Sunday, October 22, 2006

3 Films in search of Meaning

3 Films in search of a Meaning

I wish to discuss three films in this post, viz., Educating Rita (1983) Dead Poets Society (1989) and The History Boys (2006).  These thoughts were occasioned by viewing the last mentioned a few nights ago at my local cinema.  All deal in general with the themes of education, what it means to be really educated, what really is the meaning of culture and ultimately of life itself.

It is interesting to notice that two of the three were originally plays, both of which transferred marvellously well to the screen.  However, for the sake of clarity and precision it is perhaps best to treatr of the three in chronological order here.

  1. Educating Rita: [starring Julie Walters (Rita) and Michael Caine (Frank).] This film was in fact originally a play written by Willy Russell, but was later made into a film which reworked the plot very slightly and introduced several characters who were not primarily intended as onstage characters e.g., Denny and Rita's father.  It is a comedy and a drama, but like all good films or indeed dramas there is that magic mix of comedy and depth which interweave seamlessly throughout.  The play or film tells this story: University lecturer Frank needs to earn some extra money, so he agrees to tutor an Open University student. His student Rita is a brash, earthy hairdresser with a recently discovered passion for higher education, much to the dismay of her husband Denny. In her attempts to appreciate literature, Rita challenges the attitudes of a traditional university, teaching Frank to question his own understanding of his work and himself.  Educating Rita is a small intimate play, but it tells a story of big ideas, ideas close to Willy Russell's heart. There is a lot of humour in the writing, but it is also a serious play, about class and choice. "I wanted to make a play which engaged and was relevant to those who considered themselves uneducated, those whose daily language is not the language of the university or the theatre. I wanted to write a play which would attract, and be as valid for, the Ritas in the audience as the Franks."  This play/film consequently explores the relationship between student and tutor, what real education is, what culture is, the meaning of the literary/university enterprise and life itself.  In a drunken stupour Frank chides Rita with these biting words: "Found a culture, have you, Rita? Found a better song to sing, have you? No--you have found a different song, that's all. And on your lips it's shrill and hollow and tuneless. Oh, Rita, Rita…"   Like all good works of literature it does not offer any easy answers.  Instead it asks the big questions that need to be asked.  In so doing it questions our prejudices and the prejudices of both working and middle classes.  I remember my own father making an important distinction between schooling and education.  He had left school at 13 in 1926 to get a job as his family needed the money.  He used also say that although he hadn’t been to college he had “met the scholars” and had been educated by them and used to be severely critical of people, no matter who or what role they performed in society, who treated others rudely and badly.  He would criticize them for lacking real education.  Yes indeed the university professor (Frank) and the working class hairdresser (Rita) can communicate even though it may take weeks or months of tuition”, “learning”, “intuitionand personal growth on both their parts.  Real education I should argue is all about communication between the teacher and student, all about self-knowledge as well as “knowledge” per se, about formation as well as information and is somehow more about the process of how teaching and learning happens rather than the so-called product or end result of the same.  It is a process that is at once open to and receptive to the self and to the other.  In the classic terms of Martin Buber, the celebrated Jewish philosopher, it is a process that engages theI-Thou in any human situation.  This film/play poses these big questions and follows Rita and Frank on a learning curve as they engage with each other about these burning issues.  I’ll finish with a small quotation from the play/film which to my mind sums up the contemporary state of modern humanity: One day Rita finds Trish unconscious in their apartment: her friend has tried to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. After Trish is brought back to life at the hospital, Rita asks her: "Why?" Trish explains that she always seemed to feel alive when classical music was playing, or when poetry was being read. But whenever the music or the poetry stopped, "there was just me. And that is not enough." In the end Trish's education was as much a mere façade for her inner emptiness as it was for that of Frank.

  2. Dead Poets’ Society: (1989) Unlike Educating Rita this film was never a play, though a book was issued based on the film.  The storyline or plot is rather straight-forward.  Eleven boys of senior form (18 years plus) attend a school called Whelton Academy prep school, which is based on four principles: tradition, honour, discipline and excellence according to its principal Dr. Nolan. Boys being boys, thet rework these words into their own sarcastic combination: travesty, horror, decadence and excrement.  Into their dull school routine walks an extraordinarily creative and unusually thought-provocing new teacher, who was once an old boy – though he does not subscribe to its stuffy and suffocating traditions – John Keating.  This Keating (played by the inimitable Robin Williams) is their new English teacher.  To say that this new professor is unorthodox is an understatement – he has them in turns walking outside the classroom to study English in the grounds, listening to nature, tearing out the introductory essay on what poetry is from their rather bulky tome of a textbook. After a brief reaction of disbelief, they do so gleefully as Keating congratulates them with the memorable line "Begone, J. Evans-Pritchard, Ph.D."  He also informs them of the existence of an old society in the school called The Dead Poets’Society of which once he, Keating, was a member.  He also has them stand on top of their desks to remind them that there are many ways to look at the world that there are many perspectives on life. The rest of the movie is a process of awakening, in which the boys (and the audience) discover that authority can and must always act as a guide, but the only place where one can find out his true identity is within himself.  In line with Educating Rita all true knowledge is really self-knowledge.  All true education allows each individual to develop his/her true potential as an authentic human being.  It is interesting to note that this film was originally inspired by the book Good Bye Mr Chips by James Hilton, which has been adapted for television or film at least four times. Also it is noticeable that the quote from Henry David Thoreau read at the beginning of each meeting is incorrect. It actually reads "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner… (61)" (Thoreau, Walden 1854).

  3. The History Boys(2006)  Like Educating Rita this film also has its provenance in a play by the same name.  The History Boys(2004)is a play by the modern English playwright Alan Bennett.  The Daily Telegraph had this to say about Bennett’s fine play: “A play that strikes me as one of the finest Bennett has ever written, packed with superb one-liners. A play of depth as well as dazzle, intensely moving as well as thought-provoking and funny.” In this play/film we are presented with a bunch of unruly, intelligent sixth formers who, having completed their A-levels, are preparing for their exams and interviews for Oxford.  Sex, sport, knowledge and relgion all feature in the heady mix that makes this a stimulating and provocing play/film.  Homosexuality, music, motorbikes and a bit of pederasty also garnish the food for thought we are invited to chew over and never to swallow whole.  If it can be said that Aldous Huxley’s books are books for real thinkers then surely this play/film can keep good company with the novels of Mr Huxley.  This play is nothing if not thought-provoking.  Like the former two films described here this play also asks the big questions.  What is real education?  Who is the real educator or teacher?  Is one university better than another?  Are one teacher’s methods better than another’s?  Are results the only imnportant thing in education?  What is the significance of any one individual’s life?  What is the whole academic enterprise really about?  Is it about being really clever and achieving?  Or is really about authenticity?  After all is not education life-long and life-involving and life-enhancing and a life-awakening process at heart?  In this play/film we are presented with yet again a maverick English teacher with a mind-blowingly open and creative approach to knowledge and life – a teacher whom the students love, even though he is a pederast who occasionally feels them up on his motorbike.  The boys are all over 18 so there’s no suggestion that he’s feeling up youngsters who are underage as the students are rather fond of their teacher.  Then onto the scene comes the clever, young and shrewd supply teacher who has exam and interview techniques to teach his charges.  His approach is more focussed, sharp and pointed.  The headmaster is obsessed with results. The action takes place in a boys' grammar school in the north of England in the 1980s as a group of history students prepare for Oxbridge entrance examinations under the guidance of two teachers with contrasting styles. The play blends both comedy and tragedy, with multiple layers and themes, including growing up, the wider purpose of education in adult life, pederasty , teaching methods, homosexuality , and the Enlish education system.  The original London production won three 2005 Olivier Awards, for "Best New Play", "Best Actor" (Richard Griffiths), and "Best Direction" (Nicholas Hytner). A film version of the play was released in October 2006 in the United Kingdom and will be released in November 2006 in the USA. It is directed by Hytner and features the original stage cast.

In conclusion what we have here are three films in search of the real meaning of education or indeed the real meaning of life.  What we have here are three films bold enough to ask big questions of society with all its “accepted”traditions and standards.  They seek to unmask the phony and the superficial.  They seek to deepen the questions.  Each of the three blends comedy with tragedy.  I was always taken by the statement by one of our great national poets, namely Patrick Kavanagh, that really life was a tragicomedy a blend of tragedy and comedy at one and the same time.  I tend to agree with him.  I would argue that these three small masterpieces of cinema agree with him.  These are three films worth seeing, pondering and debating.  If you are not intrigued and disturbed by them you are a stone. Above this post I have placed a photo I took some years back of the old building in the school where I teach. It dates from 1888.

1 comment:

mariana said...

I enjoyed this very much. I teach at a teacher's training college in Argentina and Rita is one of the set books. My students enjoy reading it but I have noticed that they sometimes feel uneasy when they confirm that the training course won't solve all their problems. Perhaps we all feel more comfortable when we think we have 'the' answers than when we confirm life's full of interesting questions.