Friday, January 12, 2018

CANON OF FILM: "STAND AND DELIVER"

STAND AND DELIVER (1988)

Director: Ramon Menendez
Screenplay: Ramon Menendez and Tom Musca



It’s easy to make fun of and parody the amazing great teacher narrative trope, but honestly, it usually works. There’s several good examples, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, “To Sir, with Love”, “The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie”, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”,... there’s several others, this is a list that can go on for a while. Yet, I don’t think I’d get too many arguments from people if I said that “Stand and Deliver” is by far the best of these films. I’ve watched it in more classes than any other one, by a mile, and I’m certain there’s several polls of teachers out there that would also list it as the best of the genre; if the people who teach for a living think it's the best than there must be something to it, and I’d rank it up there as well. If there’s a more iconic or influential teacher in film than Jaime Escalante (Oscar-nominee Edward James Olmos), I can’t think of who that would be, certainly not one that’s more inspiring, as a teacher. Hell, I've seen movies with other teachers in it, where they show them watching "Stand and Deliver" and copying the beats word-for-word as they study how to teach from the film.

And yet, “Stand and Deliver” has several bad flaws in it. There’s some scenes that, don’t quite go anywhere and seem like they’re unfinished, like the part where suddenly everybody's got the same answer that's correct but Mr. Escalante seems convinced that they're wrong, at least that's how I read it; he might be right for how vague the scene's written. Or the scene where Claudia (Karla Montana) freaks out and tells off Mr. Escalante before angrily leaving class. He reaches her in the hallway and listens to her complain about the lack of a life that she has, but that's all that happens and the scene doesn't go anywhere else. 
There’s also the problems with the cheating accusations at the end, which wasn’t entirely made up for the film, but just seems awkward in how it’s never fully expressed why the anomalies on the test are being investigated. Also, there’s a weird interrogation scene, the one involving Angel’s (Lou Diamond Phillips) “confession” of cheating that’s funny until you turn your head back on and realize that no investigators would interrogate a whole class together like that. In a classroom no less. 

Yet, this is the movie's that stood out among the rest. So what does it do that none of the other movies did? Well, I guess the obvious thing would be the fact that it's primarily a latino film. It takes place in East Los Angeles, it's about and shot at famous high schools in the area, and it's a Latino teacher teaching Latino students, and made by Latino filmmakers. It's amazing how big a rarity that actually is, but I've seen this film more any other American Latino film transfer into the mainstream, so I'm not sure about that. So, presuming that's not it; 

I guess the obvious distinction is that, while most of those other movies were about, opening a new perspective for the kids or reaching them, or some other variant of effecting their lives, "Stand and Deliver", honestly doesn't do much of that. There's some scenes of the teacher going out of his way into the kids' lives, and some interesting parts where the students rebelled against Mr. Escalante only to be scolded and embarrassed into doing the work. In fact, some of those other movies I can think of, they rarely mention grades or exams at all, much less such diligent tunnel-vision focus on studying and learning. Consider the other big movie about an influential teacher from around this time, Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society", despite everything, it's not about the lessons, or even the poetry, it's basically just a film about a teacher who was strange. Compared to everybody else in the strict boarding school, yeah, that's all it really was, he was different. Mr. Escalante is also different, but only so much as he's different enough to get the kids attention and trust, other than that, he's just a good albeit overly-obsessed and devoted teacher, and he's not about being different or expressing yourself, or any of the other cliches about how teachers changed their students lives by getting them on their true paths. It's not about standing on the desks or memorizing poetry, it's about pass the test and you can get college credit for Calculus. That's how I'm gonna help you change your life. He's not different than the rest, he's not trying to inspire them, he's just a better teacher who expects his students to learn and do their best. 

That's probably what I suspect other teachers see in the movie. Whether or not it's a good thing that most teachers are basically teaching students to pass tests these days, it's nice to see a good example of somebody who uses that teaching process to his and the kids' advantage, even going so far as to develop a successful long-term program at the high school, in order to have the kids succeed. I don't think any other movie's got that down right, the mindset and process of teaching, the work and the skill that's required. It's a bizarre mix of rigorous repeated work mixed with improvisation and being an expert at social skills, on top whatever other subject one's teaching. Grabbing ahold of an audience that actively isn't interested in what you have to say, doesn't want to be there listening to you, and getting them to do work beyond what they ever thought capable of. Almost all the others films are ideal teachers from a student's perspective, this one's just grounded in the basic realities of teaching. It's not a teacher's perspective but it does show everything a teacher does, to the bare basics. 

Hell, it's even in it's title. "Stand and Deliver", that's literally all they do. 
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