Monday, February 23, 2009

Moviegoer's Journal - Part 3: The Class and Taken

5. The Class (2/19)

I’ve been a teacher for thirty-three years so I admit I’m kind of touchy when it comes to film depictions of teachers. Although I enjoy a number of John Hughes’s films – especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – Hughes set back the image of the teacher for decades with his depictions of the us-against-them conflict between teenagers and educators, the latter often portrayed as nerdy losers. In 1988 Edward James Olmos as math teacher Jaime Escalanate established the image of the educator as a funny, clever, dedicated (to the point of jeopardizing his own health) savior in Stand and Deliver. Although Dead Poet’s Society (1989) - hugely popular with students – presents the image of the English teacher as a man of inspiration and emotion, I feel Robin Williams’s portrayal was another setback, suggesting to students that teaching English is all about getting students to tap into their inner selves and express their deep feelings. But Robert Keating is my least favorite teacher character, and the film is more fantasy than reality. He never really teaches! Where’s the grammar? Where are the essays? Where are the pop quizzes that ensure that students have been doing the reading? (Shortly after the film came out, I remember students in one of my English classes expecting me to forget curriculum and sit around and read poetry all day.)

To date, my favorite film portrayal of a teacher is Jack Black’s Dewey Finn in The School of Rock. Unlike Keating, who spouts shallow inspirations more than he does any practical teaching, Dewey Finn teaches. He teaches his students a lot about music, using tried and true teaching methods: clear diagrams on the blackboard (see the image above); audio-visual presentations; group work; practical homework assignments; hands-on activities; and, most importantly, his passion for his subject as a motivator. Unfortunately, if there were a teacher like Dewey Finn, he wouldn’t last very long in a formal institution.

If you want to see the real deal in action, see Louis Cantet’s The Class. Part reality show, part fictional film in which people play themselves, the film follows the teaching year of real-life teacher and screenwriter François Bégaudeau, who essentially plays himself with the fictional name Mr. Marin. In a school situated in a disadvantaged district of Paris, Marin faces lack of motivation, learning disorders, and cultural frictions as he teaches French language and literature. In addition, not all of his students are native French; a number of them are from China, Morocco, Mali, and Algeria. Even without these added difficulties, the film makes it clear that teaching is a challenge under the best of circumstances.

Teach grammar and you have to argue its function in modern society. Ask your students to write a self-portrait and you get accused of prying into their personal lives. Ask a student to read aloud and you run into resistance fueled by a bad mood. And it’s not enough just to know how to teach a lesson. You have to be a psychologist; you have to be a quick judge of character; you have to be a great debater. In the heat of the moment, responding to a student who is clearly in the wrong, your response has to be couched in the most diplomatic of terms; say the wrong thing, and then you are in the wrong.

Playing themselves, the teachers in this film are not caricatures. They gather at the first teachers’ meeting of the year and introduce themselves – the veterans acknowledging the realities of the school, the rookies seeming to realize that they are in for a big challenge. In one of my favorite moments, an enthusiastic new teacher suggests that Marin and he coordinate their curriculum. Marin could teach Voltaire while the history teacher covers the Enlightenment, but the more experienced teacher winces at such an impossible proposition. Also portrayed very realistically are the parent-teacher conferences (parents with any number of problems at home hoping to hear good things about their children) and the review of student progress (teachers trying very hard to be positive about students who put forth very little effort).

François Bégaudeau depicts Mr. Marin/himself as a passionate teacher dedicated to trying to teach a love of language and reading while at the same time trying to encourage his students to see the positive things about themselves and their peers. A vocabulary lesson turns into a discussion of how people treat each other. A reading from The Diary of Anne Frank becomes directed toward the students examining their own identities.

But Bégaudeau doesn’t present himself as perfect – and this makes the film one of the best teaching movies I’ve ever seen. He makes mistakes. Though he’s trying to get to the heart of the matter, he lets arguments go on too long. One of his biggest mistakes is confronting two girls on the playground and bringing up their previous rudeness. Of course, this heated discussion draws a crowd, and soon it leads to a free-for-all attack on Marin. But this is the collateral damage that comes with caring so much for his students and trying to reach them. Marin always tries to reach his students, sometimes rashly saying the wrong thing. He also tries to save one student in danger of expulsion. In his eyes, we see Marin’s disappointment that there is only so much that he can do.

Filled with humorous moments as well has moments of sharp reality, The Class is a thought-provoking, entertaining film, though at times it is rather claustrophobic and it might have benefited from a greater variety of locations. Most of the scenes are interiors, the great majority of them in Marin’s classroom. And as the classroom banter gets lost in long convolutions, you find yourself in need of a shift of location and a break from the talking.

But the film is always real, always touching. Imagine a school with no more outdoor space than a narrow concrete courtyard where the only recess choices are standing around talking or joining in the crowded soccer game going on in the middle of the space, the ball often bouncing into the groups of talkers. The film ends with such a scene. It’s the end of the year and the teachers are participating. Everyone seems to be having a good time, while up in Marin’s classroom, the empty desks and chairs stand in a jumble – a minimalist still life reminding us of the sometimes volatile but always enlightening exchanges of differing attitudes, heated words, and perceptive ideas that went on in the class.

6. Taken (2/22) is also set in Paris, but unlike The Class its story lies far beyond the realm of credibility.

At the beginning of Pierre Morel’s thriller, ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills (a miscast Liam Neeson; he isn’t buff enough for the action in store for him) brings his seventeen-year-old daughter, Kim, a birthday present at her step-father’s swanky L.A. mansion. Bryan gives her a karaoke machine – a well-intended gift somewhat beneath her age. Her wealthy stepfather gives her a horse. Poor Bryan is shot down when it comes to birthday gifts. But when his daughter goes off to Paris and is kidnapped by human traffickers, Bryan has the gift she needs – his “special skills” that ensure he will find the bad guys and kill them.

Indeed, he does. He destroys a makeshift whorehouse at a construction site and massacres the thugs that run it; he shoots up a house full of Albanian gunmen; and he lays waste to a boatload of Arabs. Though Bryan’s ability to karate chop and shoot his way out of any fix makes Jack 24 Bauer’s daring escapes look entirely plausible, I was with Neeson’s Bryan from the first suspect he thrashes – he’s trying to save his daughter afterall – and I went along for the non-stop, sharply edited ride and never flinched when he shot down ridiculous numbers of bad Frenchmen, Albanians, and Arabs. If only all our enemies could be so clear to us. If only there could be a happy ending for all poor victims of cruelty. I guess that’s why we go to the movies… sometimes.

To be continued.


Jason Bellamy said...

I haven't seen Taken, but your review of The Class is tremendous. I, of course, thought of you watching this movie: oh, the patience teachers must possess. Some teachers are terrific at getting their kids to toe the line, but don't those kids spend so much time thinking about the line that they never engage in the learning? Anyway...

The Class shows that battle between the anti-engaged student and the determined teacher. The teacher here is so human. We respect him. And we're deeply disappointed in him when he crosses the line. (Props to the screenwriting, too, because this film does an excellent job of foreshadowing: not too much that we're waiting around for the inevitable; just enough so that when the blow-up happens it feels inevitable. Perfect!

I said in my Oscar live blog last night that I'm delighted to have seen this movie, but I have no desire to see it again. Part of the reason? That claustrophobia you mention. Clearly, the claustrophobia has a lot to do with why it works (see: 12 Angry Men). Here the classroom becomes a battleground where the war is always on even if no one is shooting.

Giving us a break from the battlefield would increase the watchability of this film, sure. But in that case the product probably wouldn't be as worth watching, if you know what I mean.

Again, terrific job with this review, including references to past teacher flicks. So delighted to have Little Worlds in the blog neighborhood!

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks a lot for the comments! I'm glad you saw it.

Yes, it takes a lot of patience being a teacher - under the best of circumstances. But I really sympathized with this teacher. Yes, this teacher crosses the line. But, I've been there with him - I've been in similar situations - and I think the film does a good job of showing the very thin borderline between doing the right thing and then going too far. That borderline is so thin!

Another part I love that I didn't mention is how the character of Esmeralda gets back at him with her elaborate story about reading The Republic. The teacher is impressed; then she gets him with the clincher. Ouch! What a wonderful moment.

Despite its claustrophobia - the film has these wonderfully realistic moments.

Daniel said...

Well you have 30 years of teaching on me (and I moved on after 3), but I tapped into all of the emotions you mention from The Class. This is a great review that provides some real-world perspective.

And I also love School of Rock!

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason has a review of The Class over at The Cooler and he points out all the overwhelming "cacophony" of voices during some of the scenes. Those parts are very realistic. I think the film vividly depicts an aspect of teaching that I find very challenging: I would rather write my opinions than speak them - and teaching is all about speaking. It's all about processing all sorts of verbal feedback and then responding verbally and expeditiously in a diplomatic and/or instructive manner. That cacophony sure can make it hard! After a day of teaching, I find it very hard to verbalize. I think Mr. Marin is a better talker than I am.

As for School of Rock, I had no idea what to expect from that film. I thought it would just be a lot of ludicrous Jack Black self-indulgence, but I came out of it remarking, "That movie really is about teaching."