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Words and Pictures

June 9, 2014
Words and Pictures

When I was young, there was a series of commercials for Carnival Cruise Lines that featured Kathie Lee Gifford singing a doggerel adaptation of “If My Friends Could See Me Now”. It didn’t occur to me until I was older that the ads — and really all cruises — were pushing not so much luxury as the idea of luxury as envisioned by people who had never really experienced it. Similarly, Words and Pictures often feels like a projection of what it must be like to be an intellectual at a fancy northeast private school by those who have never actually experienced one. Or intellectualism for that matter.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) — “Mr. Marc” to his students — is a grumpy, disillusioned teacher at Croyden Prep, way out in idyllic Maine. He’s also an alcoholic, which — if you missed the vodka he fills his coffee thermos with — you can tell because he wears a rumpled corduroy sportcoat instead of the immaculately pressed suits of all the other teachers. Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is a new art teacher. She was a highly-regarded painter — “you can’t afford to collect her”, one colleague explains to another, because that’s the sole measure of quality and talent that fancy school teachers understand, right? — who has been forced out of painting by her rheumatoid arthritis.

Jack grumbles at “kids these days” because tweeting is somehow directly responsible for their lack of appropriate awe and reverence for John Updike. He has himself become lazy, propping up his ego by editing a “literary magazine” of mostly student work, which the school is looking to cut on financial grounds. Dina is angry at the entire world — it’s unclear whether she was before or only after the arthritis — and rails at even her best students about never being satisfied. Both of these people are horrible, dysfunctional teachers, and their massive pedagogical issues are never really challenged.

The fundamental conflict arises when Dina snaps at her class that “words are lies”, which mortally offends Jack, who amuses himself with a game that basically degenerates into spouting long words, more or less at random. Since their classes — each of them only seems to have one — are composed of mostly the same students, Jack decides to engage Dina in a proxy war for the supremacy of words vs. pictures.

This is, to put it bluntly, colossally stupid. Both Jack and Dina are clearly (meant to be) very smart people, and so it doesn’t make much sense that they’d ever actually fight over this like they do. Sure, I could see a few teachers using this idea to motivate and engage both of their classes in a larger dialogue, but anyone who has not only graduated high school but teaches at one should see straight through it. And while the script leads inexorably to the let’s-all-get-along resolution, the most interesting discussion that can come out of it is examining all the ways that each teacher is stunningly, maddeningly wrong. The script never brings up any of the really interesting counterpoints because to do so would be to admit that the whole idea of this fight between Jack and Dina makes no sense.

Then there are the subplots. Jack’s son is the closest to relevant, since he functions as a barometer of how far Jack has fallen and when he’s earned his way back to good enough. There are also numerous suggestions of an old affair Jack had with an administrator, but they don’t really seem to tie into anything else and should probably have been cut out entirely. But the really confusing one is the harassment.

One student, Swint (Adam DiMarco), is all but stalking another one, Emily (Valerie Tian). When she blows off one of his advances, he circulates a cartoonish drawing that only vaguely resembles her, unless the stereotypes in the picture are meant to pick her out as one of the few Asian students at the school. If anyone should be mortified, it’s Swint for making such a terrible drawing; I assure you that real students’ barbs are a lot sharper than this one. But Swint is among Jack’s favorites — he calls Jack “My Captain”, never admitting what a blatant rip-off it is from Dead Poets Society — and Emily is Dina’s, so this is yet another proxy front. Then the script tries to get milage out of the fact he responded to her words with a picture, which supposedly proves something, along with the fact Dina is able to recognize Swint’s artistic style before more solid evidence surfaces.

And all of this ignores the fact that Swint’s final come-on was delivered with an emoji of a gun held to a terrified person’s forehead, which is a shockingly dark tone to set. Somehow Emily can laugh off what looks for all the world like a threat on her life, and then she’s reduced to hysterics by a smutty drawing that doesn’t even look like her. Not only does the movie casually toss around the idea of gendered gun violence in a school, the whole matter is dropped once Swint is outed as the one who circulated the drawing. It’s all just a big joke to the filmmakers.

It’s all a big mess. The conflict is nonsensical; the characters and settings are clichés, which the script complains about endlessly while being composed of entirely. Little of it hangs together organically. In any real school, everyone involved would be spending long hours out back, clapping erasers.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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