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 Wlat Whitman-hating Professor ends up encouraging Ginsberg to keep on writing.

Some nice quotes from this one on teh 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!"
o 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)

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Movies about Creative Writing Teachers

Marc Lawrence, dir. The Rewrite (2015)

Bronwyn and I were watching this truly silly Hugh Grant vehicle the other night, when I got to thinking about the portrayal of Creative Writing teachers on screen - to date, at any rate. Strangely enough, there were one or two moments during the film when I got a faint intimation that its author (also its director) might know something about what he was talking about.

Hugh Grant was turning in his usual foppish performance as ineffectual-Englishman-abroad, but sometimes - such as the moment when he was forced to face the full horror of a Creative Writing class he hadn't prepared for at all - when it began to resemble reality for a brief instant.

His method of evaluating portfolios - consisting of checking out their respective author's profile pictures on facebook, rather than actually reading any of them - had a certain undeniable panache, but it was when I found I was actually taking note of some of his techniques and resolving to try them out next time I'm in class, that I realised that the movie was working for me, at least: despite the complete lack of any screen chemistry between Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei; despite the floppy, rather pointless ending.

That's pretty sad, isn't it? Taking pointers from Hugh Grant. I must be desperate.

Curtis Hanson, dir. Wonder Boys (2000)

It got me to thinking, though. What are some of the other notable Creative Writing teacher performances in cinema history? I was very shocked indeed to discover, a few years ago, that none of my colleagues had ever even seen the Great-Grandaddy of them all: Wonder Boys.

I'm afraid that this film has been in my personal pantheon for so long that it is, for me, beyond all criticism. I know people say that Michael Douglas was miscast, that he's too old, that he doesn't look enough like an intellectual ... etc. etc. Blah blah woof woof - as Jessica Alba once memorably put it in an episode of Dark Angel.

Who the hell cares what he looks like? Whether there's even the slightest plausibility in any of the events of that long strange weekend in Pittsburgh, the weekend of Word-fest?

"That book of yours must have been one nutty ride," as one of the bit-players remarks to Grady Tripp, Michael Douglas's character in the movie, author of Arsonist's Daughter, "a little book I wrote 'under the influence,' as you put it, which happened to win a little thing called the P.E.N. award," as he points out pompously to Katie Holmes, who is trying to persuade him to edit out one or two little details ("the characters' dental records, the genealogies of their horses") from his latest opus.

I find myself quoting from it at least once a day: "As fit as a fucking fiddle" - Grady's description of Tobey Maguire's character, aka: "James Leer, Junior Lit major and sole inhabitant of his own gloomy gulag", whom he's just caught with a loaded gun out in the garden of the Vice-Chancellor's house; "Jesus, what is it with you Catholics?" - the "sensitive" response to James's latest story from one of his classmates; "Sometimes people just need to be rescued" - when Grady and his editor bust James out of his grandparents's house, leaving a dead dog behind in his bed to act as decoy:
"Spells? Jesus, James, you make it sound like we're in a Tennessee Williams play. I don't get spells." / "What do you call them, then?" / "Episodes."
I love the way that nobody uses anything but a typewriter to produce their various works, short or long, with somewhat unfortunate results when it turns out that Grady, for one, does not make copies. "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there," as Bob Dylan puts it in one of the two songs he contributed to the film.

"It's nice to know that the youth of America are in safe hands" is Robert Downey Jr.'s parting shot as he disappears into the Dean's office to attempt (with mixed success) to parley them all out of trouble.

Part of it is the excellence of the book it's based on, of course. Michael Chabon's second novel is yet another long love-letter to Pittsburgh, his "drug of choice," as Grady characterises Frances McDormand's taste for the written word. Whole sections and subplots of the book have been left out of the cinematic version. What is there, however, rings true enough to Chabon's semi-autobiographical tale of a writer caught in the trap of an unfinishable and uncomfortably vast second novel, after the breakthrough ease of his first, the Great Gatsby-like Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Mostly, though, it's just that even though our professional (and private) lives could never bear the faintest resemblance to Grady's (perish the thought!), one can't help feeling at times that they should - that it should be as cool a thing to do as Michael Douglas makes it. For me, this is the closest thing to Holy Writ the profession has yet inspired.

Danny DeVito, dir. Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

When it comes to quotable quotes, though, this early effort by Danny DeVito and Bily Crystal is pretty impressive, too. The DeVito character's "short stories" - all of which run something like "He came into the room. He was carrying an axe. He hit her with it again and again and again. Until she was dead" - are quite effective, as are Billy Crystal's attempts to improve them a bit: "There's no real suspense. We don't get to know any of the characters, to feel for them, before they get killed - perhaps instead of killing her he could offer her a mint julep?"

Good, too, are Crystal's struggles with the first line of his new novel: "The night was ..." hot, sweaty, cold, dark, humid - culminating in the "Momma" character's suggestion: sultry. "I'll kill her myself," shouts Crystal. Maybe because she's a better writer than he is.

The term "criss-cross" certainly entered my vocabulary thanks to this film. For years, though, I was under the impression that it was an actual quote from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, which Throw Momma from the Train sets out to parody with such vigour. Not so, it would appear. It's all Danny DeVito (or, I suppose, the screenwriter, Phil Silver).

David Anspaugh, dir. Moonlight and Valentino (1995)

Finally, last and probably least, there's this little zircon from the mid-nineties. At the time I had a bit of a crush on Elizabeth Perkins, who plays an uppity poet forced to teach Creative Writing classes for a living after her husband dies in this otherwise forgettable rom-com. I can't quite remember who gets off with Jon Bon Jovi, who plays a hunky house-painter - but the plot summary on the Internet Movie Database says that he "profoundly affects" each of the four female star's lives.

I do remember a scene in class where Elizabeth Perkins is trying to explain to a student why the single repeated name of his girlfriend does not constitute a poem. He keeps claiming that to make any addition to the word would be pointless: it already expresses all the meaning in the universe. She keeps on arguing that his work cannot be expected to connect with an audience who've never actually met her. He says that he doesn't care.

I suppose what interested me about the scene was the way in which you could see the teacher gradually becoming more and more persuaded of the merits of his argument, while feeling unable to say so without letting the side down. A not too unfamiliar situation, I'm sorry to say.

Spike Jonze, dir. Adaptation (2002)

So what do you think? There are bound to be others I've missed. I suppose one should include Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, with its brilliant parody of Robert McKee - played by Brian Cox - and his (in)famous "story seminars."

Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton, dir. D.O.A. (1988)

Then there's a minor thriller called D.O.A. (a remake of the 1950 film noir classic), starring Dennis Quaid as an English professor who is poisoned by a colleague who is planning to plagiarise a novel by one of Quaid's students, a young man who has just committed suicide by jumping off a building (though actually he was pushed - by the colleague in question).

It turns out that the drunken slacker Quaid never even read the student's novel, simply scrawled an "A+" on the front, and so would never have been able to detect the theft. By then it's too late, though: everybody dies or goes to prison and the book doesn't even get to see the light of day. No great advertisement for the profession, to say the least.

There are plenty of other films about writers stealing other writer's work: The Words (2012), with Bradley Cooper, would be a case in point - or the rather more amusing The Hoax (2006), with Richard Gere, about the faking of Howard Hughes' memoirs - but that's not really the same thing. There's no element of writing teaching going on in either film, so far as I can see.

The same goes for the excellent 2006 Will Ferrell / Emma Thompson film Stranger than Fiction, or the even better Love and Death in Long Island (1997), or the surprisingly entertaining Ruby Sparks (2012), or even Misery (1990) itself, for that matter - or any of the rest of those truth-gets-confused-with-fiction-in-the-screwed-up-mind-of-a-writer movies ...

Richard Kwietniowsk, dir. Love and Death in Long Island (1997)

Friday, April 01, 2016

Worried about the Illuminati?

No? Well, you probably should be!

There’s a wonderful scene in the film version of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons where Ewan McGregor, who’s acting as a kind of Vatican caretaker while the Cardinals are locked up in conclave to elect a new Pope, is attacked by a madman with a red-hot branding iron.

“Illuminatus!” cries Ewan, as his flesh burns. Yes, his assailant is indeed one of the Illuminati, fresh from the late eighteenth century (where we might have hoped they’d all be resting in peace).

As it turns out, there aren’t any actual Illuminati in the movie. Tom Hanks, reprising his role as Harvard Professor of “Symbology” Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code (2003 / movie 2006), manages to detect the subterfuge and discover that Ewan has actually branded himself as part of his complicated plan to subvert the Papacy.

It’s funny how those elusive Illuminati recur – mostly as villains, admittedly. My local fish ’n’ chip shop keeps a pile of tattered magazines to read while you’re waiting for your order. I think it was in the Australian Women’s Weekly that I learned that Beyoncé Knowles is one of the Illuminati. Apparently she’s been making pyramid shapes with her hands at recent concerts, which is a sure-fire sign of being an initiate (presumably this was before she took to dressing like a Black Panther instead).

The pop group Coldplay, too, has been displaying strange flower symbols on their drumkits of late. The author of the article thought there was a good chance that joining the Illuminati might well become the latest Hollywood craze, in succession to Scientology and Kabbalah. Rihanna’s “Umbrella” video, too, is apparently full of similar occult references to her dark master, the Devil.

Probably the most sophisticated treatment of this theme is in Umberto Eco’s great novel Foucault’s Pendulum. His two protagonists, Belbo and Casaubon, deliberately cook up the most outrageous mixture of Occultist conspiracy theories possible – complete with Templars, Rosicrucians, the Priory of Sion, and every other conceivable permutation on the general theme of Gnosticism – and then invent a fictitious rendezvous for the whole strange crew.

Sure enough, when the two turn up at the appointed meeting place under Léon Foucault’s famous Pendulum in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, there they all are. Belbo and Casaubon’s fertile invention has somehow succeeded in creating the very absurdities it set out to parody. Casaubon manages to escape through the sewers, but his companion is hanged from the wire of the pendulum, changing (significantly) the arc of its world-defining rotation.

Eco’s multi-layered, multiple game-playing book can be seen, in retrospect (somewhat like Cervantes’ Don Quixote), to have predated many of the worst excesses of the genre it parodies. True, Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), with its theory of the descent of the French Merovingian Kings from Jesus Christ (via his common-law wife Mary Magdalene), was already a bestseller. The massive vogue of Dan Brown was yet to come, however, and public knowledge of these ideas was thus not yet universal.

Umberto Eco: Foucault's Pendulum (1988)

It was a bit of a shock to me to discover just how far things had gone, though, when I when I found myself reading an online article on Illuminati symbolism in Australia. They're everywhere, apparently - not just in the old world, but here in the new world, too!

The trouble, of course, with all this heavy tongue-in-cheek irony, is that people have a tendency to take it straight. For the record, then, I do not believe that latter-day Illuminati have subverted all our democratic institutions and are secretly plotting to take over the world (though for that matter, they're welcome to have a go, as far as I'm concerned - it's hard to see how they could do a worse job than the present lot ...)

What does interest me about them is that strange penumbra of omnipurpose, one-size-fits-all conspiracy theory they exhude: sometimes it's the Templars, sometimes the Cathars, sometimes the Priory of Sion, only too often (unfortunately) the Elders of Zion, but always (we're told) there's a bunch of idiots somewhere dressing up in strange robes and painting their faces with symbols and having wild parties to which none of us happen to have been invited (unless some of you reading really are members of the international Illuminatist Frater / Sorority, in which case apologies).

I suppose it's all harmless enough: I mean, is any conspiracy worthy of the name really going to centre on Beyoncé? No offence, and I suppose the name of her former girl-group Destiny's Child might be seen as a bit of a clue, really, when you think about it ... Huh? What's that? ... a scratching at the window ... that hand! ... what are they chanting? ... Ngaah, Nyarlathotep ... NOOOOOO! ... Aaaaargh ... [CRASH]

[We publish this blogpost just as it was found on the author's computer, complete with those last few meaningless lines. Of course, it can only be regarded as a coincidence that he was interrupted by some intruder or intruders unknown just at the moment he was recording the results of his own investigations into the Illuminati in New Zealand. To draw any other conclusion can only be regarded as absurd and baseless paranoia ... - Ed.]