It’s not like she raped me, or anything: A response to The Lifeguard and A Teacher

I’d already watched The Lifeguard twice when I stumbled on a similar movie, A Teacher. Both feature prominently the sexual relationship between an older woman and a 16-year-old high school student.

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In the former, starring Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Leigh, a woman is experiencing a late 20-something crisis and running from a bad relationship with her editor. She’s a reporter in New York City. She returns to her hometown in Connecticut to recoup in her parents’ home and catch up with her high-school friends, none of whom have ever left.  

She takes up her old job as lifeguard for the pool in a large apartment complex. The relationship with young Jason (a very good David Lambert, who also co-stars in ABC’s lesbian family drama, The Fosters) is depicted as both companionable and highly erotic. The drama plays out in rather conventional and comic ways, with life lessons being learned, lives changing, indie rock playing on the soundtrack. Formally or stylistically, it won’t raise any eyebrows, although some, including me, might appreciate its wry self-awareness and fourth-wall breakage.

still from The Lifeguard

Yet I found The Lifeguard far more satisfying emotionally, and politically, than the art film, A Teacher, directed by Hannah Fidell. It’s her first feature and stylistically it’s certainly impressive, if not particularly original. The teacher, Diana Watts, is frequently followed by a handheld camera so that mostly what we see is the back of her head as she moves through the hallways or as she goes for a run on the streets and sidewalks of this fairly sunless and colorless Texas town.

Film still from A Teacher

This style of tracking shot has become so common in indie and art films that even the casual moviegoer is probably familiar with it. Apparently, it’s a selling point, as well. The above production still is the most common I’ve seen in reviews of the film and the one that’s used for the film’s poster.

I’m not quite sure who popularized the style, although Bela Tarr (Satantango up through his most recent, The Turin Horse) and The Dardennes get credited quite a bit. I’ve  seen it most recently and inappropriately in Paul Schrader’s awful The Canyons, but you might remember seeing it in The Wrestler, because borrowing from better directors is what Darren Aronofsky does best; in Gus Van Sant’s sublime Elephant, because he was deliberately imitating Bela Tarr and using it as a way to explore an unrecoverable trauma and the space it played out in; and even in Nicolas Winding Refn’s brazen and youthful Pusher, before he’d fallen in love with Ryan Gosling.

What it means and why it’s used is open to interpretation, but what it’s meant to me, at least in the instances when it’s used well, is to suggest the ultimate unknowability of whatever character or characters the camera is following while at the same time signaling intense interest, and even desire, from and through the camera’s “eye”. In The Dardennes’ shattering The Son, for instance, the camera can barely keep up with the father who spots the murderer of his young son and follows the suspect around in a frenzy, attempting to identify him. In those sequences, the interest and desire is doubled, but it’s implicit that the camera, and therefore the audience, can never match the intensity of the bereaved and angry character.

The camera in A Teacher is more the voyeur, or the dispassionate gaze. Whatever the viewer feels when looking at a character through this style, it’s still fundamentally objectifying in a way that most camera movements are not. The Teacher in this film is as much an object as the blue Caprice in the film of the same name, and shot in a similar way.

Although she’s initially presented as lacking affect, except when she’s around the hunky 16-year-old she’s fucking, Diana Watts falls apart as we watch, and so perceptions of her change from stoic professional to giggling cougar to stalker and then crazy bitch. All the while the camera maintains its relative indifference. The ubiquitous tracking shot is employed when Diana is moving through the hallways of the school and when she’s running. It has no agency but it does have a focus: we don’t learn much more about any of the characters other than what we’re presented with by the camera. Neither Diana nor Eric, the young lover, talks about each other when the other is not present, and they don’t talk about anyone else in detail. All that’s shown is Diana and her few minutes of running, her being at school, her obsessing over Eric and her fucking Eric.

The following screenshot is one of the few times the camera is static. It’s a conventional medium close-up, shot from overhead, of the couple naked in bed:

Film still from A Teacher

The only reference to a life outside of these vignettes, to any sort of backstory, is when Diana agrees to meet with her brother in a restaurant. The reunion is cut short when Diana grows agitated and abruptly gets up and leaves. We know that the brother is worried about her but we don’t know exactly why. We see that he had good reason in everything that follows as Diana oscillates between fear of being caught with Eric and obsession with her lust-object — fear of having it, fear of losing it, all at once. This unresolved tension drives her a little nuts until a sad and embarrassing encounter outside of Eric’s house as his father gets involved. The film ends with a phone call from the school. The principal needs to talk to her, and we know how that will play out, so, cut to black.

The choice of camera styles in A Teacher, unlike all of the examples mentioned above, functions to trap the character, whom we know very little about anyway, in a familiar transgression-punishment scenario, with very little wiggle room given to sympathize, empathize, or evaluate her actions in context. It’s a bit like letter-of-the-law instructions given to a jury. Yes, it’s an art film, but it’s a rather reactionary one. The implication seems to be that who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing is completely irrelevant, so when the hammer starts to fall, who really cares? How this stance relates to sexual transgression, I’m still thinking about. Director Fidell deliberately invokes anonymity, in the film’s title, in the character’s lack of a backstory, and in the shooting style, so there’s something at play here, but it was a fruitless study for me.

In The Lifeguard, when the sexual nature of Leigh’s relationship with Little Jason is revealed to authority figures, there are consequences — practical, emotional, relational — for her, for her friends, for Little Jason and his father, for his friends, for the school, for everyone. Leigh’s return to her home town looks like a multiple-car pileup. Although the film clearly has its own sympathies and ducks what might have transpired between Leigh and her parents once the secret is out, and Leigh gets off pretty easy, we as an audience can still make choices. The film isn’t at all interested in punishment.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Leigh’s friend, Mel, who is also the vice-principal of the school that Jason attends, confronts Leigh at the pool about the couple’s relationship. Mel is furious with Leigh and points out the untenable position Leigh has forced her into: She must tell and she must resign. All Leigh can do is beg her not to do that. Please, Mel, please Mel. She’s like a kid begging a friend or sibling not to tell on her to the parents.

Jason steps in to defend Leigh, and tries to blackmail Mel: He’ll tell the principal that she, Mel, has also been hanging out with students, drinking and smoking pot, which she has. Oh god, Oh god, both women say, then Mel apologizes to Jason: I’m sorry we got you into this. Jason, shirtless, skinny and saggin’, replies like the 16-year-old he is: I’m fine. It’s not like she raped me or anything.

There’s a beat, and then a close-up of Leigh as she realizes the absurdity of the whole situation and also of the relationship that, nevertheless, has changed her life. “Oh…god. Oh, god.”

“Fuck you, both!” Mel says and storms off.

No one’s off the hook here, particularly not the audience, who has already either been repulsed or drawn to (or both) the intense erotic scenes between Leigh and Little Jason, but also their rapport and mutual affection. (One of the rather radical things the film suggests is the often artificial line between adolescent and all-grown-up.) Their first sex scene takes place in a toilet off the pool. Jason follows Leigh in and pushes up close to her. They’re both wet.

“What’s going to happen?” he asks, voice low.

“You’re asking me?” says Leigh, almost laughing.

And then something does, something really happens.

Whether or not you enjoy the film probably has a lot to do with how you respond to the final shot, clipped below, as Leigh, driving away from town and back to adulthood, turns and looks directly into the camera:

Film still from The Lifeguard,

I was moved, but then I’m more likely than most to relate to the defense of the lost and fucked-up.

How often are we invited by Sundance art films to defer judgment?

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