Best song of the month: Sevyn Streeter feat. Chris Brown- “It Won’t Stop”
Best album of the month: Sky Ferreira- Night Time, My Time
Grading the Teachers: Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
Grading the Teachers is a running column in which the author, an Ivy League-educated educator, with experience ranging from co-ed inner city public to all-boys private, analyzes the techniques and outlooks of film teachers.
Mr. Holland’s Opus has one goal: to make you cry. Every moment is (cryogenically?) engineered toward the two-point-five moments at which you’re supposed to fall apart emotionally. If it’s true to parts of the teaching profession during its 143 minutes, then that’s a bonus. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize, which is Glenne Headly shouting, “I can’t talk to my son!”
At the movie’s outset, Richard Dreyfuss’s Mr. Holland pursues a teaching job as a “fall back position” that will allow him free time to pursue his passion of composing music and no I wouldn’t know anything about that not at all absolutely not. As the film goes on, it shows how those original plans are complicated by the extra-curriculars that get heaped onto Holland’s plate. Obligations like the marching band or driver’s ed start as ways to keep his job, but they become outlets for him. He eventually becomes so tied to those activities that he neglects his own family. That realistic development, which happens over the course of decades, is the part that I related to most. To outsiders, it makes no sense to, say, help with the staging of a play for no extra money; but in real life it’s difficult to say no.
Backtracking a bit, it’s difficult to discuss Holland’s technique in this movie because the character is supposed to be clueless at first. However, I think I disagree with the filmmakers on what makes the character clueless. For one thing, he’s confrontational for no reason. On the first day, the first thing Holland says is “A little quicker—we’re losing time.” Behind on minute one, and it’s all your fault, kids. After that, the very first question he asks is “Who would like to give me the definition of what music is?” What’s the plan there, bro? You’re making it clear that there is one correct answer to this abstraction—the definition—but, even if some singled-out sixteen-year-old gives you the perfect response, (“patterns of sound expressed through rhythm and melody across self-contained periods of time”?) where are you going with that dead end? No one’s going to be that specific anyway, so you’ll give up and tell them what you wanted, thus making it clear that they have already failed in your eyes.
Similarly, when one of Holland’s tests results in disappointing grades, he hands the papers back one by one by announcing each kid’s worst answer. I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s, like: “Jimmy, your answer for number two is hilarious. The answer is Brahms, and you wrote Chuck Berry like a dumb person because that’s what you are.” And the movie frames this approach as if it’s a clever motivational tool. Eventually, one boy lets Holland know that he’s being boring and unhelpful, and Holland sends the student to the principal’s office because he’s not going to take any guff from some punk kid.
So let’s talk about the principal’s office ploy. Because I’ve had a lot of conversations about it with non-teachers, who all claim that they would be strict disciplinarians. Their stance goes something like this: “Hey, it’s not hard. If any kid talked back to me, I’d send him to the principal’s office. I would demand respect. I’d keep all those kids in check.” Well, there’s a reason no one does that in real life: It makes you look like a fool. It’s admitting that you are incapable of doing an important part of your job. Rather than addressing a problem, you’re going to create a distraction and give more work to the busiest person in the school. Try that with your boss some time and see what kind of respect it gets you.
Holland also tries the whole “required extra credit” thing with a student who is “this close to being suspended” and failing the class. Giving an F is not something any teacher wants to do, but it’s sometimes necessary and deserved and beneficial. Instead of failing the boy though, Holland decides to change his life by making an arrangement with him to do a difficult, stringent report on something at the eleventh hour. It disrupts the power dynamic for a teacher to be making deals like this—deals that can only go wrong for him when the kid doesn’t fulfill his end. But aside from that angle of covering himself, Holland is also ignoring a fundamental truth: If the student couldn’t meet the original expectations of the class, why would he be able to do this really difficult extra work to Holland’s liking once more pressure is put on him? Luckily, the film is able to drop this episode and sandwich it into a laughable sidebar about how “we’re losing so many good kids to Vietnam, maaaaan.”
Anyway, after some intense conversations with the P.E. teacher (Jay Thomas, who graduated from the same high school as me), Mr. Holland decides to change lives. He’s going to USE THINGS THE KIDS ARE INTERESTED IN TO TEACH THEM SOMETHING THEY’RE NOT INTERESTED IN. And everyone in the film acts as if this outlook is revolutionary and unexpected for a music appreciation class, when that’s actually the class that most logically would allow a teacher to use such a tactic. Like, yeah, a lot of music is in 4/4—it doesn’t matter which piece you use to get that across, Olympia Dukakis. Do you mean to tell me that you can make an analogy to something students know to better illustrate something they don’t know? You don’t have to just read from the book and hope they memorize it? Changing lives at any cost.
But part of the film’s message is that Mr. Holland does change lives: My contention would be that he does it in an inappropriate way. First, there are the afterschool private tutoring sessions with the redhead in pigtails, for which Holland closes the door, which is one of the first things people tell you not to do as a teacher. If she has some reason to discredit him, there’s no telling what she could claim happened behind those closed doors. Many a male teacher has answered reporters for the evening news with “We were just practicing saxophone scales!”
That’s scratching the surface of his inappropriate relationship with Rowena, the soulful teenager who, like, totally gets Mr. Holland, to the degree that he almost leaves his wife to move to New York with her to pursue her acting dreams? (I might write a depressing alternate sequel to this film, in which this weird May-September relationship continues in the big city, and Mr. Holland drives her around to auditions for a week before begging his wife to take him back.) The several teaching red flags that this relationship fires up, which include meeting this girl outside of school and naming his symphony after her, keep the character from seeming perfect, which was a welcome complication.
So does that happen? Do teachers get swept off their feet by students? I don’t teach girls anymore, but did I wisely remove myself from the dangerous temptation of hot, wise female pupils who couldn’t wait for me to recommend more books to them? No. Not really, The Evan Rachel Wood types who populate movies don’t exist in real life. Most male teachers would tell you that once you get to know a young woman in the capacity of a teacher-student relationship, it only underlines how young and naive and helpless she is, and to a well-adjusted adult, that’s not attractive. For the 1% who are still temptresses, you just remind yourself not to meet them outside of class or write symphonies with their names in the title.
Once again, I’ve focused on only the negative side of Mr. Holland’s tutelage; but he is generous with his time, and he genuinely cares for his students. His content knowledge is legitimate, and he works hard, which any student respects. I disagree with some of his techniques, but I would probably be slow-clapping him at the end of the movie like everyone else.
FINAL GRADE: A-
Because everything in the Last Action Hero is malleable, the humor no longer rests in the violation of rules (which don’t exist) or screen personas, but in the imaginative co-mingling of intentional crassness and non-logic. Danny gets transported into Jack Slater IV in the middle of a car chase. Slater shoots a bad guy, who gets thrown into an ice cream truck, which then promptly explodes. Cue another bad guy keeling over, with an ice cream cone lodged in the back of his head.
“I iced that guy,” says Slater, before adding: “To cone a phrase.” I laugh every goddamn time, but not because the scene successfully satirizes a trope that I, the viewer, am familiar with. I laugh because of a complex interaction of intentionally unreal and parody elements, of things I recognize and things that ignore both common sense and physics. The scene activates that part of my brain that wants to figure out order and purpose, that wants to manage reality, and briefly shorts it out, resulting in a big, unsuppressed guffaw.
Arcade Fire, Jonze, Gerwig.
Best song of the month: David Bowie- “Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA)”
Best album of the month: Action Bronson and Party Supplies- Blue Chips 2
3rd Quarter of 2013
The website for Blue Is the Warmest Color says that it’s available on my cable provider’s on demand service, but it’s not. And the phone number IFC Films provides is just a “press one to pay your bill,” not some kind of voting service to track how many people want to see three hours of close-ups of French girls and their sexual awakenings. If there were such a service, I would already be the president of it. There are New Orleans venues that should book Blue Is the Warmest Color, but they’re too busy catering to socialites who don’t even like movies.* I’ll keep checking AT&T UVerse and iTunes and Amazon, but here is an overdue list of recent films I have liked in the meantime.
1. Gravity- Alfonso Cuaron- For the first ten minutes, I was impressed that there weren’t any cuts. I liked how pretty much everything was in deep focus, including a version of Earth that was inviting but alien. But it wasn’t long after that that I submitted to the experience and realized Alfonso Cuaron does not play by everyone else’s rules. It would have been more interesting if the woman were the calm veteran and the man were wigging out, but that’s small potatoes. The bottom line is that when Sandy Bullock is careening away from us into a literal and figurative nothingness, (and it is Sandy Bullock, not Dr. Ryan Whatever—the film gets a lot of mileage out of movie star collateral) I was absorbed in a way that I rarely get to be.
Especially in 3D, Gravity is a visceral experience. I’m not sure if anything in Emmanuel Lubezki’s shots even tangibly exists, and I don’t want to know the truth. The event nature of this film, as well as the mystery about how the filmmakers pulled everything off, harkens back to a time when the most popular movies were also the best, when we expected to go on a ride. In an effort to meet global demand for our best export, Hollywood has depended upon superheroes and giant robots that can translate easily overseas. Could Gravity, which is just as much of a spectacle as something like Pacific Rim, be a different way out? Making movies that confront universal human emotions instead of promising fantastic escape?
2. Drinking Buddies- Joe Swanberg-When I describe this film to people, I feel as if I denigrate it. Because it’s so much more than the chummy poster and its will-they-or-won’t-they setup. It has more in common with an intense play than a twenty-something comedy, and it isn’t very cathartic as far as will-they-or-won’t-they movies go. Instead it depicts, in disturbingly accurate fashion, the dissembling and confusion involved in work-spouses, as well as how even the most clearly defined relationship can bleed into something unexpected. I was never against Olivia Wilde, but the way she cloaks self-effacement and desperation with confidence here made me look at her in a different way. There are no good guys or bad guys, everyone’s decisions are realistic, and that type of elegant humanity is all I’ve ever asked for.
3. Stories We Tell- Sarah Polley-When Polley’s mother first appeared on screen, I smiled with recognition because they share the exact same mouth. An hour later, I found out that “the mother” was an actress, and the home movie was a reenactment, another window in an endless regression. How many personal documentaries about directors’ families have there been, and how few of them have been compelling to anyone else? Although the last thirty minutes editorialize too much with Polley’s equivocations about what the movie really is, it’s a minor miracle that she’s able to make this story feel as if it’s not about her at all. It elevates near-sighted family hearsay into a meditation on how we shape family memories in the first place.
4. Leviathan- Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel- Leviathan is about machinery. How does machinery, both simple and complex, struggle in an attempt to control nature? The huge mechanical nets that open the film seem almost like cheating, but are they any more of a machine than the hook the fishermen use to gut their catch? In fact, they strip the fish with such ease that the tools seem like extensions of their hands—the same way the camera, the ultimate tool here, is really only an objective eye for us. And how much more organic can you get than that? I don’t normally spend time evaluating machines, but the film is almost confrontational in its presentation of those elements. When a film has hundreds of cuts, they’re almost invisible. Leviathan has probably twenty-something cuts, and each one feels like a fundamental challenge, complete with built-in conflict, such as that damned desperate duck who can’t find his way off the boat. Most good filmmaking is, at the most base level, all about orienting the viewer: being clear about where you’re supposed to look, what you’re supposed to feel, what the themes are. This film is feature-length displacement.
5. Frances Ha- Noah Baumbach- It has been so long since a character-driven arthouse film was legitimately the funniest movie of the year. But Frances Ha is: incisive, sly, sardonic, knowing, always rooted in character. It’s funny in so many different ways at the same time, able to laugh with and at the characters. Even at her most short-sighted, Frances’s behavior is consistent, which means that any growth she experiences feels earned. The film isn’t saying anything about White privilege and class in New York that something like Girls isn’t saying already—and if that sentence makes you bristle, then feel free to skip Frances Ha—but it’s addressing age as a component of those things in a really interesting way. At the same time, it’s Baumbauch’s least strident work, which has to be attributed to Gerwig’s involvement at the script level. It’s at least as much her film as it is his. The ending is a compromise, but nothing ever feels forced.
*- Oh man, I have so much shade to throw onto The Theatres at Canal Place. Way back when, before the renovations, it was part of the Landmark chain and had passionate owners who encouraged things like a bulletin board of index card reviews. Those days are gone. It’s now a “movie and dining experience” with $20 tickets and patrons who hold conversations with the waitresses and answer their phones in the middle of the movies—movies that are the same trash as any other multiplex, even if the theater originally sold itself as an arthouse. Then Canal Place built four additional screens so that it could supposedly satisfy the independent film needs that were not being met by those first four screens. The result is still “reserve your tickets for Thor 2 today.” My shot above about “socialites who don’t even like movies” refers to the occasional Sex & the City parties, as well as the fact that the place is downtown. They’re running a business I guess. It’s my own problem that I have no desire to pair Pretty in Pink with a selection of red wines.
I would say R.I.P., but Lou Reed never did anything peacefully. Thanks for the week I listened to nothing but Metal Machine Music and went a little insane.