Friday, February 18, 2011

The Dullest Documentary Director

What is it about Davis Guggenheim that makes his movies stultifying and soporific?

Is it the subject matter? No one choosing to watch Al Gore talk for 100 minutes should have expected a result other than the sudden desire to go eye-gouging Oedipus on themselves. And that's before the ice caps begin to melt.

An Inconvenient Truth may not have the wild action of, say, Eat Pray Love, but it contains important content and was the guilt-inducing must-see of 2006. But how did Guggenheim manage to suck the wind out of a summit meeting between Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White? That truly takes a master's skill. It Might Get Loud was a great missed opportunity as a film, though the trio shone in the bonus features, thankfully devoid of the director's touch.

What could I have possibly expected from Waiting for "Superman?" It was much heralded, to be sure, but the ailments of our public school system in the hands of Davis Guggenheim? Now where's my copy of Burlesque?

Superman is mostly a yawner, with its plodding pace and droning voiceover making it difficult to focus on the crucial problem of our failing schools. However, there are two items worthy of further comment:

1 - Geoffrey Canada, education reformer, takes the role that Buck O'Neil had in Ken Burns' Baseball. Canada is the focal point, the man who takes us through his crushed idealism as a young teacher to his persistence of purpose that led him to create the Harlem Success Academy. His desire to test his theories in the crucible of the 97 block area most conducive to failure is heroic. It is worth getting to know this man, the superhero he himself waited for as a kid.

2 - The film spends much of its time bemoaning the fact that kids sent through the public school system learn early on, in some cases between fifth and seven grades, that they will not succeed and that there is no point in trying. So what do the best schools do, the Kipp Academies, the Harlem Success Academy, the Seed program in D.C.? They take these children, first graders, second graders, babies really, and have them sit in a gym or auditorium with hundreds of other kids and their families, hoping to hear their name called after its been picked from a box. Or they

have a numerical other in billiard ball form that will slide down a track and signal that one lucky tyke has been chosen to move on to a better future.

Most don't get picked, and we get to watch them cry or grow emotionally distant when they realize they're out of luck. What kind of fucking system can be so cruel? And this is perpetrated by the shining examples of the "kids first" schools. Sure it gives Guggenheim a solid ending to an otherwise sleep-inducing film, but it completely undermines the good work of the model educators the director has put forward.

(For more on the disappointing It Might Get Loud, see my ragazine review here:

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