Monday, May 22, 2017

On Movies That Get "It" Right

Everyone has a habit of declaring movies "real" or "unreal." If a movie comes from another culture, we attribute the mores and attitudes in the movie to a world that we don't know. Quite a few people who have seen Da hong deng long gao gao gua / Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991), often the first and only Chinese movie they have ever seen, and take it as non-fiction, ignoring the fantastic stylizations. Whenever students defend a movie by saying, "Yeah, but that's how it is in China/the inner city/Buenos Aires/Iran," I ask them, "How many of you have seen high school movies or TV shows?" All hands go up. "How many of you have ever seen a high school movie or TV show that accurately depicted your high school?" All hands go down.

For me there are a few movies and TV shows that do get middle school and high school right or right enough. The scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995) where a group of alpha girls asks Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) if she's a lesbian is a more honest depiction of the cruelty of bullying than anything I see in Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). The depiction of gay adolescence in the second season of American Crime (2016) is more accurate than the clean coming-out trajectories you see in any number of independent gay films from the 1990s and 2000s. As a teacher, I relate to Mr. Raditch (Dan Woods) in the original Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High (1987-1991). The best depiction of the mess of teaching -- the drama of a classroom, the difficulty of bridging the distance between yourself and your students, and the painful inability to figure out if the students are getting anything from you -- is Entre les murs / The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008). Unlike the recent spate of gay TV, Nighthawks (Ron Peck, 1978) understands that gay clubs can be montonous and Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986) understands that gay parties can be pleasant and very weird at the same time. The Sopranos (1999-2007) got enough right about the college search and hell of a lot right about my classmates from Columbia even if the campus scenes were shot up the street at the Union Theological Seminary. I hestitate to declare the recent Romanian films indicative of a Balkan mindset, but I have to say that I've had similar uncomfortable and hilarious conversations to the one that makes up the long comic sketch at the center of A fost sau n-a fost? / 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006). 

I have yet to see a good depiction of expat life in Europe or Southeast Asia. I have yet to see a good depiction of grad school life. I always think the scene in Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976) in which a teacher berates Ph.D. student Babe (Dustin Hoffman) for having a too specific thesis that doesn't take in the entire history of the twentieth century hilarious, just as I'm amused by the rapid four-to-six-year rise of a single mother from community-college student to tenure track professor in Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) inspiring. One day I may teach a class on movies that depict subcultures of New York: Parting Glances, Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990). They're great movies, but none of them feel exactly like my New York. I think law school students still relate to The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973) and wrestlers still relate to The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008). I'll take their word for it.

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