Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movies about English Teachers

Peter Weir, dir. Dead Poets Society (1989)

The moment I'd posted the previous list, Bronwyn pointed out a whole lot of movies I'd left out. I still think there's a slight difference between inspirational English teacher movies and inspirational university Creative Writer teacher films, but I agree that there's not a lot in it.

Is there anybody on the planet who hasn't watched Robin Williams getting his students to stand on top of their desks, judging how they walk, and telling them to rip out the introduction to their poetry anthology? It's a pity that Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" seems to be their poem of choice (though Shakespeare gets a bit of a look-in, too), but there's no doubt that this is the King Kong of English teacher movies.

John N. Smith, dir. Dangerous Minds (1995)

Michelle Pfeiffer as a poetry teacher, yes, I can see that (just). Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-Marine - we-ell, that's a bit harder to swallow.

Much ranting about Dylan Thomas is how I remember her pedagogical approach ("when you can read poetry, you're loaded for bear!"). Oh, and the Dylan-Dylan challenge ... Great sound-track album, though, definitely (even before the Mad Al Yankovich parody).

Richard LaGravenese, dir. Freedom Writers (2007)

While it seems to have sunk without a trace, and was a little clunky in its construction, this movie really packed a surprising punch, I thought. And it really did preach the virtues of writing things down - if not to exorcise them at any rate to assert some sort of control over them.

In fact, looking through the page of quotes from it on the IMDB, I feel like watching it again. Here's one of the quotes from Hillary Swank's character, Erin Gruwell, who's just found a racist drawing by one of the students, Tito:
Maybe we should talk about art. Tito's got real talent, don't you think? You know something? I saw a picture just like this once, in a museum. Only it wasn't a black man, it was a jewish man. And instead of the big lips he had a really big nose, like a rat's nose. But he wasn't just one particular jewish man. This was a drawing of all jews. And these drawings were put in the newspapers by the most famous gang in history. You think you know all about gangs? You're amateurs. This gang will put you all to shame. And they started out poor and angry and everybody looked down on them. Until one man decided to give them some pride, an identity... and somebody to blame. You take over neighborhoods? That's nothing compared to them. They took over countries. You want to know how? They just wiped out everybody else. Yeah, they wiped out everybody they didn't like and everybody they blamed for their life being hard. And one of the ways they did it was by doing this: see, they print pictures like this in the newspapers, jewish people with big, long noses... blacks with big, fat lips. They'd also published scientific evidence that proved that jews and blacks were the lowest form of human species. Jews and blacks were more like animals. And because they were just like animals it didn't matter if they lived or died. In fact, life would be a whole lot better if they were all dead. That's how a holocaust happens. And that's what you all think of each other.

John Krokidas, dir. Kill Your Darlings (2013)

I suppose that this is more of an anti-English teacher film than one in praise of them. Nevertheless, at the end the pompous Walt Whitman-hating Professor ends up encouraging Ginsberg to keep on writing.

Some nice quotes from this one on the IMDB, too:
William Burroughs: Show me the man who is both sober and happy, and I will show you the crinkled anus of a lying asshole.

Gus Van Sant, dir. Finding Forrester (2000)

Ditto this one. The J.D. Salinger-like "Forrester" of the title encourages the young black writer despite all the put-downs he gets from his loathsome teacher F. Murray Abraham.

The best scene is probably the one where Sean Connery is telling his protege to really bash those typewriter keys: "Now you're cooking ... You're the man now, dog!"
No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is ... to write, not to think!

I suppose films based on romantic images of J. D. Salinger would take us to Field of Dreams:

Phil Alden Robinson, dir. Field of Dreams (1989)

While "poetic mentor" films would take us to the more recent Set Fire to the Stars (based on John Malcolm Brinnin's tell-all 1955 memoir Dylan Thomas in America). You have to call a halt to the process sometime, though. In any case, the real - rather unexpected - star-turn in this Dylan Thomas bio-pic was Shirley Henderson playing horror novelist Shirley Jackson (though, strangely enough, she goes unnamed in the cast list, and the role isn't even listed on the actress's wikipedia page. Maybe something ... uncanny happened during filming. Maybe they all drew lots in some unspeakable ceremony. Maybe they all swore never ever to tell anyone anything about it ... on pain of death):

Andy Goddard, dir. Set Fire to the Stars (2014)


Richard said...

The Dead Poets was I think the best movie I've seen with Williams in. It was great (or almost so). It had Shakespeare and Whitman. Two of our friend Harold Bloom's heroes...It's a little on the sugary side despite the suicide.
I have or had a book somewhere by the teacher who inspired it. I forget his name. I didn't finish his book. But he got quite some attention after the film came out.

I recall Leicester liked Vachel Lindsay: his rythmic comic poems have their place undoubtedly.

Is it so great or do we want it to be? There is a play I read fairly recently
Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys' which was very good, also about an (inspiring?) teacher of history and literature. I just noticed it is a film.

I don't know any of the other movies. I once read a bio. of Dylan Thomas wanting to know how he died. I don't approve of Burroughs views. I found his 'Junky' very depressing.

Re these poets I think it is best to read their best poems. Sometimes there is too much research into their lives (although that can be interesting). But I recall going to the film about Eliot and the person I went with had no actual knowledge of his poems.

The flip side is that many such films can inspire one to read the original book. When I saw 'The Dead' it sent me back to the story by Joyce and I watched the movie and read the book and the story ('The Dead' in DUBLINERS) several times.

Although I tried neither reading 'The Great Gatsby' a few times or watching the movie converted me to that book. I don't know what is lacking in that book. Someone said that John O'Hara was the real Fitzgerald....I drift.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

Yes, the guy who inspired that Robin Williams character is called Samuel Pickering. He is, it appears, still alive. I remember meeting him at Auckland University back in the early 90s when he was here to give a talk. He seemed a very genial character, though the talk was a bit on the rambling side, as I recall.

You mean "Tom and Viv," by the Eliot film? Yeah, I've seen it too -- it was a bit of a hatchet job on poor TSE, I thought.

best, jack

Richard said...

Re the Eliot, yes it was Tom and Viv. The chap I went to the movies with was a film buff, and fair enough, he learnt from movies: there is nothing wrong with that. But the movie is only a reflection of Eliot. I have also seen a hatchett by Cynthia Ozick whose critical writing I like and then of course we know the problem of Eliot. Ironically (and perhaps sadly) his 'Bleistein...' is almost my favourite poem. His: 'A lustreless protrusive eye, stares from the protozoic slime/...' (!) Written before the war. When Litvinoff wrote a good poem - not too bitter but cogent - criticising Eliot for his 'And the jew's underneath the lot.' This leads to Pound and the endless argument. At the reading Eliot said he liked the poem, while Spender et al who were running the reading were in a panic. But Litvinoff had a point, he wanted Eliot to change his poem, esp. in the light of the holocaust. But no.
But the film ('Tom and Viv') was good, and also a bit unfair. But I think it was Ozick who was right that it was not Viv's 'writing of it' literally, but that her, and her troubles, and Eliot's, worked together with Pound's editing to create The Waste Land. His wife at the time was positive as well as Pound as can be seen on the facsimile of early drafts I saw once. Also the problems and anguish she experienced seems to have influenced what he wrote.

This is all very good as long as people, or some, actually read the books these things are based on...

Yes, I thought it was Pickering. I think I stored my copy with other books I had for sale. It may have been interesting.

The film had a basic point, dramatically underlined by the suicide, of the intolerance of some parents: the way some (rich or poor) try to 'mold' their children instead of listening to what they want to do.

Will there ever be a great movie on the subject of education and inspiration without it becoming sentimental or sugary?

Richard said...

Another one, was that Pickering the one who gave a lecture on Romanticism? That was about 1993. I went to that and, I wasn't alone, I had no idea what he was talking about. Unless it was someone else. It was weird. I sat through and hour or so of this lecture and came away with absolutely no idea what I had listened to.

Maybe it wasn't him...

Dr Jack Ross said...

That timing sounds about right. I don't remember going to a lecture, though: I just went to a kind of afternoon tea / seminar thing where we got to quiz him a bit. I recall him denouncing Georges Perec as "uninteresting" when I tried to evangelise a bit for my (then) latest enthusiasm. Perec is still one of my deities, mind you ...

Richard said...

Perec uninteresting!! That man's a moron. I read that W it is great and even more I enjoyed his Things and I must re-read that other short novel. And his Life, a User's Manual... is fascinating. I haven't read it all to my shame, but I love the idea and the stories within it is genius. And his Species of Spaces and Other Places was the starting point for a number of my poems. In fact it was the TITLE that obsessed me. I haven't read his auto. but I was beaten to the punch on that by a certain fellow bibliophile, hmm....cant quite recall his was there in Baxter and Mansfield (great name for a s/h bookshop, sadly gone)...along with such as almost the entire of Olson's 'Maximus' which was also swallowed up by I suspect the same aforementioned rogue booker....
But getting back to Perec. It is a tragedy he didn't live longer: he smoked heavily and paid the price. Although Alan Curnow imbibed on a pipe it seems by the cover of one of his poetic collections and got to his 90s...

En passant I'm glad I got Roger Horrock's book on lit., film, (and thus Art) art. Signed kindly by the author with a kind comment. Roger was always supportive and interesting, still is of course. Poor Morrissey according to Ted was Brahms and Liszt...

Brent Hayward ex girlfriend failed to buy the book as the index mentioned Hayward or 'Fat's White' not. I have rather mixed feelings re Brent. But certainly an ingenious and rather subversive chap, still around....But it isn't a book specifically on NZ film.

Tony Green was there, and Peter Simpson Martin Edmond and Curnow of course. Scott, Ted, and others.

I started re-reading some Curnow (inspired or influenced by the second essay).

But Horrocks. To return to film. One day at the University, he came rushing down a corridor. A lecture with images was to start on experimental film makers (such as Brakhage, (McClaren?) I think Len Lye, and some New Zealand innovators). Now his audience, which I noticed at the beginning of the year when he lectured on the mainstream films, some of which you extol here (!) was huge, great turnout, film studies was very popular. But at the end he had moved to Brakhage. I watched the lecture & films and Brakhage's work fascinated me and his name became part of my poems etc
I mentioned this incident to Roger and he was amused at the memory.

But no way is Perec uninteresting.