one shoulder can be unexpected and delectable. Her neck and shoulders can yield creamily, and her head falls back, ecstatically.”

We were seated two rows away from those amazing shoulders.  The roll of Molina’s shoulder and her twisting fall can be frightenting as well as delectable.  The photo (from a performance in Malaga) captures a little of Molina’s mood.

Fados, a film by Carlos Saura
Fados, a film by Carlos Saura

In the meantime, Saura’s latest film, “Fados”, has come and left the Bay Area too fast for me to catch it, even though the reviews for it had an eerily similar mention of the fado performers’ power and intensity, caught by Saura’s unflinching lens.  Maybe it will come back to town or to PFA.  I’m there as soon as it does.

Scott Walker: 21 Century Man

From Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
From Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

All right. I admit that I lost track of Scott Walker after “Make It Easy on Yourself” (Bachrach/David, 1965) and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (Crewe/Gaudio, 1966). I don’t think I ever picked up copies of Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 or Scott 4, and I know I didn’t follow his cult-like discovery by the punk and electronica movements in the UK during the 80s, 90s and 00s. I feel a kindredship to Scott, because I kind of dropped out of the music scene (I was a vinyl addict during the late 60s through about ’71) until my kids became channel surfers in the mid 90s. So it was one of my favorite films of the decade (Steve Zissou) that got me interested in Scott again. On that Bowie-filled beautiful soundtrack (“Queen Bitch” by Bowie and a dozen outstanding performances by Seu Jorge) is Scott Walker’s (autobiographical?) “30 Century Man”. Fantastic.

Then I’m trolling for recommendations for my Netflix queue and up pops “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” by Stephen Kijak. Made in 2006, and released for about two weeks on the big screens in the Bay Area this past winter, the film, like Scott, is an unsung gem. I don’t like current documentaries much–they either appear too slick for my tastes, or have subjects that I get more interested in through reading rather than watching.

This film gets it just right for me, though. Scott Walker as a subject is just plain fascinating: here’s a musician who’s an avant-guardian and a poet, so listening to him talk is a joy. He also seems to be an honest guy. In some of the fine archival footage from the 60s (when Scott “Walker”, real name Engel, was the bass player of the fabulous Walker Brothers), he says, “I’m not interested in making money, I just want to make good music.”

And the visual style of the film meets the seriousness of its subject.  The lighting, film and sound editing, and framing of the interviews and studio sessions is of consistently high quality and tone.  Not as stylized as Errol Morris’s “Fog of War”, not as overtly packaged as, say “The Corporation” or “An Inconvenient Truth”.  Just a pleasure to look at creative people struggling and ultimately enjoying themselves, so we do, too.  [Which reminds me, please watch “Helvetica” and “Objectified”: two nouvelle-doc films about design which are similar in subject and style to “30 Century Man”.]

The film follows Scott through commercial success and failure over the course of five decades, and discovers that even through long gaps between releasing albums, he is constantly working to refine his dense, loud, disquieting, dissonant, nearly inscrutable sound and lyrics, a sound that (I think it was) Brian Eno describes as, “the first real music for the 21st century.” Walker claims that he still is writing “songs” just as he did in LA in 1965, but as testimonials from some of his more famous and rabid (and intelligent) acolytes (Bowie, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, the guys from Radiohead, Allison Goldfrapp, Jarvis Cocker, Dot Allison, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, ) make clear, these songs are completely and utterly unique in structure and production.

One of the nicest feels in the documentary are when these photogenic UK artists are caught thinking and reacting to bits of Scott’s music played for them by the director–not many films would expose us to that wonderful feeling we get just sitting with friends listening to great music. And Walker’s “recent” music from his last three albums, “Climate of Hunter” (1984), “Tilt” (1992), “the Drift” (2006), is great even if it’s probably painful to listen to for more than the three or four minute clips in the film. You want to hear more, but you’re probably too scared to play one of these albums all the way through. Walker himself refuses to listen to his albums once they have been mastered. Plus you can really alienate your friends and neighbors if you follow Walker’s orders from the jacket of “the Drift”: “This is an analogue recording mastered at Abbey Road Studios, London and should be played at high volume.”

It’s clear even to a low-level fanboy like me that the people I consider ultra-talented in today’s studio production scene–Radiohead, Albarn, Beck–owe an awful lot to Scott. Hey, remember how we all wanted Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to get the Oscar for his unsettling score for “There Will Be Blood”? Hmm. Check out the violin section groaning to meet Walker’s demands in “30 Century Man”.  You can get a sense of where Greenwood picks up the Walker trail.

Some other delights: the film starts out with Walker supervising the construction of a 4 foot cube of plywood to be used in the studio as a sounding board by his brilliant percussionist, Alisdair Malloy, for “the Drift”. Later we see Scott and making use of the cube by hitting it with a mallet, dragging a trash can over the top of it, slapping it, etc. I’ll let you the lucky viewer guess what Walker wants to do with a beef back-rib rack brought straight from the butcher to the recording studio.

And if you want 60s vibe, the first part of the film has amazing videoscope (Jacques Brel and Tom Rush are alive and well and living in this film) and an interview with the man with the world’s biggest collection of Scott Walker memorabilia. A bomb went off in my Alzheimer-headed brain when this guy was leafing through playbills for Lulu, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Englebert Humperdinck, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Small Faces, Cat Stevens–those were my people! I lived Carnaby St. in my Exeter dorm room and at Sam Goody’s record store in New York.

The film includes insightful interviews and outtakes with Walker’s long time collaborators: the arrangers Angela Morley (recent obit from the UK Independent) from Walker’s amazing solo albums of the 60s and Brian Gascoigne, who explains how, fractal-like, Scott tries to find the line between harmony and dissonance; the producer Peter Walsh; Malloy; saxophonist Evan Walker and electric guitarist Hugh Burns. These segments are carefully cut in to always add to the interest and provide some background for the Walker-novice to begin to try and understand where the music comes from and what it might mean. And Scott, himself, is very eloquent, coming out of a legendary seclusion to bravely lay himself and his creative process bare to us.

Existential-poetic lyrics like Burroughs or Beckett (Scott claims that he was a beatnik before he became famous. I wonder when that was? When he was 12 years old and hitchhiking from Ohio to LA to make his first recordings?); percussive and orchestral arrangments like Cage and Ligeti; and a weird baritone voice somewhere between Bryan Ferry, Bob Dylan–those are some of the things you can find in this film.

Oh, and now I absolutely must rent Leos Carax’s “Pola X” after seeing the ordeal he put Walker through to make the soundtrack as a small side project that took three years to complete.

Considering I probably really wouldn’t like listening to Scott Walker (same thing is pretty much said by his record company in the film), “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” does what a documentary is supposed to do: convince you. I’m convinced. Hats off to Oscilloscope Laboratories, the production and distribution company founded last year by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, for picking up this wonderful film and getting it out on DVD. If you check out their catalog, it also includes “Wendy & Lucy”, and “The Paranoids” from first time Argentine director Gabriel Medina — two other films I highly recommend.

After you see this film, get more trivia from Kijak’s blog: Enjoy!

When you click Delete All

Because of a dire lack of nutrients, I was in the mood to remove random posts from this blog on a Friday spring fever afternoon.  Next time you try this on a WordPress blog, you might think of doing a SQL backup.  Luckily I am so word-tied that I have only posted seven articles (of dubious value) in the past three years.  These are the ones I blithely dismissed with one click of the mouse.

Google to the rescue!

Turns out that Google (and probably the Wayback Machine for that matter) is so efficient at caching the web, that I was able to retrieve all these posts, and the images and hyperlinks contained in them.  A few searches with “” and I have them downloaded to my hard disk.  So fear not, gentle reader, the posts will restored this weekend.

Total art: Saura and Storaro

Belen Maya, in Saura's Flamenco

While I generally prefer films which are messy, with loose ends and imperfections that show that the filmmaker is trying to do more than he dare, occasionally I see one whose conception from start to finish could not posssibly be improved on.

Tonight I put Carlos Saura’s Flamenco on the wide screen–I had been trying to get a copy of his film about Bunuel and Garcia Lorca, but Flamenco was the one that Netflix had in stock.  It goes without saying that the subject of flamenco culture could not fail to be fascinating if handled by someone with Saura’s compassion, but this film, gloriously lit and photographed by Vittorio Storaro in his preferred “Univision” 2:1 aspect ratio, takes a mesmerizing exploration of flamenco’s wide spectrum of styles (”palos”) and raises it to such a heightened visual experience that the audience feels it is immersed in every scene.

After 10 or 20 minutes of watching, you begin to understand that Storaro is showing us everything in his astounding palette of technical mastery:  light, shadow, motion, framing (I especially like the light-dark, ying-yang effect he pulls off when the backdrop of his 2:1 canvas is perfectly bisected into two squares of color), composition, the human face, the subtle emotional effect of carefully calibrated hues (developed by his longtime association with the lighting gel manufacturer Rosco–he and Saura often show us the lighting grids in the frame).  All through this spectacular exhibition (which takes place in an art gallery-like space), you get flashbacks from some of the most powerful images of color cinema: the effortless dolly work from Last Tango in Paris, the stunning close-up interviews in Reds, the pale blue of The Sheltering Sky, the fireworks and dark moods of Apocalypse Now, and the formal compositions of The Last Emperor.

Check out Solea (scene 12) to get the entire picture.  It begins with a static presentation–the group like caryatids in a temple of sorrow around the cantante.  The dancer (we don’t know it yet) in Mayan profile in the foreground of the group.  Then the dancer rises, the light goes to a dark grey, and you see her flesh, black hair, her striking pink and green dress, the pink shoes, the only light beaming upward from the solear (hot spot) on the floor, like footlights in the 19th century.

Or scene 15 (Tangos).  The pale blue lighting makes it feel as though this performance is happening at the end of an all-nighter with the dawn just beginning to break on the troupe.  This time, three women singers in turn are lit directly from above, heads and shoulders glowing with energy to match the intensity of their jealous pleas (”If you want to come, then come/and if not, tell me to go”).  All of a sudden, without warning, the camera is spinning full circle as if in a trance.

As a flamenco novice, I can only assume that the marvelous performances are by the finest Andalucian artists; by cutting from one side-lit close-up of pain and sorrow in a singer’s face to another, then pulling back to show us the barely-lit silhouettes of a dancer in green against the subtly tinted light panels, then revolving slowly around the ensemble, the spectator is literally lost in the moment time and time again.

I remember reading about the choices Carl Sagan had to make in compiling an audio time capsule (the “Golden Record”) that was put on the Voyager spacecraft to take a few tokens of human civilization to any beings who might find it between here and alpha Centauri.  I can only imagine that had the capsule been made 30 years later, a DVD of Saura’s Flamenco would have made his cut.

Tiriti tran tran tran…

Road movies: the Salles view

The Passenger (Antonioni)

The New York Times Magazine today published a reflection on the road movie genre by Walter Salles, who has directed three of the best. He mentions Hopper, Kiarostami, Antonioni, Wenders, Winterbottom, John Ford and others as masters who have pushed the genre to explore the movements of culture as well as characters. Now I have to find a copy of Iracema, the Amazonian road movie of the 70s he mentions as the “one of the most extraoardinary cinematic experiences” he has ever had. See a previous post on this site for my feelings about the road movie.

Maybe Jaman could put it up? They have a copy of Salles’ Terra Estrangeira available for rent or purchase–highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan of Fernanda Torres.

Reality bites

If you go to the movies today, you are usually looking to have to
endure 150 minutes of flashy, overbudget, effects-heavy gimmicks
produced by the Hollywood machine. This unpleasant experience extends
even to “groundbreaking” movies, like those made by the Mexican
new-wavers Inarritu, Cuaron and Del Toro, all vying for 2006 Oscars.
Yes, they all have interesting stories to tell, leave you with things
to think about, and moments that take your breath away, but after a
while you really start longing for the simple tale told well that
perfectly describes something about a human condition without beating
you over the head.

So it was that I was recently knocked out by two very different
fables made in 2003, one from each side of the Atlantic: Ricky Gervais’
“The Office” and David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls”. As Robert
Altman proved in his most compelling works, the effect of an ensemble
cast is so much greater than that of an individual or couple, and both
these stories (even though they are made to appeal to completely
different audiences, and use different techniques) explore what happens
when you observe the give and take of a group of strangers (in the case
of “The Office”) or long-time friends (”Real Girls”) as life goes on.
Meantime the viewer is inexorably drawn in, reflecting on one’s own

For once, listening to the “extra features” on the DVDs of these two
pieces does reveal something about why they are both so effective. They
are labors of love, not made to make box office records (surprisingly,
“The Office” did become a huge success), but because the film-makers
were smart enough to stay small.

Gervais and his co-creator Stephen Merchant (mentalist!) found a way
to channel Gervais’ obsessive need to entertain and place it within the
drab, low-cost setting of our everyday work lives. With brilliant
casting and exquisite art direction (probably the most striking aspect
of the show to me was the perfect framing of the office location
shots–made to look haphazard, there is always a dead plant in the
corner or a monkey on the coat-rack just out of focus), Gervais and
Merchant wear us down so that we must emphasize even with the boss from

Green’s ensemble is composed of film school friends from the North
Carolina School of the Arts, and as he and lead actor Paul Schneider
explain on the commentary, they approach every scene in “All the Real
Girls” with an open mind. You can believe from the gentle way that the
film unwinds that comments and ideas from the guy holding the mic boom
were accepted by the cast and director, and that just as in Gervais’
case, they were not going to settle for anything other than the best
they could do. Zooey Deschanel rises to the occasion (when she wants
to, she can give us incredibly powerful performances–see also “The Good
Girl”) and the other actors win us over.