Movie Review: Words and Pictures dir. by Fred Schepisi

Poster for Words and Pictures

Poster for Words and Pictures

It wasn’t what I was expecting, so I should not hold that against it, but I found Words and Pictures just a tad disappointing. It is a very nice movie, not a great movie, but nice, and its heart is in the right place.

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

The film deals with an English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) who teaches at a very privileged prep school in Maine. Marcus–who once had a promising start as a writer– is brilliant, witty, energetic, and charming. The students love him; his colleagues tolerate him; his bosses are beginning to tire of him.  We immediately see him chastised for being late–an occurrence that is more and more frequent because at night he is drinking more and more. (I found this part a bit unbelievable because after his nightly excesses there is no way he could perform so elegantly in the classroom each day.  Add to that the thermos full of vodka he drinks with his lunch each day and his engaging classroom demeanor seems unreal.)

Because of cuts at another school, the school is able to hire a new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). A successful gallery artist, Delsanto has left New York City due to crippling rheumatoid arthritis which forces her to walk with a cane, strap brushes to her wrists, and suffer intense pain, and she has come to rural Maine where she gets the necessary help from her sister.

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

She immediately clashes with Marcus, but not without hidden a smile of pleasure.

And this is where I got it wrong. As Hollywood usually goes, the film begins as a typical romantic comedy. Two strong-willed, feisty characters are thrown together–ala Tracy and Hepburn– battle and show their disdain for each other, and finally fall in love.  Yet, Words and Pictures takes another tack.

In her first class of Honors Art, Delsanto tells her class that “Words are lies, traps.” Since Marcus teaches the same students, her comments get back to him, and he initiates a war.  Words vs picture:  What is more powerful?  What is more true?  What is more dangerous?

And while the battle began between the two adults, the students get very much involved, and actually experience a truly great learning experience. (Educators now call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”) The “words” that the students use and the artwork they create as different sides in this battle of philosophies are impressive at the least.

As the battle goes on, Marcus learns that the school board is considering his dismissal, his relationship with his son is becoming more and more estranged, and his muse has completely dried up. And, he begins drinking even more heavily.

Delsanto’s condition worsens–she cannot undress herself or hold a brush without help–but her artistic output is becoming more and more robust.

Ultimately, these two flawed adults get together, but their lovely day together is sabotaged by Marcus’ destructive, drunken night.

It takes the final school assembly, where the contest between “words and pictures” is judged to bring some resolution to the film.  Here, Marcus gives a speech stating that there is no greater approach–that together words and pictures are often more powerful than apart. (I’m not sure I agree.)  Afterwards, we are left hanging–does Delsanto merely forgive Marcus or does she let him back into her life.

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as Jack MArcus and Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in Words and Pictures

To see a romantic film about two adults, seriously flawed in their own ways, is a rarity in film these days (at least in American movies). And to have this romance played out by the like of such actors as Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen is special. And this is where Words and Pictures promised a delight.

But somewhere along the line, the relationship between Marcus and Delsanto gets hijacked.  The philosophical arguments of “words vs. pictures” take center stage, and–by the very nature of film– can only be superficial at best, and ultimately unfulfilling.  And we are further distracted by the subplots of Marcus and his son’s disintegrating relationship and an annoying story of a predatory student who continually harasses a shy student in his class. (Granted both of these subplots can be tied into the overall argument of “words vs. pictures,” but again, it is weak.) And so, the “romance”–even the relationship–between Marcus and Delsanto too often gets pushed aside and loses its cinematic momentum,

In the end, I enjoyed Words and Pictures, but I wanted to like the film more than I did.  It had the makings of  a  sweet romance, but the un-fleshed-out philosophical argument got in the way.

What I found most interesting was that all of Dina Delsanto’s artwork was painted by Binoche herself.  That bit of info, coming late in the credits, is amazing, for the paintings are powerful expressionist and abstract works that to my untutored eye were dazzling. Binoche has always been one of my favorite actresses…now even more so.


Endings, beginnings, and start-overs

Before I began teaching at the school where I currently teach, I worked in an advertising agency. During the interview process at the school, the headmaster asked me what I thought would be the greatest difference. My answer was “Endings.”

dandraper       mrchips

In the advertising world, it was not unusual for some print ad for which I had written copy  nine, twelve, eighteen months earlier needing to be re-tweaked  later. We are changing our direction, the headline is too “downtown,”  we want to downplay the price, emphasize the sponsor, etc., etc.  Things never were truly complete. They were signed-off on, yes. But they were never done with.

Teaching, however, is one of those professions where there are periodic endings, arbitrary endpoints where the slate is wiped clean, one can review what went right, rue what went wrong, and learn from both.

It is the end of May now, but I know that I and many of my colleagues are already plotting out projects and readings, weighing shifts in focus and shifts in technique, and (always on my part) constructing schemes to stay better organized in the upcoming school year.

And besides a chance to start anew, the end of a quarter, a semester, a school year offers a chance to bury the past and move forward. To begin again.

I used to have the Beckettian quote, Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better, posted on the wall of my office. At the time, it was a personal mantra for me, for my own work. I was not thinking of teaching. This year it has become a buzzword/phrase throughout education.failbetter1

All over in print and on the web there are articles about the value of failing, about the necessity of failing, of the embrace of failing. And we as teachers know that as well as anyone–for ourselves, if not necessarily for our students.  For what is the end of each term but a chance to review our failings and resolve to “fail better” next time.

Now with the end of the school year, there is also the spate of “commencement speeches” that must be heard. Those talks given to graduating seniors in colleges and high-schools around the country that are especially inspiring, especially poignant, especially relevant.

David Foster’s Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon University has become legendary. For a long while it was shot all over the internet, and then capitalism took over and someone decided to release it as a book.  It has been abridged and made into a wonderful short film, This is Water. Like all great commencement speeches, this is wise, humorous, and relevant without falling into clichés. It emphasizes compassion and empathy, warns graduates of the sometimes benumbing world of adulthood, and charges them to make their world better by understanding it more tolerantly.

Lately, Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has been parsed and tweeted, analyzed and blogged about. It has been highly criticized and highly praised. It is about creativity and about personal freedom. And, of course, at this time of year, it is all over the place and referenced almost every time you log on.

And even Jane Lynch, the wonderful actress who has appeared in so many of the Christopher Guest films and now stars in the television show Glee, even Jane Lynch keeps appearing in my in-box and my twitter feeds and blogs that I follow because of the inspiring speech she gave in 2012 to the women of Smith College.  It too is forthright and wise and commanding.

But it is the nature of graduation speeches to address an audience as they START OUT into something new.  One of the joys/perks of teaching is that one gets to START OVER.  My best and frequent companion these days is a 7-year old boy with whom I play a lot of games.  Often when something goes wrong for him in a game we are playing, he is the first to yell, “Start Over” (though just as often he simply  changes the rules!)  Who knew that the gaming-strategy of a 7-year-old is the same spark that keeps good teachers fresh, engaged and effective?

“I is someone else”: Rimbaud–l’enfant terrible

rimbaud drawing

illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

A colleague came up to me with a problem–a problem with some unruly boys who had been displaying a growing disrespect towards her, coupled with a sophomoric sexism that went beyond their adolescent asininity and a smattering of racism. She then went on to say that to make matters worse, they were also very good writers. I wondered to myself if what she said was not necessarily atypical–that their innate creativity is being strangled by the dysfunctions of the modern educational system and that that is one cause of their intractability.

To make the point, I told her, I wouldn’t want to have taught Rimbaud.

Ah, Rimbaud, the boy-child terror who created haunting, mesmerizing verses until he was 21 and then quit to become a businessman, to dabble in gun-running in Africa, and to even try to join the U.S. Navy. But whatever he did from that point on, he had quit writing and refused to talk about it thereafter. Yet in those five or six years in late adolescence, he cut a swath of creativity and destruction, of love and violence, of intelligence and stupidity–and blazed into the pantheon of world poetry.

In actuality, however, Rimbaud was in fact a fine, model student. While he was in school, he usually walked away with the academic prizes given out at the end of a school year. He wrote poetry in in his native French, as well as in Latin and Greek, mature verse, some of which is still anthologized. Indeed, he was a stellar student. But then he quit school.

When he was still sixteen–and with the encouragement and support of the older Paul Verlaine whom he had enamored with some verses –Rimbaud first ran away to Paris. There he began a meteoric life of debauchery, anarchism, promiscuity, violence, substance abuse–and the most intense poetic creativity.

And like a meteor, Rimbaud burned out quickly. His intense and volatile love affair with Verlaine ended with Verlaine shooting him twice in the arm. Verlaine was arrested and served two years in prison.

Wounded Rimbaud by Jef Rosman, 1873

Wounded Rimbaud by Jef Rosman, 1873

When Verlaine was released from prison, Rimbaud handed him a sheaf of loose papers which would become Illuminations, his last major work. Rimbaud was but 21 years old. He was already an old poet. Verlaine had published his FIRST book at 21. Rimbaud was finished by then. (A series of prose reflections, Illuminations is akin–in its intent–to the epiphanies that Joyce gathered –at the beginning of his career, however. )

Here are some 4 stanzas from Rimbaud’s 100 line poem The Drunken Boat (Le Bateau Ivre). He was sixteen when he wrote it!

But now I, a boat lost under the hair of coves,
Hurled by the hurricane into the birdless ether,
I, whose wreck, dead-drunk and sodden with water,
neither Monitor nor Hanse ships would have fished up;

Free, smoking, risen from violet fogs,
I who bored through the wall of the reddening sky
Which bears a sweetmeat good poets find delicious,
Lichens of sunlight [mixed] with azure snot,

Who ran, speckled with lunula of electricity,
A crazy plank, with black sea-horses for escort,
When Julys were crushing with cudgel blows
Skies of ultramarine into burning funnels;

I who trembled, to feel at fifty leagues’ distance
The groans of Behemoth’s rutting, and of the dense Maelstroms
Eternal spinner of blue immobilities
I long for Europe with it’s aged old parapets!
Arthur Rimbaud, the Collected Works, translated by Oliver Bernard)

So the question remains “Would I want to have taught Rimbaud?” I am not sure. I am not sure of myself. Rimbaud–the excellent student, remember–was fortunate to have an exceptional school teacher and mentor, George Izambard, who fostered and encouraged the boy’s talent, gave him free access to his personal library and pushed him towards greatness. That is a big responsibility, to see and encourage greatness.

But in a large way, that is the true nature of teaching–whether it is a future Rimbaud or not. For how are we to know?

Watching the wheels go round and round

photo from “Gorillas don’t Blog,” November 3, 2011

I woke today in one of those states.  I didn’t know who I was or where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. And as I seeped into clearer consciousness, I felt in a rut…already in a rut at 4:45 a.m. Geeesh!

The day begins: the 57 bus, the Market-Frankford El, the R5 train and then a brisk walk, hoping for a co-worker to come driving by. I will do the reverse in the evening. And then again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

But the commute is not what was getting me. I enjoy it. I get plenty of reading done–and not a little dozing as well.  But something wasn’t sitting well.

Simply, I am not sure what I am doing. 

For work, I am teaching Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, and Jim Shepherd’s Like You’d Understand Anyway. But I ask myself, “What am I teaching?” Sure they are great reads. They are more than that: they are thoughtful, engaging, and well-suited for introspection, reflection, and–hopefully–understanding.  But, as for today…meh.

I know that it is a passing feeling, the not uncommon question of  “Is that all there is?”

And I know I will get pumped by the next great book I encounter, by the old song that I hear from someone else’s radio, by a magnificent movie that comes in under the radar, by good craíc shared with friends. 

But today the feeling is real. It is simply something you work through.

I was listening today to John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels Go Round.”  I was thinking beforehand that it reflected my own feelings today.  But it was just the opposite.

Lennon is watching “the wheels go round” because he had gotten off the merry-go-round, had walked out of the maze, was no longer “playing the game.”  He was enjoying the real things–his wife, his child, his new life.

But at the moment, for me (as for most of us),  I need to stay on the merry-go-round as it continues to spin, mindlessly, pointlessly and without destination. 

Nevertheless, today I am listening to what John says and that always seems hopeful.

“It is always a matter, my darling, of life and death…”

Hans Christian Andersen's Window-sill Desk

“It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.”

I teach eighteen year old boys. They are very bright, quite talented, and well-situated so as to take advantage of the most amazing opportunities.  And yet they are still eighteen years old–filled with false bravado and insecurities, dreams and fears, uncertainties and confusion.

And this is the week!

In the States, April 1 is the arbitrary deadline that most colleges and universities set for informing applicants whether they have been accepted or rejected. The three or four days beforehand is a time period when these students believe that their lives sit in a balance.  I try to tell them–not flippantly–that it is not the end of the world, that perhaps rejection from one school and acceptance to a lesser-desired one might be the best thing to happen to them.  Who can tell?

But I have to remember as the poet says, at that age “it is always a matter of life and death.”

I don’t envy them their angst.  And I don’t downplay it. It is very real–and almost palpable in the school hallways. Instead I give them this poem, which I think is good for them to know.

The Writer by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

There are two important pieces in that last verse.  One, I realize that for them everything–a university rejection, a break-up with a girlfriend, a strike-out when a game is on the line–everything is “a matter of life or death.”  The second is that wish that the speaker “wished you before, but harder.”  Undoubtedly, they will be battered and smacked up against hard obstacles. Even the most fortunate among them–and they are mostly fortunate–will have moments where things seem hopeless.  And so, like the poet, I wish them well, I wish them smooth sailing, and I wish it even harder.