Saturday, November 17, 2018
Sara Colangelo | The Kindergarten Teacher
discovering a poetic genius
by Douglas Messerli
Sara Colangelo (writer and director) The Kindergarten Teacher / 2018
As a former teacher, I know what a delight it is when you find a student of special talent. That is, after all, what your profession is about, in part, helping to educate the mediocre but to also uplift a being who has a rare intelligence, a series of marvelous perceptions which might never before been realized by the general educational system or simply by the societal conditions in which she or he previously existed. You marvel in their perceptions, their sometimes-easy conceptions, and encourage them to challenge what they have already, within themselves, and even despite themselves attained.
You must be careful. Sometimes you might even be deluded by a quick-witted challenger, a bright young kid who will use his or her talents for more nefarious gains. But I often, without openly mentoring them (the worse kind of attention these youths might endure), encouraged them through out-of-class connections—often discouraged these days—with a drink at a local bar or a meal at a local restaurant. The goal was never to convince them of their brilliance or of my brilliance. Simply to hear them out, to listen to their perceptions—often learning as much from them as from my own declarations of knowledge—wondering at how their mind worked and encouraging them, most importantly, to ask the questions they were ready to admit with encouragement. That was the most you might be able to give them, the acceptance of their own imaginations.
I never encouraged or demanded any sexual relationship (and would have never permitted such contact), nor even allowed myself to challenge our consensual friendships. But then, my students were university adults—as much as a young 18-20-year-old student is an adult—and I was careful that they knew I was not controlling the events which we shared so that I might discover their talents. I was also very careful about not showing, at least in the classroom, any favoritism, often calling upon the least talented students before speaking to the more able ones. Teaching, I would argue, is a process of making all feel included, enveloping even the angry kid in the corner into your curriculum, helping him or her to understand that your role as a teacher is to help them, as well, as to enjoy and understand what you are attempting to convey to them. It didn’t always work. But generally, it succeeded. I once had a diffident baseball player get so excited about the book I was teaching that he could hardly contain himself with the joy of the discovery. “Sex was okay,” he almost shouted; “you could even write about it.” (I give Michael Brownstein’s absurdly written Country Cousins all the credit for that—this in a day when you might still be able to teach a book in which the “cousins” fuck themselves to death throughout the entire fiction).
In Sara Colangelo’s deeply-thought movie, however, the teacher is frustrated with her rather ordinary life, whereas I never thought I ever knew what ordinary was. In a relationship with a loving but totally unappealing husband, Grant (Michael Chernus), the would-be creative Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is unhappy with her life as a teacher in Staten Island. Her children have seemingly no imagination, and like most kids their age spend their entire lives on cell-phones talking to their friends, with very few references outside of those computer-generated conversations. These are good kids which you never thought you should have to deal with.
As Lisa perceives, in the oft-quoted Gertrude Stein comment, “there is no there there,” and she seeks other worlds in which she might discover herself and her own inner talents. Through Gyllenhaal’s lovely performance, we perceive her as a caring and loving teacher, despite her family disappointments, a supportive wife and mother—although even her children recognize her disaffection for them. She takes a creative-writing class with a supposedly perceptive teacher, Simon (Gael García Bernal), who later seduces her while attempting to describe the quality of her poetry.
Yet, this kindergarten teacher knows that her whole life is a sham. The poetry that most receives acclaim in her class is that of her 5-year-old student, Jimmy Roy (the always-watchable child actor Parker Sevak), whose poems overcome him like sudden visions, which Lisa suddenly feels she must record, he being, in her vision, another kind of Mozart, a talent that can only be worshiped and kindly supported in a society which could care less. The poems are interesting, but not, perhaps what she believes them to be; expressions of a genius-in-the-making:
Anna is beautiful
Beautiful enough for me
The sun hits her yellow house
It is almost like a sign from God.
The class analysis of this child’s poem is such a classic case of poetry-in-class imposition of dense meaning of a simple statement that it would be utterly painful if it were not truly (supposedly) the product of a 5-year old. As funny as it is, it is also truly painful if you’ve ever taught a creative-writing course.
The problem with Lisa is not her dilemma alone, but that of the society in which she lives, a world which, while basically abandoning poetry and art also carefully elevates it to a level outside of everyday experience. If these lines, as well as his second poem, “The Bull,” might be seen by a mother, father, and teacher as quite profound, in this film they become talismans for a society seeking meaning where there is not much there, or, to bring in Stein again, where there “is no there there.”
Lisa at least is well meaning and ultimately, rather honest, when she basically absconds with the bartender’s Nikhil Roy’s son to allow him to recite the two poems which she has written which basically, has tested out in her creative-writing class. Her Bowery Poetry class members are rightfully confused: is she using her student’s voice as a kind of performative figure for her own work? Or, as she finally admits, has she lied about her own contributions to their community. She admits the lie and is immediately ostracized without their even recognizing the chances she has taken to do that. In a sense, they have themselves been deluded by the child’s siren voice, the simple words he speaks having served for a far deeper expression of poetic thought than they themselves have been capable of.
Yet, of course, Lisa, herself, is highly deluded. The child genius is not Mozart whose hands needed to be messaged after every performance so that he might create another work of genius. The little child, Jimmy, is a natural, who simply spouts, at times quite perceptively, what is on his deeper mind. And it’s always a delight. But his father wants nothing to do with it—his own brother having been an unsuccessful writer—preferring that his son grow up to be a practical man, who has played baseball and who might one day, like him, run a good business. Hasn’t nearly every poet, musician, dancer, artist, performer in the world had just such a father?
The deluded Lisa, however, imagines herself—given her own personal failures—a kind of spiritual force who might release this would-be poet into the world. It’s a beautiful and stunningly profound imaginative vision, but when the child is taken away—quite rightfully—from her supervision, she determines to steal him away again for a purpose that even she cannot quite comprehend, whisking him away to a northern New England motel before, apparently, planning to shuffle him off to Canada, where, in her imagination, she and he will work on a book of his poetry, implanting his name upon it, as if she might be Boswell to some future Samuel Johnson.
The delusion is so grand that even a 5-year old sees through it, locking her in the bathroom as she takes a shower and calling to the police to announce that he has been kidnapped.
The scene is one of the most painful confrontations I’ve ever witnessed on film, he talking to the police about the birches he witnesses outside her window, she from within trying to tell him where he really is so that he might report it to the police. She is not a true abuser, except for herself. And when she finally convinces him to let her back into the room, it is for a modest change of clothing so that the police will arrest her fully dressed, Jimmy again cuddling up to her leg as he had done in his kindergarten class. If this child knows that what she has done is wrong, he still admires her, psychologically speaking, for what she has done. Inwardly, he realizes she is the only audience truly for his poetic verbalizations.
Lisa has already warned him that in turning her in, he will have lost his ability to speak, to say his poems in the easy way he always has: “I have a poem.” And as we see him in the police car, about to be taken back home, where he announces, once again, “I have a poem,” while those around ignore his comments, we recognize the truth of her predictions.
Poems, this movie suggests, are never spoken or written with permission from the society; if in the future, Jimmy wants to write a poem, no hands will be messaged, no egos given any rubbing. He will have to do it despite the society into which he was born. Art is not a given, and no one, no one, will truly encourage you to engage in such a meaningless activity.
Los Angeles, November 13, 2018Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018)