I was thinking the other day about stereotypical situations that pop up in movies and novels. One minor sub-genre is the writing class, which either makes a sad joke of the students or reaches for kitsch. A quick scout around the Internet netted the following scenes. If you can think of/find more, pop the link into the comment box below.
First, from Finding Forrester, we have just an awful, idiotic, sentimental, condescending Sean Connery teaching an African-American kid to write (um, by automatic typing?) and defy his teacher (this is a classic teacher rhetorical gesture in movies, BTW; one teacher sets up the other teacher as the authority figure and primes the students to rebel). In this scene, Connery sets himself up as another authority figure, an old white guy possessed of mysterious wisdom. Ugh.
Then we have two writing class scenes from Throw Mamma From the Train, a pretty awful movie redeemed by the incredible Anne Ramsay. In both these scenes, Billy Crystal (the young writer/writing teacher) — blank,vapid — suffers before his awful students. Easy to make fun of students because writing classes do attract a certain number of people with grandiose self-images and blindness to their own deficiencies. They are everywhere in life, but in writing class they get to display themselves. Too easy to lampoon them though. And I wince for the large majority of students who are decent people with a dream, often very smart, trying to make themselves better writers.
But here we have a brief 21-second clip that flips the false humour of the classroom scenes. Teacher and student are arguing about the “right word” and Anne Ramsay, with that bubbling, catastrophically corroded voice, comes up with the right word. Very funny.
The Sure Thing is a cute, witty movie that I use to teach narrative structure. There are some lovely writing class scenes early in the film (which I can’t find on the Internet, so get the movie). These early scenes are much funnier than the scenes from Throw Momma From the Train because the teacher is deliciously acidulous. And the movie is poking fun at a particular student, John Cusack, who has no intention of being a writer.
In the first scene (that I could find), John Cusack’s love interest has agreed to coach him with his essay writing. Cusack doesn’t care about the writing; this is just an excuse to spend time with the girl.
And this is the final scene from the movie, back to the writing class, and the teacher reads out Cusack’s last essay, which is an improvement on what he written before and gets him the girl. A bit sentimental, better in the context of the rest of the movie, the earlier writing scenes.
Finally, here is a segment from the animated series Home Movies. Coach McGuirk goes to journal writing class (to meet girls — another creative writing class cliché). I dunno. North Americans seem to find stupid, offensive people funny, which I suppose is a reflexive gesture of self-doubt. But I enjoy McGuirk trampling every single workshop piety (stereotypes all) he can get a foot on.
As you will no doubt have observed, none of this has anything to do with writing.
I can’t find the clip of this scene on YouTube, but there’s the film “Storytelling” directed by Todd Solondz and starring John Goodman and Selma Blair. Early on there’s a writing workshop scene where the students are workshopping a story written by a boy who has cerebral palsy. They are tipping-toeing around commenting on the story directly and trying to say really nice things. Finally one student talks about how poorly written the piece is and the teacher crisply says, “Katherine is right. The story is a piece of shit.”
Julie Larios emailed me to remind me of this scene, student talking to writing teacher.
Which reminds me of the great lost ms scene.
And then there is the great ms in a lake scene in Love Actually.
Starting Out in the Evening starring Frank Langella is an interesting movie about writer/student relationships, too. The scenes on YouTube are a little wooden, but the movie itself is much better. Here is a link to the official trailer on IMDB:
Yes Wonder Boys is a good one!