Friday, June 25, 2010

Film Review: TEACHERS (1984, Arthur Hiller)

Stars: 3.9 of 5.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
Tag-line: "They fall asleep in class. Throw ink on each other. Never come in Mondays. And they're just the teachers."
Best one-liner: "Is that student bleeding?" –"Yes, we're taking care of it."

In short, TEACHERS is an 80's retread of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE which toes that fine line between contrived schmaltz and sincere grittiness- and somehow it emerges from it practically unscathed. Surprisingly, it never plays the 'over the top' or 'action movie' cards (i.e., favorites like CLASS OF 1984, THE PRINCIPAL, THE SUBSTITUTE), and remains refreshingly realistic for (the majority of) its duration. It's no stranger to the occasional groan-mustering line of dialogue ("There's nothing worse than a female lawyer with a cause." –"Except a male teacher without one."), but the general thrust- which is that of Nick Nolte 'getting through' to his students- is a solid one, and one which Nolte and director Arthur Hiller (THE HOSPITAL, THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH) manage to sell you, nearly 100%.

Filmed in the delightful metropolis of Columbus, Ohio in the dead of one of those spirit-splintering, soul-crushing, perpetually overcast Midwestern winters, TEACHERS certainly sets a tone.

Life is shitty, and then you have a job as a teacher. John F. Kennedy High School exists as thinly organized bedlam of hustle, bustle, and bunkum. Student-on-student violence, teacher-on-teacher incivility, student-teacher affairs, lawsuits, disarray, general impudence, foolishness, and antisocial behavior. The eye of this storm is Nolte, as Alex Jurel, a popular teacher and the exception to the rule. He lately awakens to a sea of Miller High Life cans and an angry call from a school administrator– Mondays are not a thing that Mr. Nolte 'does.'

His hair is well-feathered and his demeanor is not unlike the pads on a lion's paw: gentle, even-tempered, and soothing– but with a roar, clout, and fearsome teeth to back it up should he (or his students) be trodden upon. He's no stranger to showing up to work with a hangover, complete with sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt (which recall a certain mug shot),

and instructing his students not always in traditional subjects, but perhaps the art of radiator repair. And it should be mentioned that said hangover was likely the result of an evening of heavy drinking and tortured self-reflection ("Am I making a difference? Does teaching matter?").

Regardless, the higher-ups don't take very kindly to free-thinkers, especially when there's a lawsuit lurking in the shadows, and it would appear that this diligent teach's days are numbered. But, as usual, I'd prefer not to delve too deeply into the plot when there's a smorgasbord of intriguing characters and eclectic actors to explore:

JoBeth Williams (initially as Nolte's foil, and later as his champion) plays an ex-student of Nolte's now working for the legal team that's suing the school.

She's not quite as well-directed or as relatable as she is in, say, POLTERGEIST, but it's a solid, honest performance. Amongst the other 'adults,' Morgan Freeman has an early, skeezy role as a school defense lawyer;

Royal Dano plays a crusty, hard-of-hearing, old-school educator; Judd Hirsch is a beleaguered administrator who must weigh school policy against personal friendship; and Richard Mulligan nearly steals the show as a mental ward escapee who stumbles into a substitute teaching position. His classroom plays out like some kind of historical theater of the absurd, replete with extravagant costumes and excitable reenactments, and the students are so goddamned appalled, that they have no choice but to love it.

When the men in white suits finally catch up with him (as he's teaching a unit on Custer's last stand) and he makes that final perp walk down the school's hushed hallways, Mulligan is so connected to the role and exuding such unfettered dignity that the scene, which could have easily been played as slapstick, takes on an extraordinary gravity.

It's fantastic.

The student body is represented by an incredible swath of young talent. Ralph Macchio plays a tuff kid with double-popped collars, a frequent fedora, and a real bad attitude. No one could get through to him- or maybe no one ever tried.

And there's something marvelous in the fact that he doesn't quite look old enough to 'play' high school, yet he's fucking twenty-three years old.

As Macchio's buddy, Crispin Glover dives into his role with deranged panache. Banging his head against lockers, biting the hand that teaches,

partaking the ecstasy of stealing a 'Student Driver' car,

"Have we got balls or what! This is fucking great!"

suffering the pain of living- all of these things play across his face, effortlessly. He's nearly on the verge of tears in every scene, and you're right there with him. It's interesting to consider that here (in a hard-hitting drama) and in HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (a TV movie-comedy from the previous year), he does two riffs on the same 'whacky' style of character, but with profoundly different contexts (and outcomes).

Laura Dern is a lively young lady whose affair with the bear-ish gym teacher leaves her... damaged, and with some difficult choices to make.

Nolte is there to help her make them, and her scenes, however brief, are some of the best in the film. Rounding it out is the enjoyable pompous Anthony Heald in an early bit part as a narc masquerading as a student.

Glover fingers the narc.

The soundtrack's kinda ridiculous, and by that I suppose I mean 'endearing.' The purposefully drab visuals are accompanied by all manner of 80's synth-pop and arena rock, ranging from Ian Hunter to Freddie Mercury to ZZ Top to Bob Seger to .38 Special. And furthermore, there was clearly a conscious effort to make sure that nearly every song had "Teacher" in the title: i.e., "Teacher Teacher," "(I'm the) Teacher," et al. Needless to say, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I don't know if I should be relieved or disappointed that Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" did not make the cut.

In the end, TEACHERS questions whether or not 'the system' works, and whether it's designed expressly to prod and manhandle as many faceless students through its whirling gears as quickly as possible. It asks, 'How do I make a difference?,' a question that, in a 1984 context, doesn't sound as corny as it does today. And why does it sound corny today? Is it the realm of cliché, or the realization that it's a Sisyphean task? That being said, it does end on a freeze frame. Nonetheless, a solid entry into the genre, and almost four stars.

-Sean Gill


The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

An absolute retro classic. I can't say it has left an indelible mark on my memory, but what a cast.

Would you call this a highlight or lowlight in the Ralph Macchio CV?

I must admit, Teachers is like a snapshot of life growing up for me. Next to Freaks and Geeks this may be the closest representation of those teenage years. I may need to give it another look.

What a cast! Glover, Macchio, Nolte, Williams, Freeman. That's just sick. Who knew?

J.D. said...

Yeah, I dig this film and invariably check it out if I happen to catch it while channel surfing. Plus, I love watching Nick Nolte in pretty much anything. You should check out the Message Boards for TEACHERS on the IMDB as some people who worked on the film have chimed in with some interesting anecdotes about Nolte during filming. Apparently, he always showed up to the set completely wrecked and then somehow, miraculously managed to turn it on once the cameras rolled. Amazing...

I also really liked Laura Dern in this film and her whole subplot is pretty sad.

And what can you say about Crispin Glover. The dude epitomizes eccentric acting! Love him in RIVER'S EDGE which is still his best work to date, IMO.

Sean Gill said...


Let's go ahead and call it a highlight of the Macchio CV. Though after revisiting the CV, I feel as if I must see DISTANT THUNDER, apparently a 'Nam vets gone wild' flick starring Ralph and John Lithgow.

For me, too, I think that TEACHERS is at its best when subtly laying out its true-to-life atmosphere (however depressing that atmosphere may be, on occasion). I don't think you necessarily had to grow up in Ohio to vividly (ha!) or viscerally connect to those overcast skies, endless winters, and dehumanizing neon lights. Though with everything seeming rosier in hindsight, these wretched institutional trappings certainly filled me with a great deal of nostalgia.


I saw this as an almost accidental double-feature with Milius' FAREWELL TO THE KING, which featured an equally accomplished (but a significantly more feral) performance by Mr. Nolte, so I guess you can say I'm officially on a kick.

I really need to check out those message boards, because that sounds amazing.

And as for Ms. Dern and Mr. Glover- I can't agree more. And they got to act as brilliant members of another nutty ensemble some 6 years later in WILD AT HEART!

J.D. said...

That's right! Wow, Lynch must be a fan of TEACHERS as well. heh. That would be pretty crazy if true. Always down for some Nolte, esp. when he teams up with Walter Hill. Man, EXTREME PREJUDICE, what a great film!

Sean Gill said...


Yeah, speaking of Nolte/Hill I really need to revisit the 48 HRS. films- I saw them at an age so young that I know I didn't really appreciate them (I sure as hell didn't yet have a deep appreciation for James Remar, Brion James, or even Nolte for that matter). I imagine you're a big fan of them?

J.D. said...

Oh yeah, I dig all those guys, esp. Remar who really deserves more mainstream work! I know what you mean about the 48 HRS films. I love the first and didn't care much for the sequel until I read Mr. Peel's take on it:

Which got me thinking that a re-visit is in order.