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Get schooled: Three films about unconventional teachers

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Dead Poets Society (1989)

Who’s going to save our children from those monstrous educators bent on encouraging youngsters to value things like art and poetry – or, even worse, to develop the capacity to think for themselves?

But don’t worry: There’s always a crusty cabal of cheerless administrators lurking about who understand that it’s never too early to hammer the human spirit into a form that will fill one of the ready-made slots available in our success-oriented society.

Such are the battle lines drawn in director Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. The educator in question is John Keating (Robin Williams), a graduate of Welton Academy – an elite prep boarding school with the motto “Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence” – who is now returning to its stodgy halls as an English teacher.

The year is 1959, and the academy’s students are destined for Greatness. But Keating would like them to achieve it without becoming the sort of bleak conformists whose idea of success consists of forging business deals on the golf course and discussing real estate over cocktails. He teaches them the Latin term carpe diem – seize the day – and urges them to make their lives “extraordinary”.

A few of the students take this advice to heart, chasing out-of-their-league girls and following Shakespearean acting dreams against the wishes of their domineering parents. They revive Keating’s defunct Dead Poets Society, sneaking out at night to meet at the old “Indian cave” and not just read poetry, but let it “drip from [their] tongues like honey”.

This activity does not go unnoticed by the crusty cabal. They warn Keating that he “takes a big risk by encouraging [students] to become artists” and that 17 is too young to be a freethinker. Keating, in turn, warns his students that “seizing the day” does not necessarily mean being stupid: “There is a time for daring, and a time for caution,” he advises.

Things eventually fall apart in the worst imaginable way, the result of a tragic nexus of unquashable dreams, the impetuousness of youth, tyrannical oversight by authority figures, and, yes, the introduction of bold ideas to impressionable teenagers.

So who takes the blame when it all goes wrong? Well, the kids are just innocent victims, and the parents are philosophically aligned with the school administrators – which leaves the eccentric poet to once again get crushed by the senseless juggernaut of orthodoxy.

Whiplash (2014)

Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) is the sort of music instructor who believes that the best way to inspire greatness in his students is to hurl potentially deadly objects at their heads. He slaps, berates, insults and otherwise terrorises the young musicians under his charge at Shaffer Conservatory in New York City.

As director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash opens, Fletcher’s newest victim is Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a fresh-faced jazz drummer single-mindedly focused on achieving his artistic potential. He has no friends, and he pre-emptively breaks up with his girlfriend on the expectation that she will come to despise him for not giving her enough of his time.

As Nieman fights for the coveted position of core drummer in Fletcher’s ensemble, he takes everything thrown at him – literally and figuratively – by his teacher. He cries, he sweats, his hands blister and bleed, and he drums and drums and drums. But the beleaguered protégé eventually snaps and pummelshis (tor)mentor, resultingin Nieman’s expulsion and – following an inquiry into his teaching methods – Fletcher’s dismissal from the school.

So what’s behind fearsome Fletcher’s ogre-ish approach to teaching? He’s obsessed with the story of legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, who used the humiliation of having a cymbal thrown at his head by another musician as incentive to become one of the greatest jazz players of all time.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’,” Fletcher explains to Nieman when they meet months after their respective ejections from the conservatory. But Nieman asks: Might Fletcher have crossed a line with his hyperbullying approach? Might he discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming the next Charlie Parker? “No, man, no,” Fletcher says, “because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.” He is unapologetic, only disappointed that he never discovered his own Parker to inspire.

The film builds to a conflicted denouement in which Fletcher’s monstrous methods seem to bear fruit after all. Nieman succeeds in rising to the final demented challenge conceived by his former teacher, but at what cost to himself? The drummer has perhaps won a victory of sorts, but the viewer is left mulling uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the ends justify physically and psychologically authoritarian means.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Events unfold rapidly from the beginning of director Irvin Kershner’s The EmpireStrikes Back. The evil empire attacks the rebel base on the ice planet Hoth. “Blip blip bleep bleep,” complains R2D2. “Gahhh!” emotes Chewbacca. “You will go to the Dagobah system,” the disembodied spirit of Obi-Wan tells Luke Skywalker. “There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi master who instructed me.”

As rebel forces scatter for their lives, off jets Skywalker to marshy Dagobah, where he encounters an ill-behaved imp who rummages through his gear and eats his food. Turns out this mischievous Muppet knows Yoda. Turns out this diminutive green gremlin is Yoda, who, after the big revelation, suddenly transforms into an inscrutable dispenser of oddly arranged words of wisdom about how freedom from fear and anger can avert the dark side of the Force.

The training begins. Yoda sends his understudy into a creepy tree-cave inside of which dwells Darth Vader’s avatar. Succumbing to violence, Skywalker sees his own face behind the black mask – his fate if he follows the dark path. Having failed that test, Skywalker swings on vines, does somersaults over tree roots and stacks rock with his brain while Yoda rides on his back and harangues him with T-shirt-ready phrases such as, “Try not. Do … or do not. There is no try.”

Despite Skywalker’s crummy attitude, he appears to be making progress until he is disturbed by a vision of Han Solo and Princess Leia in pain. Yoda and see-through Obi-Wan warn him not to leave Dagobah to help his friends, but what’s a young Jedi-in-training to do? Why, ignore the advice of his mentors, of course. Yoda tells Skywalker, “If you end your training now … you will become an agent of evil.”

As it turns out, it’s Skywalker who is correct, and it’s precisely his hard-headed penchant for ignoring the advice of the Jedi masters that allows him to liberate his father, Darth (spoiler alert) Vader, from the dark side and defeat Palpatine.

Yoda, as we learn in films released later but set earlier, is quite adept at teaching youngsters telekinesis, but he doesn’t know everything, having failed to prevent Palpatine’s grasp for despoticpower. Like some of our rebelleaders in the real world,he might be a charismatic quote-generator, but he lacks a firm grasp of the finer points of politics.

This story was originally published in the August 14-20 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

Blog.Three teacher films