The Emperor's Club

Starring:
  • Kevin Kline's Oscar Desperation
  • Beautiful Minds In Need of Shaping by That One Special Teacher
  • Mumford

 

 
Directed by the Spirit of Mr. John Keating

"You scoff at my Oscar chances?! Well, the only reason I didn't get one for Life as a House was because that Anakin kid was in it."

Mr. Holland's Dead Poets Club

The Emperor's Club is the best pro-vouchers argument I've seen yet. If the worst Mr. William Hundert (Kevin Kline) has to deal with in thirty years as a high school teacher is some obnoxious brat who refuses to learn the Roman emperors in order, well, that's not really teaching. Honestly, if this is the life of a stuffy private school humanities teacher, then somebody sign me up for a voucher because I want in. Hundert doesn't deal with "No Child Left Behind" initiatives for standardized testing every six months, state budget cuts that could cost him his job, endless meetings discussing how to meet bureaucratic regulations, no one in his class is pregnant or passes out in the hallway because of an eating disorder, he seems to be able to actually live on his salary, and, frankly, the stern words he receives from the daddy Senator seem awfully tame compared to a school-board dad who thinks his son should play more.

If these elitists really want to know what's wrong with education, then I say let me hand out the vouchers. Let Mr. Hundert deal with a classroom full of Kekambas, or better yet, let Sedgwick, Martin, and Louis listen to Miles from Hardball discuss how "whacked" A Wrinkle in Time is. Then we'll see what ol' Mr. Hundert is really made of; in fact, if I were to nominate a movie teacher of the year, I would definite push for Miss Wilkes and her Read-to-Play initiative with the Kekambas over Mr. Hundert's "Mr. Julius Caesar" competition. To be honest, public school English teachers don't have time to waste on extraneous memory/recall work because our job performance is tied directly to how well the Kekambas (or, in my case, the offensive line from Varsity Blues) do on a two-hour essay test. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, because I happen to be in the education minority who thinks certain aspects of accountability reform has refocused curriculum and instruction (also, it should be said, I don't and never will belong to a teachers union).

Yet I look at a classroom like Mr. Hundert's, and it becomes obvious that vouchers and "choice" have so very little to do with education reform in this country. The argument for vouchers, essentially, is that private schools offer better education than public schools (which is a point I would agree with, but not because they're private, per se, but because the private school demographic breeds a higher caliber of student and, thusly, a higher caliber of teacher). Yet the most disastrous attempt to shift students in an effort to "equalize" opportunities occurred right here in Missouri, which resulted in the largest waste of resources in the history of American public education—money, incidentally, that could have been used to offer incentives to quality teachers to work in struggling school districts. The end result is a handful of "magnet" schools in poor parts of Kansas City with empty Olympic-sized swimming pools and underutilized speech and debate programs. You'll have to forgive my cynicism if I say that parents looking to send their kids to private city high schools see vouchers as a way to cheat their taxes to pay for private (which in Missouri is ninety percent religious) education.

So if that's the way the game is going to be played, then I say hell yes! to vouchers, just as long as you agree to throw a bone to your overworked, underpaid local public school teachers and let them choose some of the vouchers. I think that's only fair, since that voucher money is going to come out of my pocket and programs anyway. Where I agree with voucher proponents is that the quality of teachers is what makes for quality education, and to be honest, this Mr. Hundert guy is pretty good. Sure, he's one of those movie neo-Pythagorians who thrives on the spotlight of the classroom and whose nights are spent over desk lamps in the precise science of pedagogy, but as an idealized teacher, he diffuses one's (read: my) cynicism in the way that Softball Guy loves Barry Bonds or Beat Cop loves Robert DeNiro. He Really Cares and Imparts Life Lessons, that sort of thing; his curriculum is chiseled in stone as if his lessons are essential to the human experience. The problem, of course, is that the uniform sport coats are begging to be ripped off in victory over draconian headmasters, who are merely the paid buffers of draconian fathers. Still, the classics never go bad, and they don't come any more classic than Mr. Hundert: He struggles with speaker phones, sees grand metaphors in sidewalks ("Walk where the great ones have, my boy"), and keeps busts of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Cicero, and Caesar around for emergencies, cased behind glass like fire extinguishers.

The story is the old mismatched student-mentor archetype, which in Hollywood plays like an buddy-cop movie set in academia (I've been waiting for the movie in which Aristotle struts into the Academy with his toga turned up and tells Plato that that old poetry crap is too passé and the future is in natural science, man). Mr. Hundert finally breaks through with this obstinate group—which is presented to us in a Teen Jeopardy-version of the sports-montage—but then in swaggers Sedgwick (Emile Hirsch), who treats the oaken classroom doors like saloon doors, the gunfight a battle between wills of staunch discipline and aggressive apathy. Sedgwick is a Brian Robbins-type in a Dennis Blunden body, equipped with a hippie survival chest of Dylan albums, cigarettes, and porno, ready for combat against any and all form establishment; the most immediate of which is, of course, Mr. Hundert.

I probably don't need to tell you how this goes: Mr. Hundert challenges little Sedgwick to straighten up in the same way Sedgwick challenges his classmates to loosen up. Daddy—in this case, Senator Daddy—doesn't like the threat of a real father figure in his son's life, so he tells Mr. Hundert (who traveled all the way to Washington for the privilege) "You, sir, will not mold my son." Which means, of course, that he will—but what could make this movie interesting is that Mr. Hundert compromises his own values by giving Sedgwick a grade he doesn't deserve to reward his turnaround in class. You see, Mr. Hundert preaches the gospel of the Romans, that the great emperors—indeed, the great men of history—survive because they give back to their people. That is what gives them integrity, and it's this integrity that defines their greatness. For the Romans, this meant contributing to the arts and sciences and solving the great social problems of the day, rather than simply placating the mob.

Unfortunately, that's precisely what The Emperor's Club does. Rather than treat Mr. Hundert as a morally-conflicted, bitter-but-idealistic, ambitious-but-humble man himself, director Michael Hoffman and writer Neil Tolkien draw him as the usual Hollywood Saint Pedagogue XVI. His one sinful act is the false grade, which because of its pure gesture, seems hardly punishable in the way Mr. Hundert is. The original short story draws Hundert as a bitter man with ambitions of headmaster (and a married woman, for that matter) who sells his soul to a senator's son and is betrayed. Essentially, Ethan Canin's story uses the Faustian bargain to draw parallels between the Roman and American empires in the crucible of the classroom, and the story works because Hundert isn't the saint his is onscreen. The female issue is tossed out there at the beginning (her husband doesn't "get" the Acropolis like Mr. Hundert does), but then she disappears for well over and hour; on the page, Hundert is a sexually-frustrated middle-aged man who works out his testosterone by vigorously rowing every morning, which contrasts greatly with the sun in Kevin Kline's face as he gracefully paddles the river. Rare is the teacher who doesn't grow restless and frustrated as the generations pass by, those idealistic days of standing on desks and tearing up textbooks hardening into mind-stifling routine; unfortunately, this movie doesn't understand that.

I really wanted to like this movie because this story does bend the genre a bit, and its message is pertinent to the times. But like a teacher who gives away too many answers, the movie gives the audience A's for applauding at the appropriate times, but it forgets that the best learning comes from struggle. The audience need not wrestle with the theme or its protagonist; The Emperor's Club is a multiple choice test in which the answer is always C. Tell me this isn't a middle-school exhibition in irony: The grown Sedgwick's company is named "Bell Liberty," the enlightened minority beats the unethical white guy in the contest (Mr. Hundert's last class, incidentally, is a multicultural haven of girls and minorities), and the grown boy becomes a Senator. Canin sees the fall of American Rome as the rise of formerly apathetic youth who take advantage of lax ethical standards, but the film fails these standards: Kevin Kline credibly commands his classroom with enough obdurateness and humor to be an emperor, but if the sermon is that the erosion of morals begets the fall of an empire, then mustn't that erosion be more than a few grains of sand? As Mr. Hundert tells his first class of 2002, "This is a story without surprises." Yes, sir. That's sure to be on the test.

The Pitch:
 
1 Dead Poets Society
Plus
 
1 John Knowles
Equals
   
2 The Emperor's Club
See It For:
The class voting to beat up the public school kid who got in on a voucher.