Another Movie Guy?: "The Class," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

My high school French teacher, Madame Kogut, is probably senile. She is an old Parisian, for one thing – she actually remembers the German occupation. And her methods for dealing with a rowdy classroom were peculiar. A student kept opening and closing his three ring binder, so she threw the binder out the window. As I was watching The Class, the French nominee for Best Foreign Film, I was reminded of Madame Kogut. Sure, she was entertaining, but I didn’t learn much from her. If my class were more like the one taught by Monsieur Marin, the movie’s protagonist, perhaps I might retain more of the language.

The best way to begin is to describe the movie’s unusual approach. François Bégaudeau wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about his experiences as a teacher. With director Laurent Cantet and a cast of real students, Bégaudeau recreates his book for the screen. Bégaudeau essentially plays himself, and mostly improvises with his fellow cast members. The school is in a lower-middle class section of Paris, and Marin’s students, aged 12 to 14, are mostly immigrants. Many of the early scenes show how Marin struggles with his class. Yes, the kids learn, but they only make incremental progress, and many rebel against Marin’s authority. One student is particularly problematic, so when an incident happens in the classroom, the administration begins a disciplinary hearing. There are compelling reasons to excuse and punish the student’s behavior, yet the conclusion seems foregone.

The movie’s verisimilitude is its strongest asset. This isn’t one of those Dead Poets Society classrooms in which an inspirational teacher transforms the lives of his students. We learn about the characters, but are given no back story. The camera wisely never strays from the school, and rarely from the classroom. Marin is a passionate professional, and does not expect miracles. His classroom dynamics are complex. Marin succeeds by improvising his way through lessons, and correctly guessing how students will react to provocation. The students are sullen and rebellious, and probably do not realize they are learning. After watching lessons succeed and fail in equal measure, it becomes clear that Marin walks a tightrope. It is so easy for the class to fall into disarray, yet Marin retains his passion. His fellow teachers (mostly) share his enthusiasm, and have polite debate over classroom ethics and policy. One gets the impression that this is how most schools actually function.

With The Class, the director successfully uses a documentary-like approach as a means of portraying a school accurately. In doing so, he demonstrates great empathy for his subject. It seems that for every step Marin takes, he takes two steps back. Many factors hinder his likelihood for success. Some students have complicated home lives, some simply lack the willingness to learn, and others are probably too dim for the material. It goes without saying that the movie lacks a feel-good ending. That would miss the point. In its own understated way, the movie argues that teachers like Marin will never perform miracles, and will earn a modicum success only through boundless dedication. Because The Class never panders or exploits, it tells an endlessly fascinating story that’ll easily capture your attention. Don’t miss it.

Here are other movies in which dedicated teachers attempt to inspire their students (with varying degrees of success):

Lean on Me. I first watched this movie in sociology class during my senior year of high school, and it left quite an impression. Please don’t think it’s because I think the movie is any good – at best, it’s mediocre. Lean on Me lingers in my memory because Joe Clark, played by Morgan Freeman, is incredibly abrasive and strange. As principle of East Side High, it is Clark’s job to whip the fledgling school into shape. He does seem to genuinely care for the students, but his methods are dubious. He’s cruel to teachers, has a short temper, and at one point, has a flagrant disregard for the fire code. Teachers are already dedicated and have little respect for the man. Freeman makes the character so larger than life that he often provokes laughter (favorite line: “They used to call me Crazy Joe. Well now they can call me Batman!”). Gradually the school and students improve. We know that the movie is based on a true story, so what conclusions can be drawn? That a tyrannical approach is the only way to save our schools? The movie argues that most credit goes to Clark, a completely unrealistic conclusion that undermines its potential to inspire the audience. Still, it’s fun to watch Morgan Freeman yell at fat kids.

Hamlet 2. Last year had several blockbuster comedies, and this one fell under the radar. It’s a shame, really – Steve Coogan is an underrated actor who deserves more recognition than he receives. Here he plays Dana Marschz, a buffoonish drama teacher who adapts bad movies for the stage. It dawns on him the real ticket for success is an original play, one that will capture the imagination of his harshest critics. So begins his production of Hamlet 2, complete with Jesus and a time machine. The play’s centerpiece, a catchy number called “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” is a real show-stopper, one that actually gets less offensive the more you think about it. The movie successfully satirizes inspirational teacher movies and the banality of suburbia. Coogan is an inspired choice – he sells his character, and (almost) plays him straight. Even when cursing at his cat, Marschz is believable in an oddly pathetic way. There are other pleasantly surprising casting choices that I won’t spoil. Hamlet 2 is worth a rental – the satire is too scattershot for the movie to be completely successful, yet there are some amazing moments of throwaway comedy.

The History Boys. Alan Bennett wrote this adaptation of his successful play. Set in the mid 1980s (and with a killer soundtrack), the story focuses on brilliant middle-class English boys who long for admission into Britain’s top universities. Three teachers do their best to help, and have radically different approaches. Hector argues that thrilling the admissions board with the students’ breadth of knowledge is the best method. The young Irwin pragmatically argues that controversy is the only way to stand out. I apologize if I make the movie sound like a dry intellectual exercise – the actors all have boundless energy. They speak so quickly and eloquently that the dialog dazzles the viewer. Like the writing of Aaron Sorkin, it’s unrealistic but entertaining. At one point, the boys act out a scene in a French brothel that no one, no matter how brilliant, could possibly pull off. The History Boys functions best a fantasy – the kind where brilliant students fulfill their potential, and (mostly) have their lust reciprocated. As I was watching, I got the feeling that the movie would work better as play. Can anyone confirm my suspicion?

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I get sullen in Turkey.