Wednesday, December 19, 2007

School Dazzle

Tonight I saw again the remarkable film The History Boys. It is a look into the best and the worst of high school education. The worst takes the form of the headmaster, full of hypocrisy and devoid of understanding or wisdom. The best comes in the form of Hector, the homosexual teacher, whose groping of students who ride with him on his motorcycle becomes the metaphor for the passing on of knowledge. The students are an assembly of the best any high school teacher has ever had a fantasy of meeting. For God's sake, one of them can quote Hardy and comprehend the meaning of the poem. They are witty, bright, just cynical enough, and just romantic enough. In this school, despite the headmaster, genuine learning takes place.
So, I must add this film, whole heartedly, to my Pantheon of films:

Life Imitates Art: Films that Alter Life

Here, by way of a brilliant analysis, is the glowing review of the Baltimore Sun:

Fresh writing earns 'History Boys' high marks

By Michael Sragow

Sun Movie Critic

December 22, 2006

The History Boys treats teaching as an art and makes it thrilling. Watching and listening to its lead character Hector dissect a Thomas Hardy poem is more vivid and emotionally startling than any CSI TV show, because what Hector demonstrates are the forensics of the soul. While Casino Royale continues to rev up action audiences with an agent On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the freshest piece of writing for dramatic audiences, The History Boys, has come from a man who served On Her Majesty's Public Broadcasting Service.

Most Americans got their first taste of Beyond the Fringe comic Alan Bennett's eloquence as a dramatist with the hourlong 1983 BBC film An Englishman Abroad, which turned a real-life encounter in the Soviet Union between stage and screen actress Coral Browne and notorious defector Guy Burgess (Alan Bates) into brilliant social comedy. Bennett's equally splendid BBC film, A Question of Attribution, in some ways anticipated Stephen Frears' and Peter Morgan's The Queen, and he had an enormous stage success with The Madness of George III. (It fared less well on screen as The Madness of King George.)

But The History Boys, opening today at the Charles, is Bennett's royal flush.

Set in a Yorkshire grammar school in the early '80s, it has a heady blend of heart and wit. Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the original stage productions in London (2004) and New York (2006), has taken his extraordinary ensemble and, with Bennett's assistance, opened the play up to provide more air for the action and more hope for the characters. This tale of eight students, three teachers and a stern, idiotic headmaster is the rare academic comedy-drama that gets the schoolroom balance just right. It's equally about learning and instruction.

The school's headmaster (Clive Merrison) believes that these gifted boys from unconnected households give him a shot at landing a record number of scholarships for Oxford and Cambridge. But they're devoted to general studies teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), who transforms their class into a hyper-literate rumpus room and shows them that gray matter can glow like Technicolor.

For Hector, "knowledge is not general. It is specific - and - it has nothing to do with getting on." Interlopers may be startled when Hector's French lesson takes the shape of a comic improv about bordellos, or when the tearjerking climax of Brief Encounter gets interspersed with fragments of great poetry.

But Hector doesn't "want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words." He wants them to savor writing as a living thing. That's why he integrates "tosh"-like music-hall songs into his freewheeling curriculum: The "sheer calculated silliness" of pop culture deflates reverence.

"The best moments in reading," he says, "are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours." Hector knows that the surest way to open minds and tone them is to keep them active, even if that occasionally means literally smacking them with books.

Nonetheless the headmaster decides that Hector lacks the right stuff to prepare the boys for scholarship exams and interviews. So he hires a new man, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to steel the boys to debate history. Irwin believes in strategies that make the lads stand out: He has them look for an angle that's attention-getting, not original or correct, such as laying out the good side of Stalin.

In The History Boys, as in all of Bennett's work, irony is what the characters live and breathe - and I mean irony in its truest sense, of using language to present opposite and often sly alternatives to accepted wisdom. The piece's crowning tragicomic irony is that Irwin offends Hector's standards of ethics and truth by speaking casually of the Holocaust, while Hector gets in trouble for offending public morality. He believes that "the transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic act." Unfortunately, he extends that belief to groping the boys who ride on the back of his motorbike.

Under this multicolored umbrella of arguments, the boys act out their own errant impulses, analyze the adults and come closer to growing up. Their combination of adolescent smarts and gusto also generates group magic.

By the time we learn of their adult fates in a stroke as devastating as the climax of Our Town, we realize we've witnessed an imaginative tragicomedy of doublespeak and second sight, of public faces and private lives, every bit as full of tart payoffs and compact, bittersweet catharses as Bennett's more regal farces.

Yet here they're vibrantly streaked with melancholy and excitement and, most important, generosity. A lot of that emanates from Griffiths, who is both a heartbreak and a joy as Hector. He's the sort of inspired endomorph, such as Jackie Gleason or John Goodman, who can put every rolling particle of his body to expressive use.

He connects to each member of a class simultaneously and directly because he contains several levels of feeling. When he focuses all that energy into one emotion, the impact can be leveling or elating.

Director Hytner gives him the perfect faculty-room partner in Frances de la Tour as the more traditional history teacher, Mrs. Lintott, who has an implacable everyday wisdom born of ill-used feminine experience and brings Hector down to earth when she says, "A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation." And each young actor is remarkable, from Dominic Cooper as a precocious lover-boy to Samuel Barnett as the classmate with a crush on him.

"Shall I tell you what is wrong with Hector as a teacher?" the headmaster asks. "There is inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?" One way is to point to a piece of filmed theater like The History Boys and say, with pride, that unfettered education produced that.

>>>The History Boys (Fox Searchlight) Starring Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Rated R. Time 109 minutes.


1 comment:

  1. the history boys is a remarkable piece of work. god bless alan bennett. proper english!