There is a moment at the beginning of Arthur Hiller’s sublime black comedy, Teachers (1984) where a staffer at the fictional JFK high school suddenly attacks history teacher, Ditto Stiles (Royal Dano) for hogging the manual Gestetner, spraying him full in the face with a bottle of toxic blue ink. Pried off the confused old fossil in the nick of time by the school’s Vice Principal and several security guards, carted off screaming all the way; a casual observer to all this chaos inquires, “Who was that?” to which V.P. Roger Rubell (Judd Hirsch) casually replies, “Staff psychologist!” From here, the unsentimental opinions expressed in W.R. McKinney’s ribald screenplay are only going to get more acidic and disturbing. This isn’t Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) or even To Sir With Love (1967) but a rude awakening for the then modern era where socio-political rifts and bureaucratic red tape have conspired to widen the chasm between legitimate education and glorified babysitter. There is plenty of blame to go around in McKinney’s screenplay; pivoting its indictments from the school’s board of trustees, fronted by the seemingly benign, Donna Burke (Lee Grant), in reality, a despicably enterprising harridan, to our motley crew of disenfranchised educators, burnt out, tormented and anesthetized of all their ambitions. The system’s failing – badly – the crestfallen student body syphoned through a series of meaningless classes, designed more to fill up their time than enrich their minds.
School, according to Teachers, is not the place where one goes to acquire practical life skills, but an ordeal only the most self-motivated and/or jaded can hope to survive. Indeed, our central protagonist, Alex Jorrell (played with alcoholically induced lethargy by Nick Nolte) is a little of both; comfortably numb as the tenured bottom feeder. Worn down by substandard conditions and by an even more deficient academic machinery, content to mismanage the daily operations of this fortress-like high school, Jorrell’s pursuits of late revolve around staving off the mind-numbing lunacy of his union, whose representatives deal in the most perfunctory issues at stake (five extra minutes for a luncheon break), and a school administration, contented to allow all this madcap chaos to infiltrate and contaminate its classrooms and halls. As such, Jorell has become the antithesis of his dreams: a stunted adolescent permitted to wallow in his own crapulence.
Teachers is a very dark comedy, deceptive in its wickedly subversive humor and utterly confounding in its straightforward and astute reflections. The aforementioned staff psychologist (Ellen Crawford), as example, is a manic depressive who carries a gun and suffers a complete nervous breakdown over the most mundane infraction. The school’s Vice Principal, Roger Rubell is contented merely to operate as a bureaucratic buffer between harried trustee, Donna Burke and egg-headed Principal Horn (William Schallert), a woefully ineffectual figurehead, barricading himself in his office to avoid having to deal with the harder issues. The school’s gym teacher, Troy (Art Metrano) is an overweight/oversexed reprobate, seducing girls in the locker room; one – Diane Warren (Laura Dern) becoming pregnant and thereafter opting to have an abortion without parental consent. Collectively, these severely flawed individuals evoke a system so completely broken down that even good-natured Herbert Gower (Richard Mulligan), an escapee from the nearby mental hospital, can slip in under their radar as a substitute teacher for the history department – in the process, becoming the school’s most influential and enigmatic educator.
Into this bedlam are thrust two innocents: attorney, Lisa Hammond (Jo Beth Williams) who once had a desperate, though unrequited, crush on Jorell and knew him in his prime while he readily possessed a passionate spark to enlighten young minds. Lisa has returned to JFK in an official capacity, to take depositions for a lawsuit pending against the school’s administration. It seems JFK graduated a student, John Hammond, without his being able to read or write. The other ‘virgin’ of the piece is Eddie Pilikian (Ralph Macchio), a smart-mouthed punk who, like Lisa’s client, has the reading comprehension level of a backward child. Eddie is big brother to a troubled special needs student, Danny Reese (Crispin Glover). Yet, his own home life is a disaster, buffeted by ineffectual mothering and a very abusive relationship with his father; the two separated, each at the crux of Eddie’s painful lashing out against authority. After initiating a parent/teacher meeting with Eddie’s mother (Zohra Lampert) to assess Eddie’s future prospects, Jorell is given a mere glimpse into Eddie’s pit of despair; his father (Ronald Hunter) belts him across the face; his mother berates him with wringing hands and harsh words: the pair far too invested in warring with each other to care about what happens to Eddie. In the middle of their feud, Jorell lashes out with a stern inquiry of his own. “Don’t you care about your son’s education, Mrs. Pilikian?” to which she wearily replies, “Isn’t that your job, Mr. Jorell?”
Alex makes Eddie a solemn promise – to raise his level of self-respect and reading comprehension by the end of term; a forced détente that revitalizes Alex’s inner passion for teaching. It also inspires Eddie to become a better student. In the meantime, Lisa attempts to sway Alex to her way of seeing things – a prospect Alex forewarns is impossible. After all, what does she know about anything? She isn’t a teacher. She’s never been on the front lines. She hasn’t a clue how bad it’s become since her own graduation. She’s out of her depth. Although Alex would like nothing better than to get in Lisa’s pants, he staves off this desire long enough to admonish her for being a cockeyed optimist. After all, Lisa’s law firm is not really interested in justice – only fattening its coffers with a big retainer and preferably, an even healthier settlement. Lisa refuses to believe this, of course, but later will suffer the disillusionment of being informed by one of her legal partners, Sloan (Steven Hill) that both sides have decided to settle their grievances out of court for an undisclosed sum. It’s all true. The case was never about the child – only achieving a level of the negative publicity to successfully extort money from the already cash-strapped system to keep everyone silent.
As JFK High prepares for its depositions, the school hires Alan Lewis (Morgan Freeman) as their legal aid. Roger circles the wagons, encouraging his staff, with Burke’s complicity, to obfuscate the truth and disavow any wrong doing. Naturally, the teachers fall into line. To do otherwise would jeopardize both their livelihood and their pensions. The one note of dissension comes from Carl Rosenberg (Allen Garfield); a frazzled math teacher to whom the concept of at least attempting to educate this rabble has not yet left him. Carl is bitten by Reese, an act that terrorizes him, but draws out an unlikely compassion from Alex. Regrettably, Alex is also Roger’s drinking buddy, the latter pressing Alex to force Carl to keep his mouth shut or face immediate dismissal for betraying the school. In the meantime, Diane confides in Eddie she has become pregnant by Troy. Eddie turns to Alex for advice. Recognizing he has begun to establish a trust factor with his young charge, Alex is nevertheless unable to convince the girl to talk to her parents. Instead, he makes the decision to drive Eddie and Diane to a free clinic where an abortion is performed. Afterward, Alex informs Roger of the incident, leaving Diane’s name out of the equation. Roger confronts, but does not fire Troy. Regrettably, Alex has placed far too much trust in their friendship. Later, Alex’s complicity in the abortion will be used to blackmail him into forcibly resigning, after Burke suspects he might reveal too much about the school’s peccadillos in his planned deposition.
Things reach a bittersweet climax in the film’s last act. Carl begins his deposition with an agreed upon scripted statement but quickly realizes he cannot give effective – or even factual – testimony without betraying his own morality and principles. He breaks down and tells the commission everything, placing the school’s reputation in a precarious situation. Meanwhile, having stolen a pistol from the staff psychologist’s handbag, Danny is inadvertently gunned down in a crowded hall by police conducting a routine drug raid that reveals, among other things, the son of the police chief (Anthony Heald) is a local dealer. Eddie and Alex both witness Danny’s pointless assassination, a watershed moment drawing them closer together in their grief. Learning of Alex’s involvement in Diane’s abortion, Burke uses it against Alex to suggest he is an embarrassment to the school. “Do you consider it proper conduct to take a young woman to have an abortion?” Burke inquires. “Well, it’s a hell of a lot better conduct than the teacher who got her pregnant!” Alex coolly admits. He suddenly realizes he has become their convenient scapegoat. Firing him now makes a point to the board of trustees and allows the administration to move forward in their false belief they have taken a stand to improve the overall quality of their institution. Resentful of Carl’s betrayal and eager not to have Alex corroborate his testimony, Burke convenes a special panel in the gymnasium comprised of the various alumni and union reps. Burke then orders Alex to affix his signature to a prearranged letter of resignation or face being fired.
Meanwhile, Lisa realizes Alex was right all along. She rushes to the school to tell him so, arriving at approximately the moment he has already begun to pack his things to leave. Learning of Alex’s dismissal, the students rally to his side, filling his classroom with hopeful faces of gratitude. “So?” Eddie inquires, repeating a line Alex first proposed to him, “You gonna stay or go?” Fueled by Joe Cocker’s memorable pop ballad, ‘Edge of A Dream’, this moment retains a level of genuine poignancy today. However, Alex is deflated. What difference could it possibly make if he stays to fight the board’s decision? It would only prolong the inevitable. So, Alex picks up his small cardboard crate of remembrances and departs. Remembering the challenge Alex once put forth to her, to “drop her shields and walk naked down these halls” Lisa does just that – stripping in the middle of the hallway and defying Alex to refuse his suspension, 0stand his ground and fight the good fight by threatening the powers that be with a countersuit for wrongful dismissal. As the students gather in disbelief, Eddie sets off the fire alarm, saving Lisa from certain arrest. Confronted on the front steps, Alex informs Roger and Burke he has decided to stay. “Aw hell, Roger. The school wasn’t built for us. It was built for the kids,” Alex explains, “They’re not here for us. We’re here for them.” “You’re crazy, you know that?” Burke rebukes him, to which Alex proudly declares, “What can I say? I’m a teacher!”
Just as Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955) had done some 40 years before it, Teachers resurrects the old embattled students in crisis motif, but to a different purpose. Where Brooks’ film was a harrowing ‘us vs. them’ indictment of educational authority and its seeming loss of control over teenage delinquency, Teachers is more a cause célèbre for a return to normalcy by having both sides pull and work together. Mischievously cynical, treacherously humorous and resoundingly clear-sighted in its desire to both expose and reform a very dysfunctional system of checks and balances no longer serving the student body or the public good, Teachers is bold enough to hold a magnifying glass up to a dire problem, while tactfully leaving the solution open-ended. Nick Nolte gives a stellar performance as the burnt out/poor excuse for an educator, given his second chance. His Alex Jorell is the lynch pin of this story, buttressed by some exceptional fine supporting players. Jo Beth Williams is a compelling love interest, primarily because her character refrains from falling into the clichéd ‘take me, I’m yours’ scenario. Her striptease at the end is quite startling and unexpected. Not until the final moments are we assured Lisa and Alex have a romantic future together. Judd Hirsch is a wry comedian, pessimistic and derisive; two-faced and scheming, yet strangely lovable too. Alan Garfield and Richard Mulligan are sympathetic appendages; the former, careworn with frayed nerves, the latter, spry, yet ebulliently unaware of the realities that surround, though never intrude upon his own delusions of kindness. In such a topsy-turvy world the most unhinged among us is king?
At the time of its release Teachers was equally notable for its booming pop/rock soundtrack, featuring 58 Special’s electric title song, ‘Teacher Teacher’ and Joe Cocker’s inspirational, ‘Edge of A Dream’. Viewed today, Teachers still packs a wallop, perhaps because in the intervening years the situation for many in the public school system has only gone from bad to worse. There’s no denying the obvious. Movies from the 1980s are unmistakably from the 1980s; a snapshot from a period in America’s history when everything seemed effortless, flashy and promising. Yes, the clothes, hairstyles and the music have all dated – one can argue badly. But the message has not. It is perhaps more clearly spoken than ever, making Teachers a rarity among films of the 80’s; solid entertainment with a purpose – to educate.
I’ve rather given up on Fox/MGM Home Video, or rather, have had my expectations soured so completely by their spotty track record that even the marginally good Blu-ray transfers coming out of the company now seem the very least they can do. Teachers in hi-def looks only marginally better than it did on MGM’s 2007 DVD release; I suspect, because the same digital files were used, merely bumped to a 1080p signal and with zero regard for clean-up, much less to satisfy the new 4K phenomenon. Fox/MGM has farmed out Teachers to Olive Media for its Blu-ray debut. The visuals are fairly middle-of-the-road; dated colors and fleeting glimpses of age-related artifacts. JFK’s fluorescent-lit hallways tend to have more oomph in color density; exteriors looking washed out and bland by comparison. Colors are, for the most part accurate, although reds tend to lean ever so slightly toward orange and flesh tones infrequently toggle between pink and ruddy orange. Still, there are no glaring digital anomalies, edge enhancement or video-based noise. The DTS 2.0 stereo sounds right: vintage, at least, with spatial separation that won’t blow you away, though sounding indigenous to its source. No extras…of course. What did you expect from Olive? Parting thoughts: Teachers is a seminal 80’s dramedy deserving of more respect. The transfer…is it great? No. Is it competent? Yes. Will it please? Hmmm. Only if you don’t know what you’re missing!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)