United Artists in Turmoil: Teachers (1984) BluRay Review/Analysis

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Directed by Arthur Hiller.   Released TODAY.

Notable Soundtrack featuring .38 Special, Bob Seger, Night Ranger

United Artists, originally begun as a creative and financial alternative to the Hollywood studio system before films even had sound, by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths, and several partners, struggled successfully with that vision through the 1950s and ’60s, eventually backing what might be called a series of “anti-blockbuster” releases in the 1970s, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the original Rocky.  We can give them their fair share of credit for what remains of intelligent, risk-taking and watchable film in America today.  The 1980s were a particular turbulent decade for the outfit, including a merger with MGM and brief acquisition by Ted Turner.

Eclipsed today by lightweight efforts in the James Bond franchise and the increasingly overblown Rocky sequels, a film like Teachers (1984) came and went into obscurity, undeservedly so.  It’s not as significant as Apocalypse Now, of course, but it’s no Trail of the Pink Panther either.  The studio delved into all genres: Westerns, Sci-Fi, Horror, High Drama, screwball comedy.  Hiller’s piece can be termed Romantic Comedy, in the old, Hawthornian sense of the word “Romantic”: an exaggerated version, satirical in this case, of what we all go through every day.

Set in the middle of a snowy winter rather than the early Autumn or late Spring typical of high-school stories, Hiller’s film immediately warns of its darker tone.  .38 Special’s title-song lyrics, “And for all the things you taught me, only time will tell If I’ll be able to survive” and reference to a “jungle, ” along with a security guard muttering “animals” as he unchains the doors, hint at naturalistic themes.  For those who might object that too much cynicism is packed into a running time shy of two hours, understand that a real-world time frame of many months can be inferred–it’s a convention of the genre.

Characters are lead by bleary-eyed teaching vet, Alex Jurell (Nick Nolte,) whose awards are fifteen years in the past  but who still sees more value in saving individual students who might slip through the cracks than in propping up a corrupt, mass-production system, championed by his friend, sell-out administrator Roger Rubell (Judd Hirsch): “You’re job is to get them through this school and keep ’em out of trouble–that’s it.”  Their similar surnames alert us to the fact that every educator faces a crossroads in career paths, and not all choose an idealistic one.

But it’s an ensemble piece, minor characters sometimes stealing the show, like an escaped mental patient recruited as a substitute Social Studies instructor, Herbert Gower (Richard Mulligan).  He’s a showman, of course, but he knows that keeping his students awake is prerequisite to them learning anything, unlike his colleague ‘Ditto’ Stiles (Royal Dano).

Morgan Freeman, not long after his stint as Easy Reader on PBS’s The Electric Company, fills a wonderfully ironic role as a corrupt lawyer helping to sweep illiteracy under the rug.  He and Lee Grant (as Superintendent Dr. Donna Burke) function as major villains, trying to keep the doors open and willing to skin Jurell alive if need be.

The vast majority of teaching ever represented in the American cinema portrays teachers as either devastatingly boring, or a cranky, if not insane lot.  But one would never know that anything were ever taught or learned within the confines of a school building, because scenes in most films are “saved by the bell” (classes lasting, apparently, an average of 8-10 minutes in America).  Whenever possible, of course, a sexual element gets thrown in for good measure (see the late Transformers 2 film for a regrettable example).  No, we actually see and hear Jurell trying to teach, and his students struggling with and against him.

Teachers doesn’t sign off early–one can’t help wondering if a few honest-to-goodness educators served as consultants.  Nolte fails to engage his students with the textbook material, notably Eddie Pilikian (Ralph Macchio,) and he’s most effective as a reluctant role model with the lifestyle of a broken-down loser, but with the advanced ethics of a disillusioned campaigner.  His unstated theory–we sense he’s tried them all–seems to be that if he can reach the worst kid, the better ones will all come along.  It’s worth a try.  One fiasco involves him being drafted by Eddie and Diane (Laura Dern) into a mini-drama to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, similar to the one that lent some gravity to Cameron Crowe’s lighter, contemporaneous Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s still timely stuff, but speaking as one who sojourned through high school in the mid-’80s myself, Hiller also offers an authentic period piece here.  Nolte doesn’t have a smart-board or computer–he has all he can do to keep the radiator in his classroom working.  The kids aren’t driving 6-year-old cars as in Linklater’s often-brilliant Dazed and Confused, or ordering pizzas in class a la Fast Times, or staging detention-be-damned production numbers as in Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.  At one point, during a parent-teacher conference, Macchio gets slapped across the smart-mouth by his father. It’s a sobering moment, for all of us, a reminder of how much has changed.

Hiller pulls off a rare trick in not polarizing the cast–neither the kids nor the adults escape his satire, or forfeit his sympathy.  Eddie probably deserves the reminder, and his Dad also deserves collaring by Jurell.

Nolte’s major conflict with the system–whether to compromise standards to such a degree that his job becomes meaningless–resonates today as well as it did thirty years ago.    Teachers haven’t gotten much respect in this country since the time of Ichabod Crane, and so the incentives to die for principle defending any particular hill or trench come mighty infrequently.  Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams) functions in the role of Hiller’s mouthpiece, a former student who appears just in time to remind Nolte that he has made a difference, and herein the film falls prey to that charge against all works of social criticism: it’s too heavy-handed at times.  “We’re not talking about business here, we’re talking about the future!” cries lawyer Hammond to her boss, ordering her to squash a lawsuit against the school.  She regroups, in one of the more memorable nude scenes on screen, and it’s a bit over-the-top for a work that functions with a sustained aesthetic of realist detail to buttress its romantic elements.  This isn’t helped by the semblance of a happy ending, which comes abruptly and can mistakenly leave the impression that integrity must triumph over corrupt unions and The Man.  But it’s really a conclusion to a third act in the tradition of existentialist drama like Two-Lane Blacktop and even The Magnificent Seven: the Jurells and Gowers and Hammonds and especially Palikians can’t win, but it’s better for all of us that they were there, than otherwise.

In that vein, the film itself can’t be updated to HD quality no matter how much remastering/digitizing goes on, but that would be as questionable a move as updating the edgy soundtrack to a set of 21st century songs.  The new Blu-Ray is short on special features, but as Hiller’s film was unavailable except in VHS for many years, it may be that you don’t own the DVD anyway.  It’s well worth the screening–and if you’re an educator or librarian, or know one–the acquisition.

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Weight, Warmth, and Writing: Return of the Analog

 

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By Shawn Stjean

If only that were true; but the signs are there.  Signs that a few people yearn for a more authentic, true, immediate, and visceral experience, and that the shadows and echoes we’re being served don’t quite satisfy us.  I mean, why struggle through Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey, or The Grapes of Wrath when you can get the Wiki-version, or better yet catch a Simpsons‘ parody?  When was the last time a movie gave you joy?  Follow-up: Good for you.  How much CGI did it have?

Somehow, people still wear faced wristwatches–not because they are in a hurry, but because the object emanates beauty: through design, precision, aesthetic qualities.  They still search the night sky, with their naked eyes.  A few even read, in their best if flawed voices, to their children.

Let’s not forget that both analog and digital are recording technologies–rather than see and hear a live performance (a play, concert, reading, interview, and so on) we get the convenience of having it to experience, not live, but at our leisure.   This usually means, of course, that we’ll be doing it alone rather than among a crowd–or with far fewer people around, at any rate.  I will never forget attending a screening of  Eastwood’s Unforgiven at Red Rocks Amphitheater on a hot July night in Colorado, along with three thousand other people, under an open canopy of stars.  That experience ranks second only to my eleven-year-old self seeing the original Star Wars in the local theater–never has a film received a standing ovation and cheering, in my memory, by an audience of adults, reliving their childhood enthusiasm for right over might.  However, these experiences pale in comparison to getting one’s chest thumped at a Bachman Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult show in a small club and amusement park, respectively–those were rehearsed and orchestrated, of course–but they sure weren’t Memorex.  They were live, baby.

And I have held pen-and-ink manuscripts more than one-hundred years old in my own hands, at the risk of them falling apart, to study the past, and pass on what I discovered.  I could not be present at the crucifixion of Christ, but I have the Pieta and the New Testament.

I won’t wax nostalgic about analog recording, which is being brought back most recently in the form of 180g vinyl LPs of many popular, classic albums.  Yes, there was tape hiss–hell, there was tape breakage.  Records are delicate, and they scratch.  Film gets exposed, or deteriorates.  Paint chips; sculptures erode; and readings fade into memory.  But you have to realize that digital recordings, even more so, are from the moment of creation MISSING SOMETHING.  The dynamic range is clipped off at the edges, compressed–the warmth goes away, and portability doesn’t come free: we trade away what used to be called “Hi Fidelity”–and fidelity, in its primary definition, means Truth.  It can be experienced authentically as a thump in your chest–but today, what is absent in the sound wave is substituted for/covered up by more power and volume.

This phenomenon is not confined to music and movies (they used to be called “films.”)  Your money has been digitized: what was once a barter of labor or product for something of like value, was substituted for precious metal, later non-precious metal, then paper, and now a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer database.  It earns interest at perhaps one-quarter of the inflation rate, which means it’s shrinking all the time.  Furthermore, this compression and convenience has resulted in the fact that one man can hold a billion times more money units than his neighbors (this could never happen under a barter system.)  And you can now spend your whole roll from your chair, at places like Amazon.  Your friendships have been digitized: so much so that many of us prefer a text message to a phone conversation, which is a bastardized version of a visit.  Don’t even mention writing letters.  Your very identity is in the process of being digitized–don’t think it isn’t.  You, the sum total of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, can be represented by a bar code.  You’re being tracked and profiled by traffic cameras, GPS chips, your phone, advertisers, and the IRS.  And you are either a one or a zero: dangerous or harmless, a lead or not a lead, worthy of further scrutiny, or not.

Digital means two choices only, no gray:  Black or white.  One or zero.  The TV reception is either there, or it’s not.  You’re wise, or a fool.  Female, or male.  Rich, or poor.  Good, or evil.  Successful, or a bum.  See the limitation?  Analog may mean static, inefficiency, gradual loss, getting old, warped, dirty, wrinkled.  But you’re still there.

When we turn off the television, in our moments of sanity, and insist on HANDWRITING a note and READING a paper book, PAINTING and DRAWING, shooting PICTURES, conversing on the PHONE, we’re doing analog, one step closer to revealing how much we’d prefer to be TALKING, ARGUING, STEERING, WRESTLING ON THE GRASS, THINKING FOR OURSELVES, PLAYING BALL, HAVING SEX, USING INSTRUMENTS or otherwise PERFORMING and LAUGHING (a.k.a. living.)

analog-digital 1We need to hold on to the analog.  It has its ups and downs, literally, but at least there’s more than two choices.

Otherwise, it’s which are you?  Harmless, or dangerous?