Saturday, April 30, 2011

Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for “Superman” (Davis Guggenheim, 2010)

Category: Sad prequel to the 2006 film Superman Returns. Weird that they’d make a superhero movie that doesn’t actually feature the superhero. I imagine this film will be about Lois Lane writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman,” presumably the first editorial to ever win that award. (I have a lot of problems with that movie.)

Nobutsrsly, here’s a sad documentary about the state of public education in the United States. This is one of those tricky political issues where everyone agrees that something should be done (i.e., that our kids should be better educated) but no one can agree on how to do it, or even what the cause of the problem is. But I think that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has recently come up with an excellent solution to not only the education issue, but also the rest of our current woes: demonize teachers and take away their collective bargaining rights. I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to figure that out, since we can all agree that public school teachers are overpaid, lazy vultures with infant-like dependence on the public teat, and thus have no right to prevent themselves from being totally screwjobbed. It just makes all kinds of sense. Keep fighting the good fight, Scott “Totally Not An Asshole” Walker.

But of course this all happened after this movie was made, and is in a way separate from the issues that this movie raises. Not only has the education system been messed up since before any of us can remember, but that this continued fact directly affects our society as a whole in stark, meaningful ways. And we as a nation do not have enough fingers of blame to point at all the parties who are at least in some way culpable. It's a problem that is common to all of us, even those of us who don't have kids, or who do have kids but are super-rich and send them to private school, because going to private school does not make you immune from getting knifed on the street by a kid who went to public school. Although I think Halliburton is working on that.

Films about education usually follow a standard formula: they’re initially sad, because the kids are not learning, but ultimately inspirational and uplifting, because the kids start learning: Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, etc. There are some sadder films on the subject that deviate from this formula: for example, Half Nelson, about a crack-addicted junior high school teacher, and Mr. Holland’s Opus, about a music teacher who very nearly has an affair with one of his students and refuses to learn sign language so he can communicate with his deaf son. Gritty stuff.

My familiarity with this issue: From a personal standpoint: both PsOTB were public school teachers (we never went shopping at Loehmann’s), and I attended public elementary and secondary schools. All in all, it was a very positive experience for me. I didn’t have to wear a uniform (although I was prohibited from baring my midriff, even during the sweltering Mays and Junes), my knuckles remained un-rapped by ruler-wielding nuns, and thanks to the whole co-educational thing, I gained valuable experience with the ladies that informs my relationships to this day. (“Do you like me? Check yes, no, or maybe” notes are still surprisingly effective.) Of course, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in an area where the public schools were good and safe. (Notwithstanding the time a future felon punched me in the face in third grade. He may have won the battle, but I won the war.) 

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education ‘statistics’ have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of Waiting for ‘Superman. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying ‘drop-out factories’ and ‘academic sinkholes,’ methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems.”

What I thought of the movie
: Ugh. I just don’t even know. This is the first time since Dear Zachary that I’ve been unsure of whether or not I can actually write about the movie, because it’s just TOO SAD. On both a macro- and micro-level, the movie presents a compelling case that some, if not all, of the current major problems with our educational system are, in practice, intractable (while at the same time celebrating the people who are out there trying to tract them). It's a bit bleak.

As with most documentaries these days, Waiting for “Superman” earned its share of controversy when it was released, because a lot of people disagreed with its “agenda.” I think a lot of the time these controversies miss the point, in a real forest for the trees kind of way, and it’s especially true of this movie. Education is an incredibly complex issue, but everyone thinks they’re an expert about it, because everyone has a connection to it. This is not to say that the film's critics are wrong or uninformed, or that Guggenheim is right or better-informed, of course. It’s just hard to suss out the actual experts from the loud parents who get themselves elected to the school board because they put up a lot of posters and bully the other housewives into voting for them. It’s to Guggenheim’s credit that he’s taking a stand, trying to stake some ground above the din, for better or worse. (Much like Donald Trump.)

And his stand is pretty depressing. In his exploration of “dropout factories” and “academic sinkholes” and deep-seated urban decay and lazy teachers and unmotivated students, we get the sense that there are millions of children just teetering on the precipice of a great abyss, and more of them fall into it than recover their balance. And, as mentioned, the problems are so complex that there’s nothing you can do other than just scream into the abyss, Garden State­-style. (I apologize for that Garden State reference, but while we’re on the subject, here is the trailer for the new Zach Braff film, The High Cost of Living. In the film, Braff plays a drug dealer who hits a pregnant woman with his car. GOOD LORD. Look for that in a future Taste My Sad post, under the category, “horribly depressing films featuring the star of the wacky sitcom Scrubs.”)

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I don’t really want to get into the pissing match over the veracity of the film’s claims. I will say, however, that it is a little suspect, in my view, to deify charter schools, specifically Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Children Zone, as the answer to the problems, when the movie spends the rest of its time telling us just how widespread and multifaceted those problems are. There are no quick-fixes or cure-alls here, and I suspect Guggenheim knows that, but also knows how to construct an entertaining, not-suicide-inducing film. And of course that’s the point here: the movie is really gripping and moving because of the micro-level story about the kids and the lottery. (I won’t spoil any of that, because you really should see it and all that.) Anecdotal evidence doesn’t work for making policy; it does work for making movies. And if you’re not so infuriated by Guggenheim’s macro-level argument that you stop watching, you can’t help but be moved by the micro-level stuff.

One other note: the driving force behind the power of this movie is the fact that you’re watching actual children, so innocent and real, who we desperately want to remain untainted by all the ugliness of the world. It really crystallized the reason why I hate most child actors so much: most child actors take that innocence and choke it to death, in a sea of cloying cuteness and fakeness and bad haircuts. Add to which the fact that child actors are rich enough to afford private tutors on the sets of their movies, and thus get to avoid all this education trouble! I don’t care that many child stars get all warped for life. It’s just not fair.

How I felt after the movie ended: Just so sad. Those poor unlucky kids! I feel faintly manipulated, but not in a way that nullifies the central message of the film. But the controversies surrounding the solutions that the film presents only makes it worse. No one was arguing that Guggenheim was misguided in making the film in the first place. No one thinks that the education system in this country is acceptable as it stands now. And that’s CRAZY. People will argue ANYTHING in this country. There are people who argue that natural disasters (like the recent tornadoes, which according to official blog statistician/FOTB Michelle Loizeaux have caused 310 340 deaths thus far) are brought on this country by God as a way of punishing us for… something, I’m not quite sure what. There are people who believe that mental patients should have the right to buy guns with no background check and no waiting period. And there are people out there who actually believe that President Obama was really born in this country, and that the “birth certificate” he’s just shown us is not a Photoshopped fake. And yet no one is out there saying that our education system is fine.

At one point in the film, one of the experts says, “there are millions of kids walking the streets with no interest in living.” It’s hard for me to be positive about America (or humanity) when I hear things like that. It’s just dreadful. So immediately after the film was over, I watched this video ten times in a row. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! All better.

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