A lot of us have talked in recent years about movies and such that are good enough at presenting some historical period, techology or concept that they could be used as real teaching means. Something that a student could watch and come away with a pretty real hope that the viewer(s) would come away withsome basic competency in something that we've counted on schools.
Ideally, one would pair such viewings with instruction by a live human. But I'm only interested here in the ones that YOU think could do well enough on their own. This list is very heavy on war movies. I am more than ready to see that balance shift. This list is also almost entirely Anglo-American. There, too I am more than eager to see films added to balance that out.
We live in a time when many of us are losing our faith in schools. And where there is more respect both for learning after leaving school and for those who are not able to be in one regularly enough to learn in the ways that our society has taken for granted.
These are, educationally speaking, desert island movies. And let me say again, these are not to be held to the high typical standard of our brilliant circle. The acid test is does this piece combine entertainment value (call it watchability) with content well enough that viewers come away better informed than they would have been otherwise in some way that noticeably brings them towards being capable and competent citizens?
Please list them here and hopefully as I go I'll incorporate some or all suggestions in the body of the post. I'm HOPING that eventually your contributions will far outweigh my few feeble ones.
Obviously TED Talks have a special place here. In my opinion most documentaries don't. These days all too many of them are so seduced by the drive for a tidy narrative that they actually HURT understanding by forcing a clean, simple narrative, with Good Guys and Bad Guys. And then people like us have to deal with people who think "I know all about that. I saw the Discovery Channel Special." And that usually means that they're utterly incompetent to judge anything related to it at all.
That having been said, let me start:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Absurdity is one of the defining tells of a nimble mind. Here's a dose.
The Princess Bride
As far as I'm concerned, this movie stands alone as a brisk, watchable, funny, and remarkably high-speed tutorial in quite a lot of the key tools of critical thinking. The untrustworthy narrator. Ambiguity of language. The smooth, confident, and in some ways sincerely concerned sociopath who can sound so authoritative if you don't pay attention.
Yeah, it's funny, it's goofy. So are many films. But I know of no other movie that seems to have stimulated so much self-examination about clear thinking. And done it in such an easy to remember way.
The Middle Ages
The Lion In Winter
Not only for history of the period but on politics. Trust nobody. Even those you tryst with. Especially those you tryst with. Watch your ass. Plan. Prepare.
Robin and Marion
Companion piece to TLIW, if only for the additional exposure to a world where indoor heating is a joke, and other aspects of daily circumstances of the period among the "nobles", not to mention how little and how much that could mean.
Elizabeth I and II
Not perfect but it will sure as hell put names and faces and personalities to all those names and dates in the textbook. Five hours of this and, if done with any standard written teaching tools the whole period becomes and stays more real.
And let me take this chance to say that, by contrast, The Tudors is toxic shit in gold leaf and fancy perfume. It is worse than sometimes innaccurate, though it is that. It is fundamentally misleading about who these people were and why they did what they did. As part of a class where a teacher and ample written materials can counter the idiocies? Then, yes, go to, go to. Otherwise? Keep it away.
Shakespeare In Love
No, it's not perfectly accurate or trying to be. But it drops you into a world that is fundamentally different in more ways than a superficial gloss will notice. Rule of Law? Yeah, right. Torture as day to day thing? Of course. Being a spy for the crown? It's a contract job. Plenty of people have done it at some point or other.
Master and Commander
Beautifully shot, rigorously researched, solidly acted. And might just entice the viewer to check out the many, many books in this wonderful and potentially enriching series.
The life and world(s?) of Gilbert & Sullivan. Again we're seeing England through its performers. And a very different England it is. Wealthy. Smug. Extraordinarily capable and sometimes absurdly blind. And by this time thoroughly, profoundly mercantile, from street urchins to titled aristocrats.
Raise The Red Lantern
So historical. Such an ancient world of stone walls and inherited fiefdoms. All struggling to maintain control in a time of record players and modern eyeglasses and steam locomotives. Don't think that the existence of those things plays no role in the nature of rebellions this movie shows.
The Thirties and Forties
Brother, Where Art Though? with Matewan
Yes, the first is a film built of metaphors and poetry. But it's also an affecting and detailed portrait of a world and a time that don't get the attention they deserve. And both of them, while making myth of details, show a place and a set of values that was absolutely real.
Mephisto with Cabaret
Pre-Nazi Germany. Both focus on the arts scene but both give plenty of elegant and earthy details of the rest. Seen together they add emotionally resonant context to all those seemingly impossible parts of that world.
Saving Private Ryan
World War II combat. By people who can't get shot two dozen times and merely grunt in manly fashion and be back jumping freight trains by a week later. Detailed. Specific. A true ensemble cast. And a portrait of a time and a place and series of decisions that continue to matter now.
The Fifties and Sixties
Mad Men is cute and all but this is a much less prettified view of those days of the man in the grey flannel suit.
Not perfect but it lays out the circumstances, the players, and many of the dynamics of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the surrounding Cold War.
The Space Race
(This is more useful than some of you might think. Remember how many kids still have never been to any place with more than two hundred thousand people. Or, even worse, have only gone for a weekend visit or passed through the bus station and have no fucking clue and think that they know all about what cities mean. Or, for that matter, deep country.)
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
Mortgage scams, megacatering. Urban sprawl. Gender stereotyping. Yeah, this one's a damn good start. I suspect that it could also be a superb teachable moment for the weakness of rule of law in many modern Asian cities.
Just about everybody disses this movie. But ya know what? It's a superb overview on living in the city on no fucking money. Screwing around and scraping by. The kinds of lives that hundreds of millions live every day and the media and schools almost never portray sympathetically. Go ahead, laugh.But you just might learn something.
The Ice Storm
Our world since the late 1800's has been largely under the thumb of a certain kind of upper middle class, suburbs-living, educated, ambitious class of people who truly are, in their ways, cosmopolitan and intelligent, largely and quite intentionally out of self-interest. This film does a sympathetic but, in the end, largely unforgiving job of showing their world.
Tampopo with Taxing Woman, followed by Diva and Mona Lisa
We start with two films about Japan in the eighties. Both by the same director, with related feels and perspectives. But showing very different worlds. Then films about the grimy undergrounds of England and France in the same general times.
All four beautifully made, with the kind of writing, acting, and visual production to can get even an audience that doesn't know these times or places emotionally connected to what they are seeing. And coming away with a collected view of rough lives lived under different terms than the ones that we're used to.
Life in Afghanistan through the eyes of (mostly) reasonable (by the standards of their context) people trying to create functioning lives in an implacably dysfunctional context.
It's just a joke, right? I don't bloody think so.
Again, this movie shows the kinds of lives that are all too rarely shown well from, more or less, the inside. This movie exaggerates. But not all that much. And I suspect that for the right social studies teacher it provides easily a dozen superb teachable moments. And for once the cool bad guys come away looking like the shitty-ass scumbags that they are and DON'T get away with it. But nobody gets away clean. Good lesson, that.
The West Wing
Many of you will squee with glee at this. Some will rage with loathing. Whatever you think of its politics, it lays out congressional procedure and a hell of a lot more of the operational side of modern American politics. Most people find the pretty people and crisp writing makes it easy to watch so getting two or three hours in is pretty easy and that's enough to cover a hell of a lot of ground.
WHERE DO WE GO NOW?
I know that it's got sappy elements and a soft soap ending. But this is a troubled and troubling world shown here. And the more time passes the more impressive I realize that portrayal to be.
Not fun, not glamourous, all too possible. Important to discuss.