Archive | Children RSS feed for this section

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin means well. With gentle storybook strokes, the biographical motion picture about A.A. Milne, who created and wrote the Winnie the Pooh children’s books, plays from Milne’s traumatic soldiering in World War 1 to his books becoming a worldwide bestselling literary series and beyond. Shown through flashbacks of battlefields, courtship and an only child, with fear of war looming over England, her war veterans and their survivors, Milne’s reconciliation of his war trauma comes through writing what’s childlike.

Reconciling with the child upon whom his stories are based is the movie’s centerpiece. In the showing and telling, and parts of this uneven movie are magically shown and told, the audience gets a sense of the writer’s life. That living with a writer, as Mrs. Milne (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) must do, is unbearable. That working for a writer, as the child’s nanny (Kelly Macdonald, Merida’s voice in Brave and Anna Karenina) does, is also a constant strain. That having a storyteller for a father, as the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Milne’s union does, both draws and repels his attention without ever fully gaining his guidance and love.

The child is the Pooh series’ basis, of course, for the character Christopher Robin. I’ll leave it to Goodbye Christopher Robin to spell out the complications of having that name and all it implies for his boyhood. Here, the boy is taken away with his parents to escape London’s triggers for his father’s post-war trauma to live in a cottage near the woods in Sussex. You can probably guess what follows, with stuffed animals, trips to the zoo, an imaginative mother and father, moonlight, sunrays and the wonder of them all blending into the woods. An origin story within the story satiates one’s interest in the Pooh tales; most details are dramatized here.

As Mrs. Milne, Robbie’s a bit overly dramatic or possibly miscast. Daphne Milne’s looks don’t age as persuasively as her husband’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Star Wars, Brooklyn). As Milne, Gleeson is superb, catching the writer’s irritability, the soldier’s torment, the husband’s lament and the father’s pride. The script does not allow him to show the writer writing, which would have tethered Goodbye Christopher Robin to the tales in a way that director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) apparently and understandably wants to avoid.

The result leaves loose ends. Daphne, for example, tenderly helps her future husband to heal when she guides him in how to lead and again later when she instructs him not to plead. Yet their bond never quite seals.

The books’ illustrator, one of the more compelling characters, trails off and disappears. The main two actors who portray the boy at differing ages, Alex Lawther and Will Tilston, are excellent, however, the screenplay does not fully account for the abrupt change in character which merely marks the boy’s progression. His emergence should be the film’s pivot point. Goodbye Christopher Robin contains insights about being the child of a creator — especially about being born to a talented creator whose creation becomes a commercial success — fathering, mothering and nurturing and, in the end, it suggests that parenting as an ideal simply and strictly means preparing the child to live, which is harder than it sounds, particularly for the walking wounded of the Great War.

As a war veteran-writer-father’s fable of how Milne made the most of his moments with his son, fencing and playing cricket in the forest, for the wonderful, childlike stories of Winnie the Pooh, Goodbye Christopher Robin leaves something unfulfilled. But there are also not many movies about sons of men who went to war and lived to write delightfully life-affirming tales. This movie’s lacking, but it hits sweet spots along the trail. It might be considered a must by fans of the books.

Movie Analysis: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Written by the late Melissa Mathison (The BFG, The Black Stallion) and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jaws, Munich, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Sugarland Express, Lincoln), Universal Pictures’ E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (available this week on a limited 35th anniversary edition Blu-Ray disc) remains sublime. Upon the recommendation of the greatest living philosopher, Leonard Peikoff, who names E.T. as his favorite movie, I saw it long after the original release. I was enchanted.

Buy the Movie

After this afternoon’s viewing (my first seeing it on the silver screen) at the ArcLight Hollywood, I’m happy to say that I still am. E.T. is not flawless, though it is close. What Mathison’s screenplay creates, Mr. Spielberg’s mastery recreates in moving pictures with wonder, humanity and deft courage to depict what it means to be kind and loving. E.T. does this with slow, deliberate lighting, scoring and multiple loops that bring characters, action and themes full circle.

The movie begins with a strong sense of fear and dread — Steven Spielberg uses horror in all of his films — in extended scenes of darkness after an alien spaceship lands on earth, dispatching the extra-terrestrial and accidentally leaving him behind. The largely unseen alien finds his way into a suburban California household’s backyard shed, where a middle child of a broken home (Henry Thomas) notices the disturbance. As he’d done with toddler Barry in Close Encounters and Chief Brody in Jaws, Mr. Spielberg in this way acknowledges the legitimacy of being frightened by a strange alien.

But, as in his other films, he shows that it’s also easy to be alienated from familiar beings, too. With a mother (Dee Wallace) still adjusting to divorce and an older brother (Robert Macnaughton) who is cruel and reckless, freckle-faced Elliott has his reasons to be drawn to an alien in spite of the risks. The wide-eyed child has an ‘enter’ sign on his room’s door, a clue that he’s actively seeking friendship. Simply, in perfect scenes of two young males earning trust, trading and cashing in, which starts when ET witnesses Elliott’s decision to run from an authority figure, boy and ET bond.

The bond first seals when they begin to sleep, as if the pair can really, only and deeply find peace in having found one another. Of course, the alien’s suddenly a fugitive from the United States government, and the boy’s gone rogue from his family, which mocks and repels him. From there, E.T. takes the friendship to a higher level, as Elliott tutors his new friend, whom he selfishly conceals from his siblings, mother and everyone else, first explaining to ET that he’s human, then that he’s a boy and, finally, that he’s Elliott. Hidden in Elliott’s room with posters, comics and figures such as the Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and Lando from the Star Wars serials, ET adapts. He refuels, recharges and overcomes his fear through Elliott’s sense of life.

All of this joy and enlightenment coming from the boy’s bedroom finally makes the middle child the center of the family’s home, sort of bringing the broken home together as the newly confident Elliott, as recharged as his friend, asserts himself in life for the first time. The boy draws a picture of the extra-terrestrial at school. He takes his younger sibling (Drew Barrymore) and, later, the older brother into his confidence, though Mom’s still too caught up in her new single parenthood to appreciate her growing children, let alone revel in her intelligent son’s emerging individuality.

Against this domestic setting comes the government, E.T.‘s villain as much as E.T. has one. While it’s kept in the backdrop for most of the movie, the threat of the state against their friendship creeps out in earnest — interestingly, fittingly — in the first scenes at a school. Amid a bulletin board about extinction and a teacher who remains essentially unseen, Elliott experiences a kind of telepathic communion with his friend back in his room. This entails Elliott’s dog, a can of beer and a clip of John Wayne sweeping Maureen O’Hara off her feet in The Quiet Man. The mayhem that ensues leads to Elliott’s coming of age. So, in a certain sense, does the teacher’s instruction in basic biology with frog dissection, which includes a lesson to “locate the heart and notice that it’s still beating.”

Elliott, melded with ET, acts so that it keeps beating. And this is one of E.T.‘s emblems; that what makes a heart beat, love and affection, is what keeps you alive. In ET, this vitality emits light.

The character suggested chiefly by dangling keys (Peter Coyote) represents the U.S. government, which, for 1982 when E.T. was released (the year Leonard Peikoff’s first book was published, in a happy coincidence), features an early depiction of the American surveillance state. For the state’s use of technology to violate rights, however, revitalized ET is one step ahead, devising and constructing his own machine, carefully using his friend’s possessions and lessons for electrical engineering.

Whose technology will triumph climaxes around Halloween in what’s probably Steven Spielberg’s most secular, individualistic movie — and, for this reason, his most American movie. Culminating as a contest of the byproduct of American culture, friendship and love and the state-sponsored result of government medicine, surveillance and coercion, ET explicitly embraces the former. “This is my home!” someone objects as the United States government violates property rights, as dishonestly and unjustly as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stressing another subsidiary theme and planting one of many bookends in this intimate fable about friendship. E.T. unfolds in its own time, not in rushed, fast-cutting jumps, graphics and effects.

The state’s total invasion of one’s private life versus the power of shared values yields the film’s most searing scenes in a makeshift medical trauma in which the Peter Coyote character — a kind of older, alternate version of what Elliott might become if he loses his idealism and innocence — refers to the “miracle” of the extra-terrestrial. It’s the closest ET comes to getting and giving religion. Followed with a question about how the government can help, which begs to be answered to get the hell out of the way, government’s role in the miracle is totally, utterly repudiated.

Yet the government’s not a realistic villain because they do not act in accordance with their power and conviction, one of the movie’s flaws. We know what the state does to an unwanted alien and it’s the opposite of what happens here (remember Elian). It’s a forgivable error on E.T.‘s terms, though, as Melissa Mathison and Steven Spielberg focus on the love and light between the two young males. Other flaws include too many insider references to movies and other contrivances.

Light and love charge E.T. like one of its big, Ray-O-Vac batteries in the picture that all but created product placement. In this way, E.T.‘s as fabulously commercial as Christmas. This doesn’t mean E.T. doesn’t integrate matters of the mind with the power of a beating heart. In gentle, soft and mercifully slow scenes such as a boy’s breath on glass as he holds vigil for the one he loves, taking a solemn oath to be hereE.T. is a perfect example that it’s possible to dramatize soulfulness in secular terms — and expressing love both in physical and spoken affection, E.T. sustains its “heartlight” theme.

As it does, each character within Elliott’s family is also touched, moved and, ultimately, exalted (even Harvey the dog). Here, its two-point circles illuminate like fireflies. Mother reads J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to her daughter — activating the sense of belief that arcs into a mother-daughter wish affirming life in reality. An angry boy lays down with imaginary friends, curls into a fetal position and awakens as an enchanted hero. In the most obvious example of the two-point loop, two friends’ flight by moonlight comes back around as the sun (and friendship) sets as E.T. rolls with a boy’s bicycle — backed by a band of boys’ bicycles — into one final, pulsating glow capped by the colors of a rainbow. With cinema’s most symbolic use of the sunflower as a metaphor for love as a matter of life and death since David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), E.T. charms, brightens and radiates.

TV & DVD Review: The Marva Collins Story (1981)

The-Marva-Collins-Story-1981-Cd-Cover-60670

Click to Buy or Rent

This December 1, 1981 CBS television movie starring Cicely Tyson (Roots, Sounder) as pioneering Chicago teacher Marva Collins, who died this week while in hospice care at the age of 78, is very good. The 100-minute Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, co-starring Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight, An Unfinished Life, Last Vegas) as her husband, was filmed on location in Chicago.

Hers is an untold but grand and heroic story. The classical education teacher, who wrote several books about her essentially Socratic pedagogical and motivationally-driven method, focused on the individual in her teaching. As I wrote in 2009 (read the post here), she was passionately anti-deterministic and pro-free will in her approach to reaching a student’s mind. In short, Collins did not think poor, black students were destined to play basketball or languish in poverty, illiteracy and despair. She held to the idea that each individual has merit and potential and that the young must be nourished, taught and loved.

The Marva Collins Story dramatizes the initial part of her epic struggle to break free from being a government education worker in Chicago’s dreaded public school system and creating her own school in her own home, all while married to a man (Mr. Freeman) who loved her and mothering three children.

In scene after scene, the Chicago Public School teacher refused to settle for less than the best quality for her Garfield Park ghetto students. Collins taught the classics in literature, emphasizing key themes as lessons for living in poverty and achieving self-reliance. When the classroom is vandalized by thugs, leaving her homeroom deflated and demoralized, Collins, who dresses smartly and expects the same of her young elementary schoolers, singles out one child who asks why? for a warm, loving explanation that life is hard for those who are of superior ability. She basically tells the boy to expect to be envied by those who are jealous. This is a lesson well learned and well played by Ms. Tyson, one of the best actresses of her time.

The woman the kids call Mrs. Collins is remarkable in her steadfast dedication to demanding that the fundamentally bankrupt institution matches her ability to teach her students. Collins mutters about the “bureaucrats” and finally strikes out on her own, opening her own school, Westside Preparatory School. Attracting the most deeply victimized students in the government-controlled educational system, few rally behind her. She pleads for help in the form of sponsorship from Chicago-based businesses. She writes to the media. She seeks the proper government approval, which only frustrates her efforts more because the government’s arbitrary rules are in constant self-contradiction. In one scene, when a bureaucrat comments on her behind her back, Marva Collins swings back into action and puts him—and, really, the whole damned state-sponsored educational system—in its lowdown place. She is indefatigable.

But The Marva Collins Story is about her free enterprise, not merely her character. It dramatizes the painstaking process one must undertake to defy the traditional, the expected, the status quo, especially if you’re a lone, black woman from whom others irrationally expect less. Add the fact that even less is expected of poor, black students and there you have the mindset of the welfare state, which Marva Collins identifies, defies and puts to shame. That she lines up students one by one—a boy who is fascinated with flight, a girl who’s been told she’s mindless, other outcasts lost in government’s ghetto schools—and praises them with love and encouragement for their ability, not scorn and indifference to the use of their reasoning minds, is the point of her story. Marva Collins climaxes with an example in capitalism, as the children take a field trip which is earned, not used as an excuse to indulge sloth and mediocrity, when Mrs. Collins takes her Westside Preparatory pupils to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Whatever flaws in her approach, which is sort of a catch-all immersion in the basics and classics, she is honest and straightforward about her limitations to parents, students and family. Her devotion to her task is rewarded with a visit from a newspaper reporter and an epilogue explains how she turned down an offer from President Reagan to serve as a government cabinet secretary (of a department he’d pledged to abolish, a promise he never did keep). Marva Collins’ story is exceptional for its vision, nerve and entrepreneurialism and, with a powerful rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—, The Marva Collins Story shows and tells what’s essentially heroic about her tale as it is and ought to be.


Rent or Buy The Marva Collins Story

 

New Articles on New Trier’s Experiment

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” — O’Brien, 1984 by George Orwell

1984It is with irony that this quote from Orwell’s classic novel comes to mind. I recently wrote for a suburban Chicago publication about what was for me a painful, if mercifully brief, modern education experience during my youth. It was a high school within a high school called the Center for Self-Directed Learning, part of a New Left educational movement that sprouted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Center, as it was known, occupied New Trier’s room 101.

The former study hall had been converted in 1972 into the place where 600 students, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R, IL) and actress Virginia Madsen, would enter and exit during the course of their high school studies. The Center existed for 10 years without grades, teaching or classes. I recently interviewed the school’s co-founder, Arline Paul (read the interview here), the only New Trier faculty member to serve during the Center’s entire existence. Mrs. Paul, who had taught me political science in the traditional high school, was assigned as my “facilitator”, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview for the local newspaper. I asked tough questions and she answered them. It is interesting to go back and revisit high school as a journalist covering this radical experiment. I also reviewed the book of faculty and student memoirs she co-edited (read the review here). I wanted to provide a clear, factual account of this example of modern education.

My overall experience in government-sponsored education was atrocious. It was so bad that the quote from Orwell’s 1984 – which, ironically, I read while enrolled as a student in the Center – strikes me as an apt prelude for these articles about the Center. I’ve already heard from one reader who defends the whim-based approach to education. I have also heard from another reader. He tells me that he is young and that he, too, experienced the ravages of today’s modern, anti-conceptual education. He wrote to tell me that, after reading what I reported about the widely acclaimed New Trier, he thinks that his experience was worse. This is what I hope to counter. This is why I wrote these pieces, which I intend as an honest report and review of the facts of modern education.

Book Review: Shane by Jack Schaefer

Shanejacket

Click to Buy

Published in 1949, Shane by Jack Schaefer is an uneven but irresistible Western about a boy’s coming of age. With elements of hero worship, the short novel is narrated in retrospect by a Wyoming homesteader’s son named Bob, an only child whose parents take kindly to a dark stranger with a mysterious past.

The child describes Shane as possessing “a kind of magnificence”: “He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, a trap set.” When Shane agrees to stay on the farm and whacks at a stubborn old tree stump as he bonds with Bob’s father, Joe Starrett, amid a looming property dispute with a bullying cattle driver, the boy’s mother questions whether any of this is good for the family, including the boy and especially Shane, whom she and everyone falls for in a way.

It’s all there in Schaefer’s clipped prose. Even the kid is aware that, for all the mastery, fancy duds and shiny gun, “it puzzled me that a man so deep and vital in his own being, so ready to respond to father, should be riding a lone trail out of a closed and guarded past.” Tension builds as the cattleman villain, who seeks government contracts, taunts and baits Shane into a confrontation that envelops the whole town. As Joe watches over his property, the wife worries, the kid snoops and the cowboys, townies and homesteaders take up sides. The loner contemplates whether taking on the villain is worth being thrown off his own trail.

As the narrative alternates between life at home with Shane and the parents and the gathering storm, suspense builds and the boy learns life lessons from the man he idolizes. That Shane is portrayed as a better man than Bob’s father complicates and limits the story and makes it too elusive to have a lasting impact but there is good writing here. “Listen, Bob,” Shane tells the kid one day. “A gun is just a tool. No better no worse than any other tool, a shovel — or an axe or a saddle or stove or anything. Think of it always that way. The gun is as good – and as bad – as the man who carries it. Remember that.”

Schaefer interjects Shane into the Starrett family with aplomb and the result is a complex portrayal of a young Western family at the mercy of a stranger, which is what makes Shane a rare psychological mystery about how he impacts the boy, the Starretts and the town, which is “still not much more than the roadside settlement”. The character, portrayed by Alan Ladd in the 1953 motion picture version, is so remote as to render the plot almost surrealistic, though when he lets loose, Shane comes into focus. “And then the summer was over,” Schaefer writes in a plain, evocative transition. “School began again and the days were growing shorter and the first cutting edge of cold was creeping down from the mountains.” The way out West stays and lingers in Shane, culminating in a conflict that shapes a landscape, a family and a man and, mostly, delivers a simple campfire story that’s well told.