Here's the thing about teaching when you're an old fart. Last week, when a group of students reported, excellently I might add, on their view of plot structures and the writing strengths of the movie Chariots of Fire, I thought they went just a little overboard about the movie's fulsome Christian character, as if the film was a Sunday School teacher. It isn't, so I became one.
There's no doubt Chariots casts the Christian as a hero for standing on principle and refusing to run an Olympic preliminary race on Sunday; but mostly, I told them, its favor rests on Eric Liddel, a devout Scottish Presbyterian, because he can run and because he determines that God is more important than "old England."
His Jewish rival, the sprinter Harold Abrahams, is not so favorably featured, even though he too becomes a gold-medalist. But Abrahams was only concerned about himself, they reported. He didn't care about anyone else, was no team player at all. He didn't care much about "old England" either.
It's understandable why they would read the movie's characters that way--in how many shows can one find a protagonist so openly Christian, so perfectly righteous, and so great a champion?
They did well, but I tried to tell them that if they believed that the purpose of the film was to glorify God, they're probably mistaken. Does it do that? Well, it values someone who believes that; but the film isn't a sermon on Sabbittarianism. Besides, what may have looked so valiant in 1920, seems rather foolishly parochial today, even to a culture, like mine, which once was exceedingly Sabbittarian.
I also told them that if we were watching this movie at Yeshiva University, and we were all Jewish, our sympathies would be rooted elsewhere. It's Abrahams, after all, who's taken up the banner of fighting racism. It's Abrahams, the Jew, who feels despised and rejected by "old England." It's Abrahams whose sole purpose in running faster than everyone else is to right the damned wrongs of the old ways, a petrified society that has tolerated Jewishness but really never found a place its Jewish people--and is, in fact, racist. If we were Jewish, I told them, we'd like Harold Abrahams a lot more than we do.
Downton Abbey jumped into my mind, because its character is in part also created by the death of "old England" after the First World War. The England whose ships ruled the world, colonizer extraordinaire, pre-eminent world power, had its character changed by the "war to end all wars." Old England is in hospice care in both shows, even though the country doesn't quite understand it yet.
"I got it," I said, "how about Downton Abbey?--you know Downton Abbey?"
"Any of you?"
"None of you watch Downton Abbey?"
Woe and woe and woe. There goes my brilliant analogy and my own Sunday School lesson.
My wife says, and she's right, that when you're in college, you've no time for TV and that therefore, I shouldn't be surprised when not one of my students--in "Screenwriting" in fact--knew a thing about Downton Abbey.
But I couldn't help thinking right at that moment that I live in a whole different world.
Here's the thing about teaching when you get old. Sometime you find yourself (pardon an unforgivably mixed metaphor) strung up, hung, on a different wave length altogether. Like a few years ago, when The Kings Speech won the Oscars and True Grit was a runner-up. "Great movies," I said to my class. None of them had seen either. "What do you watch?" I asked. Inception, someone said, and they all--to a person--nodded belovedly.
There's good reason for retirement, believe me. You lose your way because in the passing of generations the shared markers are just plain gone. You feel like a character from the Abbey, for pity sake. You can only hope for the best.
But last night, a young guy, a filmmaker, who is where some of my students would like to be a decade from now, trying to find a place in a film-making world, showed up as requested and spoke to them about life in the real world (there are no reels anymore, so you can't use that ancient pun). I asked him to talk about great movie making, and in class he showed us a cut from the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a meticulously paced few moments where images say absolutely everything, where there is no need for dialogue at all because visually the story is right there--no computer graphics, no shoot-'em-up violence, nothing wild or banal or horrifying, nothing to wince, everything to make you stare. My guest showed them art.
It was the same story just a couple weeks ago. Another guest, a screenwriter from Hollywood, showed us a segment from There Will Be Blood, when once again the confluence of cinematic arts was jaw-droppingly effective. It was the scene of the first gusher, when the oil man's son is hurt and his fortune is made, a scene choreographed so stunningly well that your mind can't wander.
What I'm saying is that both guests made my students watch art, and they did, and they understood the nexus of diligence and craft, sheer hard work, and just plain beauty.
There's that too. Sometimes the teacher leads and the students see. When that happens, you can't help but think you could have done worse with your life.
And that too is a good reason for morning thanks.