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'The Emperor's Club' riddle: Do uplifting movies matter at all?

November 26, 2002|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

Reviews of the new Kevin Kline film, "The Emperor's Club," have been lukewarm, marking off points for its old-fashioned style and theme, some wondering why anyone should care about its musty world of privileged boys studying for their upcoming roles in the ruling class. Based on a short story by Ethan Canin, "The Emperor's Club" is a morality tale about a prep school history teacher whose mastery in the classroom is challenged by one of his students, the callous, ambitious son of a U.S. senator.

The film makes a case for the enduring influence of a great teacher like Kline's Mr. Hundert even as it contrasts his cloistered idealism with the real-world success skills of the senator's son, who slinks through a dismal and dishonorable academic career before amassing a fortune in business as a prelude to running for office himself.

It's a story about the beauty of erudition and the exercise of power, and how the two things are unrelated at schools and in the world beyond. It's also about ethics and character and the value of ancient history and maybe a few other things, and the fact that it's about anything (besides good guys killing bad guys or trying to get a date) raises its sights above the average Hollywood studio picture.

Yet even as I noted its unfashionably quiet tone and serious intentions, watching "The Emperor's Club" reminded me that Hollywood, despite its low reputation among intellectuals, has over the years produced, along with all the James Bond films, teen sex comedies, sadistic thrillers and "Jackass," its share of thought-provoking and truthful films about ethics and history, social issues and justice, political corruption and war. Their lasting beneficial effect on society has been close to zero. And I don't understand this.

How is it that art, especially the most popular art, can be so impotent? It may be naive to look for a link between art and social improvement, but inside a theater I'm willing to give way to such naivete, at least for two hours. Watching "The Emperor's Club," I allowed myself the illusion that a story examining character and its importance might change the way people think about the value of teachers and how wrong it is when the good ones are passed over for promotions in favor of brazen careerists and public relations types.

It's all there in "The Emperor's Club," textbook case, the writing on the wall, the sorry way the world works. And I want to believe that after a few million people see this film, those in charge will be shamed into changing the way they behave and it will only be a matter of time before teachers' salaries across the nation are doubled and deceitful politicians voted out of office, virtue restored, and, you know, hooray for Hollywood, after all. Aren't stories powerful and great!

I know that none of this will happen. That's life in the real world, especially a world where a story like this doesn't even attract favorable attention from many critics, let alone the kids in the mall.

But still, I wonder, if a culture is measured to some degree by the content of its stories and myths, do we conclude, then, that we are living through a time when many of our best stories, even those reaching the high visibility of a major studio film, are truly marginal and disconnected from the culture at large? Or has it always been thus?

"It's like Mr. Hundert's position as a teacher," says Michael Hoffman, who directed "The Emperor's Club." "You dedicate yourself to something you think is important even though you know the world is a cold, dark place. You know going in that it's not going to connect with everyone."

The people who made "The Emperor's Club" say they have been heartened by testimonials provided by some middle-aged viewers who, after seeing the film, have said they wanted to take up or go back to teaching, while at the same time they were surprised to learn that younger audience members were not so concerned by the pivotal moment in the story when Sedgewick Bell, the senator's son (played by Emile Hirsch), cheats. If true, that would seem to be evidence of a new generation gap and suggest our society is seriously split over core values informing films in the first place. Is it possible that Dustin Hoffman's famous eye-glazing recoil at the word "plastics" in "The Graduate" plays differently today to audiences in which the children of Benjamin Braddock are searching in earnest for the next venture capital idea rather than questioning the presumptions of affluence as he did?

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