You know the scene. It's familiar enough to have become a cinematic cliché. The screw-up has to dig deep down to pass the big test or master some difficult skill. So the voice-track drops out, the music swells and hours of study or practice turns into 60 seconds depicting the Karate Kid learning Kung Fu, or sorority girl Elle Wood mastering the arcana of complex legal theory. In Groundhog's Day Bill Murray manages to pick-up French and jazz piano in under a minute of screen time.
Whenever I see a "learning montage" in a film, I think: Wow, my job is just too boring for film. The acquisition of knowledge may be needed for the plot, but actually showing someone learning would only impede the action. And this is pretty much how most of my students think about education. They know it's necessary, but it's only a prelude to getting to the good parts of their life story.
Just once I would like someone to make a film that showed the real process of learning. Of course you might argue that the epiphanic nature of story-telling makes all films about learning. True enough, I guess, although they aren't really about the process of learning.
But what if someone made such a film? Imagine illustrating all of the classical theories of learning: Plato, Locke, Piaget, Kohler... Better still, the film would be entirely in the student's point of view and catch every misstep and misunderstanding along the way.
One work that comes close to capturing what I mean is Constantine Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares. Instead of laying out his theory of acting, Stanislavski illustrates it by means of a fictional student, Kostya, moving through various lessons and exercises during his first year at the Moscow Art Theater. Kostya and the other acting students have to work through and abandon all of the false assumptions they have brought with them to class. Told in first-person, the story perfectly captures how a student's model of a subject changes over time. More importantly, it shows what a confusing, frustrating and lengthy process this is.
The 60-second montage, however, leaves all of this out. Indeed, the primary function of a montage in film is to condense time and space or to speed up the delivery of information: And much of what happens when a student actually learns something is a pretty interesting (and even dramatic) story in itself.