Leaving the Lab, but Still Thinking Science

By Mayla Hsu

1024px-Barbara_Ehrenreich_2_by_David_ShankboneBarbara Ehrenreich graduated from The Rockefeller University (RU), Class of 1968, but never worked as a scientist. Instead, she became a journalist, best known for Nickel and Dimed, in which she documented the hardship of life working at a series of low-wage jobs. She has written nineteen books and numerous articles, on diverse subjects such as women’s health, war, economics, and the joy of dancing. Her most recent book is Living with a Wild God, a memoir describing her childhood into early adulthood, and an exploration of how a lifelong atheist reconciles episodes of mystical dissociation with an absolute conviction in reason and science.

How is it that someone who received a PhD in immunology from a leading university ended up as a leftist freelance writer? Natural Selections recently interviewed Ehrenreich to find out. It’s a story of a promising young scientist who took some unexpected turns by being completely true to herself.

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Paninis and Pupusas: A Jackson Heights Love Story

By Brianna Caszatt and A Gerald Martini

In the months leading up to the World Cup, we kept reading headlines like “Panini Truck Heist in Brazil” or “Colombian Teacher Caught Stealing Students’ Paninis,” to which we thought: what the heck do sandwiches have to do with football? Then our Brazilian friend presented us with our very own Panini World Cup sticker book so we could join him in his quest to collect all of the stickers needed to fill its pages; Panini, it turned out, was a sticker brand rather than a sandwich.

The goal of a Panini sticker book is simple: collect and stick on every sticker (there are 643 in all). There are several stickers related to the Panini brand, FIFA (the international football organization), and the World Cup more generally, including stickers for the 12 stadiums (each stadium is split into two stickers). But, most importantly, each of the 32 teams has a national emblem, a group photo, and a picture for most of the players (there are only 17 player stickers per team rather than the full 23, and these were from the players who were projected to be selected for the tournament, meaning some stickers are of players who ended up not getting selected to actually play).

To start our collection, we bought seven-packs of stickers for $1 each at sports stores and bodegas around the city. Early on, almost every pack that we purchased was packed with stickers that we needed—it was fun! But as our sticker book filled up, we started getting a lot of duplicates, meaning each packet of seven had fewer and fewer of the stickers that we needed. It was time to start trading—and that was when things started getting really exciting.

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Crickets: From Midnight Music to Midnight Snack?

By Jason Rothauser

1024px-Chingrit_thot“And how much is that per cricket?” I ask. I’m standing in front of the reptile cages of a local Brooklyn pet store.

“Ten cents a pop.” Sounds reasonable.

“I’ll take forty.”

In a minute or two, the clerk has wrapped up the insects in a large plastic bag, the same way you’d take a goldfish home from the fair. They’re mottled brown and reassuringly lively, hopping frantically against the top of their enclosure like popping corn.

As the clerk rings up my order, she jokes, “Salt, pepper, ketchup?” She doesn’t know just how close to the mark she is.

These crickets aren’t for a pet lizard. They’re on tonight’s menu.

It’s hard to think of a stronger culinary taboo than eating insects. Many Americans can barely abide the presence or even the sight of them, but billions of people around the globe regularly consume a wide variety of insect life. The reason is simple: insects are nutritious, incredibly energy efficient, and even tasty. The reason that we all should eat insects is even simpler: it might help to save the planet.

Our current system of global food production is not sustainable. A 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report found that our present levels of meat production contribute 14–22% of the greenhouse gasses produced in the world in a given year. As the developing world continues to eat more like America does (i.e., much more carbon-intensive meat instead of produce), this proportion will only grow. The reason livestock like cattle are so ecologically deleterious is the inefficiency that comes with raising them. It takes eight pounds of feed to grow just one pound of beef. Insects, by comparison, turn food energy into body mass much more efficiently: a ratio of about 2:1 feed to body mass. And while producing livestock on a large scale requires “monocrops” of corn that themselves are harmful to the environment, insects can be fed on agricultural byproducts and other organic matter that would otherwise go to waste.

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New York State of Mind

This Month Natural Selections interviews Daniel Goldsmith, Summer Volunteer from Yeshiva University, in the Knight Laboratory of Biophysics.

By Susan Russo

photo (1)How long have you been living in the New York area? I’ve lived in the New York area for most of my life.

Where do you live? In Washington Heights.

Which is your favorite neighborhood? I would have to say Greenwich Village. It has a lot of great venues and attractions, from comedy clubs, to chess shops, to used bookstores.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? The shopping scene tends to be overrated. While the comedy scene in NYC is well known, people do not often engage in it. Accessibility to stand-up and improv comedy open mics is underrated.

What do you miss most when you are out of town? The excitement of the city. There’s a definite liveliness that isn’t matched anywhere else.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be? Transportation being more affordable.

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Culture Corner

An Interview with Richard Torregrossa, Author of Terminal Life: A Suited Hero Novel and Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style

By Bernie Langs

 RT CG author picSeveral years ago, I was checking the blurbs of recommended articles and reviews indexed by the Arts & Letters Daily web site as I do every day. The site recommended a review of a book about the fashion sense and style of the late, great actor, Cary Grant. Since I admire Grant and his body of work (especially the films done with director Alfred Hitchcock), I clicked and discovered that the book in question was written by a friend I’d worked with at a publishing house. Richard Torregrossa and I became fast friends in the mid-1980s, as we did the dull work of pre-computer copy-editing and marketing, and in his case, copy-writing, editing, and interactions with authors. In addition, we attended book release parties from other publishers where we sipped wine in the evening and hovered in reception room corners while we watched literary types and quietly wise-cracked observations to each other.

We both lived in Brooklyn and finally Torregrossa, born and bred there, had enough and headed west to seek new opportunities, his fortune, and adventure in California. We contacted each other now and then and I was pleased when he found success utilizing his cartoon drawing skills with several captioned-illustrated books such as Fun Facts about Dogs, The Little Book of Wisdom, Fun Facts about Cats, and the more poetic and meditative The Man Who Couldn’t See Himself.

One phone call we had in the 1990s, was memorable as I listened to a story of how he’d scored a difficult book contract. Torregrossa told me that since he couldn’t afford a literary agent to work the difficult terrain of the competitive publishing business on his behalf, he invented an agent, and sent out inquiries under their name. His fictitious agent made inroads into the business and, one afternoon, Torregrossa received a call from a publisher interested in signing him, but on different terms. Torregrossa said his agent was in the room and advised him to stand his ground. The publisher asked to speak with Torregrossa’s agent. Torregrossa, without hesitation, asked him to hold, took a beat, impersonated his fake agent with an accent and a higher pitch, and worked out the deal.

After I read the online review about Torregrossa’s book, (which includes an introduction written by fashion designer icon, Giorgio Armani), I tracked down his email and we resumed our long-distance friendship. I read many of his erudite and well-written freelance, fashion newspaper columns in major international and U.S. publications and was glad when he became a style consultant with a history of fashion curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. When Torregrossa delved into fiction with Terminal Life, I read an advance copy. It was just released to excellent reviews. The graphically violent, action novel unfolds at a quick pace, but with twists on the genre. There is a unique hero, Luke Stark, a former Navy SEAL who returns home to learn that his wife was murdered and his son disappeared. And so begins his tale of revenge written through deftly presented prose. The book’s themes examine everything from the value of life to the complications of filial obligations. There’s also a sprinkling of fun and humor. When I finished Terminal Life, I told Torregrossa that the way he artfully managed the book’s deeper ideas was selective and subtle, which packs a more powerful punch and leaves a larger impression.

Torregrossa kindly agreed to be interviewed on the eve of his new book’s release for Natural Selections.

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For your consideration – Cannes Shakedown Edition

By Jim Keller

It’s become a regular thing for me to take a bit of a hiatus after May’s Cannes Film Festival. This is largely because there simply isn’t much to write about in the Oscar world, but if I’m one hundred percent honest, it’s nice to have a bit of downtime as the summer months approach. So here we are in the thick of summer, the FIFA World Cup 2014 just came to a close, and most people are not giving the film world a second thought. Yet here I sit, mere weeks after the July 4th weekend, on the precipice of what is sure to be a crazy Oscar race, slowly beginning to take shape much like galaxies from dust particles. To that end, I am reluctant to dive into the “Ones to Watch” series just yet so in this edition we take a closer look at those films and performances in the Oscar conversation that bowed on the Croisette, which could earn nominations in their respective categories.

Foxcatcher (director: Bennett Miller):
This drama tells the true story behind the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler David Schultz by paranoid schizophrenic and heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, John du Pont.

For Your Consideration (FYC): Not only did Miller win the festival’s Best Director prize, but his film went on to vie for the Palme d’Or, which it lost only by a narrow margin to Turkish director Nuri Bilge’s Winter Sleep. As I mentioned in the last column, Miller won the Best Director Oscar for Capote in 2006. For now, he is the one to beat in the Best Director race. Also in May I wondered how meaty Channing Tatum’s role as David Schultz would be. While Steve Carell (du Pont) will campaign as lead actor, both Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who plays Schultz’s younger brother, also named Mark, are considered co-leads. But with Carell’s playing against type, the two will likely compete head-to-head in the supporting race. A nomination here would be the first for Tatum, while Ruffalo earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Kids Are Alright in 2011. On top of that, co-screenwriter, Dan Futterman was nominated alongside Miller for his work on Capote in 2006, so look for him to figure in. All of this combined makes Foxcatcher a viable Best Picture nominee and possible winner.

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An Extraordinary Early American in Europe

By Susan Russo

Portrait_of_Ira_Aldridge,_by_Taras_Shevchenko_(1858)Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807 to free black parents: Daniel, a clerk and preacher, and Luranah Aldridge. Ira was schooled at home until 1820, when at the age of 13, he was enrolled in the African Free School Number Two. In the 1820s in New York City William Alexander Brown, a West Indian, started four “backyard” or public garden theatres, with plays followed by musical entertainments. During the same period, Brown founded the first all-black “African Theatre,” presenting Richard III, followed by an opera and a ballet. City officials closed all of Brown’s and others’ similar enterprises shortly after each opening following complaints, the last closing culminating in a riot.

At 14, Aldridge found a job in New York as a dresser at the whites-only Chatham Garden Theatre. His employer was a touring Anglo-American actor, James William Wallack. It is not known whether the connection with Wallack played a part in his decision, but, in 1824, Aldridge embarked for Liverpool, England, on his way to accept the award of a scholarship to study theology at Glasgow University. (During this period, a number of religious institutions and anti-slavery societies in England, Scotland, and America were active in supporting advanced education, but in limited subjects, for Africans and African-Americans.)

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World Cup 2014: Enough Info to Get by in Conversation

By Brianna Caszatt & A Gerald Martini, football masterminds 

480px-WC-2014-Brasil.svgTemperatures are rising and flowers are in bloom: summer is practically here. And for one month this summer, people around the globe will be riveted to their screens watching all the drama unfold in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup—the football (yes football, but soccer if you must) tournament that 32 countries have spent the last three years qualifying for. Remember how excited you were to watch the Olympics? Well double it, and that’s how the rest of the world feels. But if you can’t muster that much enthusiasm, this handy guide we’ve created should at least help you keep up with all the cool kids watching. So muddle some limes for a month’s worth of caipirinhas and grab your contraband caxirola, Brazil’s noise-making answer to the vuvuzela (imagine if a rattle and brass knuckles had a baby—they’ve since been banned from the stadiums after being used by fans as missiles), and let’s tuck in.

For those of you who are total World Cup novices, there are eight groups of four teams each. Each country will play all three of the other teams in their group, and the top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout rounds. The top two from the group are determined by awarding three points for a win, one for a draw, and zero for a loss. Google “World Cup 2014 Bracket,” print one out, and make your own predictions!

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Culture Corner – The “Exotic Foreign” of Wes Anderson and Haruki Murakami

By Bernie Langs

There is much made in some classical and modern philosophies of the concept and ambiguity of what is termed “the other.” In addition, one can find obscure musings on the idea of “the stranger” from the pens of philosophers as far afield in time and thinking as Plato and Camus. I’ve been avoiding, of late, the more difficult works of such trained thinkers and their non-fictions, opting to glean life lessons from those more akin within the arts to current travails. What I continue to discover is that I draw great pleasure from the belief that ideas originating from lands abroad that I will most likely never visit, appeal to my sense of intellectual adventure, offering to me, and perhaps to others, the mystery of the “exotic foreign.”

I offer, by way of example, two works of art extremely different in nature appealing to this sense. Wes Anderson co-wrote and directed the film The Darjeeling Limited in 2007 and Haruki Murakami wrote the book “Sputnik Sweetheart” in 2001. In Anderson’s movie, we follow the travels of three brothers on a train through India, a trip they take in an attempt to bond and heal a year after their father’s untimely death. The brothers are played to absolute perfection by the actors Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (Schwartzman has frequently appeared in Anderson’s films and he is also a co-writer of this movie). The viewer identifies with these foreigners since we can relate to the notion of Western individuals seeking spiritual solace in the East as visitors. We discover India as they do, as enlightened tourists hoping to catch a glimpse and some meaning from something new and completely alien to our routines.

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New York State of Mind

To celebrate 10 years of Natural Selections, this month we are reprinting an interview with Zach Veilleux, Executive Director of Communica- tions and Public Affairs. Country of origin: USA. The original interview was published in the April 2004 issue.

How long have you been living in New York City?

I moved to the city in the summer of 2001 from Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I had lived for five years. I needed a change of scenery.

Where do you live?

Just off York Avenue on 75 th Street.

Which is your favorite neighborhood?

It depends. To live in, the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights or Battery Park City – I like being near the water. For eating dinner and walking around, I like Tribeca and the West Village. For character, Canal Street. For architectural flavor, the Financial District.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated?

Overrated: They call this the city that never sleeps, but it’s hard to find a video store open past midnight, and you can’t get decent sushi later than 10:30 p.m. Underrated: The Roos- evelt Island Tram. Most people don’t even know it’s there and even those of us who work a few blocks away rarely ride it. Take it at night. It’s the best $2 you can spend in the city.

What do you miss most when you are out of town?

The energy. Just standing on a busy street corner in New York City is both exhilarating and exhausting. Every so often I need a break from it, and yet once I leave I start to wonder why everything seems so quiet and slow.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

Trash on the sidewalk. We’re the most evolved society in the world but we put our rotting food on our front doorsteps and let our dogs use the sidewalks as open sewers.

Describe a perfect weekend in NYC.

A long bike ride along the Hudson; a round trip on the Staten Island ferry; walking over the Brooklyn Bridge at night; eating at a sidewalk café I’ve never been to before, will never go to again and don’t bother to notice the name of; visiting the gorillas at the Bronx zoo; a long nap – in no particular order.

What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?

The first night I moved to New York I spent in the Lenox Hill emergency room, waiting four hours to get a tetanus shot after cutting my thumb on a metal fan blade. I made friends with a girl who sprained her ankle. She turned out to be crazy. I hadn’t even lived here 12 hours and I’d had the entire New York experience–danger, perseverance, romance and heartbreak, all of it totally superficial.

If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?

I’ve always thought my own tropical island would be nice. Beyond that, I’m not picky.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker? Why?

I pay the exorbitant rent; as far as I’m concerned, the title comes with it.

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Puerto Rico in March – Summer at the tip of Winter

By Natalia Ketaren

El Yunque

Puerto Rico, “the rich port,” is an unincorporated territory of the United States. To us travellers from the US, that means that the currency is in dollars, our cell phones work and we need only a valid US license to travel there. San Juan is the capital. It is one of the most important ports in the Caribbean, situated on the northeastern side of the Island. Aside from its beautiful beaches, Puerto Rico is home to the US’s only tropical rainforest, El Yunque. We took a seven day trip through this lovely island, and here’s a little of what we saw and did.

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game

By Aileen Marshall

It’s springtime in New York, and that means the start of baseball season. There is still hope in the air for the Mets, and great expectations for the Yankees, the two New York teams.

Baseball is known as the “Great American Game,” illustrated by a commercial from about 30 years ago, which ran with the tagline “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” It is unclear exactly how American the game is. For many years it was a common belief that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, NY. The belief comes from the Mills commission, a 1905 report by the National League. This was the basis for the location of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In recent years it has become known that this origin is a myth. Abner Doubleday was a Civil War general, but he was a cadet at West Point in 1839, and his family had moved from Cooperstown the year before. When he died, he left many papers and letters, none of which even mentioned baseball.

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Culture Corner: book review “Seiobo There Below” by László Krasznahorkai

By Bernie Langs

I would bet that it is safe to say that anyone reading these pages is more than busy in this life and that many of you who continue to read for pleasure are overwhelmed by the truth that there are “so many books and so little time.” You may also feel, as I do, that at this point, if I’m going to commit to a book that is both challenging and difficult, it sure as hell better be worth the effort. Keeping this in mind, I have found such incredible joy in chancing upon the works of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (b. 1954). I have had the pleasure of reading three of his works of fiction. Last year in Natural Selections I reviewed his book The Melancholy of Resistance and interviewed its translator. Subsequently, I completed his War & War, a book so powerful that I would read it in dumbfounded awe, and recently I have just finished his Seiobo Down Below.

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New York State of Mind

To celebrate his retirement, this Month Natural Selections reprints an interview with Patrick Griffin, former Manager of the Faculty and Student Club. Country of origin: Ireland. The original interview was published in the April 2009 issue.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 19.32.56

How long have you been living in New York?

50 years
Where do you live?

Bronx
Which is your favorite neighborhood?

Woodlawn, Bronx.
What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated?

Tavern on the Green Restaurant is the most overrated thing in the city. NYC Transit System is the most underrated.

What do you miss most when you are out of town?

Convenience of the transportation system.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

Traffic congestion.
Describe a perfect weekend in NYC.

Staying at the Regency Hotel; eating at top rated restaurants; visit museums and dancing at the Regency Ballroom in the evening.

What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?

Closing a bar one summer night. My last two customers were leaving. As I got to the door to let them out, they put a pistol at each of my temples and robbed me. Before they left, they handcuffed me to a steam pipe, with regular police handcuffs. Somehow I was able to break loose and call the police.

If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?

Ireland.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker? Why?

Yes, because I think NYC is the greatest city in the world.

For Your Consideration – Cannes Preview Edition

By Jim Keller

Now in its third year, this instalment of For Your Consideration takes a look at those films set to cross the Croisette this month. While the Cannes Film Festival is not primarily known as an Oscar launching vehicle, in recent years it has revealed a glimmer of Oscar’s gold. Last year’s fest premiered eventual Best Picture nominee Nebraska, as well as critic’s darling Inside Llewyn Davis, which only earned cinematography and sound mixing nominations. While details were slim, both films were discussed in this column. This year Jury President and director/producer/screenwriter Jane Campion, will oversee the bow of Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco, which will open the Festival and screen out of competition.

So let’s see what lies across the sea, ready to seize the hearts and minds of the attendees of this film industry exclusive and possibly jump-start the 2014 Oscar race. As always, my list is comprised of highlights and films with considerable pedigree behind them, to wind up in the throes of Oscar come February:

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Mistaken for Strangers – A Rock Star’s Brother Peeks Out of His Shadow

By Jason Rothauser

In the film’s opening sequence, Matt Berninger, nattily dressed in a three-piece suit, fusses with a beach umbrella before finally settling down for an interview in the park. Berninger is the lead singer of The National, an indie rock band who toiled for years in obscurity before making it into the spotlight and to the top of the Billboard charts. His interviewer is his brother Tom. He starts with a few odd questions (“Do you ever get sleepy on stage?”). Things are not going well.

“Do you have a notebook?” Matt asks his brother. “With questions written down? Do you have any kind of organisation and plan for this film?”

Thus begins Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary that began as a behind-the-scenes look at The National before morphing into something very different. The filmmaker is Matt’s brother Tom. While Matt has reached rock stardom as the lead singer of one of the most successful indie rock bands, Tom still lives at home with his parents in Ohio. Matt is tall, thin, composed. Tom is overweight, disheveled, and an amateur filmmaker whose efforts have been limited to zombie schlock-fests on homemade VHS tapes.

When Matt invites his brother to join their European tour as a working roadie, Tom jumps at the chance, and takes along a handheld video camera. He keeps it rolling for much of the tour. At first, Tom’s only ambition is to perhaps produce some documentary footage for the web, but he soon latches onto the idea of creating a full-length feature film.

While Mistaken for Strangers does in fact feature plenty of backstage footage of the band as they tour Europe, this is not a concert documentary or even a documentary ultimately about The National. It quickly becomes clear that Tom doesn’t know what he’s doing, either as a roadie or as a filmmaker. Tom, decked out in plastic sandals, Motörhead t-shirt, and ubiquitous drink in hand, is ready for a party. He’s expecting rock-star debauchery, but he’s quickly brought down to earth by the business-like efficiency of the consistently professional band. His drinking becomes a problem (“Remember your allergy!” brother Matt scolds as he grabs a beer out of Tom’s hand), and it’s only a matter of time before Tom is fired. He keeps the camera rolling for his painful exit interview.

But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, Tom turns the camera, and the focus of the film, on himself. How does it feel to live in the shadow of the limelight? To live in your parents’ garage while your big brother becomes a rock star?

Tom’s stint as a roadie shoves this disparity right in his face, and he lives out every painful bit of it on camera with unflinching (and endearing) honesty. A highlight moment features the band playing for President Obama (their song “Fake Empire” was a campaign theme and the band has played at various campaign rallies). Tom is corralled backstage by Secret Service agents while the rest of the band meets and has a photo taken with the president. Tom is crushed that he’s not included. “Do you think its because of my DUI?” he wonders.

Ironically, Tom’s failures elevate what could have been a routine concert documentary into something much more. And while the film has something serious to say about ambition, family, and failure, there is never any danger of it taking itself too seriously. The filmmaker’s entirely guileless personality and bizarre questions replicate the absurdity of This is Spinal Tap, and Tom even manages to ask some questions that music fans might be curious about, but thought were too dumb to ask. “Do you carry your wallet when you’re up there performing?” he asks the band’s bass player. The answer is “yes.”

Documentary filmmaking is full of happy accidents. The brilliant Capturing the Friedmans, which examines a sensational case of child abuse and its effects on the titular family, had its origins in a documentary about children’s entertainers (family member David Friedman is a professional clown, and the filmmaker came to learn his story when getting to know him in that capacity). Mistaken for Strangers similarly rises from relatively humdrum origins to add up to something much more than its original ambitions. You don’t have to be a fan of The National, or even know who they are, to be profoundly entertained by this warm, human film. And if you happen to be an underachieving younger sibling, photos of a smiling Tom Berninger presenting his (much-lauded) movie at the Tribeca festival may just give you some hope.