Tag Archives: poetry

The Kindergarten Teacher

Many, many spoilers follow. Trigger warnings also: this movie deals with a teacher’s emotionally abusive relationship with a very young student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Kindergarten Teacher since Mel and I went to see it on Wednesday evening.

There’s much that it does well. Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Lisa, the eponymous teacher at a Staten Island kindergarten. There was never a second where I didn’t buy Lisa’s relationship with her family, or with Jimmy, the child she becomes obsessed with after hearing him recite seemingly improvised poetry one day after school. I was similarly convinced by her quiet disappointment in her own creative efforts, dismissed as derivative by the fellow students in her poetry class, and how this feeds into her unhealthy later behaviour.

The relationship between Lisa and Jimmy – her steps incrementally further over the line past mere teacherly interest in his gifts; his bafflement at the lessons she wants to teach him, and keeps pulling him out of class for – is similarly sharply drawn. It intends to be uncomfortable, and it succeeds. Two people walked out of the screening we attended, and about half of the audience kept laughing nervously as Lisa’s behaviour becomes increasingly hard to defend: taking Jimmy into the bathroom during the other children’s nap times to give him a private lesson on subjects like seeing the world from your own unique perspective; giving him her phone number so he can call her if he writes another poem.

My disappointment with the film, to the extent you could call it that when I do think it successful on the whole, lies in the second half of the movie, and particularly the last act.

Lisa having sex with her poetry teacher, Simon (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who becomes attracted to her after she begins to pass off Jimmy’s poetry as her own, is an unnecessary plot point. His later disappointment in her after she takes Jimmy to a poetry recital and he sees that she’s been up to would have been no less acute if their relationship had stayed purely that of a teacher and student.

Throughout the movie, we are shown Lisa’s teaching assistant, Meghan (later revealed by Jimmy to have been the inspiration behind his poem “Anna”; you can see the strings inside Lisa break as he says this. It’s the most psychologically acute moment in the film), noticing what Lisa is doing and watching her. Yet, she never says anything to her or to anyone in authority at the school. After Lisa defies Jimmy’s father and takes Jimmy to the poetry recital at a Manhattan bar, he removes Jimmy from the kindergarten, but he doesn’t call the police or report her beahviour to anyone at Jimmy’s school. Her husband asks her where she’d been on the night of the poetry recital, but didn’t notice on the previous evening when she’d taken Jimmy to an art gallery to show him some, frankly disturbing, paintings.

It’s hard, ultimately, to believe that things could get to the point they reach in the final act without someone stepping in to save Jimmy from what had long since become abusive behaviour from his teacher. As striking as the scenes by the lake are, and as poignant as it is that no one is there to hear Jimmy’s poem at the end of the movie as he sits alone in a police car, the film is at least slightly undermined by Lisa having so little oversight at the school that she is able to carry on this way without anyone calling her to account.

That I began thinking in these terms while watching the third act is a testament to the reality created by writer/director Sara Collangelo (who adapted the story from an Israeli film of the same name by Nadav Lapid; I confess, I don’t know whether the teacher’s behaviour is challenged by anyone in his movie) throughout the rest of the movie. Collangelo builds a wholly believable world and set of motivations for Lisa that remain consistent throughout the film and are revealed to us beautifully through Pepe Avila del Pino’s camerawork as much as through her dialogue. His use of medium shots – repeatedly showing us Gyllenhaal towering over the children in her class – remind us constantly of her place in their lives as protector and educator, and the corruption of that in her relationship with Jimmy. The use of contrasting close-ups (showing us Gyllenhaal’s reactions to disappointment, or her increasingly discomforting physicality with Jimmy (touching his back, fondling his hair, whispering in his ear), are all the more claustrophobic and creepy. When the world and the relationships in it are this real-world credible, the more heightened elements of the plot necessarily stick out more.

Not a masterpiece, then, but thoughtful and provocative.

 

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A quick digression on Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Let’s briefly interrupt our discussion of British folk-rock to talk about Bob Dylan…

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this week.

There have been some entertainingly huffy responses to this (at least in the British press), as well as plenty of defences of Dylan as a poet.

All as wrong-headed as each other. The wisest and most informed response came from my friend Yo Zushi, writing for the New Statesman.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that what Yo Zushi doesn’t know about Bob Dylan isn’t worth knowing, but we’ve often found ourselves on different sides of the argument when discussing Dylan. Yo is a big fan of recent Bob, whereas I checked out around the time of ‘Love and Theft’ and only retain interest in Dylan’s career from, roughly, 1963-67 and 1973-78, with a couple of records here and there (Oh Mercy, Slow Train Coming, Time Out of Mind) that fall outside those windows. We rarely agree on what the best songs are on even the records we both think are great.

But on this we agree:

I suspect that many of those who fixate on his words scour his songs as texts, looking for poetry in conventional terms at the expense of the performance. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are.) I wonder whether they hear the music at all, and the voice at the centre of it. The irony is that what poetry exists on Dylan’s records is largely to be found in the sound of the words, not their meaning. Music – no, Dylan’s version of music – alchemises those lyrics into great art. He’s a great singer. His genius is in that sand and glue.

Not long ago, while receiving another award, Dylan spoke of how the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, would swat away praise for the beauty of his singing by reminding listeners that voices “ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Cooke had a point. When I hear him sing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, I believe for those three minutes that everybody loves to cha cha cha, and that I love to cha cha cha, too.

Literature is simply a written work of superior or lasting artistic merit, so Dylan’s songs, in as much as they contain texts, must count as such, and his being awarded a literary prize presents no problem except for those who cling to artificial boundaries between high art and low art.* Yet, songs must also be counted as a special kind of literature, as they are written to be sung, not merely read off the page. Any proper appreciation of the art of songwriting must also take into account the effect of the words’ marriage to a melody to be sung, and further, what the singer does with them in performance.

Dylan is, if not the greatest of his kind, so obviously pre-eminent that it makes no difference. It’s him and McCartney, and basically no one else in Western pop. So, how about a Nobel Prize for Literature for Paul McCartney, then? That’ll really piss off the snobs.

The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show

Dylan, song & dance man, Nobel Laureate

*It’s a cliche to point out that Shakespeare’s plays were performed and written for the mass, uneducated audience, but still, cliches often get at truths, so let’s point it out one more time.