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“Bad Teacher”: Films as Teaching Tools

(Image: Sony Pictures)

Lately, it seems, Hollywood has been drilling deep for the bottom of the barrel of mediocrity. The official consensus goes: at the turn of the millennium, a new medium seized the hearts of today's youth, operating at a level and speed unlike anything ever before, and this medium effectively wiped clean the slate of existing templates, rendering everything before obsolete, setting new paradigms for all other media forms, whether the news, sitcoms, dramas, even movies. To keep up, then, rival packaging understandably becomes glossier, less engaging, more entertaining, and certainly absolved of all content which might make unfair demands on the fragmentary, flickering intellect of the average 21st century consumer.

So of no surprise should it be that this past weekend's big release, “Bad Teacher” (Sony), affords nothing of value to any film goer with interests above the carnal and caustic lusts of the stereotypical teenager. [Plot is revealed below — Eds]

Elizabeth Halsey (played by Cameron Diaz) is a sharp-mouthed seventh-grade English teacher at a Cook County public middle school, plagued by a mission to achieve the barest minimum in the classroom. She's comfortable coming to school routinely stoned or wet, leaving the kids nourished on a daily movie run. The world is plotted against her, it also seems, as her latest drive to get breast implants was derailed for financial reasons. Her students are at best disposable twerps underserving of love or respect: when one brings in home-baked cookies on the first day of class, she spits them out. At a PTA conference, she solicits bribes from parents, even guaranteeing one of her daughter: “She will get an A—or your money back.” At a student's home, she steals a glass dolphin.

And yet through all she finds time to square against a nemesis, built from the start as a good-natured, exemplary, however hyper-energized teacher across the hall who remains ever suspicious of Elizabeth's antics, much of her information coming from kids bullied into confessing all they know, one even threatened with points deduction for not answering sufficiently—perhaps a long march from Abu Ghraib? Before long, in stumbles an accidental character, substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (played by Justin Timberlake), tasked to spice up a script not terribly surplus in content and character.

Nevertheless it's classic Hollywood:

Cat fight—Check

Love Triangle—Check

Casual Racism—Check

Faux Narrative Arc—Check

Aspirationalist Tendencies—Check

Cheesy Romantic Ending Utterly Unrelated To Plot—Check

But there's a lesson of pressing urgency, for Elizabeth acknowledges her decision to teach was made for “all the right reasons”; namely, “shorter hours, summers off, no accountability.” During conversation with a gym teacher, as both contemplate their middling realities, he asks her: “What went wrong in your life that you ended up educating children?” And she answers: “Maybe I was a bad person in another life.” This is the set narrative until one night she learns of the annual bonus granted the teacher with highest performing students on the state standardized test, a whopping $5700. And this switches her drive, turning overnight from slothful, irresponsible, indifferent bum into fascist/dictator/super-mean teacher, amping up the cruelty for the glory of the bonus, to make the down payment on the boob job.

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“Things are about to change around here,” Elizabeth announces to her students the morning after. “Recess is over!” And to ring this message home, she slams dodgeballs into the faces and bodies of students who miss questions on a pop quiz. When test time approaches and her students don't seem enough prepared, she uses sex and drugs to deceive a test official, steals a copy of the test, and shows no remorse when later exposed—getting the official to fall on his sword through sexual blackmail.

Recently, Ms. Diaz spoke of the motivation for playing this character. “By the time I got to the end of the script I realized I didn't have to redeem her, and that was so refreshing.” Timberlake seemed inspired along the same lines: “It's not often a comedy like this comes along where every single character can kind of get away without being redeeming at all.”

Of course their “artistic” choices must be respected, but in a politically volatile period, when public school teachers are struggling to survive amidst the indefatigable attacks of liberal and hard-Right charter zealots, the decision to play teachers with no redeeming value could be strikingly insensitive, if not downright idiotic. And never mind this movie is rated R, meaning many likely to see it are parents with kids in schools. Yet both seem too smart to give critics the upper hand, Ms. Diaz declaring recently, “I am as public as education gets,” and Timberlake opining, “We have to figure out a way to pay teachers more. … The teachers we actually learned more from taught us life lessons more than trigonometry. They have such a huge responsibility and are under-appreciated and underpaid.”

It's a delicate tension between good and bad, fiction and reality, two trifling hours in a dark theatre and a looping soundtrack of denigration from the powerful and prestigious, blaming you for all the ills of society. Watch closely, and Diaz's character seems eerily cribbed from a classic Michelle Rhee diatribe—yes, the failed former chancellor of DC Public Schools who reckoned herself Superwoman and loved to brag of the thousands of teachers fired during her three-year reign.

Last September 2010 when the propaganda documentary “Waiting for 'Superman'” premiered, Rhee was welcomed onto Oprah's couch as a “warrior woman for our side!” and she took up the audience in sweeping ecstasy, telling the tale of a teacher “in our district who over a decade's span would be AWOL, she wouldn't come in for days at a time, and the kids would be left without a teacher, and then finally she started falling asleep in class.” Rhee decided to terminate her, but the teacher grieved it and was only suspended, “and then when she came back she was in a parent's meeting and swore at them, called them bad names.” And only after 10 years was the sleepy, foul-tongued, union-backed teacher finally terminated. Only a few months prior, Rhee was desperately defending the mass firing of teachers, a defining feature of her tenure: “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.”

This would be Elizabeth Halsey, who's passed out for most of class period, who smokes weed in front of her seventh-grade students, assuring them “it's medicinal,” who seems built without any moral or ethical strand, a cartoon, caricature character, absolutely fiction, flat in true cinematic terms, hopelessly irredeemable, yet in control of over 20 students on any given day.

This wouldn't fall under what Norman Mailer called the “sinister edge of serious film on a large screen in a dark theater.” So it's much too easy to conclude the movie is banal, trite, silly, and useless, to dump its memories and images into a dustbin, irredeemably trash and filth; but to interpret “Bad Teacher” so simplistically would mark a general ignorance of the role Hollywood films play in our society, as teaching machines—educating all, young and old, with rapturing graphics, bawdy humor, gory scenes, shoddy plots, and captivating suspense thrillers which almost always spill outside of the theaters onto the main streets of everyday life and even into the living rooms and bedrooms of society.

Films, therefore, however different from legislations, ordinances, or publications, take form equally as message apparatuses, merely entering the same room through different doors. And within this context, certain meanings resonate higher in the public sphere than others. Certain registers count, leaving others devalued. In this instance, the notion that most public school teachers are reckless bums living lavishly off the hard work of parents, enjoying “shorter hours, summers off, no accountability,” comes just as genuinely rendered as the latest chest-pounding drivel drips of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates or non-educator entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada.

Elizabeth lies, cheats, steals to get the bonus, and no critique of the corporate sensibility creeping into public education, which drives senseless competition among public servants identified as educators—nothing but the craven desire for cheap chuckles registers. Public schools, in this film, are shunned as unregulated, abuse-ridden, chaotic environments, and the writers and director wouldn’t bat an eye defending their work as an apolitical representation of the absurd.

The formula, they know, needs no reinventing—smash language, sex, drugs and conflict together, and an eager public seats at the ready, waiting to lap it all up. After three days, a strong $31,000,000 debut—second place, behind the animated “Cars 2”.

James Baldwin worried in 1959 what was becoming of his native land. “We cannot possibly expect, and should not desire, that the great bulk of the populace embark on a mental and spiritual voyage for which very few people are equipped and which even fewer have survived,” he wrote. “What we are distressed about, and should be, when we speak of the state of mass culture … is the overwhelming torpor and bewilderment of the people.”

But our world, Baldwin knew, runs on supply and demand, and absence of demand doesn't nullify supply. At a time when corporate CEOs have stooped in the public consciousness lower than drug dealers and politicians, no recent film, save for Oliver Stone's “Wall Street 2”, takes a parodic lens to their chicanery. Whether or not the overwhelming polity thinks public school teachers have lost their touch and have at long last become unnecessary burdens on society fails to count in this chain, and Baldwin knew why: “The people who run the mass media and those who consume it are really in the same boat. They must continue to produce things they do not really admire, still less love, in order to continue buying things they do not really want, still less need.”

Maybe Sony Pictures Studios wouldn't mind refunding my $7.50—no popcorns.

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