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Category Archives: The Movie-Watching Life

The Perks of the “Understanding English Teacher”

As always, I stayed in on Saturday night. I ended up watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower. With my parents. I can’t decide whether this is fitting or ironic.

Credit: IMBD

Charlie, our young hero, played by Logan Lerman is a psychologically damaged loner (aren’t we all?) who finally makes friends when he gets to high school, and drama ensues. Wow, that makes it sound like an awful movie. I should probably make a note to self along the lines of, “Self, avoid doing movie reviews”.

Pathetic synopsis aside, I adored it.

It had so many shadows of clichés, and yet, somehow, it seemed fresh. There’s the shy, quiet freshman, eating lunch alone at a big table. The understanding English teacher who’s book recommendations and pieces of wisdom help guide our young freshman. The friends who magically appear and are made with little effort. The gay best friend. The lunchroom fight. The drunken parties, the secretive displays of affection, the drugs. The satisfying ending.

Actually, all written out, that sounds kind of like Mean Girls. Except that Mean Girls is a comedy — of which I can recite almost every line — while this is a drama. And in Mean Girls the displays of affection are rather public and nonchalant. During the final scene of Wallflower, I swear I could hear Cady Heron narrating: “Finally, girl world was at peace.” Not that the line makes any sense in the context of the movie, but more that it made sense in the context of the nice, clean, for-now-everything’s-looking-pretty-good dénouement.

And yet, as I wrote, it felt very fresh. Though looking at what I wrote after that, I’m not sure why.

Maybe it’s because it isn’t what happens, but how it happens and why it happens. It’s a lot like Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, a concept I also learned back in grade nine, with my very own “understanding English teacher”. Campbell has this theory that most “hero’s journey’s” in most stories (from Greek myths to contemporary films) will follow the same basic pattern.

But you can make all kinds of cookies using the same cookie cutter, and they’ll all taste different, regardless of their shape. Furthermore, two bakers can use the same recipe and the same cookie cutters and the cookies will likely come out different. (Don’t believe me? Ask your mom to get the recipe for the cookies your friend’s mom makes and tell me your mom’s taste exactly the same.)

Also, clichés occasionally become clichéd for a reason. A lot of them are pretty true. So you can take that clichéd kernel expand it into something new and meaningful. But then some idiot (such as myself) goes to summarize it, and it gets crunched back into a cliché.

Take the “understanding English teacher”. That’s probably the fastest growing cliché in movies about high school. From Dead Poet’s Society to Freedom Writers to Easy A you’ll find one such character playing a pretty major role. In Mean Girls it’s a math teacher, but even then, English class plays a huge role: that’s where Glen Coco gets his four candy canes, that’s where Gretchen Wieners snaps after deciding that WE SHOULD TOTALLY JUST STAB CAESAR.

You GO Glen Coco! Credit: lolsnaps.com

And why? Because English teachers understand people. Because they read a lot so they must be pretty smart. Because they teach us about life, about ourselves. Which is kind of exactly what (the good) screenwriters are trying to do. And is there an easier way for screenwriters to convey messages, both to us and to the characters themselves, than to have English teachers convey those messages for them? Probably not.

Why else are these characters popping up more and more? Because they’re true. English teachers do change lives. At least the good ones do. They encourage you to read. To write. To explore your passions. To be yourself. To figure out who you even are. I know from personal experience. An English teacher once managed to change my life. Or something like that.

Charlie, while arguably a slight cliché, is true. Despite our entirely different experiences of life, he’s me, and yet, he’s his own person enough to be nothing like me. I want to be more like him, I’m glad I’m not more like him.

I don’t know if this movie was good or bad. I don’t know if it’s fresh or clichéd — sometimes I think life itself is kind of clichéd. But I do know that I adored it. It made me feel — and not just in a superficial way. I didn’t cry — movies rarely elicit such a reaction from me. But I had a lump in my throat the whole time, and puddles of tears that sat in my eyes without streaming over to my cheeks. It meant something to me, and to a lot of other kids my age. And that’s gotta be worth something.

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The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club… What do I think? Well, I read the book at some point in the past two years, last summer maybe? The fact that I don’t know specifically when says something right away, because I tend to track my life based on what I read when. When a book doesn’t make it onto that timeline that tends to mean it either sucked or it just wasn’t worth remembering — oftentimes it’s both. So that’s how I felt about the book: for what it was — chick lit that’s sole purpose in life is entertainment — it was just alright, nothing all that special.

Then I saw the movie. It was one of those rare instances where the movie actually surpasses the book — at least from where I sit lazily on the couch. So that’s where I’m going with this. I’m going to share my thoughts on the movie. But, for once in my life, I’m kind of having trouble forming thoughts. It was kind of really bad, but kind of really good. And I’m afraid to profess either of these opinions, because I don’t really feel strongly either way, but would hate for you to have a strong opinion (or even any opinion) that’s the opposite of whichever I choose and then you’ll think I’m stupid for either liking it or disliking it. That’s probably absurd of me. You probably don’t care one way or the other. You’ve probably never even seen this movie.

Credit: romancegirlsguide.blogspot.com

To summarize, there are these five women who all have issues in their lives, especially their love lives, and they start this book club, to ease the distress of their various circumstances. Oh, and they only read Jane Austen books in this book club — if nothing else, the book/movie is aptly named. They do this thing where they read one of Jane’s novel’s each month and each of them is responsible for hosting one meeting, so they each lead the discussion on one of Jane’s novels. But, (oh no, whatever shall they do?) they need six club members (because Jane wrote six novels) and they only have five. So then this Grigg guy comes in. And adds in some Emma-style drama, because he likes this Jocelyn character, but she tries to set him up with her friend and misunderstandings ensue — can you guess how that plot-line ends?

It’s a cute movie, really it is. I love how it starts with this montage of all the noise and technological annoyances that come with modern life — in contrast, I imagine, to the quiet, “simplicity” of life in Jane’s novels. I say “I imagine” because this wasn’t a theme which was really pursued. I’m not sure that there were any themes that got actually, truly pursued. And that’s okay. I guess. It isn’t a very literary work or anything and I’m probably missing the point. But I’m going to over-analyze the heck out of it anyways, because (according to my mother) I have to over-analyze everything. The book, from what I remember, seemed to be completely just for entertainment, the movie, on the other hand, seemed as though it was trying (so hard) to aspire to something more. It could also be that it really was a deep, serious, literary masterpiece and I just didn’t really get it — but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s the former.

I think the problem is that, for me, it just doesn’t really stand on its own. By which I mean, that it’s nothing without Jane Austen. Yes, yes, I do get that that’s the point, but what I mean is the storyline of the movie itself is just nothing so special. I just couldn’t really care for the characters. And it isn’t really about anything. My favourite parts are when they’re talking about Jane and her books. This isn’t really a problem, per se, but it almost feels as though all the author/screenwriter wanted was to have characters discuss Jane Austen. And she wanted those characters to be similar to Jane’s heroines. And it’s a great idea. With loads of potential. I just don’t think it worked so well. There were too many characters, with too many problems and with some of them it was glaringly clear which characters they were like (especially because it’s spelled out for you) but with others you are (or at least I am) just so lost. Because a lot of the characters in this movie were similar to more than one of Jane’s characters. Which, again, in itself isn’t such a problem, it just felt as though it was trying to be deep and complex but was more just shallow and slightly confusing. Maybe if I watch it again it will be clearer, but I just don’t care to. Because it doesn’t seem like it’s confusing because it was done well and all the characters are just that complex, it seems like it’s confusing because it was just done sloppily.

You’ve Got Mail comes to mind for comparative purposes — although there’s really more of a contrast. It’s all about books and there are a whole bunch of really incredible Pride and Prejudice references. It’s done perfectly, because there aren’t so many references that Jane Austen is being shoved down your throat. Rather, P&P is a delightedly apt, not too overt (but not too subtle either) inter-text for that movie. Forgetting for just a second that P&P is my favourite book and these references are what make You’ve Got Mail my favourite movie, these references are completely vital. They develop Kathleen’s character and they develop her relationship with Joe. You see how she feels about Jane, you see how he feels about Jane, you see them discussing Jane. And, of course, they have this adorable hate-at-first-sight, Darcy-Lizzie relationship going on, that can’t help but end well.

Cover of "You've Got Mail"

Credit: Amazon

What works so well about the Austen references in You’ve Got Mail is that they come second. Yes, Kathleen is kind of like Elizabeth and Joe is kind of like Darcy, but that isn’t the entire point of the movie. It isn’t even most of the point of the movie. P&P got added in because it was relevant and it works to enhance (and add some depth and awesomeness) to the movie. Whereas in The Jane Austen Book Club, the Austen references are the movie, while the actual movie’s storyline and original characters come second. All the similarities between the characters in the movie and the characters in Jane’s novels seem contrived, and the entire point seems to be fitting this movie to Jane Austen, instead of fitting Jane to the movie.

Also, going back to over-analysis of themes, I know it isn’t a literary work, so applying what I know about the major literary movements is probably kind of moot, but I’m going to do it anyways. It kind of seems to be a clash between today’s postmodernism and Jane Austen’s “Jane-Austen-y-happily-ever-after-ism” (I can’t figure out which movement Jane belongs to — I refuse to believe it would be romanticism… would it?). It’s all about love and marriage and human connection in today’s society, where almost half of all marriages end in divorce. It’s about being alone versus being in a relationship. It seems to try so hard to be postmodern in its view of such things. But then it contrives the ending so that everyone ends up happily together with just the right person. It ties it all up just so neatly, which, — aside from being anything but postmodern, it is a rom-com after all — is ironic in light of a conversation earlier in the movie, where they contemplate the messiness of love.

Final thoughts? I don’t even know. It wasn’t really good. But, they talk about Jane Austen… How can I complain about a movie where the central focus is characters gathering around to talk about Jane, her life and her works? That’s probably why this subpar movie didn’t completely die upon arrival — we Janeites just can’t seem to help ourselves.

Have you ever seen it? What did you think? Are you an ardent lover of all things Jane? Do you think that has any impact on how you felt about this movie? (I’d love to hear what someone who isn’t in love with Austen thinks of this movie — but would any such people even bother watching it?)

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