Saturday, June 02, 2012

Human Development and Film 4

Little Boy/Girl Found (Conflicts Resolved)
Some books in my bedroom - since removed.
I wish to discuss two films in this section, viz., Educating Rita (1983) and The History Boys (2006).  Both deal in general with the themes of education, what it means to be really educated, what the meaning of culture really is and what ultimately life itself is about.  I argue here, using my metaphorical title, that each “little boy or girl” is “found” in these films, or in more prosaic terms the conflicts of the central characters are resolved or are very much on the way to being so.  It is interesting to notice that two films in question were originally plays, both of which transfer marvellously well to the screen.
Educating Rita: [1983, starring Julie Walters (Rita) and Michael Caine (Frank)] 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 stage characters at all i.e., Denny and Rita's father. It is at once 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/film, 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."[1] This play/film consequently explores the relationship between student and tutor, what real education is, what culture is, what the meaning of the literary/university enterprise is.  In short, we could say it explores the meaning of life itself.
Early in the film, the university tutor Frank, in a drunken stupor, 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..." This film is tantamount, in its effect on the audience, to a screened version of the play and works a similar magic.  But, the film version brings an added dimension to the play.
Obviously, the cinema offers greater immediacy and impact through variety of location, various camera shots, close ups and panoramic views, through the interaction of a greater cast of characters and so on. (The original play had only two central characters, and its action was confined to the tutor’s office alone.) Like all good works of literature, this film does not offer any easy answers. Instead, it asks the big questions that need to be asked. In so doing it questions our prejudices, both those of the working and middle classes. The university professor (Frank) and the working class hairdresser (Rita) can communicate even though it may take weeks or months of personal growth on both their parts.
Real education, I argue is all about communication between the teacher and student, all about self-knowledge as well as “knowledgeper se, about formation as well as information. It is somehow more about the process of how teaching and learning happen, 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[2], the celebrated Jewish philosopher, it is a process that engages the I-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.
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. (Again, Trish does not appear as an on-stage character in the play).   However, we never doubt that Rita makes it to real self-knowledge and authenticity.  In my metaphor, her little girl is truly found.
The History Boys (2006), like Educating Rita also has its provenance in a play by the same name 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.”[3]  Now, it translates very well to the big screen, too, and the above quoted words from the Telegraph equally apply to the film version.
The action takes place in a boys' grammar school in the north of England in the 1980s. 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 Oxbridge. 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 than their current lovable, erudite but rather eccentric history teacher.  Typically, the headmaster is obsessed with results. The comedy/tragedy revolves around their conflicting methods of education/teaching in order to win the principal’s sympathy. The play/film 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 English education system.
Sex, sport, knowledge and religion all feature in the heady mix that makes this a stimulating and provoking play/film. Homosexuality, music, motorbikes and a bit of pederasty also garnish the food for thought we are invited to chew over, but 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 film is nothing if not thought-provoking. Like the former film described here The History Boys 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 important 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[4] 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. As the boys are all over 18 so there’s no suggestion that he’s feeling up youngsters who are underage, and the students are rather fond of their teacher. Or is this teacher’s kindly and humane approach naive in the extreme, and simply lacking in all practicality in the face of preparation for the real world?
What we have here are two films in search of the real meaning of education or indeed the real meaning of life, 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 and each of them blends comedy with tragedy.[5]

In my introductory remarks to this essay I argued that good therapy is all about making our unconscious fears and anxieties conscious.  Here is where I believe film can exercise a kind of therapeutic role in our lives as it can often insist on making us face one or other of these unconscious fears and concerns.  I contended, too, that film can exercise an influential role by offering other perspectives, by prodding the mind into action, by posing deeper questions far more effectively than the pages of a book or magazine, because these concerns are enacted on a screen visually before our very eyes. Further, films both entertain and educate and often do both tasks simultaneously.  They bring a more powerful immediacy into play with regard to various issues and concerns – whether these be wanton murder, destruction and chaos so powerfully and graphically illustrated before our eyes in postmodernist films like No Country for Old Men or in the more didactic goals set and questions posed by the more modernist films discussed immediately above – and they bring all these issues to a very wide audience.
I have also structured this essay around the metaphors of Little Boy/Girl Lost (Films of Conflict) and Little Boy/Girl Found (Films which suggest a Resolution of Conflict).  In so doing, I have set up a deliberate and healthy tension of opposites, a healthy polarity which suggests that reality exists somewhere in-between and that cinema in its broad variety presents us graphically with this tension of opposites which on the whole tackles all of life’s big and small questions in a different and in no less effective a way than other genres of the Arts.  In this sense, film can be said surely to help us understand the issues around human development.

[1] This quotation can be found on a site dedicated to the work of Willy Russell, the Liverpudlian playwright, screenwriter, author, lyricist,  and composer and was accessed 30/04/2012:

[2] Martin Buber wrote his ground-breaking book I and Thou in 1923, and it can be argued that much of his subsequent work is an elaboration and explication of that great work on the nature of dialogue and human encounter.

[3] See Spencer, Charles (2004), School’s Back with Bennett at his Best, Telegraph, May 19. Accessed 29/04/2012.

[4] The character I’m referring to here is obviously John Keating, played by the inimitable Robin Williams in another famous modern film on education called Dead Poets Society (1989).  Unlike the other two films discussed here, this film was based on a character from a previous film Good Bye Mr Chips, which in turn was based on the eponymous book by James Hilton. 

[5] Patrick Kavanagh has an interesting comment on the relationship of tragedy and comedy in his Author’s Note to his Collected Poems. The Great Hunger is tragedy and Tragedy is underdeveloped Comedy, not fully born. Had I stuck to the tragic thing in The Great Hunger I would have found many powerful friends. But I lost my messianic compulsion. I sat on the bank of the Grand Canal in the summer of 1955 and let the water lap idly on the shores of my mind. My purpose in life was to have no purpose.” (Collected Poems, London Mac Gibbon & Kee 1964, 1968, p. xxiii)

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