Sunday, July 1, 2012

"School of Rock" Rocks

Everyone has at least one guilty pleasure when it comes to movies, but usually they don't mind admitting to friends that they enjoy downing a few beers and chuckling at some really quite unfunny Adam Sandler  movie or Meet the Parents (Admit it, you've seen that movie five times and enjoyed every viewing.  Robert De niro is really funny and a little bit scary when he demands that Ben Stiller explain why he doesn't like cats.  And Ben Stiller's mealtime "grace" is a masterpiece).  We all know the cliche' about Oscar-sweepers like Gandhi that you can tell are bad five minutes in (have you ever really noticed how horrid director Richard Attenborough's eye is?  Is he even on the set when he directs the movies?) that you only watch once and then never again.  Can you imagine the fickle leers, snickers, bafflement, and frantic behind-your-back discussions  that would ensue if you invited a group of friends over to watch The King's Speech or Out of Africa?  Remember when "Video Rental" stores had an "Oscar Winner" section that was covered in a thick coat of moondust that no self-respecting minimum wage worker would ever even think of approaching with the feather duster at closing time?

Then there are movies that aren't really bad, actually pretty deft and skillful, but you still feel embarrassed to tell anyone you watch them, perhaps because you watch them and think about them all the time, and even if they are actually funny, your friends and aquaintences might start thinking in terms of a visit to the psychopharmacologist if they knew just how much this inconsequential movie meant to you.

I've been watching and watching Richard Linklater's School of Rock, with Jack Black as a failed rock guitarist masquerading as a sub and starting a kid's rock band,  because it's bright, technically polished, funny, kid-loaded in the best way, musically pleasing, and because Black pours on a kind of Hell-Beast energy and righteous-down-from-the-mountain-staff-of-power glory he might never have again in movies.    I've also been watching it because I've been a substitute off and on for 15 years, and nothing but a substitute teacher since I got booted out of college teaching a few years ago.  And now, because I'm pitifully indulging a damaged double-identity fantasy routine as a homeless shelter dweller and substitute teacher, I find School of Rock comforting and companionable in addition to being funny and very true to life, in a compressed, Looney Tunes manner.

Remember many years ago when Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out (it's my favorite of those films) and  all the "what about the children?" moaners and posers descended on the larky, silly movie for its violence and "child abuse," resulting in the PG-13 rating nobody pays any attention to now? (this was all before Spielberg got all "issue"-oriented and historical-important and started doing daft things like CGI-ing out the guns in the agents' hands at the end of E.T.)  Another complaint people had about that film was its level of unreality, its blithe disregard for the laws of physics in the action scenes, not realizing that Spielberg was deliberately and with jaw-dropping precision staging his own versions of Buster Keaton-style stunners and that the nutball action was a cartoon thrill-ride and nothing but.  For god's sake, the movie opened with Kate Capshaw heading a Busby Berkley-style production number in a Shanghai nightclub complete with tap-dancers and swooping cameras and Kate shouting Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" over and over right in your face:  "Anything Goes!" This is what the movie is going to be about, dummies.  And people still complained about the action being over-the-top and got all solemn in op-ed columns (Op-ed columns? Huh?) about the hysterically funny sight of all those kidnapped Indian children chained together in Kali, Goddess of Destruction's temple, forced to dig for magic stones.  If you have to ask why that's funny . . .

It's funny the same way it's funny when Jack Black, impersonating his substitute teacher roommate to earn rent money, shoves the class's prim know-it-all "factotum," aptly named Summer, quite hard in the back, actually making her stumble while she's taking  roll, using a clipboard with irritating formality.  In real life, you can't touch a kid, even a light tap on the shoulder to get their attention.  When Black's sad sack rock slacker character Dewy Finn confesses that he's hungover, a smart ass blonde troublemaker who later becomes band drummer (what else?) sneers at his fake teacher, "Dude, you got a disease!"  Black shouts at the kid, "Shaddup!"

(Any honest teacher will tell that a good bit of energy each day is spent giving verbal twists to permitted phrases like "be quiet," "close your mouth," and "zip your lip" so that they so that they sound as much like "SHUT UP! YOU STUPID KID! SHUT YOUR BIG STUPID YAPPING MOUTH RIGHT NOW BEFORE I SIC THE RABID HELL HOUNDS AND EYE PECKING RAVENS ON YOU! SHUT UP!" without ending up on the local news that evening)

Of course Jack Black could never shamble into a very upscale elementary school with no identity badge or ID number and start a kid's rock band that practices for months in a supposedly sound-proofed room and get them all to a Battle of the Bands $20,000 contest without anyone, especially the principal, finding out until the last minute . . . but that moment when Black, in his campy AC/DC rig and armed with his shaggy rock show melange takes command of the audience and the kids turn magically into a crack troop of glittering back-up singers and dancers--that's a a great real life moment.   Do I have to say it's real because it's a metaphor for what a sub or any kind of teacher has to go through and hope for every time they stand up in front of a class?  I guess I can be forgiven for underlining it.

The movie is sly enough to do plenty of ironic undercutting anytime a message or metaphor starts circling and stalking the pristine premises.   I'm a big believer in what Neil Postman in one of his many fine books on education called the "Thermostatic" technique in the classroom and curriculum. Don't try to give the kids what the culture gives them 24/7 to "draw them in" "relate" or "make learning fun."  Don't rap the alphabet or try to be "cool" or kid-slangy.   School should give children  precisely what the culture is not giving them--it should be a watchful thermostat, in other words, keeping their cultural environment balanced.  But being an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse scold is just another kind of cultural clowning.   When the uptight principal pays a surprise visit to the room and wonders why other teachers have complained about hearing music and spies Dewey's guitar, Black is forced to improvise a "School house Rock" moment (Remember those 70s cartoons you got on Saturday morning?) that's somehow a perfect nostalgic tribute and has exactly the right satirical tone.

Good teachers are classical but also trickster flexible.  Black has a couple of nifty moments in the teachers' lounge, nearly always an irony-free and brain-freezing zone.  Asked his opinion of standardized testing he responds with a poker-faced recitation of those wretched lyrics from that Whitney Houston song about the children that never made any sense and probably caused brain damage on a generational scale.   Director Linklater even gets away with having Black recite the old "those who can't do, teach, and those who can't teach, teach gym!" gag to the nervous faculty.  They titter, haw haw and do weak little knee-slaps as if they've never heard it before.

There are two types of jokey movies that wink at you and say 'it's only a movie,"--sloppy ones that don't care, and those that care you know it's only a movie and want you to care enough to demand it be a quality movie.  This is the second type.  It even evokes the loneliness of a substitute teacher effortlessly in the context of character development (subs don't take class pictures home with them, can get arrested for taking pictures in fact, rarely get the credit they deserve and are too often seen by schools as a necessary evil.  I had one principal, known city-wide as Queen of the Harpies, tell me right to my face that subs are "unskilled laborers." Many office managers treat subs worse than they would ever treat a janitor).  Jack Black plays several understated moments with fat or nerdy kids, giving them a bit of uplift with no musical swelling, no cameras closing in on faces, and the closing credits with Black and the kids improvising joyfully and spontaneously are some of my favorite movie moments.

I'm worried about Jack Black (at this moment, more than I'm worried about me).  This film came out nearly a decade ago, and since then he's been miscast in King Kong (actually he should get some kind of award for facial muscle control, he was trying so hard not to laugh in that bloated film) and stuck in things like Gulliver's Travels.

Well, I guess the message is, the children are the future, teach them well, and put on the greatest show you possibly can.

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