I have a soft spot for movies about inspirational, visionary teachers – partly because many of them are such unlikely, bald fantasies. I'm talking about those films where a teacher comes into an impossible situation – a problem class of kids with severe learning problems, or kids with underprivileged backgrounds, or kids who are super-smart but also delinquents, reckless and wild. Throwing away the rule book and the standard curriculum, the visionary teacher connects with these troublesome kids in some deep and immediate way. He or she inspires them to think, or learn, or succeed, or aspire.
The latest entry in this little genre is Dangerous Minds. Michelle Pfeiffer plays a real-life figure, marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson, and she's our visionary tour guide into the higher realms of learning – and poetry. Yes, like Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989), this is a film about the slightly subversive, mainly ennobling effects of poetry on impressionable young souls. But Dangerous Minds also borrows from a range of recent school films. It's a feel-good story of scholastic success, like Stand and Deliver (Ramon Menendez, 1987), and like the teacher in Stand and Deliver, LouAnne goes into the community, into the ghetto, to befriend the parents of her brightest students. This film is also strongly reminiscent of another key feel-good educational film, Lean on Me (1989), which was directed by John G. Avildsen of Rocky (1976) fame.
Lean on Me and Dangerous Minds are both films with a social agenda, celebrating the dynamic racial and cultural melting-pot of American society. Both of these films try to take on certain sensitive social issues, and both try mightily to turn today's struggling teachers into heroic figures. The producers of Dangerous Minds are perfectly frank about this idealising, wish-fulfilment aspect of their film: "We are losing a generation of kids ... we would like to make teachers heroes again".
Now, if the very idea of a teacher wielding poetry and thereby saving young souls already occasions a big laugh in you, I wouldn't suggest you rush out to see this film. I was drawn to it because, a few times, I've seen this kind of subject, poetry and all, treated in dramatically truer and more memorable ways. I'm thinking of a little-known movie you can get on video, one that was in fact made before Dead Poets Society, called The Beat (Paul Mones, 1988). In that film, it's an emotionally disturbed student who inspires his fellow classmates to liberate themselves through wild chants of beat poetry. And it's a painful, tough, ambivalent movie – it's really about a little window of hope and imagination that opens up in a hopeless world, and then snaps shut again just as fast. There is often a poignancy of this sort to the best school dramas – or juvenile delinquent dramas, like a Canadian film called Train of Dreams (1987), where disturbed kids work things out of their system by screaming raucous punk songs. What's tough about these movies is that they show institutions like schools or social welfare organisations as life-savers – liberating the potential of downtrodden kids – but also betrayers, complicit in a kind of sweet cheat, since they create fanciful expectations that often cannot possibly be realised out in the big, ugly world.
The director of Train of Dreams, John N. Smith, has actually been brought on board for this slick, formulaic feel-good movie Dangerous Minds. His tough touch is not evident. As a movie, it's an airily unreal affair, hung on completely obvious hooks and intrigues with thoroughly predictable outcomes. There's a tough kid in class, the leader of the pack, who must be won over. There's a brilliant girl who gets pregnant, and is conned by the school administration into leaving. There's an unbelievably stuffy, reactionary principal – he's a black principal, because the film is trying to be a bit surprising and provocative on this point – and he believes that polite manners are more important than the quality of life.
It's not much of a film, but what really interests me in it is the attempt to deal with certain divisive topical issues that have gathered around the state of education in America. For instance, the film tries to grapple with the idea that America has fostered a 'culture of complaint', in which the underprivileged are encouraged to think of themselves as whining victims. LouAnne pounds around this classroom proclaiming things like: "There are no victims in this classroom – that's a choice!" Choice is the big positive buzzword in this story. It has a dreamy New Age message – you don't have to be poor, or oppressed, or nihilistic, or bitter, or lacking in any opportunities for social advancement – just choose otherwise! I know there's a good, valid point to this kind of optimistic encouragement, but I personally have a pretty low tolerance for this brand of pro-choice advice, at least when it manages to ignore every single harsh reality of an individual's social upbringing and conditioning. Unfortunately, this movie suggests that every kid in the multi-cultural ghetto is just dying to dine in some fancy middle class restaurant with their whitebread teacher – it's a fantasy of 'social mobility for all', which is surely one of the darker dreams underlying the New Age mentality in its more nakedly capitalist mode.
The other hot issue that Dangerous Minds raises is that of political correctness in the American classroom, particularly in relation to current sexual harassment guidelines. We hear over and over again in this movie that teachers are not allowed ever to touch their students. The film would have us believe that it is almighty fear, not prudence, that has led to this ruling – which is something very close to the argument in Helen Garner's book The First Stone. LouAnne's personal journey as a teacher is constructed as a drama of personal space. At the start, students threaten her by coming too close. Her way of taking command and of getting through to them, is to re-negotiate this whole tense, fraught, over-prescribed arena of physical relations.
Like the ex-hippy teacher in Lean on Me, LouAnne's greatest and most transgressive teaching tool is the power of her touch – her hugs, her supportive laying on of hands, and so on. Now, one thing about the treatment of this film is especially striking. In movies about male teachers, such classroom charisma almost always carries the charge, and the risk, of eroticism. In these less guarded classroom movies, education itself, the very getting of wisdom, is viewed, in the 1960s manner, as a form of erotic initiation, no matter how sublimated. No matter how difficult it is to talk about such classroom eroticism openly, I believe it is an inherent part of the teacher-student exchange. But Dangerous Minds quickly de-eroticises this whole situation. It's as if the idea of a sexually charismatic woman leading the classroom revolution was just far too freaky for the makers of this film to even contemplate. And in fact, LouAnne doesn't even have a love interest outside the classroom in this depiction – she's only allowed a plump, sexless male friend. In fact, she did have a rather sexier guy originally – Andy Garcia – but he was cut out. It seems that the sunny, feel-good women's version of To Sir, With Love (James Clavell, 1967) or Dead Poets Society is still a few years off yet.
© Adrian Martin January 1995