Remember Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds (1995), clad in look-I’m-street leather, waxing philosophical to a classroom of inspiration-sapped punks, asking them to examine the hidden meanings in Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man?
Remember how Robin Williams changed a classroom full of lives by doing something crazy and — gasp! — getting his students to stand on top of his desk to experience a “different perspective” in Dead Poets Society (1989)?
Remember Morgan Freeman in Lean On Me (1989) as a fearless principal battling the Bronx whose ironclad morality lands himself in prison, where the school population arrive in droves to chant and picket for his release?
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Or maybe you remember when cinema presented musical instruments soaked in figurative vats of full fat cheese c/o Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), who turned reluctant kids into well-behaved high-powered learning sponges?
High schools in cinema have long remained visitor friendly institutions, their walls lined with success stories about courageous adults who inspire renegade youth to Do The Right Thing.
Compare the aforementioned teachers to one of the villains in 21 Jump Street (out now on DVD) who is the brains behind a drug syndicate, the person responsible for poisoning susceptible minds with dangerous hallucinogens. This sort of role reversal isn’t an anomaly; it is the logical extension of a radical change in the student/teacher dynamic that has been stirring up trouble in the cinematic classroom.
Over the last decade or so a rash of high school-set films have fundamentally changed the curriculum, the student/teacher relationship now spectacularly inverted. These days in cinema it is teachers — not students — who need the most help, and the institutions they represent are more depraved than ever.
Hints of something funny in the water fountain ran throughout writer/director Richard Kelly’s 2001 indie Donnie Darko, which painted the high school setting with a nightmarish veneer. Imaginary rabbits, wingnut Christians, tense assemblys, defaced monuments and creepy kids combined to form an atmosphere of dripping disquiet.
It was not until the mid-naughties that that sense of disquiet manifested into the souls of a handful of teacher characters for whom the description “flawed” does not begin to cut it, and for whom any grading in the school of life would slap them with an instant F.
“What’s history?” asks Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), sleeves up, tie loose, shirt unbuttoned, magazine rolled up in back pocket, to his class of whippersnappers. It’s obvious from the opening moments of Half Nelson (2006) that Dunne is effortlessly cool. He doesn’t need to try to win affection from his pupils, unlike Michelle “remember I’m wearing leather!” Pfeiffer.
But Dunne is a bit too hip, a bit too street for his own good. Especially for the good of his internal organs. Outside the classroom, early in the film, we watch him slam down drinks at a bar, snort cocaine with two girls then meet a drug dealer in his car. He’s not a tea-and-crosswords kind of guy.
Dunne is short on money so he buys crack instead of coke, and that proverbial slippery slope suddenly gets a whole lot more slippery. A few moments later we see him flopped on a dirty school toilet floor while a student dabs his forehead with a damp cloth.
“I used to be so fucked up but now I’m cleaned up,” he says, then snorts another line.
Fast forward three years and things get heavy, really heavy, for mild-mannered teacher Lance (Robin Williams) in World’s Greatest Dad (2009). His students disrespect him. His porn-addicted filthy-mouthed teenage son verbally abuses him.
All this changes the night Lance opens his kid’s bedroom door and discovers him dead from autoerotic asphyxiation. Riddled with shame, Lance tells everybody that his boy committed suicide. He writes a fake diary and publishes it. The book becomes a best seller. In no time he’s appearing on TV chat shows.
Rich and famous, popular and respected, Lance cashes in on some elephantine-sized lies before finally losing it, stripping off to swim naked in the school pool to the tune of Under Pressure. As you do.
In F (2010), a slasher film from British writer/director Johannes Roberts, protagonist Robert (David Schofield) drinks a bottle of vodka before class, gives his daughter detention just to see her and smacks her across the face when she mentions his ex-wife.
As the body count rises, the carve-up action almost entirely taking place inside the school, there is perhaps no greater reminder that cinema class as we used to know it may never be quite the same again.
This ignominious trend maintains as Hollywood continues to turn on its teachers. Putting some oestrogen in the gender balance, Cameron Diaz plays a reckless drunkard in the appropriately titled Bad Teacher (2011). She smokes, gobbles down fatty burgers, guzzles grog and carelessly marks assignments with the kind of attention traditionally given to changing a TV channel.
In Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) a lost-at-sea character played by Steve Carrell fools around with his son’s teacher, a reformed alcoholic played by Marisa Tormei. She’s off the plonk but she’s explosive, anger-prone and emotionally, shall we say, volatile.
What’s happened to cinema’s teachers? What dark forces have soiled the souls of a once reputable collective of inspiration-makers? Is Mr. Holland now lingering in a subterranean hide-out, banging organ keys like the phantom of the opera, trying to block out memories of rosier times?
Post 9/11 scepticism, post-Columbine fear and a gradual erosion of trust in our figureheads and institutions have no doubt played some influence. But the curriculum is still changing. Films as devastatingly grim as We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) are more about evil students than immoral teachers, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time before the two roles combine.
Perhaps Mr. Holland will one day be back, compassionless and cantankerous, lock and loading, armed for a new generation of adolescent riffraff. Perhaps he will be merciless. Perhaps, then, the circle will be complete.