01 October 2010

Plenty of Pencils, Plenty of Books, Plenty of Teachers' Dirty Looks, in Movies No Less; Some of the Best Films Set in Schools

"Those who can teach
Those who can't become administrators."

According to my calendar it's October which means among other things that there's foliage aplenty and students across the country are settled into the new school year. The classroom is an ideal setting for a film and it's only surprising there haven't been more really good movies set in schools.

Perhaps one reason is that too many such attempts are well meaning but ultimately unrealistic portrayals of teachers as miracle workers who by dint of an impassioned speech can turn a failing student into Einstein. School movies also tend to create stock characters of teachers and especially students playing too much into stereotypes and not trying to say anything real about their lives and struggles. There are exceptions, some of which are in the list below. There are also films that satirize or parodize (I made that word up).

I know a little bit about the subject having spent over 20 years teaching, not to mention 13 years in public schools and umpteen years in various universities accumulating all manner of degrees, certificates and credentials (which are collectively worth something approximating the cost of the paper they were printed on). Anyway I thus claim to have some authority in discussing school films, both as a movie devotee and a long team denizen of classrooms in various roles.

(Long time readers of this blog -- both of us -- may recall last year's list of my ten favorite cinematic teachers.)

The list below is of films that show school days, either middle school, high school or college. They all have students, teachers, classroom scenes and all are damn good movies.

Sentimental Education (Not the Flaubert Novel) in Good Bye Mr. Chips (1939) Sentiment works if there's some substance to the story and there's just enough in Robert Donat's performance as the title character. This is a look back at an entire career. Many people teach for decades and enjoy, not every minute of it, but most of them. There is no better way to learn than to teach. There is no better way to get acquainted with people as a species and individuals than to teach. While this film is too quick to try to make us reach for our hanky, it does show the scope of a career and how meaningful such a life can be.

Realistic Education French Style in The Class (2008) In terms of capturing the experience of being a teacher today this is the best school film ever made. There is very little difference between this French classroom and some I've labored in here in the US. Same type of daily struggles to deal with recalcitrant or down right mean spirited young people. Mind you, most students are well meaning young people who truly want to learn. However, being too young to know better, they often act out in inappropriate ways (not always without some reason) and serve as their own worst enemies. The teacher's challenge is to channel their energy into positive directions while variously ignoring or dealing with bad behavior. In addition to individual personalities, classes form types as well. A teacher must negotiate a whole class, individual students and still teach the subject in as meaningful and engaging a manner as possible. Suffice to say its complicated and its a bloody wonder that all of us in education don't go completely mad every day. But there are rewards too. It is tremendously satisfying to see young people grow and learn and to fancy oneself as part of the process. If you're not sure what I'm about, just see this picture. It tells the story far better than I can.

Party School Education in Animal House (1978) Yes, I'm quite serious about including this semi farcical look at college life circa 1963. There's nothing farcical about its depiction of college students partying like there's no tomorrow (I know from personal experience -- a lot of it). In addition to being one of the funniest movies ever made, Animal House captures the rapturous abandon that can accompany college life. The booze, the parties and best of all the s-e-x. Yes college is first and foremost about one's studies, but neglecting to study life itself and all its wild possibilities is to miss out on one of higher education's most important benefits. And when there is engagement against the stuffy, moneyed classes, all the better. John Belushi led a hilarious cast but not to be overlooked is Donald Sutherland as the pot smoking prof. Nothing like a totally cool teacher.

Teacher Shenanigans in Election (1999) Teachers are not perfect, teachers have personal lives, teachers are not finely tuned machines dispensing  data and rendering perfectly objective judgments. No matter how much administrators want them to be. Then again rigging a school election is a no no. Matthew Broderick is the all too human teacher. His nemesis is the ridiculously chirpy Tracy Flick played by Reese Witherspoon in what was a star making vehicle for her. It's a movie that throws the kitchen sink of high school life at us. Sex, including homosexuality, popularity, drugs, friendship and oh yeah, homework.

Old School of Hard Knocks in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) Sure its dated but only just and anyway there is realism in its look at the harsh realities of teaching and learning in a troubled inner city school. Glenn Ford is perfectly believable as the idealistic young teacher. His biggest problem is student discipline and boy don't that sound familiar to those of with experience in the biz. Discipline problems are the number one reason so many young teachers quit teaching before their careers get started. Who can blame them?

Smart Lads in a British School in The History Boys (2006) Believe it or not, not everyone in school is a spitball throwing little snot. In fact there are entire classes full of nothing but terribly bright, precocious young men and women who want to learn. Witness this film, a wonderfully told drama of such a circumstance. Watch intelligent students and teachers discuss weighty issues, unafraid of intellectual challenges even those that can lead to journeys of self discovery. In an ideal learning situation students don't compartmentalize knowledge but see learning as an organic experience. History Boys is a celebration of intellectual curiosity and that is a very, very rare thing in a film about a school.

Marxist Education in Horsefeathers (1932) Any list that includes a Marx Brothers film is a good list. Of course Horsefeathers qualifies here because it is set in a college, Huxley, whose rivals are Darwin, the fictional college not the real person. (Many years ago a friend and I who revere this movie had hats made with Huxley on them.)  The movie opens with Groucho's appointment as president of the college. To show you how little has changed these past 80 years, he proposes tearing down the university and building a bigger football stadium. In addition to a skewed and hilarious look at a college classroom, see a skewed and hilarious look at a college football game. All courtesy of the brothers Marx.

Hey My Teacher is a Drug Addict in Half Nelson (2006) The story of an excellent teacher who oh-by-the-way happens to be a druggie. This is an indy film starring Ryan Gosling in what was an Oscar nominated performance. Like Broderick's character in Election, Dan Dunne is no saint. Few saints would snort illegal substances during school lunch time. He is, however a dedicated teacher, coach and mentor who has a positive impact on his students in an inner city middle school. There are teachers like Mr. Dunne who inspire and enlighten beyond the call of duty. And there are those whose personal lives are not rated G. So while Half Nelson is merely a glimpse of a school, a teacher and some students, it is a very real and thus important one.

I'm Going Out for the School Football Team in The Freshman (1925). Who better than Harold Lloyd to capture the excitement of going off to college for one's freshmen year? Okay that wasn't a totally serious question but then this isn't a totally serious movie. It is a classic though and one that does in fact capture a lot of the naive enthusiasm experienced by a naif leaving home for the first time properly equipped with out sized and unrealistic dreams. So many go off to college with grand plans of conquering the campus and instantly becoming the big man on it with all attendant privileges. What a shock to find oneself the proverbial small fish in a spacious pond. Of course this is a Lloyd comedy so realism is otherwise not the order of the day. Great fun is including some classic grid iron action. Yowzah!

What No Ginsberg? In Dead Poet's Society (1989) Any movie that promotes unconventional teaching is okay in my book. Also, any movie that promotes the appreciation of poetry is aces too. Robin Williams is the teacher and of course he runs afoul of those brain dead types who operate too many schools. Peter Weir directed this story of carpe diem and walking to the beat of your own drummer. Williams may hold the record for appearances in terrible films, but this one is just fine and his performance as John Keating is one reason why it succeeds. There is nothing more thrilling for a teacher to light a fire under students by introducing them to new ideas, new concepts and new ways of looking at the world. You get a look at that miracle here.

(This post is dedicated to J Rage and Old Man Williams of Willard Middle School. There are no better teachers walking the face of the Earth.)

No comments: