I realize that the intersection of entertainment and education is kind of an overdone theme around here. I keep flogging it, though, even past the point of flatlining, because, well, I dunno, everyone’s gotta have a niche, right? I mean, what’s yours? The successful and satisfying implementation of twenty-first-century technology in the classroom? Ha! Sorry, pal. I know these people and that’ll never fly around here.
So anyway, I was watching Zoolander the other day for reasons I’d rather not get into or even recall but I knew afterwards I had to share something that Hollywood gets so very right about education.
I wish I had a clip for this.
It’s the opener. Christine Taylor’s TIME reporter interviews Ben Stiller for a cover story on male models. Throughout questions on child labor and his childhood, his back is to her and to us while his assistants circle him, buffing his face and teasing his hair.
He describes his signature look, “Magnum.”
Taylor asks if she can see it.
And it’s there, after all that build up, delayed gratification, and heightened expectation, that he spins around, flashes a pair of diamond-sharp cheekbones, and we meet Derek Zoolander.
It’s the same in every movie. The principal character introduction is a BIG moment – and so it oughtta be with our principal instructional objective every day.
Zoolander is an intellectually undemanding affair and with all my spare mental resources I started thinking back to lessons that ended well and it struck me that all of them opened BIG.
A big question. A big picture. A big idea.
And I deliver them big. I let the question / picture / idea hang out there long enough to perplex and engage them and then, just before informational anorexia sets in, I anchor it with some numbers, something that they, in all their curiosity, can use to pin it down and cut it open.
Once you’ve got your engaging content it’s just a matter of finding the right hook, the best entry and exit points, two beats: when it feels right to get into and out of a moment.
A year ago it would’ve bugged me if you told me I had to come up with engaging content and present it in a way that sucked students in. Now it’s just another slice of a great job.
And then there’s this interview with actor Orlando Bloom, director Gore Verbinski, and writer Ted Rossio, some of the creatives behind the last-in-the-series-if-there-is-any-justice-in-the-world Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End:
Says Bloom, “Someone asked me, ‘So tell us about your character’s arc in the third movie.’ I said, ‘Dude, the writers can’t even explain the third movie.‘”
Verbinski defends the more-is-more approach to storytelling: “I don’t mind if people find it confusing. I don’t want to dumb it down to where it’s just processed cheese and you’re not thinking about it afterwards.” He and the screenwriters insist nothing was done to take the criticisms of Dead Man’s Chest into account when production resumed on At World’s End. The films had been “designed for multiple viewings,” says Rossio. “You couldn’t do a course correction. That presumes that the course was off.” [emph. added]
Which strikes me as a lousy way to teach: hazy objectives, unclear technique only comprehensible after multiple passes through the material. Not exactly your ideal backwards planning.
Three hours of matinee research reveals it’s also a lousy way to make a movie: storylines dangling like tendons, motivations unclear, an alienating approach to story development where only the director, with his expansive view of the production, knows what the hell is going on. (And, apparently, he isn’t telling.)
Should it surprise us that good entertainment technique transfers to good education or that the inverse is also true? We’re all telling stories here.