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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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Where are all the “words, words, words”?

Today I went to see the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Hamlet. It was only the second ballet I’ve ever seen, the first being something along the lines of Cinderella with a great aunt, when I was really small, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Nonetheless, I was very excited, especially as I loved reading Hamlet for school this year and I just finished re-reading it to prepare for last week’s English exam.

It turns out that they don’t talk much in ballets. Who would’ve thunk it? Probably someone who knows a thing or two about dance, or is at all cultured or who has been to the ballet a few times. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned qualities are true of me, so while I had an inkling, I really wasn’t so sure what I was getting myself into. Of course, that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it — I did — or that I don’t have some thoughts on the affair — I do. However, bear in mind, that I know nothing about ballet or even dance in general, beyond occasionally watching “Dance Moms” on Slice instead of doing my homework, so this is a pretty uneducated opinion, with more of a literary-minded take on the performance than an assessment of its value as a ballet — mostly because I would have no idea how to assess its value as a ballet.

“Dost thou think Alexander [the Great] looked o’ this fashion in’th’ earth?” (5.1.182-3).
Photo credit: http://national.ballet.ca

In the “Ballet Talk”, before the performance started, the speaker talked about the importance of Shakespeare’s use of language, and in outlining the play’s plot, she touched upon the fact that Shakespeare’s plots where often unoriginal, and what matters more is his language and how he portrays these plots. That being said, she talked about converting Shakespeare’s language and sentiments into movement. I, as someone who apparently doesn’t speak ‘the language of dance’, just didn’t really get it and (for me) a lot was lost in the translation. Of course, it could be argued that there was also a ton gained in translation, and, to someone who can appreciate that medium, it may have been far more powerful than a traditional, theatrical production would be for them. Unfortunately I’m not one of those people.

I’m a words person, I like how they sound, how they feel lolling around on the tip of your tongue, how they can make you ache or laugh ’till you’re in tears. I find music and movement to be beautiful, as the performance certainly was, but it just didn’t move me to the degree I expected, and wanted, to be moved. I saw the silent film The Artist earlier this year, and surprisingly I didn’t miss the talking at all. For some reason, however, I strongly felt the absence of the spoken word in this performance.

That being said, it’s interesting to look at the choice to translate Shakespeare from the theatre stage to the ballet stage. Watching Hamlet play out his inner conflict just physically really got me thinking. Yes, it was an interesting and compelling way to get his turmoil across, but I think that this can be done just as effectively by marrying body language to verbal expression. The woman talking about the ballet mentioned that each movement has deep meaning and serves a creative purpose. Perhaps someone who speaks the language might understand the difference between one hip thrust and another, but I cannot and I felt that much of Hamlet’s “soliloquy dancing” took up more time than necessary. Yes, Hamlet, I get that you’re upset and you’re conflicted, but I understood that five minutes ago, what does this move do to add to my knowledge of your grief? Again, perhaps these physical soliloquys meant more to more discerning audience members, but to me I would have gotten the gist of it in half the stage time.


That’s Hamlet, just being his usual, conflicted, angst-y self.
Photo credit: http://national.ballet.ca

For me, words and imagery paired with that body language would have been far more effective. While I was watching (and my mind was wandering) I was reminded of a child throwing a temper tantrum because she is having difficulty organizing and expressing her feelings. Her mother of course urges her to use her words to explain and work through what’s bothering her. I think that this analogy brings the ballet into a new light. Perhaps this expression through movement is an authentic manifestation of raw emotion, making it a thoroughly appropriate medium for conveying Hamlet’s intensely emotional strain.

That being said, it can also be looked at from the other side, where the mother, or the voice of reason, points out the importance of using one’s words. In the real world, those of us who are emotionally mature express our feeling and interact with one another using spoken language. Of course it is not the only mode of expression, but it seems more mature than just a physical burst of angst and pain. Also, I think that, on its own, movement can only go so far to convey messages. I understood the angst, the slight humour and the love and lust they were depicting, but Shakespeare is about so much more than raw emotions and his words allow him to convey many things on as many levels. From my slight understanding of the ballet, much of Shakespeare’s thematic significance, symbolism and even humour was lost.

This isn’t an argument against the ballet, and I still found myself enjoying the performance quite a bit. While I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have liked, I’m sure this would have been a completely different review if I had some knowledge and understanding of the art form. Is anyone a fan of the ballet (as a whole or with regards to Shakespeare adaptations)? Any challengers want to refute my claims? Any ballets you would recommend? I’d love to hear the other side of the argument, so leave some comments, people!

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