Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pedagogues or demogogues : teachers on film.

Nanu nanu

Hands up who's had an inspiring teacher! Yeah, same here. Now, hands up who's had a teacher who's said something like, "I want you to look through the painting" or has torn the pages of a prescribed text, calling it excrement? No, me neither. But the latter example is how a great teacher in movies behaves: a fiery champion of individuality who will risk his own career for the intellectual wellbeing of his kids and who will often be so humbled by their lesson for him that he will abandon all greater career ambitions to do the same thing we've seen him do year after year until death.

Now, I know the tenets of dramatisation demand a misshapen portrayal. That's not what I'm talking about. When education or educators are employed in the central roles in fiction the values of education usually take a beating. At best these depictions can themselves inspire but at worst their idiosyncratic maelstroms of inspiration can make them well-oiled Mussolinis. Here are a few I despaired of earlier.

Blackboard Jungle
"You will NEVER split an infinitive"
Same scenario as To Sir With Love but made a decade earlier. Glenn Ford takes a post teaching in a rough neighbourhood school. Things get nasty and violent before Glenn finds the way.

There is a genuine toughness to this one and it might be difficult to fully appreciate considering the host of imitators playing down the five decades since its release. But it would be a mistake to judge this by its cover versions. This was the first significant teacher hero movie to suggest that the problems in the classroom lay beyond its walls. Also, that the nasty pasty disruptor might be retrievable if approached with respect. Vic Morrow in that role demonstrated all the knotty sinew that would serve him in Machoworld later. Sidney Poitier also impresses (he must have graduated as he appears ten years later as a teacher in To Sir With Love). It's Glenn Ford, though, who really impresses in this one. He starts all middle class ex-marine respectable like but visibly learns the method by which teaching, real education might be achieved and young folk might be saved from the prescribed desparation of their adulthood. Sincerely.

This film carries a strange byproduct. The scenes of wild youth untamable that run beneath the titles play to the beat of Rock Around the Clock. It's the first use of rock music in a feature film. Cinemas were reputedly torn apart during screenings when fiesty teens were driven to frenzy by the calumphing thud of Bill Hayley and his Comets. I shouldn't sarc that up, really. It does after all provide an interesting case of unintentional prediction: that said wild youth untamable continued to feel the pulse of rebellion in the packaged conformity of rock music. To this day the terms of rock 'n' roll are wildness and rebellion. Not bad for a music that however bad born turned crewcutted and consumable from its infancy.

When the maths teacher in Blackboard  Jungle brings in his collection of old swing records to demonstrate the numbers in music, the kids smash the discs, calling for ... Frankie Sinatra. The ones who might have cried Elvis had the film been made a year later would have been the good kids in the class.

"An A for effort."

Mona Lisa Smile
You mean we'll just be playing teachers when we're older, Miss?
Julia Roberts heads a dream cast in a tale of one bohemienne's journey into ivy league frigidity to battle the forces o' post war women's oppression. Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, Juliet Stevenson? All in the one photograph? I'm looking.

Begins well. Julia's first encounter with her class of WASPish wunderkinder is pretty fraught. Julia can't get a word of a suggestion out before one of the perfectly presented students carries it out (turning the slide projector on and the lights off, for example). Then in an odd replay of a scene in Omen II the students identify each slide as soon as it appears on the screen. Then, when asked who has read the entire prescribed text book, every single hand in the classroom hits the air. As this scene progresses it becomes clear that not only are these students young, energetic and intelligent but also as  fledgling daughters of the ruling class they fall into their roles like automatons, presumably to be animated into free thinking Pinochios who will walk among us as Amazons of Creativity.

So does Julia decide to accept this? You bet! And that's where it all bogs down. The various future matrons variously shock or are shocked by Julia's petite west coast boho and her ways. I'm not being dismissive, it's an enjoyable film, but the journey of the gifted student to demigodhead and the teacher's to earthly humility is, with one exception, nothing but routine. There isn't another moment in the rest of the film like the arresting classroom scene I described before. I could easily have watched a film where every obstacle the young teacher faced was as challenging as that. But it just spreads across the surface like peanut butter until the regulation affirmation from the students and life resignation by the teacher as she discovers the higher purpose of pedagogy.

"Could do better."

To Sir, With Love
I'm touched ... Is this ticking?
First seen. Tightest written. Best actor. Best song.

Sidney Poitier goes to teach at a grubby London state school only to face a constant tide of testosteronic vim, racism and general attention deficit (do Etonians have attention surpluses?) When this noise reaches the levels boasted by the workplaces these kids are headed for in only a few months Sid realises that the only relevant information he can convey to them is life experience. He challenges them to act like adults if they are to be treated so and finally gets their attention. Thomas Hardy and times table out, grooming and salad making in. Welcome to the world beyond the bell.

What I like about this one is that the teacher is so pragmatic that his frustrated questions are put to himself. The early blows to his confidence draw an observable pain from him that must find a cure. That comes from his ingenuity. His lesson on respect is for mutual respect, not a veiled respect due him by unruly youths. At a later moment involving the white kids overcoming an ingrained racism his unspoken indication is toward the occasion's solemnity. There is a round of smiles from the kids who have turned up against their culture's wishes but it is met not with a returned smile (hey, we all brothers) but a look that reminds them that they are at a funeral. After being overwhelmed by the events of the ending he makes the decision generic to the heroic teacher movie and is incidentally taunted by a brace of his future nightmares.

He feels his increased strength. End. Except I do get the feeling in his case that he himself will learn the way back to teaching curriculum as well as the great lessons o' life. He is neither sobered nor vainglorious. He's just a bloody teacher. A good one but just a teacher.

"Top of the class. A credit to this school."

Dead Poet's Society
Just what part of Mein Gross Weltanchaung don't you understand?
If it's true that true education must extend beyond the blackboard, as suggested in the previous entries, Dead Poet's Society extends beyond that truism and leaps into the constellation of demogoguery prime.

Robin Williams plays John Keating an old boy of an old school for the sons of old money returns to the scene as a new English teacher. He finds the curriculum stodgy and his students unethusiastic so he starts pepping it up with performance.

This leads to exercises to shake the kids out of their drowsy complacency to soar into the celestium of individuality through poetry. This leads to his insistence on the students' individuality in enforced demonstrations of anti-conformity. This leads to the school's administration bearing down on Keating for ... well not for straying from the cirriculum they are paying him to teach but for being anti-conformist. The Principal himself actually uses the word conform the same way that a baddy in a sci-fi might use the word obey.

During one cryptomilitary exercise in non-conformity, one of the boys is admonished by Keating for standing still. The kid says he's exercising his right not to do as the others. Keating's reply is that the boy is acting perfectly within the spirit of the exercise. That should sound self-blindingly true, a eureka moment for the teacher that he is in fact coercing his charges with his idea of individuality. But it is delivered with the same tone that any parent or teacher will use to convince a kid that he can't win. Another scene has Keating roughhousing a boy until the kid comes up with a free verse poem. It's meant to look liberating but ust ends up looking like the kind of religious or political bullying done from time immemorial to extract conformity from subjects.

After all this, some sneaky guidance for the boys to seek out and fetishise his old notebooks, after a failure of his to recognise a boy's self-fatal fragility, after his rightful dismissal, the boys stage one final protest which affords him the same smile the Mussolini would've repressed after the March on Rome. Right or wrong, the boys are his. Whether teacher, Duce, pope or general he can command their hearts and minds against the best efforts of the system ... the other system, I mean...

I hate this film from the same director who rankled so joyously against homogeneity in society with The Cars that Ate Paris and understood the big spooky attraction to really truly going out on a limb against the unknown in Picnic at Hanging Rock. If that's a good teacher then Hitler was a good advocate of tolerance.

"Fail. Does not play well with others."

Ok, so the hero teacher movie in the main is an ode to the discovery of the worth in doing the less glamorous jobs, of being able to make a difference just by doing your day to day. I know from bitter experience having my trips to town interrupted by old girls from my mother's school stopping her in the street in spontaneous worship that good teachers are treasures. But it extends. Every supercilious waiter or cooler-than-thou shop assistant I encounter reminds me of how the dignity of anything can be violated by sociopaths. This is all well and good but as it seems to be so easily hijacked its worth as a vehicle for this lesson is questionable. When the notion of education is valued by the personal force of its practitioners we land in the same saddening territory as popular culture in general and even more so its margins where unassuming talent and vision will always be crushed under anything with more front. Robin Williams' Keating would have kicked Sidney Poitier's ayess. That's the problem.

SHADOWS resumes March 4. Program here.

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