Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Approaching the Elephant


Brief shout-out to Amanda Rose Wilder's engaging and intelligent Approaching the Elephant which enjoyed a 2014 premiere at True/False before moving on to BAMcinemaFest. The film documents the inaugural year (2007-08) of the Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, New Jersey, and chronicles faculty's and students' attention to the freeform, occasionally "democratic" arrangement of the day's lessons and activities. In the course of the picture there develops a sense of the obstacles faced by all those involved with this framework that bases tenets of order on a reliance upon the inherent goodness, and will to self-correction, of the community. Regularly the concept of order is checked in the school against all connotations of Discipline (rules vs. rule — the elephant in the room); this results in either (1) the teachers attempting to reason patiently (to the best of their ability) with the students as to the imprudence of this-or-that behavior, or (2) the calling of a "democratic meeting" wherein votes are cast on resolutions or amendments to previously established rules are ratified. As the film progresses, the meetings take on an interminable meetings-for-meetings'-sake quality à la Occupy: I'll describe it as a kind of collateral or residual indoctrination of Committee'ism which, in turn and infrequently discussed, not only undermines the very notion of the individual but also undercuts the integrity of established consensus. Additionally, the "vote to dissolve all prior votes and rules" becomes a particularly popular agenda-item. (Here I note that the roots of the free schooling movement were planted in the Spanish anarchism of the early 20th century.)

Wilder, operating herself an era-specific Panasonic DVX100 (the same camera Pedro Costa used to shoot Colossal Youth and Ne change rien [updated; thanks to Andy Rector –ed.]), achieves images that would be worthy of Lubtchansky under Garrel. Wiseman sets the tone but not the tempo: Wilder and gifted editor Robert Greene hew scenes smoothly here, savage there, join not just images flush or crudely, but sounds too: the mix aggravates, crescendos, turns tranquil. Approaching the Elephant (the last card tips off that the title's source is a passage from Salinger) is often visceral and off-the-score as woodworking in the hands of wild children: woodshop and performance (piano, dance, singing, gymnastic tumbling) are practically the only "subjects" we see. Can we judge this lack of variety as representative of tendencies in the school's curriculum? Or is it only what the filmmaker wants to show us, to "create the point" in aesthetic and narrative terms? Wilder and Greene are, after all, devotees of Wiseman, who has termed his films non-fiction narratives.

Approaching the Elephant will, ideally, start a conversation on alternative schooling. Let subsequent democratic meetings ensue.


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