Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Class (2008)

Near the end of The Class, a girl tells her teacher that she’s learned nothing the past year at school, and that the books they read in class are useless.  Her teacher finds that hard to believe, so he asks her about the books she reads at home.  “Well, there’s The Republic.”  He’s surprised, obviously.  “By Plato?”  “Yeah.”  If there’s something The Class wants to teach us, it’s that kids, like this one, can be surprising.

If you went to junior high, you know this one too.

The movie follows a teacher and his class of ninth graders in a tough district of Paris throughout a school year.  The teacher, named Mr. Marin, is played by Francois Begaudeau, who wrote about his experiences teaching in Paris (he’s actually a teacher, not an actor, or so they say) and the novel was adapted loosely into The Class.  It’s a loose adaptation because the kids play themselves, not characters from a book – they use their real names.  Most of the scenes came about through structured improvs with Francois and the kids, and maybe that’s why the acting in this film never feels like acting.

Mr. Marin’s job is not easy: the kids tease him, insult him, ignore him, threaten him, write him hateful letters, and one particularly problematic student accuses him of being gay.  Yet it’s his resilience that makes the movie so hopeful: he gets all of this young teenage garbage thrown at him daily, and he’s still doing his thing the next day, ready for something good to happen in his class, for a moment when we’d get to see what makes it all worth it for him in the end.  There’s a few of those moments: apparently teaching isn’t all fire and brimstone (that would be substitute teaching).  These moments of hope are very rewarding: if you’ve ever wondered, as I often have, why anyone would want to be a teacher, The Class seems to offer an answer.

I don’t know why, but I don’t think she means it.

The main conflict of the story is centered around one particularly troubled youth named Souleymane, and the school’s unfruitful attempts to get him to actually do some homework, among other things.  As time passes his behavior seems to be getting worse (he risks turning his French lessons into boxing matches), to everyone except Mr. Marin, who’s discovered that the boy has a secret penchant for photography, and is trying to encourage him.  We get to see a stand-off between Mr. Marin, who believes the boy can be helped, and the rest of the school board which seems to be leaning more and more towards expulsion.  We root for Mr. Marin’s cause ever since we see Souleymane’s eyes light up when Mr. Marin posts his photos on the wall for his classmates to see, and can’t help feeling frustrated by the school system that seems to offer no alternatives but to expel the young boy – which, to complicate matters, could lead to his being sent back to his father’s home in Mali.

So he claims.

We empathize with Souleymane partially because of his surprising soft-spot for photography, but mainly because it’s easy to relate to being messed up at that age.  You could argue that every student in The Class is lost in some way, just like every kid in the real world was in junior high.  And these are kids in the real world, they’re not actors, they’re just kids, and maybe that’s what makes this film so powerful.  The kids get to be kids, they’re not forced to try to be actors, and we believe them through all of their confused, hormonal outbursts.  This may be Francois Begaudeau’s book, and it may be Mr. Marin’s story, but time and time again, the kids surprise us and steal the show.

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Kagemusha (1980)

We all know what it feels like to put on a role.  It’s a very human feeling, maybe uniquely human.  Whether we’re eating dinner with old friends, going on a blind date, or impersonating a Japanese feudal lord (wait, you’ve never done that?), there’s seems to be a mask we put on, a role that we play.

That’s what Kagemusha is about.

This will be your face after watching Kagemusha. Minus the hair. (Unless you happen to be my grandfather, in which case, what were you doing in Kagemusha?)

Kagemusha means ‘The Shadow Warrior’ in Japanese and it probably refers to the main character of this film, who, like all of us, puts on a role – but for him, the stakes are higher.  He is a ‘Shadow Warrior’ in that he lives, for a short while, in the shadow of the dead Lord Shingen, who’s final wish was for his death to be kept secret for three years.  So it’s the job of a poor bloke (a thief, born ‘base’, who happens to look exactly like Shingen) to keep up appearances, making everyone, except those in the know, believe that Shingen is alive and well.

This is Japanese ‘Noh’ theatre, a different kind of role play. Best known for crazy masks, men who hit drums every once in a while, and the added bonus of not letting you get to sleep for a week after you see it.

As a side note, I once heard that Kurosawa used to hand-paint his storyboards in watercolour, which makes a lot of sense watching Kagemusha.  The second scene is of a messenger covered in brown mud running through ranks and ranks of sleeping soldiers from opposing clans, all with different colour schemes.  It’s like a chase scene through a rainbow.

Like, Jesus.

Kagemusha stars a brilliant actor (who would later be the star of Ran, Kurosawa’s take on King Lear and the next film he would make).  There’s an unforgettable scene in Kagemusha where he’s talking to some attendants who know he’s not the real Lord Shingen.  He stars to laugh at something immature, in his own unattractive, undistinguished way, and the attendants go “Lord Shingen would never act so vulgar.”  And he goes “Yeah?  How about this?” and puts on the role for them.  The attendants are blown away, they’re seeing their old Lord.  It’s very satisfying to see him nail it, even though we know it’s not him.  It’s as if he’s saying ‘Here’s your Lord, I can do that whenever’ and we know that, despite his respectable appearance, he’s just as vulgar and immature inside as we all can be when we let down our ‘manners’.

And the finale of this movie transcends all this role playing.  We get to see what this man is like stripped of all his roles and of everything he had (maybe there’s a foreshadowing of King Lear here?) and witness what it’s like for him to feel the unendurable emptiness of being left alone without any of his masks.  And then it ends, and the credits roll, and you’re left staring into that abyss Kurosawa created for you (see Fig. 1).

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The Seventh Seal (1957)

The most touching moment for me in The Seventh Seal is, not surprisingly, about death, but, surprisingly, it’s about the death of a relatively unknown character.  We don’t know her name, we just know she’s accused of being a witch, and some deluded men have blamed the plague on her, the one that’s ravaging their country in the 14th century.

Uh, I’m in no hurry. Beer?

In a great shot, we see Max Von Sydow, as Antonius Block, knight returned from the Crusades, (who is, by the way, playing chess with Death to stave off…death) and his squire, Jons, played by the ultra-versalite Gunnar Bjornstrand (just watch him in Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light to see for yourself), watching as she’s burned alive.  Block has taken pity for her – he doesn’t see a witch, he sees a scared young woman.

The squire asks his leader: ‘Who will look after that child?  The angels?  God?  Satan?  Emptiness?’  Jons makes a case for emptiness.  Block isn’t so sure, Jons walks away, and Antonius Block stares down death, something he’s been doing a lot lately.  Only this time, he isn’t staring into his own death, he’s watching the death of this girl, and it’s the first time we see him overwhelmed by emotion.

If looks could kill…you’re probably already dead.

So that’s the emotional high-point for me – but the movie goes deeper (it still has eighteen minutes to go) and the ending involves a lovely actress (Gunnel Lindblom, of Bergman’s The Silence) staring down death too.  Which is surprising considering we don’t know that much about her either but, interestingly, we see her face instead of our more familiar heroes, at the spiritual height of the movie.

Plus you get to see a guy in the most amazing hat ever.  His name is Plog.  Here’s a sneak peak:

Plog, a country gentleman.

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