Sunday, July 5, 2015

Neglected Gem #78: Conrack (1974)

Most movies about the process of education tend to be fatuous, but there have been some notable exceptions. The subject has produced three masterpieces – Padre Padrone, Aparajito and The Wild Child – as well as The Miracle Worker, The Corn Is Green, the documentaries High School and To Be and to Have, and in recent years The History Boys, The Class and Monsieur Lazhar. Martin Ritt made two wonderful ones back to back: Sounder (1972), adapted from William H. Armstrong’s children’s book set among black sharecroppers in Depression-era Louisiana, and Conrack, which came out two years later. Sounder was acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, but not many people paid attention to Conrack, perhaps because Ritt and the screenwriters, his frequent collaborators Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch Jr., took such a leisurely approach to the material, Pat Conroy’s vivifying memoir The Water Is Wide, about the months he spent teaching elementary-school black kids on an island off the coast of South Carolina. The picture feels almost meandering, pleasantly so, because it borrows its rhythms from the pace of island life and from Conroy’s unruffled, experimental methodology when he discovers that the boys and girls in his class, criminally neglected by previous teachers who presumably substituted busy work for actual instruction, know virtually nothing. When he asks someone to identify the name of their country, not one hand goes up. The movie’s title comes from the name the students give Conroy because it’s the closest they can come to pronouncing his real one – an error that he bows to philosophically, gets used to, and finally is charmed by (as are we).

The leisureliness masks the movie’s distinctive quality, which is that it’s simultaneously sweet-souled and sharp-witted. Pat (played by Jon Voight, giving one of his best performances) is a shaggy-haired sixties liberal – the movie takes place in 1969 – who accepts the burden of a white southerner in a rapidly changing world with ironic bemusement. He tells one of the locals, Mad Billy (a gratifying cameo from Paul Winfield, the leading man from Sounder) – who isn’t even remotely crazy and whom he befriends – that he grew up racist and then did such a radical turnaround that if a black man had given him cow piss to drink, he’d have asked for a straw. The young man who signs up to teach on Yamacraw Island, which is under the jurisdiction of the school board of Beaufort, S.C., where he grew up, is working out some middle ground in race relations. What he comes up with, respect and kindness mediated by humor, is pretty good. He’s also negotiating a middle ground between his polite southern upbringing and the anti-authoritarianism of the times. When the first islander he sees comments on his long hair, Pat comments, more conversationally than self-righteously, that he’s taken a vow not to cut it until the war is over. The islander observes that if that’s the case, it’s likely to end up reaching down to his ass, and Pat’s reply, “Let’s hope not,” is convivial rather than spiky; it presupposes common ground, though perhaps not political. (A country at war is a country at war, whatever you think of the war.)

Madge Sinclair & Jon Voight in Conrack.

His efforts to remain polite and agreeable without compromising his principles is tested when he runs into the school principal, Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair). She calls the pupils “babies” to their faces (the youngest among them is ten, the oldest probably fourteen), and humiliates them publicly about their personal habits. His attempts to inject playfulness into the classroom (roughhousing, for instance) brings her to the door with her disapproving face on – it’s practically the only one he gets to see – and when he digs up a projector in the back of the closet and shows them a swashbuckler, she announces that she doesn’t hold with “machine learning.” Her mantra is hard work, to combat what she sees as the pupils’ inherent laziness, and she’s a strict proponent of the strap. He does his best to get around her frequent objections and arbitrariness and spirit-dampening; he even goes to see her at home and invites himself in for coffee so they can talk things over reasonably. But she’s a formidable mixture of African American resentment and righteous superiority and black self-hatred. (Plus she bears the marks of her own hobbled education: she somehow manages to turn Conroy’s name into “Mr. Patroy,” and she goes on calling him by it throughout their relationship.) Mrs. Scott – we don’t know what became of Mr. Scott, or if he ever existed – retains the conviction that her meanness to the kids is preparing them for the hard world they’re going to have to face, just as she did, and when Pat tries to argue his own point of view, she glares at him, this white liberal who thinks he knows how to deal with black people, and tells him that she knew she was colored when white folks started calling her a Negro, and now she’s supposed to be black and she knows what color that is. Sinclair gives a commanding presence to probably the most fascinating character Frank and Ravetch ever put on screen, though they didn’t figure out a way of fading her out. When Conrack, inevitably, loses his job for disregarding the dicta of the school superintendent (Hume Cronyn) and says goodbye to her, she tells him she likes him because it’s obvious that he loves the “babies.” If something has changed in this woman to account for her switch in attitude, the movie sure doesn’t dramatize it.

Naturally, the heart of Conrack is the interaction between Pat and the children, who are curious and hilarious and irrepressibly themselves despite Mrs. Scott’s oppressiveness. Pat speechifies and recites to them; he doesn’t mind it if they think he’s loony. His modus operandi is to fill their heads with information and then challenge them with contradictions to train them to use their common sense and stand up for what they know. He teaches them to have pride in what they’ve learned, whether it’s the names of world leaders or the meaning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He marches them along the water’s edge, quizzing them, like some unhinged Pied Piper; it makes sense that Pat would take them outside, since the landscape, warmly lit by John Alonso (who also shot Sounder), and not the classroom is their natural habitat. (The movie was shot off the coast of Brunswick, Georgia, on St. Simons Island.) Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (The Unvanquished) is, among other things, a tribute to the spark of genius that can glow even in the darkness of poverty; that’s also the theme of The Corn Is Green, where the setting, a Welsh coal-mining village, works handily as a metaphor for that darkness. In Conrack it isn’t genius but the light of knowledge that beats back the oppression of ignorance and helps the shockingly disadvantaged win through to some kind of self-respect. In the course of the film, Pat is recognized by the local queen bee, Edna (the marvelous Ruth Attaway) for his treatment of the kids, but the highest tribute he’s paid is by the kids themselves, in two different ways on two different occasions. After Mrs. Scott sweeps out of the classroom, having delivered one of her withering put-downs about the pupils’ hygiene, one girl mutters, “Bitch woman” and Pat remarks wryly that when he’s not around they probably call him “bitch man.” “No, Conrack, we don’t,” answers one of the boys, and the understated testimonial hangs in the air. And at the end of the picture, the whole class gathers on the dock to watch Pat return to the mainland by motorboat. Ritt holds the long shot of them, silent and unmoving, their backs to the camera, much, much longer than you expect. It’s a great, mixed-tonal ending: at the same time it underlines the geographical division that even Pat Conroy’s most inspired efforts (while he was still able to make them) can’t wipe out. The water is wide indeed.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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