Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dangerous Writers of the Heart

An Open Letter to Hollywood:

I'm not a critic, but I'd like to take a moment to air a concern that I have. Please, please, stop making this movie.

The movie I'm talking about in particular is Freedom Writers, starring horsey faced Hillary Swank. Haven't seen the preview? Unsure what it's about? Well's here's the short version courtesy of The Onion AV Club:

"Swank stars as an idealist who takes a job at a tough inner-city school where apathy and cynicism reign, and withering contempt for humanity is a widespread occupational hazard. Swank's Pollyanna pluck initially just earns her insolent glares from burnt-out teachers and students alike, but her persistence eventually wins her the loyalty and affection of shell-shocked pupils unaccustomed to teachers driven by an almost messianic sense of purpose."

Isn't the title cute and punny?! See it's a play on the Freedom Riders of the 1960's who were protesting segregation, and here they're freedom "writers" because you see this teacher has her students do an activity known as "journaling" where they write about their experiences ...oh fuck, do you even care anymore? What this accurately translates to, or the movie writ large, is what one reviewer called “them movies where the cute little white lady goes in and makes everybody love learnin' just because she cares so much.”

Sound familiar yet? No? Remember Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer? The movie should be most memorable for ruining Coolio's career when his song Ganger's Paradise was used as the film's theme song. There was also the phenomenally bad music video where Michele Pfeiffer sat in a chair backwards (to show what a rebel she is!) while sort of glaring into the distance. Clearly, sometimes she's glaring at Coolio, but I'm not sure what she's looking at the rest of the time since the video appears to be shot in somebody's basement, but hey, Coolio's there blowing smoke rings so it's cool. I most enjoy the part where M.P. knocks over the chair in some sort of fit of white rage. Acting!

But in case you can't quite remember the plot of Dangerous Minds, Roger Ebert described it as a movie that "
tells another one of those uplifting parables in which the dedicated teacher takes on a schoolroom full of rebellious malcontents, and wins them over with an unorthodox approach. Movies like this are inevitably 'based on a real story.'

How right you are Ebert! Remember Music of the Heart starring Meryl Streep? Again, Ebert sums it up as a film "based on the true story of a violin teacher named Roberta Guaspari, who created a high school music program more or less out of thin air in East Harlem, and eventually found herself and her students on the stage of Carnegie Hall." And as Music of the Heart teaches us, these movies don't just have to be about Reading, Writing, and 'Rithmatic teachers -- they can be about those who teach the arts as well. Just check out Take the Lead starring Antonio Banderas.

Of all of these films I find Take the Lead the least eggregious in equal parts because a) it has Antonio Banderas b) there's lots of dancin' and c) there's no scene where the protagonist, through interaction with his/her students, has the shocking realization of the poverty, degredation, and racism her students have been subjected to that has caused them to have thick, but not impenetrable exteriors!

What I find most troubling about all these films is that I think they ultimately trivialize the full extent of the problems of public schools. As though, my god, all these ghetto schools need is a few dedicated white teachers to put in the time! While the real teachers who inspire these films have made an amazing difference and should be recognized, there's just so much more to the equation that these films by their very nature merely touch on. Like poverty, degredation, and racism.

Interestingly
Half Nelson, a film with the same theme but not based on a real story, is a far far better film than any of those I've just listed.
Maybe because it focuses on the relationship between an exceptional but troubled teacher and one troubled student. Maybe because we get to see exactly the pressures and temptations that the characters face, rather than classroom scenes where a white teacher standing at the head of a sea of brown faces "reaches" her students by comparing rap to poetry, or having her students "journal" or other total bullshit. Maybe it's a better film because the teacher clearly doesn't have all the answers, and because he doesn't have go outside of his box to "reach" his students -- he just does.

In the Republic, Plato wrote that a painting of a vase is a lesser creation than an actual vase because the painting is a mere illusion. In other words, a work of art is a copy of a Form. I have always felt that Plato was wholly wrong, and nothing could illustrate my feeling more than this group of films. While Freedom Writers et al. may be "true" stories and therefore more like Plato's vase, they fail precisely because they cannot get at the truth in the way a fictional story like Half Nelson can.

So Hollywood, por favor, make more movies like Half Nelson, and far fewer like Freedom Writers.

Thank you.

-Laaw-yuhr

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Full disclosure: I've seen every film mentioned except for Freedom Writers. Clearly, I have zero plans to see it.

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