SPOILER ALERTS: THIS POST IS FOR TEACHERS WHO ARE LOOKING FOR FILMS FOR THE HERO’S JOURNEY. WE WILL BE EXPLORING THESE FILMS STEP-BY-STEP. THE FEATURE FILM FOR THIS POST IS ANGUS (1995)
With the start of the new school year, I thought I might explore some of the films we have used in Room 210 and Room 407 as a means of exploring the monomyth, or “The Hero’s Journey.” Two of the books we reference during our initial conversation around “The Hero’s Journey” are Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES and the Bill Moyers series of interviews with Campbell which became the book, THE POWER OF MYTH. Over the course of two to three blocks, students in Room 407 explore each section of the “Hero’s Journey, allowing time to process the part of it as we work our way to the whole. While many secondary teachers use this schematic to explore deeply stories with their students, the concept may be a new one for teachers just entering into the profession and their own learning communities.
There are hundreds of graphics and diagrams one might pull from a Google Image search. The one posted here is the diagram I have used for the past twelve years to vet out stories by way of the monomyth. Whereas there are also more than a hundred ways to analyze literature for for its bigger messages–and we visit these as well–it is the monomyth, I think, that builds in the real reader-to-reading and reading-to-reader connection by way of recognition of similarity. If our students fail to identify–at least in some small way–with a main character of a literary piece, deeper engagement with the text is probably not going to happen.
If the character and the story have not sparked an interest, the student will be looking to SparkNotes.
What I thought to do this week (August 17th-21st) is to share with you the films that we–as Golden coined the term–“read in the dark” in Room 407. This is different from “watching a movie” which allows story to pass the visual plane only to be lost to other distractions soon after. Reading in the Dark with The Hero’s Journey as a lens gives us something to look TO vs. look AT when considering a film as text.
We have to start at the beginning. After going through the steps of The Hero’s Journey, our students read “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune,” a short story from YA Master Chris Crutcher’s ATHLETIC SHORTS. This short story spawned the neo-classic, coming-of-age film, ANGUS.
This is a film I used to show in my first two years of teaching if I knew I was going to be out of the building. I apologize for this now, assuming the statute of limitations for leaving a film with no purpose for the pupils has passed. Looking more closely at the film, I recognized the gem that the story and the film are by way of hitting every single marker of The Hero’s Journey.
Now, the film is PG-13. Your district may have some rules about ratings. Many do. These are teen-aged characters who use a little bit of teen-age language. There is a little suggestiveness. I offer this film to you because we use it. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t had complaints about the film, but the curricular connection is iron-clad with this film as it serves as one of THE best high-interest, high-return by way of lesson films we might explore in the room.
Let’s walk through the steps of The Hero’s Journey together. While the short story uses some great language regarding dying and going to heaven and unveiling the goddess, we will be working with the film version of Crutcher’s story:
***World of Innocence***
Angus is an incoming freshman. He is good at science and fair at football. He lives with his over-protective mother (his father died during his birth) and his absent-minded but wise grandfather. The homelife is stable except that there is a wedding being planned that is somewhat distracting to Angus’s transition into higher learning. There is a small story arc involving an opportunity to attend a magnet school wherein Angus could go with students who were more like him (serves as a good “refusal of call” coming up later.
***Call to Adventure***
Angus is elected as a Freshman Winter Ball King as a practical joke played upon him by his nemesis, Rick Sanford. The role of the dragon here is played with a mix of painful-yet-perfect by a young man who would go on to star in the television series, Dawson’s Creek. The dance does invite an opportunity for Angus to dance with Melissa, a young woman Angus has assigned the role of the “the ideal” or “the goddess” but don’t get distracted here. Our goddess is yet to be revealed (masterfully by the directors who put her in all white with radiant sunlight behind her).
The Call to Adventure is forecast in the opening scenes wherein Angus relates–as narrator of the film–“All I want is my moment.”
***Refusal of Call***
Of course, Angus is going to have his moment of refusal. He knows this election is a joke. He cannot dance. He cannot find a black tux wherein he has a fit exclaiming “I want NORMAL! I want SOCIALLY-ACCEPTABLE!
***Supernatural Aides and Guides***
Angus has many supernatural aides and guides in the film that are not there in the original twenty-five page short story from the book. Let’s remember that these guides are usually smaller, exiled, and just a little bit irritating or irritable. We get Angus’s best friend, Troy, a smaller person obsessed with Green Day and Cindy Crawford. There’s Angus’s grandfather whose memory is slipping but not for sage advice regarding Super Man which echoes sentiment presented in Crutcher’s original story. There’s Angus’s mother whose smothering is a direct result of treatment she may have herself received as a young child in school. And, we cannot forget Melissa, who has the power to receive or reject Angus in the pursuit of his moment.
***Crossing the Threshold***
We see Angus make this step over into the “unknown world” with his first dance lesson. This, along with the visit to the Big and Tall Tux Shop, provide some comic relief to the cultural ritual that is getting reading for anything social in high school.
***The Belly of the Whale***
I once had the opportunity to ask Chris Crutcher about consulting the monomyth for the original story or the film. The references were not there. So, it is a mix of cosmic and coincidental that the time frame wherein Angus learns of his appointment as king to the arrival at the ball is right at that three-week time span (remember that elements of three are very important in this step as found in Jonah and Jesus stories from the Hebrew and the Greek literature). During this three-week time, we see how Angus is truly penned-in by life as he prepares to make his way to the ball.
***The Road of Trials***
I usually ask students to cue in on three to four trials. This is the Dora Approach to this stage of the journey. It also gives us something to report back on here by way of writing (you can build in a nice 1:3:1 response–not that I do these–right here as you explore trials). Remember The Karate Kid and Hercules had more than three-to-four trials, so this section can stretch out a bit.
*The Burgundy Tux
*Lack of Dancing Skills
*The Distraction of Grandfather’s Wedding
*The Distraction of the Magnet School Interview
*The Distraction of Melissa as the Divine/Goddess
*The Distraction of the Dragon
***Initial Dragon Battle***
Rick Sandford is one of the best examples of teenage bullies in film. He never lets up. Cast expertly with two cronies who follow him everywhere, he is easily identified within the film. Rick never lets up on Angus while Angus is working toward the big dance. A series of pranks coupled with a series of examples of how Rick’s life continues on in perfection are a part of the film.
This is a HUGE spoiler alert. Turn back now. Troy succumbs to the pressure of the dragon (a good opportunity to talk about responses to the dragon by way of archetype–a conversation for another time) and he gives Rick something that could cause Angus some embarrassment in exchange for Rick’s quiet promise not to hurt him anymore. This is a form of “dismemberment” as we see Angus and Troy separately for a rare moment in the film. Dismembered, bad things happen to both characters.
In the midst of this separation, Angus’s grandfather passes away right before his own wedding. But not before dispensing some really sage advice regarding Super Man.
When Angus and Troy are reunited, there is a great moment between Angus and Troy that reveals the stuff of personal pain and response to the teenage condition so many feel during their fours years in high school. We see Angus denying the desire to go to the dance, citing that he needs to stop “wanting things so much.” The directors do a fantastic job of presenting the Hero as his lowest point and the crisp autumn leaves scuttling about the park at an empty chess table are the stuff of great cinematic symbolism.
***Meeting with the Goddess***
Here, we get a two-fer. Grandfather’s fiance returns some of her deceased lover’s belongings. . .and one of them just so happens to be a box for Angus. Okay. . .I cannot spoil this. The reveal here–with its own musical bedding–is just too good. But, right before the dance, the interviewer from the magnet school arrives at the door. This scene allows Angus an opportunity to to explore what he has learned about life from a science experiment he has been working upon in advance of the interview (you’ll love what the director has been doing with this symbolism all through the film right up to the final battle with the dragon wherein blue and red lights flicker).
***Atonement To/Recognition of The Father***
Here, we see Angus swinging the coat about his shoulders as he prepares to leave for the dance. His delaration, “There IS no NORMAL” is a return to an argument he had with his grandfather in the park regarding what it means to be “normal.”
There is a turn here as there is no father within the film. The only one referenced is Troy’s father who is a dentist. When looking at high school films, one might look to the principal as the ultimate authority figure. And in this film, it is the principal who finally announces Angus as the “king and queen.”
This is where the the film takes a minor turn to allow Angus and Troy to meet at the dance and to be reconciled to one another. Like the short story, the crowning of Melissa and Angus is part of the completion of the prank committed by Rick and his friends. The video of Angus plays and Angus and Melissa run from the gym to have an interaction that DOES come from the original short story.
***The Ultimate Boon***
Angus has his dance–in the middle of a big blue circle while wearing his red tuxedo (I don’t want you to miss this powerful symbolism throughout the film). The song, a middle-90’s hit from the band Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You” is a beautiful musical bed for this moment. It gets missed in the noise of traditional soundtracks as simply a “slow song” but the lyrics and the message of the song are tailored for what is happening on the gym floor.
***Refusal of Return***
Of course, Rick is not going to let this moment go by without a challenge. Here, we see Angus with this crown and with his moment and with his spotlight to give a grand speech before the crowd regarding what it means to “be normal.” The slow clap comes soon after and Angus walks away as the king.
***The Magic Flight***
Angus gets a chance to walk Melissa home from the dance. In this moment, we see Angus lend Melissa his tux coat in the chill of the approaching winter. Okay. . .I don’t want you to miss this symbolism. “Fade into You?” Angus has cloaked Melissa–clad in the blue dress to match the school colors–in the coat of his own color. She is now a blend of two worlds (this is coming up).
In the midst of his speech, Angus rescues Troy and reconciles him back into the friendship that sustains them both. Angus “rescues” the misfits of the school by pointing out the many ways that we are not “normal.” Angus “rescues” Melissa from having to be one way in order to meet some ideal of the culture.
***Master of Two Worlds***
Not to be missed here. There’s Blue and there’s Burgundy. Angus’s rejection of Jefferson comes of the power of having options and not having to run to one to escape the oppression of the other. He decides to stay at his own school and he cites the advice of his grandfather in the final narration. He ponders whether or not Melissa might “really like him.”
***The Freedom to Live***
In the final narration, we see Angus walking off with coat and crown, saying, “I had finally had my moment. And I heard my grandfather saying, ‘Now go have another.'”
This is a longer post. This is a lot to unpack to introduce what we do and the films we choose to draw out the monomyth. We’ll explore another film tomorrow and through this week to give readers six ready-for-the-secondary-classroom films that serve as good markers for The Hero’s Journey.
There is plenty of charm and humor we did not share from ANGUS. I hope that this is a story and a film pairing that more and more students can see. Unfortunately, because of licensing agreements with the bands on the soundtrack, you can only get ANGUS on VHS. I have three or four copies that I use for each block that meets in Room 407 so we don’t have to deal with rewinding issues.