A Teacher (2013)
Written & Directed by Hannah Fidell
There is a movie called A Teacher. I want you to read that sentence again, so in case you’re like me and your automatic reaction to instructions is to ignore them, I will type it again, forcing you to:
There is a movie called A Teacher.
Here’s why I like that sentence—the most you can say about the movie A Teacher is that the person the filmmaker shot the most footage of was playing a teacher in this movie about a teacher that is called A Teacher. Nothing could ever be more literal. I have no idea what writer-director Hannah Fidell was going for with her title, but she has achieved the strongest connection in history between a piece of art and its title—A Teacher is most definitely 75 minutes of a teacher.
Here’s what ‘happens’ in A Teacher:
[Ed. note: Spoiler Alert]
A female teacher is in her class.
The teacher has sex with a male student.
This happens several times.
She is in a bar texting him.
She has a roommate.
The teacher and student go on a trip together to his parents’ ranch.
They have sex.
She worries about them getting caught.
They have more sex.
She starts getting upset and the male leaves.
She frantically drives to his house that night and in an anxious frenzy goes to his window to talk.
The student’s dad comes outside.
She listens to a voice mail that implies it’s over.
You guys think I hate everything, and that I’m hypercritical and all that jive, but go watch the movie and you tell me what the hell else happened.
It’s a relief that, this time, I’m not alone—some folks on IMDB are having the same problems with this movie I had (or, I guess, just watching the movie and reporting what happens). The positive reviews seem a little shady, and one of the negative ones even accuses them of being planted by the production company. Obviously, I have no idea if that’s true or not, but go read them. They’re interesting.
I’m fascinated by this movie. Not only is this movie ‘not a movie’ (it’s only a movie because the lady who cobbled it together says it’s her movie, and not like, some raw footage she just found in a waste basket) but on top of that, it’s literally not anything. Like, in the case of Andy Warhol’s Empire, I get it—it’s an abstraction. It’s stupid, and nothing, but that’s the point—and that point is a stupid, nothing point, but that all becomes circular and the whole thing is kind of a comment on itself. And there are a lot of other movies that are nothing—Upstream Color and Wendy and Lucy come to mind, and of course Raging Bull.
But heres the thing, when I put those in a group and do the ‘which one does not belong?’ test, A Teacher is the answer. I’ve explained what Empire has to offer. And Raging Bull is an absolute film school in tone—despite not being about anything, it looks, sounds, and feels fucking amazing at times. Wendy and Lucy has a dog in it and you at least get the sense that Wendy cares about the dog and wants it to survive. And although nothing happens in Upstream Color, or makes any sense at all, at least the stuff that happens is weird—like, theres a guy recording sound effects by a pipe thing, and there’s a bag of dead pig babies and stuff.
A Teacher really takes my whole concept of “just a bunch of footage” to heart. It is unabashedly just a teacher. In fact, A Teacher is so much just a teacher that it is literally impossible to say anything about it of substance because the movie gives you no ammunition—so I guess, in an ironic twist, Hanna Fidell created an uncriticizable work. But I’ll try to criticize it anyway.
The obvious conflict in this film is that having sex with your student is illegal. If they get caught, there will be consequences—in the world of drama, we call those ‘stakes’. The higher you raise the stakes, the more exciting the drama. This is why Hollywood movies are about like, an asteroid hitting the earth, and not a dude trying to buy tickets online—getting those tickets might be tough, but it’s not really that big of a deal if the dude doesn’t. So, sure, the premise of A Teacher is at least a conflict—and as an audience, we assume that they will get caught, because, dramatically, that is the most interesting outcome. I mean, I’ll say this—they at least have to come close to getting caught. Or, I’ll take it a step further—something has to happen. Nothing does.
There is not even a hint—not even an attempt at a hint—to tell the audience anything about either of the characters. And I am not being hyperbolic or exaggerating—the movie does not even try to give you any information at all about why she likes this boy so much, why the relationship is worth the risk, or why she makes such a dumb decision in the end. The movie doesn’t try any of that with the boy character either. And there are no other characters—there are like five other people in it, but they are not characters.
For the kid, I guess we can maybe assume that since he’s a teenage boy he likes sex, and might find the teacher attractive, or the situation exciting, so thats why he does it. The only real evidence of this is that he does actually have sex with her, so we are forced to assume that’s the case. But hey—its not called A Student for heavens sake, so who even cares what he thinks? (Certainly not the filmmaker.)
Again, this is not The Teacher, this is A Teacher. The title really sums it up and lets you understand what you are in for: footage of a female teacher having sex with one of her students, and also footage of her sitting, talking, running, and driving. Her performance is weird, in that it seems pretty dramatic for somebody who is not doing anything. But there’s really no type of performance that could make sense in this movie, since nothing happens.
By now you must be thinking, ‘Fuck you man, something must happen.’ Well, okay, let me explain further—theres a thing in the movie about how the student will be going to a dance with a female student. The teacher is jealous. At the dance, the teacher sees them dancing, and is sad. She goes to the bathroom and the girl walks in. They use the sinks together and the entire time the teacher emotes really hard right into the mirror. Despite this, the girl never says, like, “Are you okay, Ms. Whatever?” which would be the common reaction to a fucking loon starring at you in the bathroom. It’s a really bad performance that just looks silly and weird. Jealousy is whats being expressed here, but, okay, so fucking what? This is the absolute depth of drama in this movie. Girl sees girl that her boy is dancing with and is sad. That’s it.
I’ll even up the ante here—the first time anybody even remotely acknowledges the stakes is 39 minutes in. (I made sure to check the time on it.) So for the first 39 minutes of a 73 minute movie, all we have done is set up the premise. And, what’s even funnier is that it’s just a simple acknowledgement, and not even remotely dramatic—a dude sees that the kid is on a ranch and the girl gets worried that they might get caught. But they don’t get caught. There is literally no problem at all. The guy didn’t even see her! What this means is the writer is trying to avoid the drama. She doesn’t even want the movie to have things happen in it. And thats why I love that fucking title.
This movie was accepted into Sundance. I’m not going to get all crazy about what a crime that is—it’s their festival and they can do whatever they want. Apparently, they want non-movies sometimes. Maybe it’s to make the decent movies look better? Maybe they needed more female entries? Who knows. To me, Sundance’s acceptance of A Teacher, and the sheer fact that the movie exists at all, is an endorsement of nothingness. It says that it is not only okay to strive to make your movie as uninteresting as possible, but that you can be rewarded for such.
I like that A Teacher exists because it’s fun to me that somebody (not just somebody, but anybody, any person ever) would watch A Teacher a think, ‘yeah, that’s something’. It’s the ultimate dupe of art. By the artist making it, they are automatically saying, “This is something, this is my thing I did”, and if they put it out there they are automatically setting a precedent that this has to be judged on the same plane as everything else, this piece has a contextual place within the entire history of the art form it belongs to. And that simple fact is what forces people to try to find some kind of value in it.
It’s very hard (for everybody else, not me) to dismiss a work like this entirely. They think that since this thing means enough to the artist that they released it, that there must be something there of some value. In fact, me talking about it right now automatically gives it a little value. I’m okay with that though, because, like I said, it’s fun—it’s funny to me that Hanna Fidell wrote words on a piece of paper that said like ‘a teacher is running’ or ‘a teacher is having sex in a car’. I’m sure in the script itself it was dressed up with emotional descriptions, but maybe not. Either way, it’s an amazing trick to be able to write nothing, get money to film nothing, employ some people to help create nothing, edit nothing, sound mix nothing, graphic design nothing, cut a trailer for nothing.