West Virginia State University Says It Is Suing Dow Chemical For Contamination

West Virginia State University announced Wednesday that it is suing Dow Chemical Co. for allegedly contaminating the groundwater beneath its campus. The school has accused the multinational chemical manufacturer of introducing three hazardous chemicals into the water in the community of Institute, near the city of Charleston.

“Although the contaminants under our campus pose no current health risk, Dow still must be held accountable for the damage it has done to our property and reputation,” Anthony L. Jenkins, president of the historically black university, said in a statement.

He added:

“Dow must restore our campus to the condition it was in before this contamination and help us address the harm this will do to our image locally and nationally. Dow also must compensate us for the loss of use of our property. We are reluctant to resort to litigation, but Dow has left us no choice.”

The school’s lawsuit also lists as defendants the Bayer Corporation, Aventis CropScience and several other companies that have operated the manufacturing plant in Institute over the past seven decades.

Dow says that it is aware of the university’s announcement, but that “to our knowledge, no lawsuit has been filed.” The company declined further comment.

West Virginia State University says these companies have, through both direct actions and negligence, allowed the plant to leak the chemicals 1,4-dioxane; 1,2-dichloroethane; and chloroform into the ground and water around the school.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies all three chemicals as “probable human carcinogens” — in other words, likely cancer-causing agents. Still, the university says that the groundwater is not used on campus, and that independent experts have determined the chemicals do not pose a current health risk to anyone there.

The university is asking the defendants to take care of the removal of the chemicals, including all of the costs associated with it.

“The law has no place for such greed and injustice,” the school says in its complaint. “The University brings this action to compel Dow and others who operated the plant to clean up their mess and pay for the damage they have done.”

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After Ann Coulter Speech Cancellation, Protesters Rally At Berkeley

A leaflet is seen stapled to a message board near Sproul Hall on the University of California at Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif. The University of California, Berkeley says it’s preparing for possible violence on campus whether Ann Coulter comes to speak or not.

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Ben Margot/AP

Ann Coulter’s controversial speech planned for today at the University of California, Berkeley, was called off yesterday after school officials said they were not able to adequately secure it and sponsors pulled out.

But even without the conservative commentator’s event, the university and city of Berkeley are bracing for dueling protests that they feared could become violent.

“While we cherish our freedoms of speech and assembly, there is no freedom to silence others or to commit violence,” University Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said in a joint statement. “If you are at a demonstration and you see violence, separate yourself.”

Helicopters circled over Berkeley amid a heavy police presence on Thursday, according to local media reports.

Campus police had arrested two people as of 1 p.m. local time, Berkeley said on Twitter. It said “both individuals’ affiliation to UC Berkeley is unknown at this time,” and did not elaborate about the reasons for the arrests.

The police said they were limiting access to one of the university’s main plazas and searching individuals for “restricted items” such as “weapons (real and simulated), improvised weapons, tasers, hard plastic/metal/bottles, chains, banners/signs, explosive and incendiary devices.”

NPR’s Richard Gonzalez has been at Berkeley today, and described a large demonstration near campus by protesters who “say they wanted to stage this rally to underscore their objection to Ann Coulter’s appearance on the campus even though she says she’s not going to come.”

Right-wing demonstrations in support of Coulter are also planned in the area, and pictures posted by the news site Berkeleyside show protestors gathered at a park.

Further adding to the tension, Coulter suggested in an email to The Associated Press that she still may appear on campus today.

“I’m not speaking. But I’m going to be near there, so I might swing by to say hello to my supporters who have flown in from all around the country,” Coulter said, according to the wire service. “I thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment.”

This has been a lengthy saga. Before yesterday’s cancellation, the university previously cancelled the speech over security concerns, then reinstated it for a different day and place.

Coulter blamed the university for the final cancellation, and said on The Sean Hannity Show Wednesday evening that there was “nothing I could do.” Several sponsoring groups pulled out because of the security concerns.

Coulter added: “All of the people who should have been standing up for the first amendment here, all ran away with their tails between their legs.”

The university said it “had done everything in its power to protect Coulter’s First Amendment rights while also ensuring the safety of the campus community,” campus officials told reporters yesterday.

They said they were not consulted about the date of the talk, and when they explained they were unable to provide a secure venue, Coulter rejected alternative dates.

“You can’t exercise your First Amendment rights if it’s taking place in an event that gets shut down because the venue isn’t protectable,” said Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor for public affairs.

Berkeley is one of the country’s most liberal universities. Coulter is opposed to immigration and was planning to speak about the issue today. Her latest book is titled Adios America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole.

Berkeley has seen three major incidents of political violence recently, as The Two-Way reported:

“On March 4 and April 15, left and right wing protestors skirmished in a nearby Berkeley park. In February, masked agitators, commonly known as Black Bloc, broke windows and set fires at the campus building preventing right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking.”

Yesterday’s cancellation prompted criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“For the future of our democracy, we must protect bigoted speech from government censorship,” said David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director. “On college campuses, that means that the best way to combat hateful speech is through counter-speech, vigorous and creative protest, and debate, not threats of violence or censorship.”

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As Los Angeles Burned, The Border Patrol Swooped In

People gather in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles during rioting following the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King in 1992. The neighborhood looks similar today as it did 25 years ago. It’s still more than 80 percent Latino, with lots of immigrant families from Mexico and Central America.

Gary Leonard/Corbis via Getty Images

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Gary Leonard/Corbis via Getty Images

Looking back at the 1992 Los Angeles riots, people often remember tensions between African-Americans, white law enforcement officers and Korean small business owners. That story gets even more complicated when you step into Pico-Union — a neighborhood that was, and still is, predominantly Latino.

In the wake of the Rodney King verdict, riots broke out around the city. The first day, they erupted in South Central; by the second, they had spread north to Pico-Union. And while people all over the city had to deal with looting, fires, and general chaos, many residents of Pico Union had to deal with an additional fear — the threat of deportation.

This week, NPR is taking a look at the legacy of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, 25 years later. Follow our coverage here.

Mike Hernandez was the neighborhood’s city councilman in 1992. He said that in the 25 years since the riots, Pico-Union hasn’t changed that much. The area is still more than 80 percent Latino, with lots of immigrant families from Mexico and Central America. And, in 1992, a majority of Pico-Union constituents were living below the poverty line in crowded conditions. Hernandez said he knew long before the riots started that Pico-Union was just as combustible as South Central LA. “We had twice the density here of Manhattan,” Hernandez said. “And our fire station here, Fire Station 11, was the busiest fire station in the nation.”

But in the midst of the burning and looting, Hernandez said the few law enforcement officers who made it to Pico-Union were not protecting and serving. He partially blamed it on the fact that in the early 1990s, “Latino” was often synonymous with “illegal” in California. In a 1992 interview, he told NPR that his request for reinforcement during the unrest didn’t get him the results he wanted. “The response to me when I said I needed the National Guard to protect the people of the area and I needed to protect the businesses and protect the homes, they gave me the Border Patrol. It was totally an insult,” he said.

Former City Councilman Mike Hernandez visits the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles 25 years after the riots.

Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

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Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

Hernandez doesn’t deny that people in Pico-Union were among the looters, but he said he saw people taking basics, like food and diapers. The vast majority of his constituents were scared out of their minds and hiding in their homes. The rioting and chaos, he said, triggered past trauma for many of the Central American immigrants who had fled civil war. And the presence of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which included the Border Patrol back then, seemed to be fueling that fear — with good reason.

Documents gathered during the Webster Commission, the FBI’s months’ long investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department’s response to the riots, included declarations from Pico-Union residents. Many of them were arrested by the LAPD for illegally residing in the U.S. and turned over to the INS.

During the LA riots, Madeline Janis ran a Pico-Union based non-profit called CARECEN (Central American Resource Center), which is still in the neighborhood and provides multiple services to immigrants. In the aftermath of the unrest, Janis, an attorney, helped a couple dozen people facing deportation — people like Martha Campos, a Salvadoran woman arrested by the LAPD at three in the afternoon on April 30, 1992 while drinking a fruit juice in front of a convenience store. At the time, Campos was eighteen years old.

“An officer demanded to know my name, if I had any immigration papers and what country I was from,” Campos said in her declaration, taken after two weeks in immigration detention at Terminal Island in San Pedro. She added that the LAPD questioned her about her immigration status. “I responded that I had no papers and I told him what country I was from…I was then taken to a police station with many other people. Immigration arrived in several vans and took me and many other people away.”

Campos said that in detention she slept on narrow concrete benches, was fed dry meat and old bread, and not allowed to bathe. She was seven months pregnant. Campos said that she was afraid that the treatment she endured while in INS custody could cause serious harm to her or her baby.

Madeline Janis said she’s almost positive she was able to get Campos a hearing in immigration court, even though the 18-year old signed a voluntary departure document the day of her arrest. (NPR tried to find Campos and other detainees who gave declarations, but was unable to locate anyone 25 years after the incident.) Janis said the entire ordeal was so upsetting that it was hard for her to recall the events after our initial interview request. “This was so awful, I think I blocked it out of my memory. I think it’s because people suffered so much that I really … just blocked it.”

The Pathfinder bookstore on Pico Blvd. burns in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles during the riots in 1992.

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Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

What happened to Martha Campos shouldn’t have.

According to a rule called Special Order 40, which has been around since the late 70s, the Los Angeles Police Department wasn’t, and still isn’t, allowed to “initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person.” They can only involve immigration enforcement when an unauthorized person has been arrested for serious misdemeanors or a felony. Amongst the Webster Commission documents archived in 40 cardboard boxes at the USC library, there were Immigration and Naturalization Service documents that show 86 percent of more than 1,200 undocumented “riot aliens” they received from the LA County Jail, the LAPD and other law enforcement were deported. Those documents only cover May 1 to May 4, 1992 (the unrest began on April 29th); and they do not specify what crimes those detained and deported were charged with.

Robert Moshorack was the district director of the INS in Los Angeles during the unrest. He remembers the riots differently than people like Hernandez and Janis. Moshorack, who has been retired for 23 years, said the riots were an all-hands-on-deck situation, and he sent in agents to help as requested, sometimes to just interpret for LAPD officers. As for Special Order 40, he told me he wasn’t aware of it then, and doesn’t agree with the policy now. “I think that’s ridiculous,” Moshorack said. “You know, many people don’t realize that illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor in and of itself, a violation of 8USC1325 and re-entry is a felony. How long are we going to accept that in our society?”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks during a town hall on the Affordable Care Act in Los Angeles on Feb. 22. Garcetti said he’s trying to quell fears stoked in the city’s immigrant communities by President Trump’s calls for more cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

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Not everyone shares Moshorack’s contempt for the order.

Charlie Beck, the current LAPD chief, said he has accepted that there are a couple hundred thousand immigrants living in Los Angele who don’t have legal status. “And I got to be their police chief, too,” Beck said. “I’m not just a police chief to property owners. I’m not just a police chief to business owners. We’re in charge of everybody’s safety.”

Chief Beck has been at the LAPD as long as Special Order 40 has been around, and said he can’t recall a time it wasn’t followed, even after learning about the Webster Commission documents that show otherwise. Regardless, Beck said it has long been crucial that the LAPD isn’t thought of as immigration enforcement, because it erodes trust and immigrants stop reporting crime.

Just last month, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti expanded Special Order 40 to include fire fighters, port and airport police. At the event where Garcetti signed the executive directive, Beck told the audience that crime reporting has dropped significantly in Latino communities this year over fear that interacting with local law enforcement may lead to deportation.

Immigrant rights activists in 1992, and a new generation of activists today, don’t think the order goes far enough to protect LA’s immigrants — no matter how it’s implemented. Many in California’s immigrant rights movement are calling for zero cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement. (And a bill under consideration in the state legislature may decide that issue state-wide.)

Garcetti said he’s trying to quell fears stoked in LA’s immigrant communities by President Trump’s calls for more cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. “So to make our city safer we’re focused on keeping those bridges from being burned down right now,” Garcetti said.

But 25 years ago, when Los Angeles was burning, Special Order 40 appears to have been an afterthought amidst the chaos. Garcetti said that this new generation of police officers understand the need for Special Order 40 from both moral and practical terms. Garcetti said that it’s one thing to have a policy on the books, “But it’s another thing to make sure that it’s enforced, and enforced by everybody.” The mayor added that we continue to learn lessons from the LA riots 25 years later. “We’re not perfect, but in this imperfect paradise that we call Los Angeles, I think we’re better and more resilient because of what we went through in 1992.”

Parker Yesko of the National Desk and Leah Donnella of Code Switch contributed to this report.

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Going There: Beyond Borders

Michel Martin Going There Pic

Borders. Fences. Walls.

They run deep in our nation’s culture and our sense of self. They signal who belongs and who doesn’t.

San Diego is part of a thriving border economy, where tens of thousands of people cross into the region each day and more than $40 billion worth of trade takes place each year.

Yet drug smuggling, human trafficking and illegal immigration take place here, too. Some say we need to tighten the border, to build a higher wall.

But borders are also places of encounter, discovery and ingenuity. The mingling of languages, cultures and ideas can make border regions exciting places to live, places of dynamic tension and possibility.

NPR’s Going There with Michel Martin and KPBS present a provocative discussion about the creativity and the complications that come with living near the border.

Join the conversation on Tuesday, May 2 at 7 p.m. PT and by tweeting with the hashtag #NPRBeyondBorders.

Featured Social Media Guests

Astrid Dominguez, @astridalheli, immigrants’ rights policy strategist for @ACLUTx

Stefan Falke, @stefanfalke, photographer, author of La Frontera – which documents artists on the Mexican/U.S. border

Charles Kuck, @ckuck, immigration lawyer, host of Immigration Hour podcast

Javier Plascencia, @JavPlascencia, chef from Tijuana, owns several restaurants throughout Mexico and California

Debbie Nathan, @DebbieNathan2, Texas investigative reporter in Rio Grande Valley for @ACLUTx

Featured Guests

Jacqueline Arellano, Border Angels volunteer

Alfonso Gonzalez, businessman with offices on both sides of the Mexican/U.S. border

Jean Guerrero, @jeanguerre, KPBS Fronteras Reporter

Jorge Meraz, @MerazRambler, host of KPBS-TV travel show Crossing South

Terry Shigg, @16INTEGRITY13, longtime border patrol agent

Featured Performer

Jean Guerrero

The B-Side Players, @Bsideplayers

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With Billions At Stake, Trump Agrees To Mend NAFTA — Not End It

Trucks line up to cross to the United States near the Otay Commercial port of entry on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 25. Trump now says he will renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has long criticized, rather than scrap it.

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President Trump still calls the North American Free Trade Agreement “a horrible deal” for the United States. But in opting to renegotiate — rather than cancel — the agreement, Trump acknowledged that backing out of NAFTA would be “a pretty big shock to the system.”

After more than two decades, NAFTA is tightly woven into the economies of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Trade among the three countries is much more robust and supply chains more tightly integrated than was the case in 1994 when NAFTA went into effect.

Last year, Canada and Mexico were the United States’ second- and third-largest trading partners, respectively. With hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, it’s little wonder those countries’ leaders pressed Trump not to abandon the trade agreement.

“They called me and they said, rather than terminating NAFTA, could you please renegotiate?” Trump told reporters on Thursday.

He agreed.

“I think we’ll be successful in the renegotiation, which, frankly, would be good because it would be simpler” than canceling the deal, Trump said.

“Reckless, not wise”

Indeed, some of the president’s fellow Republicans warned Trump that an abrupt withdrawal from NAFTA would be dangerous.

“Scrapping NAFTA would be a disastrously bad idea,” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said in a statement. “It would hurt American families at the check-out, and it would cripple American producers in the field and the office.”

Sasse acknowledged that there are ways in which NAFTA could be improved, but he cautioned against canceling the deal.

“Trade lowers prices for American consumers, and it expands markets for American goods,” Sasse said. “Risking trade wars is reckless, not wise.”

Nebraska farmers are among the leading corn producers in the country. Corn growers could lose a significant export market if Mexico decided to go shopping elsewhere.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona had a similar warning for Trump.

Withdrawing from #NAFTA would be a disaster for #Arizona jobs & economy – @POTUS shouldn’t abandon this vital trade agreement

— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) April 26, 2017

“Withdrawing from #NAFTA would be a disaster for #Arizona jobs & economy,” the Republican tweeted. Trump “shouldn’t abandon this vital trade agreement.”

The jump in imports and exports under NAFTA

In 1993 — the last full year before NAFTA — the U.S. had a $1.6 billion trade surplus with Mexico. Last year, as the president likes to point out, the U.S. ran a trade deficit with Mexico of $63 billion. In between, both imports and exports grew sharply.

Imports from Mexico jumped seven-fold, from $39.9 billion to $294 billion. Exports grew five-and-a-half times, from $41.5 billion to $230 billion. (These figures from the Commerce Department are not adjusted for inflation. In real terms, imports have jumped about 4 1/2 times while exports are up about 3 1/2 times.)

U.S. trade with Canada has seen a similar explosion since passage of CUSFTA, a precursor to NAFTA that was signed in 1988. The year before that agreement took effect, the U.S. had an $11 billion trade deficit with Canada. The deficit last year was almost exactly the same. But imports and exports had both jumped about four-fold (or about 2 1/2 times, adjusting for inflation.)

Even before NAFTA and its predecessor deal took effect, the United States had lower trade barriers than either Canada or Mexico, with tariffs on imported goods averaging just 4 or 5 percent. Canada’s average tariff on U.S. imports was 9.65 percent, and Mexico’s average was 12.36 percent. In essence, by signing NAFTA and agreeing to eliminate tariffs, Canada and Mexico did more to open their doors to trade than the U.S. did.

Potential targets for negotiation

Tariffs are not the only barrier to trade, though. And attacking non-tariff barriers could be one goal of the new negotiations.

Trump has complained in recent days about U.S. dairy farmers who have been locked out of Canada’s milk market. The U.S. has also ordered new tariffs on Canadian lumber, which the Trump administration argues has been unfairly subsidized by the Canadian government.

“This is not our idea of a properly functioning Free Trade Agreement,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

A White House spokesman says the goal of the new negotiations is to modernize NAFTA, to consider industries and issues that might have grown up since the agreement was signed.

“Obviously the issue of dairy came up, so that’s an area we would want to look at,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

The administration could also seek changes allowing the federal government to give preferential treatment to domestic suppliers when making purchasing decisions as part of the president’s “Buy American” initiative.

Other possible changes include stronger protections in the trade deal for workers, the environment and intellectual property. Those were all components of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which covered a dozen countries including Mexico and Canada. Trump formally withdrew from that trade agreement on his fourth day in office.

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Google Spins Up Its First Servers In Cuba

Google launched its first servers in Cuba this week. Above, people use public Wi-Fi to connect their devices on a Havana street in October 2016.

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Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

Accessing the Internet in Cuba isn’t easy. Home Internet connections are rare, and public access Wi-Fi hotspots costs $1.50 an hour — very expensive for most Cubans.

But in the nation that has been called “one of the most restrictive media environments in the world,” watching YouTube got faster this week.

Google says that its servers just went live on the island — meaning that for the first time, its services like YouTube videos are cached locally, instead of in a neighboring country.

This milestone comes four months after the company signed an agreement with Cuba’s national telecom provider, ETECSA, to use its technology to make high-bandwidth activities faster.

This marks the first time a foreign Internet company has hosted anything inside Cuba, according to Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn, an Internet performance company. Madory spent time in Havana last year for a conference and talked to Google about their plans for Cuba.

After Google made the deal with ETECSA, Madory set up a system that would notify him when the Google’s servers in Cuba were live, and yesterday morning, he got pinged.

Google’s servers in Cuba will cache its own content, allowing for quicker delivery to users.

Caching speeds up the Internet by storing frequently used content locally. So the first time someone in Cuba watches a specific video on YouTube, it may take a while to load. But if their neighbor then decides to watch that same video, it should load much faster, because it has been stored on a nearby server and doesn’t need to travel as far.

While caching makes the Internet speedier in any country, it’s particularly vital in Cuba, where connectivity is slow. Cuba connects to the Internet primarily through the ALBA-1 submarine cable, which runs from Venezuela.

Google said that Cubans “who already have access to the internet and want to use our services can expect to see an improvement in terms of quality of service” and speed for cached content.

That qualifier — “who already have access to the internet” — is significant, since access to the Internet in Cuba is so limited. (As few as 5 percent of Cubans may have access to the open Internet.) Google’s servers make it speedier to use its services in Cuba today, but they don’t provide Internet access where it wasn’t before.

For the most part Cubans don’t have access to Google’s products. “Many users are still relegated to a tightly controlled government network and related email service,” says Freedom House, a nonprofit group that conducts research on democracy and human rights.

In its 2016 report on Internet freedom, Freedom House wrote that “Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for information and communication technologies.” It added that Cuba’s lack of modern Internet infrastructure is one way the government limits access to outside media and information.

“Rather than relying on the technically sophisticated filtering and blocking used by other repressive regimes, the Cuban government continues to limit users’ access to information primarily via lack of technology and prohibitive costs,” it says.

But Google’s servers join other signs of progress for Internet in the country. The BBC reported last month that ETECSA had installed Internet connections in around 2,000 homes in Old Havana as part of a two-month pilot.

Those connections weren’t fast enough to stream video, though. With Google’s new servers, the dream of watching videos on the Internet — without endless buffering — gets a little closer.

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The Journalists Who Wring Life Out Of Death: 'Obit'

Obit profiles the Obituaries desk of The New York Times, where journalists distill whole lifetimes into 800 words.

Kino Lorber

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Kino Lorber

They say everyone dies twice: once when they take their last breath, and again when their name is spoken aloud for the last time. The heartfelt and unshakable new documentary Obit, a profile of the Obituaries section at the New York Times, considers the people who have devoted their professions to extending the period between those two deaths. A well-crafted obituary will enshrine its subject in the collective memory, but it’s a balance between sentimental eulogy and tough reportage. Says one of the interviewees, “We put word limits on human beings.”

Director Vanessa Gould was inspired to make her film after the Times ran an obituary on a friend of hers, the reclusive French sculptor Eric Joisel, whom she featured in her first documentary Between the Folds. And though Gould never reveals herself on camera, it is abundantly clear that Obit was made by someone who, to paraphrase featured obituarist Bruce Weber, has encountered death before and knows how to approach the subject with compassion. This caring eye is the movie’s secret strength, the thing that elevates it from a morbid exercise in nostalgia to a touching inquiry on the nature of public legacy amid the ceaseless march of time.

Gould follows a day in the lives of the Times Obits desk, a team of around a half-dozen writers, editors, and researchers who go to work every morning and ask, “Who died?” Then it’s a mad scramble to get a meaningful 800-word summary of the winner’s life into the paper before deadline. The day unfolds as a series of ordained tasks: first, consoling the grieving next-of-kin over the phone, while extracting from them the most basic, unpleasant facts of the moment (time and cause of death, past marriages, medical history). Then it’s off to the “morgue,” the name for the Times archival room housing decades’ worth of clippings on thousands of people, shelved among endless rows of filing cabinets. Formerly staffed by a team of researchers, the “morgue” today is run by just one person, Jeff Roth. Gould’s camera follows him in tie and rolled-up sleeves as he moves across the aisles and skims his fingers along yellowed pages, marveling at his kingdom of the past.

Obit is the third documentary to be granted permission to film inside the Times offices, the others being the generalist state-of-the-news report Page One and Bill Cunningham New York, a profile of the celebrated photographer (whose own obituary flashes briefly here).Both Cunningham and the subjects of Page One, David Carr and Brian Stelter, were charismatic onscreen presences. The Obit writers themselves — including Weber and Margalit Fox, a trained cellist who writes marvelously, but speaks in cliches like “robbing Peter to pay Paul” — are not. And so we learn very little of them outside the newsroom, which is perhaps for the best, even if it does create the impression that the folks doing this work are well-read Grim Reapers. (One former obit writer, Doug Martin, wryly complains he never gets to meet the subjects he covers.)

Instead, Gould and her editor Kristen Bye accentuate the prose in question with crisply edited video of the obituary subjects’ lives, both on their own terms and, in poetic bookending montages, weaved into the larger narrative of the past century of human history. Ironically, given that most of the film is set in a quiet office, it shows a preference for daredevils: prominent position is given to oarsman John Fairfax, who conquered both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and aviator Elinor Smith, who set numerous flying records as a 16-year-old pilot. In fact, Smith beat her own odds in the Times, which, way back in 1931, had prepped an “advance obituary” (a write-up of a person’s life while they’re still alive) in the event she had gone down with her plane during a particularly gnarly stunt. The film is lighter on faces of color, and Fox’s explanation of why so many of her subjects are white males seems to open a door that Gould is unwilling to enter.

When discussions turn to moments of obit history, like the time the team had only a couple hours to react to the death of Michael Jackson before going to press, the film cannot help but serve as its own advance obituary for the age of newsprint. Its descriptions of the thrills of beating a deadline or arguing over whether a person’s life deserves “the front page” or “above the fold” feel like another enshrinement of a dying era. Those things still matter, as do those steadfast word limits — for now. And the measure of a human feels more noteworthy when it’s eating up some limited quantity of space on a page, instead of a couple of kilobytes in the infinite void of the Internet, where everything is both immortal and easily forgotten.

But the printed quietude won’t last, as obituaries are beginning to suffer from the same breakneck pace as the rest of the modern news cycle, and are therefore expected to appear instantaneously with the first TMZ banner. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died on a Sunday morning in 2014 at the age of 46, readers were complaining that a piece hadn’t written itself immediately. Meanwhile, the paper that’s willing to run such attentive cradle-to-grave articles continues to face its own challenges. Weber himself has taken a buyout from the Times since Obit‘s premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival—though many of his advance obituaries will continue to appear as his subjects take their leave from the world stage, including, just this week, his deeply reported and thoughtful remembrance of director Jonathan Demme. Watching Obit, and then reading that obit, makes clear another old truism: there is much life to be found when one looks at death.

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A Behind-The-Scenes Couple Get Star Treatment In 'Harold And Lillian'

Howard and Lillian: A True Hollywood Love Story chronicles the marriage of Lillian and Howard Michelson, who triumphed over challenges that have doomed many Hollywood couples.

Zeitgeist Films

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Zeitgeist Films

What it is like to be married in Hollywood? We have a good idea about what it’s like to be divorced in Hollywood, we’ve seen famous couples run aground by egos and scandal, and we’re well-versed in the ups-and-downs of a lifestyle where fortunes vary and relationship are jostled like luggage on a turbulent flight. The beautiful documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story celebrates a marriage and creative partnership that lasted six decades in the business, one that survived stretches of poverty and joblessness, catastrophic injury and alcoholism, and the challenges of raising an autistic son at a time when “refrigerator mothers” were blamed for the condition. Bottom line: A Hollywood marriage can be sublime and inspiring, but it’s always an adventure.

Though well-known and beloved by their peers, Harold and Lillian Michelson had the sorts of jobs that are often so far below the line that they’re not credited at all. As a production designer and art director, Harold would eventually earn Academy Award nominations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment, but for the bulk of his career, dating back to an apprenticeship at Columbia Pictures in the late ’40s, he worked the art department as a concept illustrator and storyboard artist. Despite a passion for books and a formidable intellect — she was a spelling bee champion in her youth — Lillian stayed home and raised their three children until the early ’60s, when Harold was brought onto the lot at Samuel Goldwyn. He helped land her a volunteer position in the research library across the street, and a second career was born.

Only the most hardcore cinephiles have heard of the Michelsons, but even casual viewers are familiar with their work. Harold’s talent for adjusting his storyboards for different camera lenses and telling stories shot-by-shot is readily apparent in sword-and-sandal epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Spartacus, and he worked side-by-side with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie, two of the master’s most strikingly composed films. One of the most famous shots in cinema history — Benjamin Braddock framed by Mrs. Robinson’s leg in The Graduate — appeared first on Harold’s sketchbook before it was immortalized on screen. He wouldn’t start collecting more prominent credits until later, when he worked in production design and/or art direction for filmmakers like Mel Brooks and Danny DeVito.

For her part, Lillian toiled in the research department, where she quietly unearthed the specific period details and bric-a-brac that would lend real-world authenticity to Hollywood fictions. In Harold and Lillian, she describes the extraordinary lengths she would go to get things right, like querying old Jewish women at a deli to find out what 1890s bloomers looked like for Fiddler on the Roof or pressing ex- (and current) drug lords and DEA agents for information relevant to Scarface. When asked the impossible, like getting photos from inside CIA headquarters, she could deliver. She talks about research as a “time machine” that allows her to access other worlds, much as she did as a five-year-old orphan in Miami Beach.

Lillian’s voice carries the documentary — Harold died in 2008, though he left a wealth of interview footage behind — and collaborators like DeVito (who also executive-produced), Brooks, and Francis Ford Coppola offer themselves as talking heads, along with other researchers, storyboard artists and technicians in the field. Harold’s extensive illustrations of their lives together — including a marvelous tradition of homemade birthday and anniversary cards, adorned by sweet poems and artwork — give Harold and Lillian all the visual panache it needs, much like a real-life version of the side-by-side comparisons between his storyboards and a finished sequence.

The stories Lillian tells are a treasure-trove of personal and professional anecdotes, doubling as a side history of Hollywood itself. But Harold and Lillian is most affecting as a tribute to their marriage, which was full of romance and hardship and uncertainty, but built from the beginning on mutual respect and enthusiasm. “You must have shared experiences for a marriage to have some kind of soil to grow on,” she says, offering a key insight into why so many Hollywood marriages struggle to last. In a business where individual success waxes and wanes, and each new production is a job that will eventually be lost, the Michelsons rode out its crazy vicissitudes with something approaching harmony and grace. Theirs is a model few will ever get to follow.

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'BANG! The Bert Berns Story': The Complicated Man Behind 'Twist And Shout'

Bert Berns (left) and Jerry Wexler (right) wrote The Drifters’ “I Don’t Want to Go On Without You” in 1964. (But when the music business drove them apart, they did anyway.)


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There are many explanations for Bertrand Russell Berns’ relative obscurity. The subject of Bang! The Bert Berns Story flopped as a performer, and so turned to songwriting and producing. He sometimes composed under aliases such as Bert Russell and Russell Byrd. And several of his tunes became associated with their performers, who were widely assumed to have written them.

Also, Berns died young, succumbing to the long-term effects of childhood rheumatic fever at 38. It was 1967, and rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning to be chronicled by sympathetic observers.

So Berns is less remembered than his songs, which include “Piece of My Heart,” “Tell Him,” and “Here Comes the Night.” These were all written during an eight-year run whose first success was the Jarmels’ 1961 “A Little Bit of Soap.” The soap, the group sang, “will never wash away the tears” — a Berns motif. A child of Russian Jewish immigrants and the polyglot Bronx, Berns wrote almost as many weepies as Appalachia’s Hank Williams.

It’s a compelling story, told unobtrusively by directors Brett Berns — the musician’s son — and Bob Sarles. The documentary may not have widespread appeal, but should engross viewers who know the songs but not the man behind them.

Berns was one of many white (and mostly Jewish) New Yorkers who in the early 1960s wrote and produced for African American performers. These acts included the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Garnett Mimms, the Exciters, and the Isley Brothers, who scored with “Twist and Shout,” a song to which co-writer Berns brought the Afro-Cuban beat he loved.

Among Berns’ peers and collaborators were Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry, Brooks Arthur, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Ragavoy, and the late Ellie Greenwich, all of whom appear in Bang! Another associate was Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who became a nemesis after Berns’ BANG! Records proved a strong competitor. (Atlantic actually backed BANG!, whose name was derived from the initials of Berns and the label’s ruling troika: Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Gerald Wexler.)

After his songs began to be covered by British rock bands, Berns did three stints in London, working with Lulu and Them, whose singer was Van Morrison. That led to Berns’ production of Morrison’s first solo album. In Bang!, Morrison, Paul McCartney, and Keith Richards all extol Berns’ gifts and influence.

Although his preference was for R&B, Berns also launched the careers of Rick Derringer (then with The McCoys) and Neil Diamond. The latter is probably not a Berns fan. After Diamond asked to be released from his BANG! contract, one of his gigs was disrupted and his manager was assaulted.

A coincidence? Bang! is no exposé, but it doesn’t ignore Berns’ links to gangsters. One of them, Carmine DeNoia, even appears on camera to recount some of his milder misdeeds. As befits his nickname — Wassel, a child-like mispronunciation of “Rascal” — he doesn’t appear all that scary. But Berns’ pals and protectors also included Tommy Eboli, acting boss of the Genovese crime clan.

Perhaps that connection is what inspired the filmmakers to enlist Steve Van Zandt to narrate the movie in a Sopranos-worthy growl. The cliche-loaded lines he speaks were written by Joel Selvin, who penned a 2014 Berns biography.

Fortunately, Van Zandt says less than Berns’ friends and family, notably wife Ilene, who outlived him by 40 years. Thuggish business practices aside, Berns seems to have inspired much love and admiration, partly by being color-blind in an industry that treated great black singers as hired help.

Of course, one way Berns endeared himself to such on-screen reminiscers as Cissy Houston, Ronald Isley, and the Exciters’ Brenda Reid was simply by giving them great songs to sing.

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