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Darius Clark Monroe’s Personal Crime Doc The Evolution of a Criminal Is a Marvel of Feeling

Vital, thoughtful, and deeply personal, first-timer Darius Clark Monroe’s autobiographical doc stands as a testament to the power of movies to stir empathy. At age 16, honor-student Monroe had grown sick of seeing his hardworking family struggle to keep up with its bills. He had dabbled in employee-theft at the Venture store where he worked after school. Next, restless and foolhardy, he set his criminal sights higher, corralling a couple of friends and busting into a Stafford, Texas, Bank of America. Monroe wore a skeleton mask, one accomplice wielded a sawed-off shotgun, and a couple hours later Monroe’s mother found a shoebox on her bed filled with thirty grand.

Monroe’s film is an inquiry into who he was becoming — and who he became during a five-year prison sentence. He stages crisp reenactments of the crime, well shot by rookie director of photography Daniel Patterson, but what’s most arresting here are his interviews with family members and his two accomplices. They speak into the camera, but they’re all talking to Monroe, addressing him as “you,” an unusual intimacy for a documentary: The effect is part home movie, part family therapy, and part painful inquiry. His mother cries, talking about his sentencing, but she also admits that in the days before the cops came around she couldn’t quite bring herself to report the stolen money. There were those bills to pay, after all.

An uncommonly persuasive fellow, Monroe arranges interviews with bystanders who were in the bank that day and an assistant D.A. who worked his case. Monroe asks forgiveness in these scenes, but he’s after more than catharsis: Like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence, in which the filmmaker invites a cop he once stabbed at a protest to reenact the incident two decades later, Evolution of a Criminal is a heartening examination of what its central crime meant in the lives of all involved. Even the staged footage reenacting the crime is charged with meaning: Here’s a filmmaker re-creating the way he, as a kid, made his biggest mistake trying to re-create movie scenes in real life.

There’s a further complicating element, a fascinating one: a sense that Monroe, an African American from the Houston area, is demonstrating that he turned out to be something different from what that white D.A. might have expected. (She tells him that she’ll believe he’s reformed when he’s made it to 50 without backsliding into crime.)

The film started as a project of Monroe’s at NYU’s film school. It might seem indulgent for him to have shot interviews with his professors, expressing their surprise at learning of his criminal history, but such moments illuminate one of the film’s central truths: Americans prefer not to look at the why of crime, just the fact of it, and how far would a broke black kid from Texas make it if he mentioned a prison term in his application letters? The film is a triumph, as moving as it is courageous.

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Lorinda Lisitza & Ted Stafford

Though they like to work alone, Lisitza and Stafford recently discovered some kind of musical symbiosis: As they leap and lope through their set, the music they choose from various catalogs acquires a faint country/folk tinge.

Thu., Jan. 31, 7 p.m., 2013

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Education NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Obama to Grad Students: Pay Up

Speaking to a college crowd at the University of Michigan in January, President Barack Obama noted that for the first time Americans owe more on their student loans than on their credit cards. “That’s inexcusable,” Obama said. “Higher education is not a luxury—it’s an economic imperative.”

But even as the president laid out a program that included earlier loan forgiveness, lower interest rates, and caps on repayments of loans, he was putting the screws to graduate students. Starting this July, graduate-student loans will no longer be subsidized, meaning students will see their debts multiply with interest even before they’ve received their degrees.

The change will save the government an estimated $18 billion over the next decade—most of which has already been redirected to fund Pell Grants for undergraduates—but it’s sure to tack thousands of dollars onto the debts of individual graduate students. The repercussions for graduate schools might be far-reaching, as people grapple with the question of whether a $50,000 master’s or a $100,000 law degree is worth the money.

“The burden on graduate students is growing, and this makes a bad situation worse,” says Eli Paster, a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the head of legislative concerns at the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. “We don’t want a disincentive for people to pursue a graduate degree.”

Borrow Now, Pay Later

Graduate students rely almost twice as much on loans as undergraduates, according to the College Board. In 2009–10, grad students financed 69 percent of their costs with federal loans. Nearly half of the average student’s $15,888 in loans was federally subsidized, with the government paying interest while the student is in school and for six months after graduation.

Under the Stafford loan program, the largest of the government’s school-financing plans, most full-time grad students have been able to borrow up to $20,500 a year at 6.8 percent interest, $8,500 of which would be subsidized. (Medical students can qualify for up to $40,500 in Stafford loans.) If students require more money, they can turn to Plus loans, which are unsubsidized and have an interest rate of 7.9 percent. Repayment of Stafford loans may be deferred for six months after graduation, though the unsubsidized portion accrues interest while the student is in school; repayment of a Plus loan begins after just 60 days.

With the federal government no longer subsidizing Stafford loans, graduate students will immediately start accumulating interest on all debts. A student who took out just the $8,500 a year in subsidized loans would have repaid $46,953 over the next 10 years, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Unsubsidized loans would add an extra $6,385 in interest payments.

Of course, many graduate programs have much higher costs. The average master’s student graduates with more than $50,000 in loan debt, says the Council of Graduate Schools, $77,000 for those with doctoral degrees. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the elimination of subsidies will increase the ultimate cost of loans for the average medical student by as much as $20,000.

Passing the Bucks

While acknowledging the student-loan crisis, Obama stopped the federal subsidy for graduate loans on the grounds that the government also owes too much money. Early reports blamed the move on the debt-ceiling debate, but the scheme was first contained in Obama’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year.

“The idea had come up in the past, but it had never gotten much traction until it appeared in the president’s budget proposal,” says Patricia McAllister at the Council of Graduate Schools. “There was a search for savings, and once this was on the table, it was hard to push it off.”

The death of subsidized loans was sold to student advocates as a necessary sacrifice to save the Pell Grant Program, which provides 9 million undergraduates with grants of up to $5,500 a year. “Congress now views all spending as bad, and we wanted to make sure the Pell Grant didn’t get cut,” recalls Rich Williams at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Higher Education Project. “Unfortunately, the money had to come from other programs in the higher-education pot.”

That’s small consolation to graduate students, who warn undergraduates to watch their backs. Already, interest rates on undergraduate subsidized loans will be doubling to 6.8 percent this summer, and the elimination of all subsidized loans might not be far behind, Paster says. “Graduate students went first, but undergraduates will be next.”

“At least the money saved from eliminating subsidized loans went into a student-aid program rather than deficit reduction. That was a real possibility,” says Megan McClean at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. She’s troubled that a lot of recent changes to financial aid have come as part of budget negotiations, instead of being deliberated by legislative committees, which first conduct research and hold hearings with experts. “That creates better policies,” she says.

This might also explain why many graduate students were caught by surprise at the elimination of their subsidized loans. “When financial-aid changes happen in the budget, it’s not really announced,” Paster says. “You find out about it when you apply for loans before the start of the next semester. At that point, you don’t really have a choice, except not going to school.”

Some worry the higher costs could make graduate school solely a province for rich kids: On average, black and Hispanic students already have higher debt loads than whites and Asians.

McAllister says the government must make sure that debt doesn’t dissuade students from going to graduate school. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in the next decade, 2.6 million jobs will require people with advanced degrees. “If we want to meet these workforce needs, we should be investing in graduate education,” she says, “not balancing the federal budget on the backs of students.”

The $80,000 MFA

Student debt might already be affecting some graduate programs, as nationwide enrollment dropped slightly in 2010, the first decline in seven years, according to a recent report by the Council of Graduate Schools. But it’s a mixed bag: While fewer students are seeking doctorates in the arts and humanities, more have enrolled in business schools and the sciences.

That trend is mirrored at area universities. The number of graduate students at CUNY has remained virtually unchanged at about 33,000 since the fall of 2009, yet its Graduate Center has seen gains in the health sciences. Likewise, Columbia’s professional schools have grown in the past year, while enrollment has been flat in its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. NYU reports similar findings, though new applications are up a bit this year.

MFA graduate student Monica Johnson found unwanted fame for showing up in Zuccotti Park last November to talk about the $88,000 in debt she accumulated during college and graduate school. She understands those who criticize her for a costly degree choice.

“At this point, I’d never say an MFA is the best degree, but there was a logical line of reasoning that led me here,” Johnson says. “Both of my parents have associate degrees from a technical art school in Michigan, and both of them were able to have viable careers.” She points out that not even law school is a safe bet these days. The job market is having a hard time absorbing new law graduates, and as a result, the number of students taking the LSAT has dropped by 25 percent over the past two years.

“I wasn’t comfortable taking out the loans, and I kept asking people, ‘Is this what you’re supposed to do?’ I’m not blaming anyone, but now I wish someone would have pulled me back. Everybody said, ‘You just got to do it.'”

Johnson says her big mistake was starting her master’s at Pratt Institute, where she borrowed more than $40,000 to cover one year’s tuition, before leaving to enroll in an integrated-media art program at Hunter College. “I have a job, and I’m paying only $1,000 a class,” she says. “It really is the price tag that’s the problem, I think.”

Facing the Future

The students gathered in front of St. Francis College in Brooklyn don’t look like the next class of suckers, but everyone interviewed during a recent lunch hour was thinking about graduate school. Most claimed a graduate degree is now necessary to get a good job.

“Going to grad school gives you an advantage, but so many people go,” says Christopher Santoro, a junior from Dyker Heights. “Grad school’s become what college was 30 years ago.”

Santoro has paid for his education with Stafford loans. Tuition at St. Francis is $18,100 a year, and 95 percent of students receive financial aid. “It’s going to take a while to pay off all the loans,” Santoro says. “Especially if I go to law school, it will be a lot, lot more. But I have to do it. I’m even contemplating going to grad school in engineering because law-school graduates are having a hard time getting jobs. My mother is the head of human resources at a bank, and she says everybody they hire is coming out of an Ivy League school.

“It’s good that Obama’s talking about financial aid,” Santoro says, and he doesn’t blame the president for taking the subsidy away from federal loans for graduate students. The student-debt crisis is another inherited mess, he says. “I’m a libertarian, but if I had to vote right now, I’d vote for Obama. I don’t like anyone on the Republican side. We have no choice.”

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Benjamin Millepied, Jirí Bubencík, and Melissa Barak Break From the Gate

Some dance fans believe that New York City Ballet dancers ought to be happy performing nothing but works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins for the rest of their lives. And maybe many are. But dancers everywhere respond to learning new choreography the way racehorses at the gate anticipate the run ahead. It helps if the new ballet doesn’t hurt their bodies too much, and it helps if it’s really good. Two of the spring season’s new ballets are really good, and the dancers dig into them with every nerve and muscle on the alert.

Quasi Una Fantasia—set to the first, third, and fourth movements of Henryk Gorecki’s composition of the same name—is Benjamin Millepied’s first work for the company in which he’s a principal dancer. In it, he tackles a larger ensemble than he has yet worked with and maneuvers its members with grace and ingenuity. The opening section is especially intriguing. Three of the work’s eight couples are onstage when the curtain goes up, the women poised in arabesque. As they begin to move, still in profile, you’re hyper-aware of the wheeling patterns made by arms and legs. Two more couples arrive and hang out in a downstage corner, the women standing on the kneeling men’s calves, to watch the entry of one of the two principal pairs, Rebecca Krohn and Sébastien Marcovici. Another couple slips in. Then two couples, with the women sitting on the men’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the patterns are already shifting. And before you know how it happened, the groups coalesce into a unit.

This sounds pretty ordinary in print, but the way Millepied deploys his troops keeps your eyes busy. Now a clump of them progresses across the back of the stage, with two women sitting high and one being dragged along. As a whole, they look something like an elephant on parade. Suddenly, the corps of 16 assembles in a corner, the first row sitting, the others tiered behind them. Three men lift their partners straight up, facing us, and then—unexpectedly and in canon—tilt them slightly sideways. Gorecki’s mysterious music (expertly conducted by Fayçal Karoui) often layers deep, soft tones over a submerged pulse, but there are few emphatic dance rhythms. So when couples waltz their way into a circle, their feet and bodies create the ¾ rhythm you don’t hear.

Marc Stanley’s lighting is both flattering and discreet in its changes (for one section, a slim, soft-edged red line materializes horizontally on the backdrop), and the dancers look handsome in Marc Happel’s costumes: short, filmy, subtly patched tunics over plain-colored, trunks. All of them perform beautifully. Janie Taylor and Jared Angle are the other principal couple, and there is an intrepid duet for them as well as one for Krohn and Marcovici. But the ballet’s greatest strength lies in how inventively Millepied weaves patterns, repeats motifs, introduces small surprises, changes the stage picture, and provides recuperative pauses—all without strain. Nor does he stuff the phrases with steps, as he has done in the past; there’s a feeling of fresh air blowing around the stage.

Quasi Una Fantasia is less about matters of the heart than it is about companions being alert to one another’s dreams and making formality into an unfolding game with changeable rules.

Like Millepied, the Czech dancer-choreographer Jirí Bubenícek is relatively young. This is the first public showing of his work in the U.S. His Toccata does touch upon relationships, and the word toccata (from the Italian for “to touch”) may refer to more than the music for two pianos, viola, and cello written by his brother, composer Otto Bubenícek. The seven performers might be members of a 1970s commune, so easily and unobtrusively do they replace one another in pairings-up or turn an intimate duet into a trio. There often seems to be a wanderer—a searcher—but no desperation.

The space is featureless, except for Stanley’s lighting. The four musicians sit on high platforms at the back, invisible in the blackness unless they’re playing, when small low-intensity spots pick them out. The dancers wear leotards and tights designed by the choreographer and supervised by Happel. The palette consists mostly of grays, blacks, and variations of purple, except for the bright blue of Craig Hall’s leotard and Abi Stafford’s tights.

Bubenícek establishes from the start that Stafford is the principal wanderer. She falls into the arms of two men, while a third runs around them. They leave, and another man (David Prottas) comes up behind her and begins to partner her. The pianists (Elaine Chelton and Susan Walters) begin striking single, echoing notes. Within seconds, Prottas leaves and Robert Fairchild replaces him with Stafford. There’s a quiet restlessness in all the ballet’s shifting encounters—a quality reflected by the music’s occasional trembling and its long passages of silence.

Several times, a dancer touches another with one hand. A hand to the person’s chest indicates a mild, “Go away.” One to the back says, “Turn around.” The latter is how Stafford incites a duet with Craig Hall, and cellist Fred Zlotkin immediately begins to spin a melody for them. It’s a lovely piece of choreography, its only minor flaw the occasional, purely decorative arm gesture that the choreographer has Hall do while his other arm is holding Stafford. That such a traditional gesture stands out is the fact that the winding together of the partners is otherwise so interesting; their clasped-together hands provide both embraces and snares to be slipped through. Hall seems to want to keep his face close to some part of Stafford, even if he has to lunge deep to place his cheek on her hand. Fairchild doesn’t so much steal her attention as turn their duet into a brief trio before both men leave.

Watching a more mercurial duet for Andrew Scordato and Brittany Pollack, I realize that the way the dancers occasionally skid isn’t an accident, and their slides become more evident when Fairchild and Georgina Pazcoguin (replacing the injured Meagan Mann) dance together. Fairchild is terrific, too, in a kind of pensive rant of a solo. But the fluid image of replacing and moving on never stops. In the end, three couples are dancing in canon, while Prottas leaps and runs within the loose circle that they form. He’s still going full force when the curtain slowly, slowly descends.

NYCB’s spring season includes another ballet by a young choreographer: Melissa Barak’s A Simple Symphony, which premiered during the winter season. Barak, a former company dancer, is more conventional and less daring than the other two choreographers. The eight women who compose the ensemble, the two demi-soloists (Tiler Peck and Ana Sophia Scheller in the cast I saw in February), and Sara Mearns wear pink tutus with pink or gray satin bodices; the three men (Jared Angle, Tyler Angle, and Sean Suozzi) are similarly elegant. Barak set her ballet to Benjamin Britten’s marvelous composition of the same name, but she’s less daring than the composer (although she picks up on an allusion to Celtic folk dance in a engaging, fast-footed passage for the demi-soloist couples).

Sometimes her attraction to hierarchy and inkblot symmetry and is so marked that you’d think she modeled her structure on Balanchine’s forays into Tchaikovsky and Tsarist grandeur. Lower echelon dancers wait politely when Mearns and Jared Angle first appear. However, I don’t mean to imply that Barak isn’t imaginative. I remember with pleasure the moment when Jared Angle breezes around setting the six ensemble women turning; it’s as if he’s fanned them into action. And Barak knows how to display splendid dancers without being showy.

What I admire about the new pieces is that the choreographers know how to stretch and mold the classical vocabulary to give it a fresh, individual look without resorting to the fashionable kinkiness that can be so distracting in works by, for example, Jorma Elo. No grand finish to the company’s May 13 gala program (Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, led by a princely athlete, Joaquin De Luz, and a charming but less regal Megan Fairchild), followed by a fancy dinner and dancing into the night for patrons, could be more celebratory than welcoming two fine ballets to the company’s repertory.