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21 February 2009

Big in Japan

Today, I saw two movies, both made in the style of a documentary, and while I initially thought that they didn't have much else in common, given the very different topics, themes and mood, I had to revise that view as they share several other key ideas.

One was the real behind-the-scenes expose of an '80s metal band still aspiring towards glory 25 years later and the other the tale of a year in the life of a class of 14-year-olds in a rough suburb of Paris and the teacher who wants so desperately to inspire them--or at least for them to learn something. While Anvil! The Story of Anvil is an actual fly-on-the-wall, Entre les Murs (The Class) just plays out like one (it was loosely based on the memoirs of teacher-turned-novelist, François Bégaudeau and confuses the boundaries between reality and fiction as Bégaudeau also stars in the film and the actors playing the pupils in the eponymous class were also recruited from a school in a similar Parisian locale, have the same names as them and after regular meetings with the director, discussed the characters and the film to such an extent that many of the lines are actually improvised--most of the pupils' parents are played by the parents of the actors).

I went into Anvil! expecting it to be just like This Is Spinal Tap and to some extent it was (although less funny) or, rather, it was like they were making a film, which would have been the perfect basis for Rob Reiner to build his parody on had Spinal Tap not been made 25 years earlier (I've also been watching some Terminator films so my time travel paradox sensitivity is a little screwed). It's also an amusing coincidence that the director and mockumentarian star of Spinal Tap shares his name (plus or minus a b) with the drummer of the band Anvil. I'm not exactly a big metal fan but I'm not completely ignorant either and yet I'd never heard of Anvil before yesterday. 

The documentary opens with some footage of a huge rock festival in Japan in the mid 1980s where many of the world's biggest rock bands (Scorpions, Bon Jovi, etc.) played and then went on to great things, while Anvil...did not. Fast-forward 20-odd years and the lead singer, Steve "Lips" Kudlow is celebrating his 50th birthday. His hair has barely changed since 1984 but he is now married with a child and works at a catering company but still rocks with his band mates--especially his BFF, Reiner--in his spare time. 

This movie documents the band's attempts to get back into the spotlight and to finally gain some of the fame and acclaim pretty much everyone interviewed in the film says they deserve. Inevitably, it all goes a bit pear-shaped, sometimes amusingly, sometimes poignantly. The film is held together by the friendship between Lips and Reiner and by Lips's unwavering belief in the band and their music. Lips is basically a very nice guy with a very big dream, although the way he deals with his disappointments at various stages in Anvil's "European tour" and after unsuccessful dealings with record companies seems to mirror perfectly the obvious attempts of some of the Spinal Tap guys to try to convince themselves--and everyone else--that it will all work out for the best. I'm not really interested in metal, as I said, but I still thought the film was funny and perfectly constructed.

The events of The Class also take place over the course of about a year and, as with Anvil!, there isn't really much of a plot--at least in terms of big events, anyway. The pace is slow and thoughtful, allowing us to get to know the pupils and the teachers so that we do understand things more precisely when the climax--if you can even call it that--takes place. 

Bégaudeau plays a young but savvy and sometimes provocative teacher of a culturally and racially diverse class of 14 year olds. Large proportions of his French lessons are often taken up with his attempts to get them to shut up, sit down, stop fighting and just do what he asks. His pupils, though, are also smart and sharp, even if they aren't interested in his attempts to get them to learn their irregular verbs. They aren't afraid to put him on the spot either--one of the pupils asks whether he is gay, another asks why he always uses "white names" in the example sentences he writes on the board. Many of the sharpest lines are improvised by the young actors; when Bégaudeau is trying to convey the importance of the imperfect subjunctive given that the pupils all say no one they know ever uses it, one girl denounces it as, "bourgeois language" (well, isn't it?).

Each film has a protagonist who is passionate about what he does. Lips wants to make great music and have an awesome time with his buddies but he also dreams of fame and world-wide acclaim (seeing the band's elation when at a gig in Japan there are actually thousands of fans when they were worried that only a handful would show up is a beautiful moment) but he settles for small, everyday triumphs to distract him from the realities of his mundane job in Toronto. 

Bégaudeau knows he has a tough job even getting his class to sit down quietly for more than a couple of minutes at a time, let alone teaching or inspiring them. Several speak French as a second language and most of them are aggressive, spiky and quick to anger but Bégaudeau takes pleasure in the small victories he wins, like when Souleymane, one of the most disruptive boys, produces a decent photo collage as part of a "self-portrait" project and you can tell that Souleymane is a little proud himself, even though he feigns ambivalence. Bégaudeau isn't perfect but you get the impression that he may have got through to a few of the pupils--maybe he even inspired them--and he would probably say that all of the stress and the hard work would be worth it for that. Just as Lips and co. would say that being big in Japan made the failed European tour seem worth it.


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