“Arbitrage” —Power is the Best Alibi


The early scenes of Arbitrage have some of the same high-finance vertigo of Margin Call or Bonfire of the Vanities.  But here we have an overlay of another crime superimposed on financial fraud and wonder what, if any, consequences will follow.

In this implosive thriller Richard Gere plays investment mogul Robert Miller, the suave, arrogant superego, a “master of the universe” in the Gilded Age of arbitrage and hedge funds. He is the icon of the one-percent, a silver fox who charms, cheats, and gloats in his malfeasance. Until he can’t.

Wealth creates the rules and decides who gets to play the game.  And Robert Miller is at the top. Celebrating his 60th birthday with his beautiful and elegant wife (Susan Sarandon in a subtle but magnetic role), their two adult children and grandchildren, Miller has a secret life.  His wife longs for a closer relationship, not so focused on money.  In a digression from the Bernie Madoff model, it is the daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) –not the son– who is the wunderkind and heir-apparent to her father’s hedge-fund empire.  And she must struggle with her father’s legacy.

Living in a temple of luxury, the Miller family’s protective cocoon isolates them from a world outside and from each other.  Just as we’re settling in and squirming, watching the dynamic between financial pillage and spillage into family matters, the film takes another direction. Police become involved: one in particular–Michael Bryer (played impeccably by Tim Roth), an unassuming Columbo.  And the issues of race and class collide:  a trajectory moving precipitously to harm Jimmy Grant, a Harlem youth (the gifted Nate Parker) caught in a web of deceit.  We witness unrelenting evil and an underlying fear of capture, committed in the pursuit of money and glory in which no one is spared.

This is a morality tale–a tale of hell in a financial guise, well told, where morality and selfishness battle, never descending to bland and predictable.  Gere gives us a window into the soul of a man who has lost his way.  Sarandon knows the price she and her children have paid.  I am not a huge Richard Gere fan. But I have to admit that Gere is made to play this slime-ball role.  Think “Internal Affairs” or “The Hoax”.  No one can do it better…or almost no one.  His toxic appeal in “Arbitrage” is unnerving.

A directorial debut by the startlingly restrained Nicholas Jarecki (the son of two commodities traders), Jarecki captures the gleaming seduction of Wall Street.  He knows the territory.  This cinematic thriller is original and delectable to watch, for those of us who love the dark side!

Rarely Seen Contemporary Works on Paper–Art Institute of Chicago Saturday, July 28, 2012–Sunday, January 13, 2013

Devil [portion of work]
Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to enjoy the visual imagery of the special exhibit, “Rarely Seen Contemporary Works on Paper” at the Art Institute of Chicago. What a visceral thrill!  The Art Institute of Chicago is a temple of art.

"Untitled (Months)"

Works on paper are extremely light sensitive, so this exhibit, which filled four rooms of predominantly 20th century and 21st century art, is housed in dark, temperature-controlled vaults.  Some of these works are being offered for the first time. While I was there, professors were leading their classes to individual works to explain techniques that have influenced generations.  Among the most popular works are Romare Bearden’s collages, Tanguy’s masterpieces and of course, Dubuffet and Picasso.

"Garden Drawing #87"

What I found most noteworthy, however, were the relatively obscure works by even the most famous–Picasso comes to mind–partly due to the ephemeral and decomposable materials of paste, cut papers, graphite, and pastel.  A delightful work by Picasso, “Devil (1952)”, is a black inked painting on brown corrugated paper so darkened that the visitor is compelled to press his or her face to the glass to get a close-up look.  What a surprise for a Picasso–and the three-dimensional piece could be turned upside down to see almost the same figure.   Multiple works by Carroll Dunham (“Untitled (Months)”, Matta (“Untitled:  Psychological Morphology, 1939), Brice Marden (“Second Letter –Zen Spring)”, and JuliaFish (“Garden Drawing #87”) are unforgettable masterpieces.  The list goes on and on:  Ed Ruscha’s whimsical “Bugs in Foil” and Susan Hettmansperger’s pieces need to be made accessible to more art lovers–on the Internet, in books, at visiting museum exhibits.  If you are in Chicago before January 13, make sure you have a chance to see this superb panorama of works on paper–one of the very best ever!

"Second Letter (Zen Spring)"
"Untitled (Psychological Morphology)"




“Hope Springs”…Eternal: Senior Sex Anyone?

Don’t be fooled by the trailers that depict this as a rom-com.  A  poignant portrayal of two  seniors who have drifted apart, not only as empty nesters, “Hope Springs” reveals  a hollowed-out existence between an aging husband and wife.

In the opening scenes, we see Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) getting ready to go to bed…in separate rooms.  Their sex life has virtually ended.  Rapidly growing moribund, their thirty-one year-old marriage needs professional help.

Arnold, the clueless accountant who has rigid habits his wife abhors, thinks there isn’t a problem. He uses his sleep apnea and back problem as excuses for no longer having sexual lives. However, Arnold’s co-worker suggests that he wishes he had done something to save his own marriage.  Scared, Arnold succumbs to the pressure and follows Kay begrudgingly to Maine for therapy.  In spite of resistance and dread at the thought of revealing their sexual failings to a stranger, Arnold does want to save his marriage. As he starts feeling his wife’s hurt, he becomes aware of his own.  He’s damaged and scared and you believe in him.

Enter the professional help–Dr. Feld (a surprising role superbly underplayed by Steve Carell). Kay confesses to Dr. Feld in therapy, as he listens compassionately and nonjudgmentally to her restrained pleas,and begins to understand the couple’s unhealed wounds.  We watch this couple from Omaha, Nebraska attempt to rejuvenate their marriage by healing: through intimacy “exercises” suggested by Dr. Feld. 

Kay and Arnold practice touching, kissing, and acting out their sexual fantasies.  What could be hilarious as well as comic relief–the banana-eating scene, for example, –is timidly glossed over. But there are some remarkable scenes that pinch the heart. “Hope Springs” floats over the understandable awkwardness of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, especially when discussing sex, hidden desires and raw emotions.

There are laughs too. Streep’s and Jones’ wonderfully uneasy and highly fumbling “love” scenes make their discomfort absolutely charming. Senior sex is bravely filmed without slapstick (there are a few cheap gags) or demeaning vulgularity. This in itself is a pioneering cinematic maneuver in a world where any parental sex, let alone senior sex, is a horrifying “eww” factor.  Like all good comedy, this movie goes for truth more often than laughs and makes you feel the pain that sets the laugh in motion.

In the hands of less stellar actors, “Hope Springs” could have been a  major cornball of a movie, but thankfully Streep and Jones tap into  something genuine, complex, and endearing in their characters’ quirks. The filmmakers vacillate between trusting their audience with this unusual theme and playing down to them.  When they are bravely exploring the theme of mature sexual issues and aging, this movie is elevated to a substantial and worthwhile film–to defining a moment for a demographic mostly ignored by the film industry.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”–“Everyone loses the thing that made them.”

This indie film is a critics-darling (both 2012 Sundance and Cannes awards).  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has a unique perspective on the “other” America, the forgotten down-and-out who lives outside the American Dream, whose survival is so precarious that there is only magic, no dream. This is an America that few viewers know about, and a type of poverty within our borders that has seldom been depicted in cinema. The sobering combination of magic and poverty in “Beast of the Southern Wild” suggests “The Fall”(see August 16, 2011 review)  meets “A Winter’s Bone” ( see my December 2010 review at womensmemoirs.com.) Hushpuppy, a beautiful and winsome six-year-old black girl, lives with her father, Wink, in “the Bathtub,” a group of shacks along the Louisiana bayou (post-Hurricane Katrina). Hushpuppy’s mama swam away one morning, leaving father and daughter to fear the time when the little girl would have no one in the world to protect her.  “Everyone loses the thing that made them”, Hushpuppy tells her father matter-of-factly.

Magical realism interlaces with dialogue: icecaps melt; prehistoric creatures, which look like wild boars, start appearing without warning. The child’s fear is foreshadowed by both the imaginary and the real probability that grownups will leave her to fend for herself. On the brink of orphanhood, Hushpuppy faces epic catastrophe with strength and optimism, resilience and imagination.

What saves this film is the extraordinary six-year-old actress, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Quvenzhané Wallis, whose face registers emotion without dialogue.  And, for this film, that is crucial to not rejecting the film outright. I wanted to love this film, but I can only recommend it to those few who love cinema so much that they want to see the experimental and bizarre, in spite of narrative flaws and editing deficiencies.

My review may be the only “mixed”- let alone negative- one out there. The narrative is weak.  The symbolism of the magical wild boars (actually, aurochs found in cave paintings) is not rendered clearly, so that when they appear on screen, the viewer doesn’t quite know what to make of them.  Certainly a sequence of visual cues and dialog are needed to guide the audience to understand the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes: a haunting world, without easily defined boundaries between the imagined and real.

If you have the patience to see a movie that lacks deft editing and where the narrative virtually stops, but also have the curiosity to see a poverty that resembles Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer without the romanticization–a raft made of auto body parts floating towards the levee, for example, –you may want to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance alone is worth the price of a ticket.


“The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom”: A Day of Carnage

Nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award this year “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” is also a powerful narrative as vibrant as any dramatic cinema, an extraordinary, mesmerizing tribute to the resilience of human nature.  More than an epitaph of mourning and loss, this film interviews ordinary residents whose philosophical attitudes toward the day of carnage are not easily dismissed.  Their amazing faces humanize this catastrophe of nature.

The ten-minutes of home-video taken from a hill overlooking the explosive black waves surging towards the coastline of Sendai will render you speechless.  No other photography matches what you will see here! The scale and imagery are overwhelming.

An elegy to both the victims and the healing of the survivors who carry their memories, the cherry blossom, an iconic symbol of Japanese culture and philosophy, resonates with healing their wounds.  Cherry blossom season begins in early spring.  Representing rebirth and renewal, these delicate flowers stand in for the transience of beauty and the fragility of life itself. However, the cinematic sonnet to the quiet beauty and power of nature is much more subtle and refined. The cherry blossom tree is imbued with power, dignity and courage:  Shinto values of nature’s spirit.  In interviews with the filmmaker, each Japanese survivor explains how the beautiful trees, although almost drowned in salt water, inspire the Sendai residents to survive and bloom again.

One man, consumed with grief for the death of his best friend, describes the unbearable experience of watching him die, saying that items can be replaced, but life cannot. Another elderly man, a cherry orchard master whose ancestors had supervised the orchards for over 300 years, explains that a nursery of cherry trees is “like raising children.   You think about them all the time, but you have to let them do what they want. As they get older (in a few hundred years) a spirit will inhabit them and they will develop their own identity.” The background soundtrack is a muted sacramental hymn, not unlike Gregorian chant, underscoring the spiritual attitude of the cherry orchard master for his botanical children.

“Nature has a terrible destructive power.  And nature also has a creative power.  Beauty and terror always exist in nature, but we forget the terror.”   Reiterating Shinto’s belief that all living things acquire a spirit, the philosophy  fascinates.

This superb film reveals healing wounds and healing people, even in times of disaster. Look for it on HBO since it is not yet available through Netflix.

Machka–Istanbul in San Francisco

A new Mediterranean restaurant opened in San Francisco last month ( at 584 Washington St. in the Financial District) called Machka. The small 32-seat dining room features long communal tables, a few smaller tables, and lots of dark wood paneling, suggesting an old tavern with its exposed brick walls.   A beautiful flag with the Tengrian crescent symbol (used for the restaurant’s logo), representing the moon and stars, hangs outside by the front door.

Serving dishes that artfully combine Turkish cuisine with the flavors of Spain, Greece and Italy, Machka  would be the perfect place for either  lunch or late dinner in a district of San Francisco not known for many top restaurants.

Stuffed Dates

A signature appetizer of blue cheese and chorizo-stuffed dates with pastirma, or Turkish pastrami, on a small  frisée salad served with sherry wine and mustard vinaigrette was our favorite, a culinary flavor bomb!

Pistachio-crusted Goat Cheese

A close second was pistachio-crusted warm goat cheese with caramelized onions on crostini topped with golden currants and drizzled honey!

Other signature menu items include house-made falafel, grilled octopus, grilled kebabs (smoked paprika marinated beef, lamb or chicken), and flatbread wraps (durum) stuffed with vegetables, meat (lamb, chicken or beef), and tahini. The wine list has both Turkish wines as well as California ones.   We chose a white Turkish wine, Kavaklidere’s “Cankaya” which was dry, crisp and delicious.

Next time we go (and we definitely consider this a winner), I want to try the kebabs and falafel.  The durum, I thought, was not quite as good as at other places where I have eaten –a bit too dry and the lamb should have been more tender.  The flatbread was also a bit thick for my taste.  Still, the appetizers (mezes) and service were outstanding and I am still thinking of those flavor bombs!

Visit Machka at  584 Washington Street, at Montgomery Street (415-391-8228)  and let me know what you think!

“Hit and Miss”–Or, “Boys Don’t Cry” meets “Dexter”

This new mini-series created exclusively for DirecTV’s Audience Network stars Chloë Sevigny as a transgender hired assassin living in Yorkshire, England and fated to parent four children who have just lost their mother to cancer.  One of the children, Ryan, is her son whom she fathered before pursuing her journey to becoming Mia. Now she finds herself the legal guardian to  four children.  When the children she inherits begin to affect her, she is shaken by her own amorality.

In each opening scene, the camera moves over Mia’s pre-op transsexual body: nude with both breasts and a penis.  The grey drizzle of the scenery of Yorkshire emphasizes the “film noir” mood of the narrative. Sevigny, an extraordinary American actress, has mastered a Yorkshire accent in a cast of British and Irish actors.   Every episode features her gangster boss, Eddie (Peter Wright), assigning a “hit”, which Mia has to carry out, usually disguised as a young boy in a hoodie or as an alluring prostitute.

Chloë Sevigny’s first breakout role (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award) was in “Boys Don’t Cry“, as the girlfriend of a transgender youth.  It is a tribute to Sevigny that the role of Mia in “Hit and Miss”  feels remarkably natural.  The audience is forced to contemplate how gender defines our identity.  Sometimes Mia is a  deadened or robotic self, but she is awakening to the gentle self of mother, father, and lover.

Ben (Jonas Armstrong) will certainly become a heartthrob for his exceptional performance as the one so deeply in love with Mia he can accept her pre-op transgender body in graphic sexual scenes while questioning why he is so attracted to her.  Armstrong’s cool but empathetic air in understanding the problem of a relationship with a transgender partner is an incredibly moving window into the heart of gender identity.

“Hit and Miss” fits into a recurring theme in some of the most talked-about current television series:  the dark past of the anti-hero who has hidden himself or herself in order to blend into “mainstream” society.  Family complicates the secret life by forcing honesty with those the hero loves (or wants to love).  Think:  “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “Suits”, and “Damages”.  The back-story inevitably unfolds: an explanation–not quite a justification–for the main character’s moral ambiguity or sociopathology.  “Hit and Miss” clearly fits into this ferociously psychological contemporary genre, engendering a visceral response to the uncomfortable but familiar rabbit hole of human relations.


Bar Pintxo: In a pinch

Recently on a trip to LA we embarked on a culinary adventure beginning with a cooking demo by Bar Pintxo Chef David Planowski   at Surfas, a gourmet kitchen supply store in Culver City.  Recently rated as one of the top 10 bars/tapas restaurants by Los Angeles Magazine, we wanted to check it out for ourselves by sampling at the demo.  Surfas had about fifty participants with several audience volunteers helping Chef David with an unforgettable gazpacho, including his secrets: squeezing the tomatoes and cucumbers to get maximum juice and the variability of  his standard vinaigrette (has to do with the mustard options).

  At Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica we tried a delectable array of small plates and had a chance to talk with Chef David about some of his dishes.  “Pintxo” in Basque (pronounced “pinch-o”) refers to small plates that are speared with a toothpick or skewer and usually a bit smaller than tapas. Although we are tapas addicts, I can’t say that most of the pintxos were smaller than the tapas plates we sample in San Francisco and New York.  We thought the restaurant was generous with proportions.  Some of the menu items we had not seen at other establishments before: dates with smoked bacon and valdeon cheese,  crab with citrus essence and avocado cream, seared calamari salad with pickled radishes, albondigas (lamb meatballs) filled with pickled grapes, on a bed of spinach with pumpkin seeds. and snap peas with fresh mint. We did have some dishes we have tried elsewhere as well:  grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and infused olive oil (a little stingy with the octopus, I thought), chorizo with tomatoes, white asparagus with romesco sauce , and jamon serrano and jamon iberico We finished off with a strawberry ginger flan that was an original interpretation of the classic dessert with just the right combination of fruity sourness and gingery tang.


Chef David explained to us that he loved experimenting and changed the menu often.  So, Bar Pintxo is a keeper if you find yourselves walking along the beautiful Santa Monica beach and want to have a delightful and unpretentious meal of  Spanish small plates this side of Madrid and San Sebastian!  Bar Pintxo’s also has an unbelievable wine list , including some difficult-to-find Penedes cava.  Try Bar Pintxo’s –you’ll love it!



“Between the Folds”–Origami as Scientific Art

Vanessa Gold, producer of the film, “Between the Folds”  (winner of the 2010 Peabody award), chronicles origami, literally, “folding paper”.  Many American children have attempted this Japanese craft in elementary school, making an origami crane or simple fish.  However, origami is much, much more and has become something of a manic hobby among a number of Silicon Valley engineers.  And, this film explains why–through filming the stories of ten origami artists/scientists, who have developed origami “technology”, in engineering, industrial design, and the biological sciences. All are unconventional and provocative thinkers. As they converge on the art of origami, these artists and scientists reinterpret the world in paper. What unfolds is much more than creating a three-dimensional form from a two-dimensional sheet of paper without scissors, tape or glue.

With each artist’s unalloyed zest and devotion to his or her craft, the heroism of the art reveals itself. At first, this viewer was awestruck by the examples of modern origami–sculptural art which, in some cases, has been lacquered or bronzed: dazzling versions of birds, dragons, and almost porcelain, Hummel-like figures of musicians and court nobles. Each unique design must be individually folded: there is no mass-production process.  The  intricacy of the diagrams–templates for the folding– is an Escher-like pattern of tessellations.  Yet each artist (or should I say, performer?) expresses himself or herself through sometimes spontaneous interpretation and variation of folds.

The intersections between origami, mathematics, and science are manifested as the paper transforms into something else.  Visually, in a magical sleight-of-hand, we see how mathematics illustrates the underlying geometry of origami and conversely, as one elementary school teacher brilliantly explains, how origami illustrates mathematics.  At the highest level of mathematical abstraction, computational origami harnesses algorithms and theory to solving origami “problems”.  Mathematics in the form of paper poetry is the end result.

As if this were not mind-blowing enough,  “Between the Folds” then sketches the application of origami to medical and pharmaceutical science.  Erik Demaine, ( http://erikdemaine.org/) a MacArthur “Genius” at MIT,  and his father have pioneered computational origami  models for  the way materials can be folded. Erich has developed principles used to design car airbags and DNA protein folding.  Who would have guessed airbags and DNA  were in any way related to origami?!

I promise you–if you see “Between the Folds”, you will never look at a piece of paper, especially origami, the same way ever again!


“The Newsroom”–A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Cable TV News

In the opening episode, veteran news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is asked by a fresh-faced journalism student what makes America the greatest country on earth.  Cajoled into giving a substantive response by the moderator, Will McAvoy throws caution aside and proceeds in a blistering monologue filled with statistics to explain why America isn’t.  The collateral damage becomes significant. His boss (Sam Waterston) considers the episode a meltdown.

The meltdown forces him to reassess his former self–a time when news reporting was about defending the ideals of a culture and truth telling. Then Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), a heroic war correspondent and McAvoy’s former lover, becomes the executive producer to monitor his erratic behavior. For Will this is a nightmare, since their romantic relationship ended in heartbreak. Nonetheless, Mackenzie is the one person who can jolt him out of his apathy.

Aaron Sorkin (the writer of “A Few Good Men”, “American President”, “West Wing” and “Social Network”) commands the viewer’s attention with biting dialogue, a gifted cast, and a flinch-inducing, provocative exploration of American politics. This is not to say that the piercing, no-holds-barred monologues will unite audiences of all political persuasions. If you share Sorkin’s politics, you will watch “The Newsroom” every week in amazement at the tenacity of the script.

Incredibly high stakes are involved:  Who tells us what the truth is?  Who sloppily forgets to get a second verification of facts?  What exactly is involved in news reporting with integrity– under tight deadlines?

The portrayal of personal relationships, however, is a disappointment. Will and MacKenzie as squabbling former lovers are dreary and cringe producing, diminishing their intelligence and professionalism.  The young intern Maggie (Alison Pill) is the love interest for two jealous staff reporters (Thomas Sadoski and John Gallagher Jr.) who should just move on and forget about her. However, Jane Fonda, as the female Ted Turner who owns the network, could prove a wonderfully ruthless foil to electrify the business side of competitive broadcasting in a declining market.  However, Sorkin has yet to exploit Fonda’s potential in this role.

I only hope Aaron Sorkin can keep the monologues at such an intellectually vibrant level, setting the bar so high.  I’d rather watch an edgy show that aims high and sometimes falls short, than one that doesn’t. And I’d rather watch a great screenwriter in action than a run-of-the-mill one.

“The Stoning of Soraya M”–Let He Who Is Without Sin….

“The Stoning of Soraya M. (2009) cuts into the soul with its fierce, unflinching narrative of Soraya Manutchehri, a 35-year-old woman stoned to death in a small Iranian village in 1986 after being convicted of adultery. Her death was the subject of Freidoune Sahebjam’s 2009 novel, La Femme Lapidée, a book banned in Iran.

This award-winning indie film lovingly caresses the beautiful, wounded face of Aunt Zahra (breathtakingly played by the luminous Shohreh Aghdashloo) who is devastated by the stoning of her niece Soraya (perfectly portrayed by Mozhan Marno).  Zahra pleads with a journalist (James Caviezel as Sahebjam)) to tell the world about the outrage which had just taken place the day before. Sahebjam, stranded in the tiny Iranian village where his car is being repaired, does not know what to expect.

Still raw from Soraya’s ignominious end, Zahra unravels the tragedy. Ali, Soraya’s abusive husband, was eager to get rid of his wife so he could marry a fourteen-year old girl.  Wishing to avoid child support for their two young daughters while taking the two young sons with him, Ali concocts a plot to charge Soraya with adultery, punishable by death by stoning.  Blackmailing village leaders to spread false rumors, Ali threatens “witnesses” to testify against her.

Stoning is execution by torture. At various periods throughout history ancient Greeks, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Japanese (among others) practiced stoning. But some of the most disturbing moral issues in “The Stoning of Soraya M” raise fundamental questions of courage in the face of family sacrifice:  how willing are we to come forth and be the bearers of truth in the face of threats to our own loved ones, even when the victim of lies is a close friend? And what happens to the larger community who witnesses and tolerates violence?  Or, to the children who will model  their parents’ behavior and that of other adults in the community?

Soraya M’s situation places the viewer on the receiving end –of a visceral, unnerving experience of stoning, — rather than in a more passive, analytical, removed position.  The astonishing, grisly climax doomed the film’s chances for traditional distribution in the U.S., but the filmmakers insisted realism was essential to call attention to the horror of stoning. I don’t think everyone could watch the camera lingering on the bloody sequence in slow motion. I have never seen such realistic cinematography of an execution, and still can’t figure out how that sequence was filmed. The anger, rage, and frustration at such injustice are a silent scream, palpable in the filmmakers’ voice. If you are not faint of heart, “The Stoning of Soraya M” will remain an unforgettable film that raises uncomfortable, but necessary ethical questions.


Community Colleges– A Change Is On the Way?

California community colleges have some of the lowest tuition fees in the country. And for decades, the community college system has taken great pride in being a “social equalizer”:  operating under several mandates, one of which is to provide inexpensive postsecondary education. But budget cuts have forced campuses to dramatically scale back what they offer. The paradigm has begun to shift. Is it possible our tuition is too low?  How should the community college system follow its other mandate: to prepare students for a career path?  And what about “non-traditional” students interested in “personal development”?

Proposals for two-tiered pricing have just begun…again.  Almost 30 years ago when the state of California’s budget was in budget crisis-mode after the passage of Proposition 13, the state’s community college system experimented with a two-tiered fee schedule:  one for students enrolled for an AA degree and the other for “non-traditional” students.

California’s 112 community colleges have been eviscerated by deep budget cuts, forcing many to turn away an estimated 200,000 this year alone. Tuition levels at the colleges, which serve 2.6 million students, will rise to $46 from $36 this summer. But even after the increase, California’s community colleges will charge less than half the national average in tuition and fees.

That could change if California State Senator Roderick D. Wright gets his way. His proposed Senate Bill 1550 would mandate that all community colleges offer” self-supporting” extension programs focused on technical education or work-force development, a narrower band than the high-demand English and math courses. Senate Bill 1550 would allow community college districts to charge students for the actual costs of the courses, including the cost of instruction, equipment and supplies, student services, instructional support, and administrative overhead (which is considerable). The debate over the legislation is also more complex. One intended objective is to create more seats at community colleges, so students won’t be lured into expensive for-profit degree programs of questionable value.

In our own backyard in Monterey County, the Board of Governors recently voted to approve a new set of rules that prevents students from repeating “activity” courses, such as dance, art, music, and physical education. The rule will begin in August. (See  July 11 Monterey Herald article, “For some community college classes, you get only one shot”)

The curriculum would provide for different levels of achievement in activity classes. In enrolling at beginning, intermediate, and advanced proficiency categories presumably the registration would not be considered a “repeat” of a course and the fee schedule would remain the same for all levels.

But the “different levels of expertise” does not resolve the budget crunch. A two-tiered tuition structure, which does address revenue shortfall, raises fundamental questions about the role and obligations of community colleges. Will the policy essentially block some of the people it is designed to benefit? How are limited taxpayers’ revenues to be allocated for students in degree-granting programs first and for “non-traditional” students second? Since 2008 California’s community college system has lost $809 million in state aid, including $564 million in the most recent budget, even as more students than ever before try to enroll. Many community colleges have reduced class offerings. Santa Monica College has cut more than 1,100 classes from its fall term. Colleges have just maxed out in terms of how many students (both traditional and leisure) they can educate and serve.

I believe we need to consider higher, more realistic and market-driven continuing education fees for those of us who are taking classes for the sheer pleasure of doing so. We should take a more expensive seat in the back of the class and let degree students sit in the front.  Without some kind of fee compromise, the portal to opportunity will not be there for future generations.