Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Schooling movies

The main lesson I have learned from all television and movie depictions of school (any school - grade school, high school, college, even grad school) is that it's a place of incredible emotional and social growth where no one ever studies. Classes consist of four-minute lectures comprised of inspirational cliches from which everyone learns all there is to know about both the subject at hand and the world at large (because the former is a metaphor for the latter). Some characters are smart and others less so, which we learn when other characters refer to them as smart or less so. To gesture at the idea of studying, we are sometimes shown brief montages of page-turning and note-taking and coffee-drinking. Knowledge is actually a molecule that attaches itself to caffeine, for convenience of intake. But mainly, there are shenanigans being undertaken and non-academic personal crises unfolding and intense social bonds being forged. At the end of it all, the characters are always launched into exciting futures (elite colleges, law schools, jobs) that you'd think would've required something more than their strong social bonding records to secure.

But, I still totally watch these movies and shows, if for no other reason now than that Netflix has so few good options that aren't five-season, hundred-hour commitment shows. So recently, after watching Mystic Pizza, I followed Netflix's recommendation to watch Mona Lisa Smile. Ok, yes, Mystic Pizza was not a great film, but since it was very of its moment, it was at least possible to get a vague sense of America from it. I use this possibility to redeem my watching of many bad movies. But what manner of monstrosity is Mona Lisa Smile? It is a movie inspired by someone's having come across those 1950s advertisements for home appliances featuring grinning housewives and thought, "What if all these women are actually frustrated physics PhDs forced into housewifery by the slavish mores of the benighted past?" No matter that the women are models and not housewives, and unlikely to have ever taken physics. This imagined injustice can be imaginatively rectified through film! Let us imagine these housewifey models when they were yet on the cusp of doom, still studying physics in an elite New England college but already being pressured into marriage and a life of modeling vacuum cleaners in the pages of Redbook... How can we demonstrate to these pitiful young things that 2003 called, and it very much frowns on their choices?

And that is how Mona Lisa Smile came to be. Perhaps the entire philosophy of history of studio films consists in the view that what is essential about any moment in the past is its style of dress. If the clothes and hair are reproduced faithfully, the past has been accurately captured. But the main thing (which is to say, why I watched it) is that it's a school movie, and a real winner in that genre. It features very typical college students, the kinds of girls who memorize all their textbooks without ever cracking them. They are both brilliant and extremely stupid, since not one of them has ever thought to wonder what makes art good, so they must be instructed in the idea of feelings. The character tasked with leading these naifs is an art history grad student who not only never works on her dissertation but does not appear to have one, though that is apparently no barrier to academic employment. (She says that her "research" shows that Picasso will be just as important in the future as Michelangelo is in the present. I, for one, had not known that one of the subfields of art history was fortune-telling.) What is striking is that we are never given even one suggestion of what might make art good, despite the many harangues that Julia Roberts delivers to her class about the Meaning of Life. The problem may be that the Meaning of Life turns out to be version of "choose your choice," and has no connection to art as either a discipline or an activity. (No one in the film is inclined to choose art.) So the girls fail to grasp this meaning and get married anyway, and immediately after their weddings which everyone in greater Boston attends, they buy fully-furnished houses in the environs of Wellesley and their husbands are promoted to "junior partner" of something, having been lowly college students just the week before. So it turns out that in spite of the film's strenuous ideological axe-grinding, it shows us that in 1953, you really could have it all, and in one fell swoop.

One day, there will be a truly great school movie made that depicts how studying is not only the main thing people do in school, but also the pleasures of study and the way it illuminates the world, and not in an "X is a metaphor for LIFE" way. I'm certain it will happen. So I'm waiting.


Withywindle said...

How do you film study so that it's interesting for the viewer?

Miss Self-Important said...

I think primarily by filming conversation and lecture. But making the dialogue substantive. One way to gauge might be if viewers end up having actually learned something about the subject studied. The closest approximation I can think of is The History Boys.