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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Issues for Indie Authors: The Flexibility of Women Readers

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By Shawn Stjean

I’ve been teaching literature and critical reading/writing at the University level for twenty years, and one thing seems clear to me on the subject of gender: girls are much more open-minded about what they read, view, and listen to, than boys.  This is partially due to necessity: most of the writing, and art in general, in our Western culture is historically androcentric, or “male-centric,” if you will.  And I’m not just talking about non-neutral gender phrasing, disingenuously assuming “he” is the proper universal pronoun.  I’m really thinking of male modes of discourse and storytelling legitimized by default, and women’s marginalized by default, as “chick-lit/flicks,” “melodrama,”  “sensationalism” (or worse.)

One of the more complex and rewarding texts I’ve used repeatedly is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now.  Literary and pseudo-historical in a way that anticipates much of the film of the past 30 years, I use it to encapsulate many of the most enduring truths of the American experience of the Vietnam era—though lately I’ve preferred Oliver Stone’s biopic of Le Ly Hayslip, Heaven and Earth (1993.)   But not because anyone can’t hack Coppola’s opus.  The violence, torture, gore, depraved indifference to human life, the appalling ignorance of the invaders to the culture of indigenous peoples—none of these has ever disturbed a female student enough to voice an objection.  Of course, the brilliant narrative, sound, characters, and visual spectacle more than compensate for the discomfort of viewing AN.

In stark contrast, when I assign a modest amount of material by or about women—Chopin’s The Awakening for example, and of course, Heaven and Earth, are both gems—the male students often exhibit ill-concealed contempt, and (at least passively) decline to engage.  This rigid refusal—not inability—of males to adapt to anything resembling a feminine text, seems to come at such an early age in our ultra-competitive, aggressive society, that by the ‘tweens, it can only be reversed through a slow and relentless process of reeducation of the few willing volunteers.

Women readers—or cultural consumers, if we expand to include visual and aural media—can’t afford to overlook the vast bulk of material out there that is ill-designed for them: action movies, sports programs, adolescent sex-comedies for all ages, home-improvement programs, horror, westerns, sci-fi, heavy music of all kinds.  And it should go without saying that not all women enjoy the celebrity showcases, the cooking, dance, and craft shows, and soap operas designed for them.  So what’s left?

My point is that, if a writer—male or female—wishes to reach a wide audience, then rather than follow suit with the dominant culture, it might be wiser to plan and compose with an audience of women in mind, thereby creating a product that women don’t have to adapt to—or at least bend and stretch so far to enjoy, or pretend to.

Some possibilities:

–refuse to use women characters as throwaway items: victims, prostitutes, weak-minded girlfriends, evil harpies.  Conversely, if deciding to use a female lead, consider that there are many types of strong women whose strength is not defined primarily (or exclusively) by sexuality—we have enough Circe types out there!

–envision the interior life of women characters (we often get relevant psychological insights into the minds of men—but what in the world are are the ladies thinking? Even the literary giants have neglected to wonder (consider Hamlet vs. Ophelia)

sex in writing is generally laughable anyway, but rather than spending your time trying to devise the latest euphemism for penis, why not at least try on the woman’s POV?

emotions are not easy to write about, but we all have them.  Many writers shy away, as in life, from revealing any raw feelings or even humanistic values.  I’m not talking about sentimental writing.  There’s a fine line.

–rather than thematically celebrate the triumphs of competition, the forced separation of weak from strong, how about some explorations of the virtues of cooperation and nurturing?

–Not all good writing is linearly organized—not all “reason” is logically-based—not all “reality” is something that can be seen with the eye or touched with the finger—not all lifelike dialogue is sequential or even “about” anything—not every detail has an immediate reason for appearing—not every smile means happiness—not every tear is a reason for shame–not every motivation is conscious—not every whisper of the intuition is born of fear—not every friend will give something back, and yet may still be worth having–not all women characters are “dirty, double-crossing dames” or innocent princesses!

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Zombie Apocalypse Now

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A history of Zombie evolution through the 20th century is beyond my scope here, and I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the genre, post-Romero. The old resurrection of corpses by a lone human agent, whether through Voodoo or arcane science, is sufficiently similar to the Frankenstein myth to enter into a separate analysis, another time.

Zombies as individual threats have, over time, been replaced by zombie hordes and ultimately by the all-inclusive Zombie Apocalypse, so familiar to audiences nowadays that exposition in films can be all but dispensed with, and we can proceed straight to the grisly action. How and why Armageddon happened hardly matters (we can reasonably infer it the result of human perversion,) only when, where, and most importantly, to whom. The phrase “zombie apocalypse” has become a widespread joke, masking deep-seated cultural anxieties about the future, with tentative laughter, while we quietly dig our holes (whether real or symbolic) and fill them with canned goods.

Apocalyptic tales in general are a cultural fantasy of starting over, because the mess we’re in now (economic, moral, political –- pick your poison) is just too deep, and nothing less than a scouring down to a clean bottom, not unlike the flood from which Noah escaped with his chosen few, will set things straight. Here I use the term “Fantasy” as not just the imaginative incarnation of a desire, but also an unconscious fear. We can never, by force of will and cooperation, dig ourselves out of the mire of industrial waste and human sewage we ourselves have created. This societal attitude finds its way symbolically into the story: instead of harnessing the id-energy to just “Run!,” most of the disposable characters simply cry, stumble, give up. Are the “tough” characters any better? On this archetypal level, both the “strong” wish to carry on and start over, and the “weak” act of simply falling down and letting the disaster overtake you, amount to the same abandonment of hope in society, as it now stands. In short, the apocalypse is a dramatization of the embracing of our race, collectively, of that deadliest of all sins: despair.

But what makes the Zombie Apocalypse so special?

The eating of the flesh, but especially the dainty of the brain, is telling. For it’s the left brain, the logic and the reason, that have brought all the crud down upon us by overwhelming the dictates of the right, creative and compassionate, and therefore undervalued, side of the mind. Today, computers replace the arts, infodata replaces knowledge, and destructive weapons replace generative technology. Therefore, in the aftermath of the fall, humans are often reduced to lower and lower forms of tech (trucks, then guns, chainsaws, finally axes and clubs,) and communications fail. For those paying attention to every detail, note the prevalence of images and use of the bare hands. Poetic justice.

Like the decline of civilization itself, the advance of zombies may at times be shambling and slow, but it is inevitable, and ultimately no escape is possible. They have the numbers, and the inexorable force of inertia. The horde is only the virus writ large. To spread, absorb, and move on is its very nature.

Enter our small band of resistors —- white blood cells incarnated –- varying from a single person to perhaps six or eight defined characters. Most will be claimed, one by one, amid the agonizing recognition that once someone gets infected, there’s simply nothing to be done. Unlike an alcoholic or addict who can get into a program and be reclaimed by, in a word, love, these stories tell us that love and trust are not enough, because they’re overpowered by too many other factors, mindless selfishness foremost (sometimes disguised as survival instinct.)

And that’s the point. Although it only explicitly resurfaces occasionally, inspired by the Romero sequel Dawn of the Dead, zombie stories, amid their barren landscapes, do furnish fertile ground for social criticism. They almost always employ an isolated setting and a microcosm of disparate characters, the last representatives of types of people now gone. The plot archetype beneath the collective and individual struggle for survival emerges as what Campbell called the Scapegoat Myth, wherein other human beings are sacrificed impulsively for one’s own personal safety/comfort (as in the all-too-human pushing of someone aside to escape the pursuing horde), or ritualistically, for the supposed good of the community at large, as simply told in the classic Shirley Jackson tale “The Lottery,” or most recently convoluted by Joss Whedon in his Cabin in the Woods (2011). In such tales, Man is revealed as the most monstrous Thing of them all, because alone among created beings does he turn on his own kind – zombies, aliens, pirahna, at least, do not eat each other. But a man will slay his brother, or steal his life savings, or repossess his house, or covet his wife. All in slavish worship of his insatiable hunger.

Afraid of what might happen? Brother, the symbols are telling us it’s already happening.

Digest this refrain from The Hooters’ 1985 song “All You Zombies”:

All you zombies hide your faces

All you people in the street

All you sittin’ in high places

The rain’s gonna fall on you

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Endings of these stories vary according to the temperaments of the writers, but, almost always, there is little hope for humankind to be gleaned from them. This runs counter to the typical Hollywood paradigm, and may partially explain the resistance of Big Money to embrace the genre. Mainstream films in America like to offer hope. But the perennial willingness to scapegoat others signals, unavoidably, hope’s antithesis: humans, as a species, haven’t evolved enough resistance to the disease of our desires and fears, and don’t deserve to survive.

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Ask yourself, Why is this funny?