August 8, 2009

Why We Won't Grow Up

Justin Katz

I wasn't sure what to expect when I responded to Michael Morgenstern's offer to grant me access to a digital copy of his movie, Castle on High, which is currently part of the Rhode Island Film Festival, with a screening tomorrow at the Columbus Theater. It was definitely more engrossing than I'd expected.

The documentary follows the race for president of the student council at Brown University, with three candidates who couldn't have been better scripted were the film fiction:

  • The overly involved and not immediately likable, umm, studious member of the council who looks the cliché of a villainous mastermind, but who is clearly the most qualified for the job.
  • The languorous and ever-tardy council member about whose attractiveness his acquaintances gush.
  • The Asian rocker dude who's never participated in student government and whose motivation for running is never explained to satisfactory degree.

Watching the film, the politically inclined over-thirty-something may still catch him or her self choosing a side according to adolescent criteria, rather than applying that elusive adult clarity and logic. The broader context of that tendency is the predictable impression that real campaigns and matriculated politics are not much different than those involving a campus governance body with no apparent authority. The random students whose extemporaneous commentary illustrates a profound superficiality, one suspects, are not that much worse informed than the grown-up electorate at large.

And that's where Castle on High is most revealing. Where are the teachers?, I wondered. Early on in the film, council members note that it seems all they do is debate parliamentary procedure; a faculty adviser could offer the perspective that mastering that aspect of governance is among the most important things they can derive from the experience. An experienced coach could have helped the, umm, studious young man to mold himself into a stronger candidate — a stronger person — with some obvious pointers (telling him, for example, how his repeated referral to the university president by her first name contributed to others' impression that he's pretentious*). Other instances that scream for instruction abound.

Independence is a critical lesson of college life, to be sure, but even as it brings back fond memories, watching the kids cavort to a children's song during a concert on the lawn jars against the knowledge that, during filming, others of their generation were participating in a military surge that would help to secure a nascent democracy in the desert of civilization's cradle. Not all young Americans need or should be soldiers, and there should be space for youthful indiscretion, but if we find the similarities between the practice democracy of a student council and the functional democracies that constitute Western civilization disconcertingly similar, perhaps the problem is that we're not teaching our children, or ourselves, that there's something greater toward which to aspire.

* I've been informed that calling President Simmons "Ruth" is a "Brown thing" that all students do, in which case it would have seemed odd for the candidate to differ — although his emphasis on personal conversations contributed to the impression. This was just an example, however, that I'd found particularly pointed, being uninitiated; the characterization of the student as "pretentious" isn't mine, but was voiced by several other students in the film, and professorial instruction could have been helpful. (I realize, of course, that snickers might be justified at the suggestion that Ivy League professors might have helped a student to avoid pretension.)

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telling him, for example, how his repeated referral to the university president by her first name contributed to others' impression that he's pretentious

Eh- it's a Brown thing. The entire school calls her Ruth.

Posted by: BH at August 9, 2009 8:25 AM
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