Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Movies go to School

In the past couple of weeks I've watched three movies about teachers. The first was History Boys, the film version of the play by Alan Bennett about a group of bright English male students studying for their O levels in Yorkshire. The second was Half Nelson, a film about a drug addicted history teacher in an inner city school. Finally I watched Freedom Writers, the true story of an idealistic young teacher who did amazing things with her class of mostly poor, gang involved, minority students.

I had first learned about History Boys while watching the Tonys last year and was looking forward to seeing the film which was made with the same cast. There has been some controversy about the homosexual sub-theme which sees a teacher molest his students. But the main focus of the film is education and the difference between seeing education as a formation of the mind (and perhaps character) and seeing it instrumentally as a means to an end. Richard Griffiths plays the 'General Studies' teacher who uses a number of unorthodox methods to engage the boys. The headmaster fears, however, that his methods will not be sufficient to earn the boys places in Oxford and Cambridge and so he engages another history teacher played by Stephen Campbell Moore. There is some marvelous dialogue and Griffiths' character valiantly defends a classical view of education but ultimately one can't help but grieve its loss in the face of an emerging view of education as a tool to get ahead.

Critics were almost unanimous in praising Half Nelson but I didn't like it much. It isn't that the film isn't well done. Ryan Gosling is very good as the drug addicted high school teacher and Shareeka Epps is powerful as the troubled student who becomes connected to him a kind of odd friendship after she finds him stoned in the locker room after a basketball game. The film has a gritty realistic feel to it but ultimately I thought it said nothing. And the more I thought about it the more annoyed I was. Gosling's character is supposed to be some inspirational teacher but you see no evidence of it. He spends most of his time in the classroom stoned or hungover. Occasionally he gets up and spouts some theories of history and scenes of his students reciting the history of the civil rights movement are cut into the movie. But big deal. The fact that these kids learn anything is more accidental than anything. I can't say I enjoy watching someone get stoned. The whole film felt more emotionally exploitive than anything else. There seem to be a lot of movies these days that appeal to emotion but that offer little in the way of ideas.

Freedom Writers is based on a true story and in many ways it is an example of the formula movie about the teacher facing unbelievable odds who finds a way to reach the troubled students and transforms them. But Hillary Swank is great as Erin Gruwell and the movie is genuinely moving. I was struck by how she makes the connection with the kids by introducing them to the Holocaust. She gets them to read The Diary of Anne Frank and these kids make the connection between their own lives of violence and the experience of European Jews. A number of years ago a former student of mine who was working in a local high school with First Nations students asked me to come to speak to them about the Holocaust. He saw a connection too between their experience and the experience of the victims of anti-semitism.

There are many good 'teacher films' like Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, and Stand and Deliver but my favourites are the original version of The Browning Version with Michael Redgrave and the 1973 classic The Paper Chase with Timothy Bottoms, John Houseman and Lindsay Wagner.

Here is a review I wrote one fall for The Sower of Paper Chase:

In 1973 a small film was a surprising hit. Released on DVD last year on its 30th anniversary, The Paper Chase remains a captivating movie.

The film opens on the first day of classes at Harvard Law School. The first scene establishes the central relationship between James Hart, played by Timothy Bottoms in one of his best roles, as a first year student and John Houseman as Professor Charles Kingsfield. Houseman won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his marvelous portrayal of the infamous and famous professor of Contracts.

As I write this classes have begun again on our college and university campuses and I just watched the movie again as I often do at the start of a new school year. When this movie came out 31 years ago I was too young to see it but it spawned a tv series and I watched the tv show religiously. When I was in university a friend and I would hold all night study sessions scheduling our break to coincide with the late night reruns of the show. It was only later that I saw the film which is grittier and darker than the tv version.

Watching Paper Chase again for perhaps the tenth time I was reminded again of why I like this film so much. In many ways for me it captures all that is good and that is corrupting of academic life. Hart is passionate about the law and in particular about understanding contracts. I share his inclination for late night studying and know the joy that comes with being in a little world no bigger than the illumination of a desk lamp over a text. There is such delight in struggling to understand something and then realizing that you finally get it.

This is also a film about committing yourself to the pursuit of excellence. In some ways it reminds me of another surprising hit, Chariots of Fire which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1981. Again there are inspiring scenes of the hard work and agony that goes into doing your best. Perhaps the success of both these films is an indication that audiences are drawn to that kind of commitment to doing your best.

But there is the shadow side as well in Paper Chase when characters obsess over grades, jobs and competition. We live in a culture where this is often considered the only justification for an education. There is a college that portrays liberal education degrees from traditional universities in their television ads as useless because they don’t produce the desired jobs. I have been known to yell at the tv when these ads come on. I relish a film that shows this attitude to be ugly and soul destroying.

For it is soul destroying. Obsession with world’s rewards lead the characters into behavior that is destructive of self and others. Hart’s relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter Susan provides the place where Hart is challenged to save himself from these perils. Susan, played by Lindsay Wagner, is in the process of divorcing a former law student who dropped out to backpack through Europe trying to find himself. She is not about to go through this same process with Hart.

But this time, as I watched the movie, I was struck but something else I hadn’t really thought about much before and that is what the film says about the role of teachers. For while the film has a romance it is not a typical Hollywood romance. And while Hart has a close friend to study with this isn’t a typical Hollywood buddy film. The indispensable relationship in the movie is the relationship between a student and his teacher.

Twenty years ago I went off to graduate school at Wilfrid Laurier University and met my teacher, Peter Erb. Peter was and is the antithesis of the cold, distant, demanding Kingsfield. Instead, he is a man of great humour, generosity and encouragement. But like Kingsfield he has a passion for his discipline and like Kingsfield he inspires his students to share that passion. There is a scene in the movie when Hart breaks into the library in the middle of the night to sneak a look at Kingsfield’s own notes when he was a student. Hart is aware that he is a part of a great chain of learning passed from teacher to student, from generation to generation.

This is something of great value that is never captured in reports on universities. But for those students who have experienced it, it is life changing.

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