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Movie & Blu-Ray Review: The World According to Garp (1982)

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George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s breakthrough 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, is better than its reputation. The Warner Bros. picture was a critical and commercial failure. Above all, this serious-themed movie—out this month on Blu-Ray—is seeded with ideas.

That the ideas involve sex, collectivism and death make The World According to Garp a culturally significant motion picture. With Hill (Hawaii, The Sting, The Little Drummer Girl) directing and a taut script by Steve Tesich (Breaking Away), the novel’s puritanical feminist mother to Garp (Robin Williams in his first major movie), portrayed by Glenn Close with perfection, sets the tone. The plain, Yankee frankness of seriously horrifying ideals mixed with perfectly reasonable ideals plays across Garp’s lifetime.

Garp’s mother is a rapist who compares sex with disease and, when her own son expresses the desire to gain new knowledge by asking questions, she cuts him down with a snap: “I’m tired of your questions.” She is both mother and monster. Garp’s mother violates his privacy, rescues him from danger and buys him sex from a prostitute and thus enmeshes Garp in the crazy making of her life. This is Irving’s absurdism but it is also the stuff of life. From a former top athlete who becomes a transsexual (John Lithgow) to Garp’s starch grandparents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) and a reckless driver (Matthew Cowles), colorful characters depict various contradictions of our time.

Accordingly, the result is, and this fits the movie’s theme, an adventurous life. Garp’s lonely, sorrowful struggle to find happiness is strangely larger than and true to life. Garp, named after a crippled tailgunner his nurse mother raped in the hospital, wrestles the vicious dog that bit him as a boy during fellatio in order to recover his first manuscript. He becomes, of course, a writer and a wrestler. The act of fellatio reprises in his life with devastating impact, too. The World According to Garp is relentless in such audacious details and rich in symbolism. Williams is adept in every scene, playing the suppressed energy of an emasculated New England male caught in the 20th century’s rapid descent into feminist dogma and ripped apart by sexual liberation.

The story is brilliantly anti-sexual in a fundamental sense, though it is captured in a way which, thanks to Robin Williams and his co-star Mary Beth Hurt as his college professor wife Helen, is compelling. Their troubled marriage thoughtfully comes undone amid conflicting career goals and frustrations, as each wrestles with anxiety over kids, fear of death and balancing love, work and life. Living with the insecure writer, or the academic constantly tempted by youth, and making “the kids” a rationalization for denial, are all dramatized with skill and humor. From the hilarious definition of “gradual school” to an uncomfortable scene between the babysitter and Garp, in which he salivates at her being 18 while she salivates at his being 30, Garp is honest, clear and insightful.

It makes the audience think.

But Garp is best in its anti-sex theme showing the mass contradiction of feminism, a collectivist offshoot defining one’s identity as based on one’s sex, an idea which was widely accepted and only spread after the bestselling novel was adapted. The women’s-only coastal compound where Garp’s evangelistic mother nurses her adherents back to health, from the tough-but-kind, and notably unsatisfied, transsexual to the man-hating women who mutilate themselves as martyrs for the feminist faith, is both prison and sanctuary. The place is peaceful, decent and it’s where Garp goes to heal, thanks to his mother in a final act of enlightenment.

Garp’s Kennedy-like compound is a transient place of irrationalism, where the wicked and the wounded alike are housed, granting refuge to the absurd and tolerance to society’s most vulnerable victims. The World According to Garp co-habits the 20th century’s worst ideas, including pragmatism, fatalism and self-sacrifice, and thus reflects the United States of America. That the practitioners are women seeking to rule men is especially astute.

This is not to say that Garp is explicitly anti-feminist, as Irving and Tesich merely send feminists up for the sake of humor. In one transition, Roberta Muldoon is maiden to Garp’s boys during child’s play. In the next scene, Helen capitulates to playing maiden in need of rescue for real to one of her students. Sexual stereotypes self-perpetuate; Garp’s women, even his stubborn mother, have a point.

Faith breeds force, as Ayn Rand once wrote, and brute force takes its toll, though Irving probably does not intend this as the meaning of Garp. The subtext is there, however, instilled in dark, strange and almost surrealistic plot points, which are possibly too serious and tragic for most, except the most damaged. It calls out life’s absurdities, such as the iconic plane striking the house, and beckons the weird to face the strange, as David Bowie sings in “Changes”, and embrace the byproduct of mixed ideas: the unusual, even the painful, hard and terrible.

In the character Pooh Percy, the archetypical arch-feminist, who is also a sociopath, one sees the full arc of Garp‘s clearly dramatized sub-theme that, while life should be lived as an adventure, which in this context means embracing uniqueness including any contradictions, ultimately man is doomed by the irrational. Whether this is true (I think it’s false), one can take it, even on Garp‘s terms, to mean that man’s only doomed to self-terminate to the extent he sanctions the irrational. Pooh Percy is a feminist in glasses and pigtails taken to the logical application of her ideals. A line early in the movie indicates that Pooh’s mother implants the child with hatred of her own sex and life and one wonders what else might have happened to this child, especially since her father is a malignant if minor character. Pooh is like an Islamic fundamentalist trained from scratch to be like a laser-guided missile to destroy sex, love and life. To Pooh, values are poison; she is like an automatonic assassin programmed for death. Watch Pooh for a lesson in what happens when decent people refuse to think, judge and speak up about the judged.

Garp is not, contrary to some assertions, flat, terrible and deadly. Certainly, Garp is mixed. The theme is not positive. Yet intelligent ideas about writing permeate the movie. From the gloves in a story Garp writes and the role of the piano in his self-recovery to the sound of a typewriter’s keys at Christmastime, this is an involving depiction of the writer’s life in stark, dramatic detail. It is possible to live a meaningful life in The World According to Garp, with the richest rewards coming in the most surprising places, times and gestures. Garp’s greatest literary achievement finally comes as a result of Garp’s greatest risk. His payoff comes in a most unwelcome context with a character played by Amanda Plummer. It’s a poignant moment which captures Irving’s brand of misfit individualism. Taking the tragic as a metaphysical primary, Garp proposes that one’s life soars only before the downfall.

This makes The World According to Garp a timely, thoughtful movie not without merit which is thoroughly modern, and prophetic, in its malevolence.

Revisiting ‘Brokeback Mountain’

To mark this year’s 10th anniversary since the release of Focus Features’ Brokeback Mountain (2005), I’ve added three articles I wrote about the movie.

brokebackmountain_posterThe first, a column on the tragic 2008 death of leading actor Heath Ledger, was written before the release of The Dark Knight (read the review—my first blog post on July 20, 2008—here). I have nothing to add to the commentary, which I wrote for a movie Web site and titled Heath Ledger Dies. The second is an interview I conducted in 2006 with an executive at the movie studio which I called Selling Brokeback Mountain. I think this freewheeling exchange is interesting for several reasons. The piece is a frank discussion about how to market a motion picture. I decided to seek the interview with Jack Foley after seeing the film. I sensed that director Ang Lee’s movie was a seminal film with potential to make money, however, I knew from my experience and observation attending the press screening that persuading theaters and moviegoers to schedule and see the film would be a challenge. Foley gave me a short, whirlwind interview which I think captures the unique enthusiasm surrounding the movie. Third, I’ve included my original movie review of Brokeback Mountain with added home video notes on two separate editions.

I have seen it a few times—I asked the studio for two separate pre-release screenings before I wrote my review and published it, which was the first time I’d done that, as a safeguard against predisposition or bias given the unprecedented hype and ridicule in advance of the December 9, 2005 release—and I will probably watch it again. I’ve also read the original magazine short story by Annie Proulx, which, like True Grit, Shane and Red River, is a short work of psychologically tense Western-themed fiction that elicits a distinctive movie adaptation. Much will probably be said and written this year. Readers and viewers will judge Brokeback Mountain and should. I think of it now as a tale of a loner born too soon, similar to how I regard American Sniper. Like that fine movie, I remember Brokeback Mountain as the year’s best picture, a tragic and haunting movie about the cost of living for others and the lonely, modern struggle to live for oneself.

 

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997)

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Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.

Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.

Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.

In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.

Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.

Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.

But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.

Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.

The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.

“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”

Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.

This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.

However, this is earned in steps, not lobbed as a propaganda piece (such as 2012’s Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Altas Shrugged), and Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is gentle, not overbearing.

There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).

That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.

Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of A Sense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.

As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford and the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.

Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.

Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.

This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.

In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.

If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.


The Blu-Ray Edition

As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.

The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.

In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.

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Movie Review: New York, New York (1977)

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New York, New York is director Martin Scorsese’s flawed and haunting story in musically-pegged pictures centering upon two artists. Robert De Niro (Little Fockers, Hugo, Last Vegas) portrays a narcissistic saxophonist who is both wild and talented and totally grating. Liza Minnelli (Cabaret, Arthur) plays a singer. They meet after World War 2 ends as newspaper headlines proclaim victory over the “Japs” and New York City erupts in celebration, tossing swastika-emblazoned flags around in mockery of the vanquished Nazis. This is prelude to the film’s sense of foreboding that postwar elation masks deeper wounds from a world at war.

The 1977 movie, released at the height of Minnelli’s and De Niro’s careers as Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull, The Departed) was rising, is like an overlong, epic poem to the artistic spirit of youth. Minnelli had survived her mother’s maudlin end of life, had a meteoric hit in Cabaret (1972) and De Niro had registered as an up and coming ethnic actor among the new, vulgar Hollywood types—Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino—in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and New York, New York was supposed to be huge.

It’s both easy to see why it bombed and why it might have been a hit.

The United Artists movie is grand, with a score by Cabaret and Chicago composers Kander and Ebb, cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, Mask) and the producer of Oscar’s Best Picture for 1976, Rocky. But it is manic, disjointed and too broad like most Scorsese pictures and the De Niro character, Jimmy Doyle, in particular, is excessive. Jimmy is the prototypical musician, a stand-in for every artist, especially the male artist. He is charming, good-looking, talented and all kinds of bad news waiting to happen. But in an instant from a stair step, Jimmy the hustler sees a beautiful couple dancing under the elevated train and catches a glimpse of the romantic and musical in life. He spots the couple in movement and light and it’s like a work of art in motion. Such a sight could heal whatever wounds he bears. In any case, he wants the life he imagines he sees.

In Francine Evans (Minnelli), he goes after it. She’s initially impervious to his dimpled, gleaming charm, so it’s clear that wide-eyed Francine is different than the other girls he sets for conquest. All Jimmy wants in life, and he tells it to Francine, is music, money and sex, pretty much in that order. Francine concurs, finally, after meeting cute in a nightclub played by an orchestra, then in a taxi cab and, spontaneously, again at an audition where the hothead sax player is prone to pop off. What propels New York, New York is its sharp capture of the dance, tension and conflict of two people—two artistic people—in love. For over two hours, it is enveloping, aching and bittersweet.

Naming the romance falls neatly to Francine, who observes that “one of the nicest things in the world is waking up knowing someone loves you.” Minnelli shines in the role. It’s really her movie.

All of this happens (when the shows aren’t on the road) in New York, amid musical bandstands and set pieces, moods and magnificence in jazz, from Harlem to the recording scene. Everyone is surrounded by paintings, songs and instruments, immersed in the hard work of making art, with writers, musicians and other attendants that make up show business. New York, New York depicts the musician’s madcap life in snowbound marriage proposals, greedy kisses in the rain and the ever competitive drive to perform and connect with bandmates, audience and material. It’s all there and it’s tethered to whether Jimmy and Francine can make and love each other and the life.

A drunken fight ensues and, in the De Niro character’s denouement, the reality strikes a major chord. For Minnelli’s Francine, she sees herself in her eyes for the first time to the strings of jazz guitar. The grand finale plays to Minnelli’s best Kander and Ebb songs including the megahit “New York, New York”, written for this thoughtful, stylish movie, proving what her stage and television audiences already knew about this powerhouse entertainer who refuses to fall down. In Mr. Scorsese’s story-within-a-story-within-a-storybook ending, with Liza playing a moviehouse usherette, the artist integrates with the art, this time in reality. So, while New York, New York presents a false dichotomy between the romantic and the realistic, and it is tedious in stretches, it deals in grand notions and ideals in music and pictures. Much of the movie is striking and seeing Liza Minnelli put on the show toward the end still packs a wallop as big, grand and fabulous as New York City.

Martin Scorsese’s movie about making money while making music and making love is mixed with real power and insight.

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

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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.


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