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Time to learn? The Class.

The New Learning

By Laura Leon

The Class

Directed by Laurent Cantet

 

The disarray that is the current educational system knows no boundaries, as is aptly proven in the French movie The Class. The students at Françoise Dolto Junior High could very well be from Albany or the Bronx, so universal is the sense of teenage angst; but more than that, there’s the shared question of identity, especially for those from multiethnic backgrounds, and how these students fit into a broader society. It’s compelling and disturbing.

Teacher François Marin (Francois Bégaudeau, a real-life teacher who wrote the book upon which The Class is based) has to teach past imperfect tense to a roomful of kids who challenge every example with questions like why he uses the name Bill, instead of something like Assiata, as an example in a grammar sentence; and who stare blankly when he uses a figure of speech such as “when the other penny drops.” An early scene shows us new teachers and veterans alike greeting one another in anticipation of a new school year, and it’s already easy to compare the stoic professionalism of the latter, say, with the shining idealism of the former. When a newbie asks about teaching Voltaire, Marin tactfully advises that this might present too much of a challenge. As the movie progresses, one realizes that what this generation might have thought of as classics are no longer relevant, let alone understandable, to a core contingent of the population.

As Marin traverses the school year, standard dilemmas crop up. There is, though, the added gravitas of the almost Sisyphean struggle endured by educators in this setting. A parent-teacher conference really solidifies what we’ve already been sensing about many of these students, but also offers some surprises. The goth kid comes from an overachieving family. Sullen Souleymane’s mother cannot even speak French, and requires another son to translate between teacher and parent. Marin, indeed the entire faculty, are forced to not merely teach, but to arbitrate and to counsel, to determine how best to help when Wei, a very bright Chinese student struggling with the language, has to deal with his mother’s deportation. At a crucial moment in the film, Marin must decide how best to deal with a student’s insubordination, the outcome of such decision having enormous consequences. That the so-called insubordination was in itself a reaction to a series of events put into play by two mischievous schoolgirls adds to the galling sense of impotency.

Throughout The Class, our assumptions about what education is and should be are challenged. Almost without exception, the students are glaringly annoying, demanding a place of equality with their teachers and, at the same time, mistrusting the classroom and its agents with the same caution with which they view government. And yet, there are times when they surprise, such as when the obnoxious Esméralda proves to be a highly competent reader, or when she confesses her dream of becoming a policewoman. Marin discovers one way to draw Souleymane out of his shell, using photography, and the moments in which the class expresses admiration for his photos are moving without being precious. More than many of the other teachers, Marin seems to accept the need for empathy, and nixes any absolute adherence to disciplinary policies in favor of individual interventions. Nevertheless, he often comes across as condescending, something the kids accurately recognize and reciprocate. At one point, having mistaken Chad’s defense of him against the unruly Souleymane as something approaching solidarity, Marin is stunned to find that, more than ever, Chad sides with the students. That there is no one point of unity—even the children cannot accept themselves as French—is one of the movie’s most complex issues.

Ultimately, The Class offers a glimmer of hope, as students and faculty play soccer together on the cement playground at school’s end. This is high school, and these are adolescents, one reasons. And yet, one leaves the theater with a very disheartening sense that the classic education one might have thought the ideal for all civilization is, if not nonexistent, a cripple felled by universal and conflicting issues involving race, history, culture and political correctness.

Who Watches the Watchmen? Who Cares?

Watchmen

Directed by Zack Snyder

I haven’t read the 1986 graphic novel, but after seeing Watchmen, the movie, I have some understanding of why coauthor Alan Moore did not allow his name in the credits. While director Zack Snyder (300) has managed to bring Moore’s cult (and critical) classic to the screen in a reasonably coherent narrative, it doesn’t capture the author’s subversive visions. For one thing, the material, at least as adapted by David Hayter (X-Men) and Alex Tse, is bizarrely dated: This alternate universe is governed by Richard Nixon (played by a really bad imitator) in his fifth term, and the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war. The Minutemen, a league of costumed crime fighters, have long since been disbanded and discredited. They are depicted in their former glory in a series of elaborately stylized montages that have all the vitality of a wax museum display.

But that’s just background to the backstory, the foreshadowing, and the flashbacks. The film starts out not with a bang, but with an excruciating beating when the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is pummeled to death by an intruder. Another of the Minutemen, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), suspects that the Comedian’s murder is part of a conspiracy to do away with all caped crusaders and masked avengers, except maybe “the real superhero,” Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The doctor is a physicist who accidentally had his molecules rearranged, transforming him into a blue-skinned, godlike humanoid. This startling, special-effects Titan is impressive, especially as underplayed by Crudup, but as the film wears on (and wear it does, at two hours and 40 minutes), the doctor’s conceptualized engineering (he builds a spaceship by telekinesis) and emotionally flattened philosophizing (for various and sundry reasons, he loses interest in saving the world from nuclear destruction) slows the plot’s momentum. Manhattan becomes so enervated that he stops wearing his Speedo and walks around in full frontal digital enhancement. Which is neither funny nor sexy; it’s just something to look at, like the Zelig-style glimpses of David Bowie, Pat Buchanan, and other notables of the 1980s.

Deconstructing nostalgia and tapping into the collective pop consciousness works better on the page—or in the hands of filmmakers more imaginative than Snyder and Hayter. Though he’s competent with wrangling the set design, costuming, CGI, and every other artifice available to a budget of $120 million, Snyder’s reliance on explicit violence for impact is numbing. And the soundtrack of blaringly misplaced, iconic anthems is laughably and distractingly atrocious.

Some of the set pieces have some menace, at least when Rorschach is dominating the action. His pit-bull personality is well defined, even behind his blobulating facemask, and his righteous ferocity is actually scary (Haley is the most talented of the cast). But mostly, the Watchmen are more like live-action cartoons than characters from a novel.

—Ann Morrow


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