May 31, 2013

DUEL: The Lost Art of Ambiguity

Starring Dennis Weaver. Directed by Steven Spielberg. (1971, 90 min).

As the end of the school year draws near, the middle school where I work resembles a cineplex. Teachers are finishing up the curriculum they're required to cover, and even though we are technically supposed to provide content-related instruction all the way to the end, most of us wrap things up a day or two early. Few of us will ever admit it, but this is often intentional. Anyone who's ever spent time in a middle school classroom will confirm kids are absolutely worthless during those last few days. Sure, they physically show up, but their minds have already checked-out for the summer. Providing any substantial instruction is an exercise in futility.

And truth be told, most of us teachers have checked-out as well. Trust me, the only species on Earth looking more forward to three months off than students are their teachers. But we still need to kill those last few class periods of the year. A couple of the more delusional idealistic staff members will put together some "educational-but-fun" activity, while others will generously offer those final periods as "make-up days." Most of us, however, fire up the DVD player and pop in a movie.

Now normally, any movie we decide to show in class must meet the following criteria.

  1. It must be related to the content we are teaching.
  2. It cannot contain graphic violence, language or sexuality (duh!).
  3. It cannot offend any student's values or cultural background.
  4. PG-13 movies require written permission from parents.
Do we follow these criteria? I'd say the answer is mostly yes (the exception being when we need to throw-together last-second sub-plans...My old copy of The Sandlot has come to the rescue many times when I was unexpectedly called away). However, at the end of the year, that first criteria is often tossed out the window, since at this point movies are just babysitting time killers while we teachers try to get everything graded before that last day of school.

Hence, the typical student will watch at least three or four movies during that last week (kind-of like the theater-hopping I used to do as a kid, only state-sanctioned). But alas, I'm one of the school's killjoys; I still strongly adhere to criteria #1, justifying my end-of-year movie by making it part of a persuasive writing unit, where students watch the movie, then write a few paragraphs summarizing the story and their opinion. Yes, kids think the end of the year is supposed to be nothing but good times, but I'm also convinced my principal will walk into my classroom at any given minute, looking for reason to fire me (I can't help but feel she's not my biggest fan).

So I end each year teaching persuasive writing, a skill that's damn hard for seventh graders. Why is it so difficult? Because they're seventh graders, of course, and many stare at me with faces that say "How dare you make me think in June, you evil bastard."

In fact, just last year, one of my more vocal intellectual giants (we'll call him Cody) quipped, "Why do we have to write about it? Why can't we just watch it? I thought you were cool."

"Because this is a writing class," I replied, resisting the urge to add, and guess how many fucks I give about how cool you think I am.

"But it's the last week of school," he protested.

"Fine, don't do it," I replied as I passed out movie review worksheets to the class.

Cody wasn't apparently expecting that response, because he tilted his little head like a perplexed puppy. "Really?"

"Sure. I ain't your boss. I can't make you do it."

"But will that affect my grade?"

"Of course."

That's when Cody, staring daggers into me, bitterly threw open his binder and yanked out a pencil, resigned to his fate of yet-one-more work day. Strike one up for reverse psychology.

During this final week, most teachers bring movies these students have likely seen a hundred times. But because my end-of-year flick is an actual assignment, I try to find titles few of them have ever heard of. I want them to develop their opinions as they are watching it. Hence, I always choose movies made long before any of them were born, yet avoid classics virtually everyone has seen (like Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz).

I also choose titles I think will illicit the most varied responses, because there’s nothing more boring than reading a hundred papers all expressing the same exact opinion. I have to admit I've gotten some hilarious responses to various movies over the years. A few choice examples:

  • Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: "This movie was no good because I don't like rock and roll."
  • Watership Down: "It's awesome because lots of rabbits die."
  • Watership Down: "It was confusing because the bunnies were from England, not America."
  • Driving Miss Daisy: "This movie is racist."
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind: "It was fake and not as realistic as Transformers."
  • The Hunt for Red October (which confused the shit out of most of them): "I didn't like it because it's racist against Russians."
  • The Birds: "It wasn't very good because it was made before people knew birds are nice animals."
  • Field of Dreams: "I did not like it because nobody gets hurt in the movie."
  • Field of Dreams: "It was great because it's a true story."
  • Field of Dreams: "The baseball players lived in the corn field so they would have something to eat."

But my favorite movie to show kids is Duel, made by Steven Spielberg back in 1971 before anyone knew who he was.

"Goddamn tailgaters."

Duel has one of the simplest plots of all time. Mild-mannered motorist David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving on a Southern California highway on his way to a business meeting when he is inexplicably terrorized by a demented trucker behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler. The trucker is never shown, and the crux of this cat-and-mouse story is how Mann manages to deal with this sudden life-and-death struggle he's been thrown into. Duel originally aired on ABC as part of its slap-dash Movie of the Week series, but was so well-constructed that it was released theatrically overseas. Today, it is widely considered one of the greatest made-for-TV movies of all time.

I remember watching the movie when Portland's local independent channel, KPTV, aired it a few years later as part of its The Movie series, where they'd show the same movie at 8:00 PM every day during the week. I was riveted, and even at the age of ten, intrigued by the fact the truck driver was never shown. That unknown factor made the movie just a little bit scarier. Since then, I've learned to appreciate films that don't need to show, explain and lay-out every little detail, especially if they aren't really essential to the story.

I was especially proud of my youngest daughter, Lucy, when we sat to watch the sci-fi horror film, Cube. That film presents seven people trying to find their way out of a lethally-trapped-laden labyrinth. None of them knows how they got there, nor is it ever explained. We never learn the purpose of the cube, why it exists or who constructed it. Storywise, it isn't important, and my eight-year-old daughter knew that. She simply accepted the situation presented and went with it, enjoying Cube for the same reason I first loved Duel.

Alas, there is a huge percentage of the population who have a big problem with films which don't explain everything, even if it's inessential to the plot. Here are some for my favorite examples of student responses to Duel (many whom hated it simply because it was old, and I'll omit those):

  • "This movie sucks because we don't know who is trying to kill the guy."
  • "It would have been better if the driver of the car wasn't such a pussy."
  • "Why is the truck driver trying to kill him? Normal people need a reason to kill people."
  • "The car driver's mustache is funny looking."
  • "If I was driving the car, I would speed up."
  • "This was stupid because I can't see the truck driver."
  • "It makes no sense because we never see who is trying to kill the Mann guy."
  • "Even though the movie is old, it's pretty good except we never see the driver."
  • "It ends bad because the trucker driver dies before we can see who he is."
  • "I don't know why the car driver is so scared because he doesn't know who the truck driver is."

I could list at least two dozen other responses from students who simply could not get past the fact the truck driver is never shown. That bugged them more than anything, even though who's driving the truck has no impact on the plot. One of those kids was Cody, who voiced his disapproval after the film was done...

"That was stupid," he quipped.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I didn't understand it."

"What didn't you understand?" Again, I refrained from adding, if the movie was stupid, and you didn't understand it, what does that say about you?

"Well, this truck driver was trying to kill the guy, but we never see him and it never says why."

Briefly climbing on my cinematic high-horse, I shot back with, "That's what's scary about it, that the unseen truck driver randomly chose a guy to try an kill."

Cody rolled his eyes. "That doesn't make it scary. That makes it stupid."

I was obviously in the minority, since many of Cody's peers nodded in agreement. And while their responses are initially amusing, I'm a bit sad at the state of what appears-to-be the mindset of many moviegoers, the need for everything to be laid-out before them, and even the slightest bit of ambiguity throws them for a loop.

But here's my biggest impressionable eight-year-old daughter was able to watch a film and accept the story as-presented without getting hung-up on petty details. So why are so many of my older - supposedly more mature - students unable to do the same? Are they simply used to being spoon-fed everything presented to them? Are they told what to think by others? Are they so used to stuff like The Fast and the Furious that they are unable to watch a film and pull-out something which isn't blatantly laid-out?

Maybe it's because Lucy has grown up with a cinemaphile and approaches movies with the same open mind as her old man, because she recently watched Duel and didn't give a damn about who drove the truck. She liked it simply for what it was...pure cinema, even if originally made for TV.

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