Davis Guggenheim and me

I have to confess that the real reason I wanted to interview Davis Guggenheim was not because I thought his new documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ was superb. Actually I DID think it was superb.

Nor was it because I thought An Inconvenient Truth was excellent — which I did. And for which he won an Academy Award.

No, the real reason I wanted to interview him was that his documentary It Might Get Loud is one of the best music documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s a beautiful mix of character development, history, imagery, setting, all leading to a great guitar showdown with Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge. I was so impressed with the storytelling aspect of the movie that I haven’t gotten it out of my mind.

So when I got to the hotel where I was supposed to meet him and talk about school reform and his newest documentary, I arrived early. That meant I got to see him interact with other reporters and photographers, take calls, deal with PR people. He was no diva. He looked people in the eye, answered each question patiently — even the ones he’s already answered a thousand times.

When the interview began I told him how much I liked Waiting for ‘Superman,’ and he politely thanked me. But I soon brought up It Might Get Loud and the storytelling quality to it, and we were suddenly talking very animatedly about different parts of it, about the essence of storytelling, about why stories matter. Oh my. Then we went down to 5th Street in downtown San Diego to take some photos. We never did stop talking about storytelling.

Which, of course, made it worth the wait.

I have heard criticisms of the ‘Superman’ movie — that it is supposedly anti-teacher, that it sets charter schools up as the heroes, that reformers like Michelle Rhee and the rubber rooms where teachers waiting to be disciplined are already gone, so it’s already out of date, that it didn’t take into account the learning environment in students’ homes.

 I didn’t see it as anti-teacher. My kids had mostly great experiences with their public school teachers. I saw it as anti-incompetent teacher, and anti-tenure so it was impossible to get rid of bad teachers. My kids had a few of those, too, and the schools were stuck with them.  And I say that as a tenured professor. 

I also didn’t see it as pro-charter schools as much as it was pro-reformers who were working to make things better. As for the elements in the movie that no longer exist, well, that’s what happens with a non-fiction story. You tell the best available version of the truth at the time.

For stories to work, there have to be protagonists and antagonists and characters who want to accomplish something but have impediments keeping them from getting what they want. That’s the case for It Might Get Loud, as it is in Waiting for ‘Superman.’ Unfortunately, the characters in ‘Superman’ were the five children who simply wanted a better education. There were plenty of things keeping them from getting what they wanted. Including a lottery. 

Their futures were on little balls with numbers on them, coming out of a tumbler. Who wins, who loses, determined by a casino-type game. Futures based on luck. I left the theater wondering why this was okay in this country.

Possible new name for this documentary? It Might Get Sad.