Friday, March 4, 2011

The Emperor's Club (Michael Hoffman)

Something suspicious.

Sheds of Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" manifest in this fairly heartwarming film about the transcendent relationship between a teacher and his students, and how the first may undergo extreme anxiety and regret if ever he failed to inspire change to the latter.

Kevin Kline, whom I knew most as the bumbling criminal Otto in "A Fish called Wanda", reversed all the characteristics of the role he became famous for and took on a mostly formalistic persona as the straightforward teacher, Mr. Hundert. Like all sentimental films yearning for some recall of memories to make a character evolve or eventually grow as a person, the film was told in a continuous flashback, looking at how his life as a Classics professor to able students could have been an ideal exercise of both his intellectual and emotional life; too bad he crossed paths with Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), a hard-headed, unprincipled youngster bent on breaking the conventions and rules of adequate education and the seemingly strong authority of Hundert himself.

The true highlight of the film for me is the first 'Mr. Julius Caesar' contest, because there it lay the raw tension and anticipation of every questions and answers. Every slight pauses of the contestants. Every utterance of 'That is correct' by 'Mr. Hundert. Yes, for me, there should have never been a contrived rematch 25 years later for some kind of 'regaining an intellectual honor' (That's Sedgewick Bell right there). What is he trying to prove? That after all those years, he wanted to retell the tale of how he outsmarted his professor and the whole school by cheating into victory? Or was it just pure cinematic 'contrivance' to bring up another 'contrivance'?

But then again, though I just can't fathom the logic of that particular 'rematch', I still quite liked the message of the whole film. If "Dead Poets Society" was about an educator's 'influence' to his students, "The Emperor's Club' is completely about the opposite. Although some teachers may say that they only teach because of the paycheck or because they just want to impart their knowledge to random minds, an unconscious inclination, I believe, always grows within them: that in some ways, they teach because they also want to touch 'lives' and in accord with human nature, also want theirs, although how experienced and filled up it may be, to be nurtured and embraced as well.

For the majority of his life, Mr. Hundert was always haunted by the idea of how Sedgewick Bell got away with all of it. He questioned himself how he hasn't done anything about it. Here came the essence of the whole 'rematch' contrivance (which I learned to embrace as it is); it's not Mr. Hundert that failed Sedgewick Bell. He was given a chance to excel, he transgressed. It's himself.

(This is a paragraph tailor-made for my reaction paper in Values Education regarding this film) "The Emperor's Club", above all, is an exploration of the realities of being a 'leader'. We live in an imperfect world inhabited by flawed individuals. Even Gandhi had his share of detractors. You just can't go in front of many people and collectively change their lives. What counts is whom you've changed, how, and if they are willing to. And in that case, Sedgewick Bell isn't. The Dathan to Moses. The Cassius to Julius Caesar. But beyond that are some 'Marc Antonys' that may just lend their trust, loyalty, and time for what you have to say.

Early performances by young actors who has since made names for themselves by starring in equally great films by their own rights (Paul Dano in "There Will Be Blood", Emile Hirsch in "Into the Wild" and Jesse Eisenberg in the most recent "The Social Network").


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