Monday, December 15, 2008

Got Milk of Human Kindness?

There were a lot of emotions that swept over me watching Sean Penn's latest performance as San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk. First off, it's a dazzling performance, with a gentle physical take on Harvey Milk. Penn found a sweetness and a believability in the character that was something of a revelation. Of course, we didn't expect a flouncing, prissy Harvey Milk - he was neither of those things. But Penn has shown himself again and again that often being among those called "the best of their generation" means turning down the fireworks to find some inner truth. Ditto James Franco as Milk's handsome boyfriend Scott. By comparison to Franco's performance in last summer's Spider Man, this is one of the most under-played and restrained performances of Franco's career, and he shimmers in the role. Even Emile Hirsch, who made friends with Penn last summer in "Into the Wild", and whom never seemed even vaguely "twinky", comes off as a sweet, genial Cleve Jones, equal parts youthful impetuousness and fiery activist. Ironically, the argument could be made that it was ultimately Jones who had a greater, more lasting effect on society even than Harvey Milk, a decade after the Milk episodes, as an AIDS activist, and a founder of The Quilt Project.

The heady years of the late seventies rush back to many of us, especially those with ties to San Francisco - remembering those rallies, marches and vigils in the Castro, and electrifying reality of gay pride, and the sense that the world really could be changed with just a few dedicated people standing up for what is right.

But Penn is also embroiled in a controversy for his support of dictators like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba. As outlined by Patrick Goldstein in a recent edition of the LA Times, Penn comes off somewhat hypocritical in his support for a number of regimes which have never treated LGBT people very fairly. This has to pose something of a conflict for the politically savvy Penn, who has never made his liberal, anti-Bush policies a secret. One wonders how he will resolve, either publicly or privately, the apparent contradiction of his loving, even reverent portrayal of one of Gay America's icons, and his support for those dictators.

Nonetheless, Gus Van Sant's treatment of the material was moving, even if the device of having Milk dictate his tale into a tape recorder, ostensibly prior to being assassinated, seemed strained, and some of the TV footage had the ring of "see, this really did happen, here it is on TV" - even if the actual news footage was produced just for this film. You have to assume there is supposed to be a sense that this was the way it was if we show it as a TV sequence. These quibbles detract nothing from the solid performances and the utterly affecting material.

Van Sant dips his Penn in Milk writes in magic ink.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

His Name Shall Be Called Wonderful

They’re not exactly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or the Cathedral Choir of St. John the Divine in New York or Saint Sulpice in Paris. They’re a Pretty Darned Good civic choir in Pasadena, and as a PDG choir, they are one of hundreds around the country, made up of executives, teachers, house wives and musicians looking for meaningful expression in their lives.

I’m not denigrating the PDG Pasadena Master Chorale, it’s just that there are a lot of really wonderful choirs to be found, so in addition to their sweet tone, and their challenging selection of numbers, there had to be something else about tonight’s concert that touched me so much.

Yes, you’ve probably heard of Benjamin Brittten and even the renaissance writer Michael Praetorious, but have you ever heard of Morten Lauridsen or Henryk Gorecki? I hadn't either, so, no, it had to be something else.

As I sat there in the nave of the First Congregational Church, listening to the second part of the concert – selections from Handel’s Messiah – the warmth of the music washed over me and sent me deep into thoughtful revery.

So first off, it has to be that Mr. Handel hit me somewhere meaningful. At a time when central European powers, the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, and the Maria Thereses are setting the tone of the late renaissance, a Brit stands out for having composed one of the great pieces of music in the western canon (well, one Brit who was a transplanted German). While his “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and “Water Music” are dazzling in their own right, it is squarely on the history and reputation of his great masterwork “Messiah” (not THE Messiah!) that he has inspired and moved people, educated or not, since that day in 1742 when it debuted in a small concert hall in Dublin.

The quartet which led off this portion of the show here in Pasadena was sweet, and charming in its way. We could see that this would be a serious, if truncated version of the great oratorio, featuring just some highlights of the twenty-plus song cycle, sort of the ‘greatest-hits’ selections.

The early pieces “And the Glory of the Lord” and “Surely He Hath Born Our Griefs” were solid, competent and moving. And who can argue with the bombast and hummability of the Halleluja chorus.

But strangely for me, it was the ecstatic and lyrical “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” that raised a lump in my throat.

I don’t think it was because of the religious sentiment – I’m far too cynical to succumb to that sort of thing.

Rather, I think it is that in this beautiful, joyful refrain, this most British of compositions (composed by a German nonetheless) captures the sense of western civilization as it is declaring itself the most important power on the planet. And when I say power, I don’t mean mere military might or commercial domination. Rather, I mean these tones, voices and instruments have been organized in a way that celebrates western civilization, that joyfully proclaim to the rest of the planet that our music – and by extension, our art, our architecture, our commerce, our literature – has triumphed over the lumpen anguish of the dark ages.

The beautiful passages taken from Isiah say that this is more than simple engineering, this is art, this is man’s highest aspiration, this is western civilization, with God on its side, triumphantly saying to the world:

“…the government shall be upon His shoulder;
and his name shall be called Wonderful,
the Mighty God,
the Everlasting Father,
the Prince of Peace.

We may have equaled those refrains since 1742 in great works by Beethoven, Haydn, and modern masters – Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Faulkner – but we have never exceeded them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prop 8 Backlash

Of all the amazing “firsts” to come out of the 2008 election, it is the just-developing rift between some African American LGBT figures and the rest of the “No on 8” crowd.

“8”, of course, referring to Proposition 8, which halted California’s short-lived Gay Marriage experiment.

Pollsters have noted that the same black voters who so enthusiastically supported the candidacy of Barack Obama, in large numbers supported Prop. 8, and essentially bought into the argument that our children would be ‘taught gay marriage’ in schools, and that would be a bad thing…

Of course, there are numerous black leaders who voted against the measure, not the least of whom is my friend and colleague Prof. Ron Buckmire, with whom I serve on the board of an LGBT broadcasting group. Prof. Buckmire was quoted in the Nov. 8 LA Times as saying “There is a lot of work to be done in the black community.”

But an astonishing number of black voters either felt there were not enough rights to go around for everyone, and blacks should get them first, or there are secretly deep currents of homo-gender-phobias we haven’t noticed before.

Latest to pile into the debate is LA blogger Jasmyne Cannick, who wrote in that same edition of the LA Times charging Gay leaders with essentially ignoring the plight of people of color, and only calling on them when they needed support. In short, Gay America, says Ms. Cannick, is every bit as racist and prejudiced as main-stream America, and they shouldn’t be surprised that Blacks voted two to one for the measure.

Ms. Cannick was briefly also involved in the broadcast venture for with Prof. Buckmire and I work.

I think for many of us who marched with our Black brothers and sisters, who signed petitions, who worked the tables at the street fairs and parades, who participated in boycotts, who insisted on inclusion in our faculties, boards, and governance and who have genuinely tried to right the wrongs of other generations and other times, those charges sting.

But I think it is also counter-productive to make claims that “white people think this way” or “black people think this way”… That’s too easy an explanation for something that is much more complicated.

I remain committed to the causes of equality, at every level, within any group. If our Black leaders feel that not enough has been done, I hope they will step into the positions of leadership and inspire by their deeds, not condemn by their bitterness.

LA Times Story “Why gays, blacks are divided on Prop. 8,0,2231845.story

LA Times Commentary by Jasmyne Cannick(I can't get these links to work, so you'll have to copy and paste till I get them fixed...sorry...),0,3669070.story

NPR segment featuring Jasmyne Cannick

NPR blog mentioning Jasmyne Cannick’s comments - commentBlock

Saturday, November 01, 2008

TJ's Ugly Secret

It is no secret that life is tough in San Diego's Mexican twin, Tijuana. As a continental center of the drug trade, it's become used to horrifying levels of violence.

Less seen and less discussed, however, are the dark and grim worlds of drug users, many deported from the US. They congregate on poor streets, to better watch out for each other and to help each other inject heroin and other drugs.

My former student Luis Treto left CSULA in 2006 to become an extremely accomplished reporter for the Mexican TV network TV Azteca, first for their LA affiliate, and then after a couple of reorganizations in 2008, as a network reporter based in Los Angeles.

This is one of his recent stories on this topic. Warning: it's pretty grim, so discretion is advised.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Here's a video essay I did on a subject near and dear to my heart: technology and it's life-cycle.

Failed Technology

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Very clever move...

As the presidential campaign comes down to the final lap, it's been interesting to watch the strategies of both sides, none more clever and brilliant than Sen. McCain's announcement last week that he had to suspend his campaign to rush back to Washington to work on the massive financial bailout plan working its way through congress.

First, since he is not receiving donations from private citizens, he has no incentive to be on the trail fundraising. He's received about $84 million of taxpayers money so far, so he doesn't have to manage a big fund-raising machine.

But second, there is no suitable response from Sen. Obama to the McCain announcement. If Obama challenged McCain by saying that he disagreed with him on the subject of suspending the campaign, he looks insensitive to the plight of millions of people whose lives and livelihood are at risk. He can't say McCain is 'over-reacting', when it is clear that the risks to the American economy are indeed dramatic.

If he announces agreement with Sen. McCain, he looks like he is playing 'catch-up', since McCain had the idea first, and he - Obama - would be faced with the prospect of doing the same: suspending his campaign, and stopping the juggernaut of a fundraising machine he has put into motion (Obama has declined public financing of his campaign, so he has to raise his own money).

Either way, he is thrown into the defensive position, something he is not accustomed to.

Never mind that many congressional leaders privately mocked McCain's move - Barney Frank, for example, claiming that McCain was coming to solve a non-existant deadlock in the negotiations.

Never mind that one leader, even of the stature of McCain, Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Paulson, Bernanke or other economic heavy-hitters, do not individually have the ability to save the country from this mess.

McCain was determined to ride into Washington on his white horse to save the day, even at the personal sacrifice of suspending his presidential campaign. It was a big, bombastic move, but one practically impervious to criticism.

If I was working as a spokesperson for Sen. Obama, I would have cringed at the prospect of having to craft a response to the McCain announcement. This is about the best I could do: I'd have Sen. Obama announce:

"...this is not the heroic John McCain, who survived Viet Namese prisons. This is a grand-standing Senator, in the twilight of his career, rushing back to save the nation from the mess, for which he is at least partially responsible."

With this message, Obama would acknowledge the patriotism of his military service, but still hold his feet to the fire of 'Rome burning."

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Crazy, Wonderful Spring...I'm Sorry About That!

First off, please accept my deep, humiliated apology for sending out this mass mailing. I've run out of time, and it's the only way I can be sure of getting this info to folks for whom (I hope!) it should be important.

Second, this is not intended as a substitute for a personal note, but rather in addition to that. However, as I work down my list of individual notes to get out, I've realized that I'm probably not going to get to all of them - so please accept this with my humble apologies for its impersonality. I promise I will make it up to you with a fabulous meal, a good joke, or something of value.

I just wanted to get word out to you that I am taking off for a month of journalistic adventure in Asia, courtesy of the East West Center in Honolulu. I'll be out of the country from June 8 through July 9, covering close to 40,000 miles in the process. More of this later; it’s just a ‘heads-up’ that I am using this technology to get the basic word out about my apparent absence over the past several months...

It's really been an amazing spring, actually.

Briefly, shortly after returning from NY in March, a bunch of things came together very quickly.

First, I receive word that I had been accepted to participate in this wonderful international Journalism fellowship sponsored by the East West Center in Honolulu. You can read more about the Sr. Journalism Fellowship here:

East West Center Senior Journalist Fellowship/

If you have any interest in what I am doing on this fellowship, go to my website, and click on either the Itinerary or EWC Program button at the top of the page.

Next, we got word that our new news-convergence venture UniversityTimes/CoolState was named a recipient of a "New Voices" J-Lab Institute for Interactive Journalism grant to grow our operations into three 'micro-bureaus' in parts of East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley where we are located. This will expand our efforts to make converged journalism a truly community based effort, to get local communities involved in the process of getting heard and getting their news out to the world at large. We are so thrilled and proud to be part of this project. More on New Voices at:
J-Lab "New Voices" Project

Finally, as if that wasn’t enough, I’ve receive tenure and promotion to Associate Professor – an accomplishment that makes me proud first as an achievement on its own, and second, as part of a really wonderful university and educational lab where I work. It’s been a long, tedious road, but now with this security, who knows what we can do next?

This message, then, is partly a way to explain why I’ve been such a bad friend over the course of the past year or two: I’ve basically had my head down, working ungodly hours to make sure I got tenure, to build our University Times/Cool State converged newsroom, and to simply survive and get enough sleep.

It is my hope and plan that from this point on, I’ll be concentrating more on visiting, cooking, seeing more of you, writing some original stuff, and living out the fulfilling and rich life I’ve built here. I will also try to reach each of you individually over the course of the next few days. Some of you I’ve promised information, some I need to get information to – any help you can provide, I’d be so grateful.

Finally, I’m going to try my damndest to report while I’m on the road in Asia and Australia. If you have any interest in following my progress, check into my site and/or on my blog here at

Thanks for reading this far! Let me know that you got this message. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for understanding what a whirlwind year this has been, and I hope to raise a glass with you very soon...

Con mucho carino; avec beaucoup de douceur, with much admiration and affection

June 5, 2008

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


We are at an interesting point in our CoolState convergence project.

Our grad students are getting bogged down with not only the technical challenges of the project, but also with competing visions of how the system should work. We started out working on a sort of central structure based on a Fedora database, and the students have been trying to find ways to use the Fedora database to serve all the various needs of the venture.

There are problems, however.

First, not long after beginning the project Fedora produced a later release of the software - V. 2.0 is now replaced by V. 3.0. In general, we always want the latest release of software, but in this case, getting knowledge, familiarity and operability under our belts for the newer version would have slowed us down considerably.

Second, Sepideh, who has been working on what has essentially been considered a 'front-end' to this system became a bit frustrated when the other parts of the system didn't seem to be falling into place (I hope I'm getting my observations correct here).

Third, and probably the most thorny issue here, was how we should use Fedora (if at all) - and a couple of competing visions of what we should do. Ren seemed unsure how Sepideh's CMS fit in with the rest of the structure, Farrukh was unsure as to whether we wanted to use some of the built in features of Fedora to build our system or to customize our user interface from scratch - all against the background of a software package (Fedora) that seemed to be morphing before our eyes.

It seemed to me that since this is an educational process, and that all the work these students are doing will be of benefit not only to our news paper, website, and converged news room, but also to the university at large, and especially for the students who would be learning how to institute such a system in something resembling real world conditions.

With that in mind, we decided that it made a certain amount of sense to have Sepideh develop a Fedora front end that in the terms of NASA would be described as "Fast and Cheap" - essentially, a stripped down version of what we want.

The rest of the team would work to develop a more sophisticated version of the interface, more feature-rich, more variables and preferences.

We set an interim deadline of Feb. 9 to see what each team comes up with as a prototype.

The dynamics are somewhat complicated: Sepideh has approached the project with considerable independence, and for most of the past several months, has largely been working on the project as an outsider. Ren and Farrukh, on the other hand, have been struggling with Fedora usability issues, and trying to define a unified vision of what the project should be.

This two track approach should yield interesting results no matter what; we'd like the extra features, but perhaps getting the prototype operating in a simplified manner could yield some faster results out of the gate.

Also, it is conceivable that both 'products' could be usable in the market place: it is possible that the simpler model being developed by Sepideh would be more appropriate for community groups, senior centers, and libraries to feed into a regional news operation, and the bigger, more complex system would be used by, well, bigger, more complex news operations.

We'll have some learning in a few weeks...

Projekt GB - Projekt1

"The Projekt" Observation

Interesting Observations
What has been cool about this process so far has been the absolute riches of ideas that we have had to play with. In a strange way, I think that was one of the problems we began to face on 1/28. With so many video choices so easily available, there is a tendency to want to work through each of those effects, when what we really need to do is to stay with one video effect, for example, and really work through its possibilities.

With that understood, putting audio with our project was a lot of fun, though I think we've barely begun to scratch the surface of that medium.

Mostly, there were the absolutely eye popping, hypnotic and provocative images of the 'Hand Ballet', the cell phone video being captured by the camera, and the wonderful tango/romance performances. There was a piece of music that Sara brought that sounded like a swarm of insects and then veered off into all these interesting progressions and developments - it was my favorite piece of the session, although the tang was a close second.

We were using the Tango, of course, in a very playful manner, but in the context of telecommunication, alienation, humor, and trying to connect with people, it takes on a darker, maybe even sadder meaning.

I also love the sort of whip-sawing from one musical style to another.

Can't wait to see photos!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Thursday's Exercise

I'm really self-centered and narcissistic. When I stole away Jonathan, Alyson and Paul to play with some video for our piece, we left most of the class downstairs in MUS115 working on drumming, under Sara's guidance - working with a percussion teacher from the Music Department (Sara, could you please enter his name here!).

The idea was supposed to be that after Jonathan, Alyson, and Paul got the hang of working with the video, we would go down and recruit the rest of the students to come up and play with the technology. It hadn't even occurred to me that I could be interrupting Sara's work with the rest of the students. So when I got to MUS115 and signaled that we were ready for most of the class to come up to MUS 219 to play with the technology, Sara, almost timidly, asked if we should bring up the percussion instruments and put the music together with the technology.

I said to myself "Oops. I've been pretty presumptuous here." Of course, yes, absolutely, we HAVE to have the percussion there.

Wow. That was a good lesson, because bringing the percussion work Sara was doing to the video work Jonathan, Alyson, and Paul were doing was spectacular. It seemed to me that this session was a great example of what we are looking to investigate. The mixture of the percussion and it's driving, reassuring structure made the movement really natural. Then on top of that, the video images we produced were eye-popping. This was really cool.

Movement and Meaning

As I observe our performers moving through their exercises, I am struck by the profound relationship between movement and meaning.

In older, more traditional forms, the meaning behind the movement is probably more specifically and formally defined - gestures for sadness, elation, love, inspiration, etc. As movement and dance have become more 'modernized' and 'post-modernized' the relationship between specific meanings of movement has become more sophisticated and complex.

I think particularly of the work of the German choreographer Pina Bausch and New York based Trisha Brown, both of whom have at various times been described as 'post-modernist' choreographers. They are, of course, not the only pioneers in this direction, but perhaps the best known on the world scene. Like non-narrative musical composition and other abstract forms, these choreographers often construct compositions based purely on their aesthetic sensibility, with no specific meaning behind them. With both Bausch and Brown, the results are often tantalizing, teasing, and strangely moving. But if there is a meaning drawn from their works, it is not necessarily a meaning specifically intended by the choreographer, but rather a meaning supplied by the viewer.

This is not to say that there isn't some over-arching idea or meaning, but rather an approach to that meaning that is considerably more sophisticated and subtle than simply proposing that 'a' signifies 'b'. Instead, the relationship between movement and meaning can bypass the 'either/or' bifurcation, and can instead be 'either/and' or 'neither'. But because we are 'playing' in a certain intellectual territory, there IS indeed some meaning we should consider.

As I watch Tanya work with our performers, I love the way she sort of brushes aside any specific meaning or message as she plays. The movement of bodies through space is in itself a lovely, engaging process. I don't suppose she has any specific philosophy behind her technique (or maybe she does), but rather just sets out on playing with her performers and seeing where it goes.

There is an interesting side note here too: this free-form method of play never seems to dissolve into anarchy; there always seems to be an evolving structure. Also - just an observation - the wide range of movements and physical gestures suddenly morph into a formal structure the moment the gesture is repeated, especially once they achieve a second repetition of an original movement. In other words, the first time a gesture or movement is performed, it has to succeed or fail on its own. Then when that gesture or movement is repeated, once, then twice, it becomes a part of the physical 'vocabulary' of the exercise.

No Boundaries

One of the things I find most inspiring about the way Tanya works is that she doesn't recognize any boundary between what has traditionally been considered "acting" and "dancing". There are long traditions that encourage expertise and vocabulary in each of these traditions - theatre has its long history of character development, connection between character and text, the actor's creation of a "reality" and so forth. And dancers have traditionally dealt with a tradition of virtuosity - meaning that what we would normally consider "dance" had something of an expertise about it, not to be 'indulged' by amateurs. This history of related but separate growth has given us a remarkable and rich literature in both disciplines, but it has also limited their visions.

At its fundamental roots, both dance, and what we consider acting come from the same atavistic tradition: the expression of ideas bigger than daily commerce. And while Tanya does not hit our student/performers with this overly-intellectualized idea, it's really brilliant to see her approach this way. Because she refuses to recognized the boundaries between acting and dance, her communication of this idea to her performers acts to liberate them. Whereas a young performer might feel intimidated to take on a dance project - if they have no dance background - Tanya's simple, almost child-like approach to play finds these performers throwing themselves into their work like they had years of training.

I think it is largely because of the de-emphasis of virtuosity - that is, how 'talented' a dancer they are - makes the play area an open, inviting space.

No Boundaries

One of the things I find exilirating ab

Creating Content

We don't usually think of performance workshops as 'creating content', in the way we 'create content' for a web site or online service, but the process is very much alike. One of the things that has been most fun about our Projekt process has been building content without any particular goal or agenda. Rather, we just play and see where things go.

It's very, very cool to see that so much of what we create seems to be good content. My fear is that we are just deluding ourselves and flailing about on stage, but my instinct, after many, many years doing this kind of work, is that this is the real deal. The chemistry of not only the three instructors but especially of the student performers makes this particularly fun.

Students with a background in performance tend to 'jump off the cliff' very easily, whether they know what they are doing or not. Tech heads, like our TVF students, want to have the system well understood before they move much, and they chose to be behind the camera because that felt more comfortable to them.

The atmosphere we are developing makes it impossible for the timid to hide in their shell, and for the adventurous to call upon their mates to get out and get on stage with them.

The result is almost an embarrassment of riches: just about every exercise we have done seems to provide interesting, even provocative material. It seems like there is almost nothing that is NOT usable, which is deliriously lovely and a little terrifying: how do we track and capture all the stuff coming our way, and how will we paw through it to decide what to keep and what to discard? It's a little daunting, but what a fabulous position to be in: what from all the rich, cool stuff we've created do we want to keep? How often do you get a choice like that?