Art for Teachers of Children
1995, NR, 82 min. Directed by Jennifer Montgomery. Starring Caitlin Grace Mcdonnell, Duncan Hannah.
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Sept. 22, 1995
For Jennifer Montgomery, there is no question that the personal is political. First-time director Montgomery calls her autobiographical film Art for Teachers of Children a “boarding school melodrama,” but the issues the film raises ripple far beyond the walls of an educational institution. Using actors McDonnell and Hannah to portray Jennifer (based on Montgomery) and John (based on Jennifer's real-life dorm counselor Jock Sturges), Art for Teachers of Children methodically lays out the development of a sexual relationship between Jennifer and her counselor, who is 14 years older and married. Montgomery's film is not necessarily an indictment of her counselor or his involvement with her. In fact, his interest in photography and teaching her how to take pictures initially provide Jennifer with a way to channel her teenage anxieties. As she points out in voiceover, John's photographing of the adolescent girls in the dorm “performed an important service. We needed to know that we existed.” Jennifer is the one who offers to pose with her shirt off, and she is the one to ask him to be her first lover. However, John's initial rejection of her request (mainly because she is “underage”) lasts only a matter of hours before he agrees to have sex with her in his darkroom. Their relationship develops from this initial encounter until a loose-lipped classmate reveals their secret affair. John's arrest for trafficking in pornography some 20 years after their relationship and Montgomery's subsequent refusal to cooperate with the FBI in an investigation of the case prompt further reflection from the director. Montgomery's calm, eerily detached voiceover enhances the stark remove of the images and the spare, rather stilted dialogue between the characters. The film is more successful in examining Montgomery's own attitudes towards her sexual awakening than it is in commenting on censorship issues and the state of the NEA, issues that Montgomery has claimed in interviews are at the heart of the film. While these concerns certainly can be inferred from the film's narrative, their existence (communicated in part through actions of an adult Montgomery at an artist's colony) may be obscured simply by underlit scenes and the graininess of the 16mm film stock. Despite these few technical detractors, Montgomery's first feature promises to provoke debate. Less a confessional work than a broad rumination on the politics of sex and censorship, Art for Teachers of Children raises provocative questions about the oft-disputed fine line between art and pornography, consensual sex and rape.