Guest commentary by Ben M. Wolk
It’s not uncommon to read of actors or directors or screenwriters who bemoan constraints on their “artistic vision.” Many of these people gravitated to the film industry out of frustration with school or to “express” themselves. No few actors and actresses acknowledge having unorthodox upbringings in which their parents encouraged individuality and distrust of authority.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that forms of authority — from schools to other government agencies — are often given the villain treatment in movies. What does surprise is how unwilling Hollywood is to extend its distrust of such institutions to its logical conclusion: the renunciation of them — even, just maybe, the abolition of them. I was reminded of this when I watched two popular and recently-released family movies: The Last Mimzy and Bridge to Terabithia. The pair have a lot in common. Both are based on successful children’s books. Both concern kids, a boy and a girl, struggling with the travails of life. In both, school is drudgery, defined by bullies, tedium, and confinement of imagination. And both ultimately celebrate the joys of freedom of imagination, the theme that there exists a higher plane of fancy to which we can escape and, by escaping, enrich that humdrum world to which we must return.
Of the two, Terabithia stays truer to this motivating idea, its focus being squarely on the imagination. The Last Mimzy is a harum-scarum juxtaposition of fantasy, science fiction, and a dishwatery mysticism, complete with palmistry, profound drawings, and references to DNA and Nepal. Both, naturally, also feature that unfailing convention, the Inspirational Teacher, a lone beacon in the desolate educational wilderness.
There is an interesting subplot in Mimzy, one that crops up not infrequently in Hollywood films. As the children grow in their newfound imaginative powers, naturally they encounter obstacles. One of these, indeed the chief one, is a counter-terrorism unit of the U.S. government, which traces, correctly it turns out, a city-wide blackout to these innocent youngsters. (And you thought the intelligence community was falling down on the job!) For the balance of the story, federal agents and scientists confine and harass the kids and their well-meaning but clueless parents, and generally make villainous nuisances of themselves.
Terabithia isn’t quite so ambitious (or ludicrous) in this regard. No CIA spooks infiltrate the magical world the kids dream up; the menaces they face spring from deeper and wilder and more realistic sources: their own insecurities. Still, its kinship with Mimzy is consistent in that Authority and Conformity represent noxious forces that must be fought for the sake of one’s own soul.
I applaud this wholeheartedly. The conformity imposed by institutionalized schooling is an insidious thing to which millions of bright children are ruthlessly sacrificed. The trust we place in government agencies to look after our well-being and security is a frightening self-imposed threat to our own liberty. These things, these doctrines, should be fought, just as creativity and free thought should be celebrated and nurtured. I may not subscribe to the New Age tenor of The Last Mimzy, but I appreciate its advocacy of imaginative self-reliance.
But perhaps I should say its alleged advocacy. For in these two movies, and in many before them, those twin evils of Authority and Conformity, whatever form they take and however they are assailed, are generally yielded to, often with the director’s tacit blessing.
Time and again schools play the symbol of the utilitarian extinguisher of soul and mind. In Terabithia, the young heroes are physically hounded by classmates and mentally deadened by rigid teachers. The boy, Jess, is a talented artist; Leslie, the girl, is a storyteller par excellence. Although school’s stated purpose is the development of children’s skills, for neither of these two does it do anything but try to shackle those gifts — and this in spite of a sympathetic teacher or two.
What remedy, then, does the director propose? Nothing so radical, you may be sure, as a renunciation of that destructive institution. Indeed, in this film, as in The Last Mimzy, as in countless others, a sort of reform and/or resignation is offered as the best solution — in short, School (or whatever the institution may be) may be numbing to mind and body, but still it is necessary, so make do.
The implication is that the state institutions with which our society is rife and to which we submit at awful cost to our capacity for independent thought and action — these institutions, we tell ourselves, subsist for our benefit and we must engage them, however unpleasant or even nonsensical it may be.
We don’t flinch at cinematic portrayals of school-as-oppressor because we recognize, if only subconsciously, that schools do oppress. It’s an accepted concept, or at least one we are resigned to. Should any filmmaker have the temerity, however, to depict this oppression and then, instead of saying “Deal with it,” show the oppressed youngsters simply abandoning school altogether and forming their own academic cadre (as some real-life kids have done) audiences would gasp. Nothing strikes us as so subversive, so seditious, as the basic exercise of our own inherent right to self-determination — in any and all aspects of life.
Put another way, we are, to slightly paraphrase Jefferson, more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right ourselves by abolishing the forms to which we are accustomed. And the person who does abolish such a form, or at least withdraws from its influence and strictures, too often is met with censure rather than admiration.
Strange, too, considering that America owes its foundation to brave souls who concluded that the evils were no longer sufferable and demanded abolition.
And as for Hollywood: Until I see a mainstream theatrical release in which the kids don’t merely deal with the prison of school but break away altogether and, with their parents, take responsibility for their own imaginative and academic growth, then the movie world’s claim to be an advocate of independent creativity will ring hollow.