15 October 2001 | rmax304823
Trip Up The River
Pat Conroy must be an interesting guy. It's easy to be progressive in, say, Milwaukee. (In fact, you had BETTER be.) But he evidently grew up in the South, military family, attended the Citadel, and then finally found his head different from most of the others in his community. Social friction in the South is nothing to mess with. No, sir. He's writing good novels and letters to the editor. I admire him tremendously. The movie reminds me of a lesson in an introductory philosophy class, about the fallacy of arguing by analogy. Time is like a river, you see, and you can travel back in time because you can paddle upstream in a river. Conrack gives us a little trip into the past, when things were even worse than they are now. The African-American kids he's teaching don't know what country they live in, or the name of the ocean lapping at the shores of their little island. (Perhaps now overgrown with expensive condos.) He paints himself as an inspiring teacher. He can't help it. He was callow, and anyway autobiographies don't have much choice -- they're either hagiographic or honest, and in the second case the author always comes out looking like a Schmuck. Anyhow, in the end he admits failure, though through no fault of his own. John Voight, known for his involvement in sociopolitical issues, is the perfect choice for Conroy's surrogate, and Martin Ritt perhaps the best possible director, given his having lived in the South and coped with it, though his hand slips from time to time and we get black kids answering Conrack's questions in plainsong. The musical score sucks, so when the kids are out on a Halloween spree we have music that belongs in Robin Hood. The photography is good. The film hit a nerve. I was subbing as a teacher in elementary school in the South at one point. My wife at the time was a professor at UNC, Wilmington, and told me matter of factly how she was having lunch with her colleagues and some guy's daughter met him in the cafeteria and told him so enthusiastically about the new substitute teacher they had that day, and it was only after several minutes of conversation that she realized the girl was talking about me. I can't remember many moments in my life when I felt more pleased. Nothing is as exalting as seeing somebody's face light up when they learn something new and extraordinary. I've seen it in kindergarten kids and in Marines at Camp Lejeune, people wincing with pleasure at the dawning of a new realization. As Mel Brooks might say, "It's good to be da teacher." Conrack gets that idea across most effectively.