(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in May 2010)
The campus novel has been around in American literature for quite some time. Some critics have pointed to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel Fanshawe, published in 1828, as the first piece of American fiction that deals with campus life. More recently, British writer David Lodge has made a career out of penning academic novels with thinly veiled depictions of well known British and American universities, as well as fictional versions of actual professors. (One recurring character in his novels, Morris Zapp, is clearly based on literary critic Stanley Fish, and Fish has apparently embraced the caricature.) American author Philip Roth has also written several novels set in academia, two of which have been adapted into films. The academic novel has even started to grab the attention of literary critics in books such as Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents.
Like the academic novel, the academic film also provides a venue for using the mimetic device of fiction to explore certain aspects of higher education. When most people think of Hollywood’s depictions of academia they are more likely to think of frat-house comedies such as Animal House, Old School, and American Pie Presents The Naked Mile, or maybe sports films like Rudy, The Program, or Glory Road. However, there have been several films made about the university environment that go beyond fraternity parties and sports. In this particular list I evaluate some films that in some way try to address the meaning of higher education. These films explore issues such as the pressures of achievement, the promise of higher education as a means of social mobility, and the challenges and joys of college teaching. Henry Kissinger famously stated that “university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” That statement leaves many of us who work in academia nodding our heads in recognition. However, these films suggest a different story. They show the interaction between “town and gown,” as students and professors encounter the community outside of the campus, with varying results. They also illustrate the evolution of the American university over the course of the 20th century. With legal measures such as the G.I. Bill in 1944, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, students from working class backgrounds, women, and racial minorities have entered into institutions of higher learning in greater numbers. The tensions created by those changes appear in several of these films. While these may not necessarily be the most artfully made or compelling films overall, I do think they are the ones that are the most committed to taking a serious look at higher education. Viewed critically, they may even contribute to improving our understanding of how institutions of higher learning fit into American life and culture.
This film is based on Philip Roth’s 2000 novel of the same name. Coleman Silk (played by Anthony Hopkins) is a classics professor at the fictional New England school Athena College. Silk ends up being accused of discrimination by two black students after he makes a comment in class that gets misinterpreted as a racial slur. Through flashbacks to his early life, we discover that Silk is actually a fair-skinned black man born in New Jersey who left home after high school and decided to live the rest of his life “passing” for white, which adds a thick layer of irony to the discrimination proceedings. Roth’s novel was representative of an obsession with “the culture wars” in academic novels of the 1990s. These novels are littered with stories of discrimination, sexual harrasment and “political correctness” on campus. The film version of The Human Stain managed to keep some of that political content in the story, while also satisfying the Hollywood appetite for tales of love and romance. In this case, Silk takes up with groundskeeper Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) and their relationship aggravates the scandals brewing around him. Many people quibbled with the choice of Anthony Hopkins as Silk (Wentworth Miller played the young version), but he turns in a solid performance. I was ready to dismiss the glamorous Nicole Kidman as a college groundskeeper, but she also gives the character believable depth. To devoted novel readers, films can never satisfy the nuances possible in a long novel, but in this adaptation I thought the filmmakers made some good strategic choices about which parts of the novel to include to give it continuity on screen.
I can’t even pretend to be objective about this one. In the summer of 1996 I rented this film from the local Blockbuster and pored over it in the days before I started my freshman year at Morehouse College, where director Spike Lee attended school, and where much of the film was shot. Many of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs) were founded in the years following the civil war and emancipation. The film’s opening montage (accompanied by the famous Morehouse Glee Club) functions as sort of a photo essay that situates the history of black higher education within the larger black political struggle in the US. “Mission College” (and all the HBCUs that it is a stand in for) is represented as the product of these years of political progress. School Daze follows the exploits of a small clique of students over a long Homecoming Weekend. Laurence Fishburne plays “Dap” the resident campus radical who wants the college to take a stronger stance against apartheid in South Africa. The storyline calls attention to the complicated social politics of black colleges where university leaders subscribe to stuffy principles of respectability and uplift and thus discourage the kind of progressive activism seen on majority white campuses. While School Daze rubbed some black college alums the wrong way with its depiction of sexuality, color consciousness, gender politics, and class elitism, the film helped to push black college life into the American mainstream, and spawned the television series A Different World, with several cast members moving on to star in the show.
Focusing on the story of a reluctant genius who works at MIT as a janitor, Good Will Hunting explores, among other issues, the “town and gown” phenomenon which is particularly prevalent in Boston with its concentration of elite universities. (School Daze also explored this phenomenon in Atlanta in a hilarious encounter between Jheri-curled local Samuel L. Jackson, and a group of idealistic black college students.) Will Hunting is a janitor at MIT who is harboring a secret rare intellectual talent beneath his tough South Boston exterior. Good Will Hunting was one of those Oscar season films, and it has its share of corny Oscar bait moments. Fortunately Robin Williams salvages it from complete sap with his poignant portrayal of a psychology professor who foregoes the cutthroat world of the research university for teaching at a community college. (Though community college professors rarely have time to sit in the park having heartfelt one-on-one conversations about life and love.) It was Robin Williams’s character who was finally able to get through to Will and convince him to make the best of his rare talents. Though in usual Hollywood style the film devolves into just another banal story about how love conquers all, and its feeble attempts at class politics are undercut by its depiction of Will as an almost superhuman talent. However, the film also explores the sometimes fraught place of the university as a validating mechanism for knowledge and talent. And in his conversations with Will, Williams’s character warns us against the excesses of intellectual arrogance.
Higher Learning, directed by Boyz in the Hood director John Singleton, is an ensemble drama set in the fictional Columbus University in California. The film takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to campus issues including such hot button topics as alcoholism, date rape, homosexuality, racial balkanization, affirmative action and the exploitation of athletes. Ice Cube’s performance as the black militant Fudge (replete with Afro and fist-pick) was especially inspired. Fudge is a proud autodidact who thumbs his nose at the educational establishment and embraces knowledge as a tool of liberation rather than a ticket to a job on the white man’s plantation. In many ways his depiction is, right or wrong, a representation of the chip-on-their-shoulder arrogance that some attribute to black students on majority white college campuses in the affirmative action era. Ice Cube’s character revels in the role, and pushes the envelope by antagonizing his white classmates with all night parties and lecturing the young track star Omar Epps on how he is being exploited for his athletic talents. Michael Rapaport plays an awkward white kid from Idaho who is out of his depths at the school and gets taken in by Neo-Nazis who teach him of his true identity as a white male victim of multiculturalism run amok. The shooting spree that ensues hits a little too close to home given the spate of recent incidents of gun violence on college campuses and beyond. But then again, it’s just another example of John Singleton having his finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the nation.
I suspect that ambitious pre-law grads on their way to Harvard Law School have probably watched this film the same way HBCU-bound students watch School Daze. The Paper Chase depicts the fierce, cutthroat world of the Ivy League law school. James Hart (played by Timothy Bottoms) is a first year law student who finds himself up against the uncompromising law professor Charles Kingfield (played by John Houseman who reprised the role in the spin-off television series that played on cable in the 1980s). It turns out that the girl who Hart has the hots for just so happens to be Kingsfield’s daughter. The pressures of law school are brought home in the storyline of a classmate who struggles to keep up while trying to balance his rocky marriage and ends up threatening to commit suicide. Meanwhile Kingsfield’s daughter has seen enough of the insensitive law students and mocks Hart’s lawyerly aspirations. Between the struggles of his fellow students and his failure to win her over, Hart questions his own commitment to the profession. The maudlin conclusion to the film ends up being that thoroughly American story of having your cake and eating it too. You can be both a bloodthirsty lawyer and a sensitive humanitarian! Nevertheless, the film does illustrate some of the pertinent questions law students face as they try to hold their own in a highly competitive field.
Surviving Desire was directed by auteur Hal Hartley. I have to give props to my friend Robert Caputi (Adjunct Prof. of Sociology, BMCC) for telling me about the film and loaning me a VHS copy since the DVD version seems to be scarce. The film stars Martin Donovan as a college literature professor named Jude (a not-so-subtle shout out to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). Jude is infatuated with his student Sofie, played by Mary B. Ward. Like Jude and Sue of Hardy’s novel, Jude and Sofie in Surviving Desire are unable to resist the passion of doomed love. Jude is an eccentric professor who is fascinated with the work of Dostoevsky and who aggravates his students by speaking in literary quotations and asking open-ended questions. Sofie is an adoring student who “gets” Jude, and responds to him when he starts to pursue her. Some might find the stylized intellectual dialogue in the film a bit pretentious, but it is delivered with a style and humor that makes it work. It is also worth mentioning that the film is packaged with aHal Hartley short called “Theory of Achievement,” which is a rather prophetic early look at the cesspool of post-college pseudo-bohemian narcissism beginning to take form over in the old industrial lofts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The Blue Angel is best known as a star vehicle for Marlene Dietrich and a vivid portrayal of Weimar Germany’s decadent cabaret culture. Professor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is a strict and humorless schoolmaster who finds that some of his students are going to a local speakeasy called The Blue Angel. Hoping to catch the boys at the club, Professor Rath goes there himself and ends up seeing the vivacious cabaret performer Lola, played by Dietrich in a performance that launched her into an international star. Rath’s story of being consumed by desire for Lola is a well-worn storyline in academic fictions. The cerebral uptight professor who has spent his entire life disciplining the intellect finds himself being led into ill-fated decisions by the powers of desire and the failures of the flesh. The film also shows the harsh judgments of moralism in the academic community as the school administrators denounce Rath for his relationship with Lola, even though he intends to properly marry her. Rath later leaves his position at the academy and marries Lola, but they soon run out of money, and things begin to spiral out of control. Rath’s life ends in humiliation and ruin after an awful nightclub scene in his old college town. He dies clenching the desk in the room where he once taught. The Blue Angel is actually a link in a chain of academic fictions. It is based on a 1905 Heinrich Mann novel Professor Unrat. Also, Francine Prose’s academic novel Blue Angel was inspired by the film, and follows a similar narrative (with the temptress being a creative writing student instead of a cabaret performer). Lastly, both the film and Prose’s book are name-checked in another academic film, The Savages (2007), featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Brechtian theater professor.
Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx): “The trouble is we’re neglecting football for education…Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.”
The Professors: “But, Professor, where will the students sleep?”
Professor Wagstaff: “Where they always sleep. In the classroom!”
In January 2010 the University of Alabama Crimson Tide won college football’s national title. Its head football coach, Nick Saban, makes over $4 million dollars a year at the state-run school. The highest paid state employee in many states is usually the university football coach. As schools begin to layoff teachers, deny tenure and rely on adjunct labor to teach its students, athletic budgets and salaries continue to rise, and TV contracts and endorsements for college sports get bigger and bigger. Given this state of affairs the Marx Brothers look like prophets for their 1932 satire Horse Feathers. Groucho Marx plays Professor Wagstaff at the fictional Darwin College. The college is preparing for a showdown with rival Huxley College, and Professor Wagstaff hears that a couple of “ringer” football players might be available for hire at the local speakeasy. The storyline is strikingly prescient. The acquisitions of ringers in the guise of “student-athletes” is pretty much the norm in big time college athletics these days. The football game at the end is a gem of absurdist comedy stunts, the most memorable being a touchdown scored by hopping on a horse-driven chariot charging down the field. The Marx Brothers’ satirical take on the university and the excesses of college sports definitely makes this a film worth reconsidering in the current academic climate.
David Mamet directed this film adaptation of his controversial play. Yes, it is about sexual harassment. But it is about much more than that. I’m convinced that few films have attempted to explore the meaning of higher education with more intensity than Oleanna. The story is delivered in a series of escalating conversations between the professor named John (William H. Macy), and the student named Carol (Debra Eisenstadt). The stilted Mamet-speak that worked so well in Glengarry Glenn Ross gets a bit aggravating here, but stay with it. At the end of the first act is a deliberately ambiguous incident which Carol later uses to file a sexual harassment complaint against John. However, the play has a multilayered complexity that goes beyond a simple issue of who’s right and who’s wrong. Their dialogue began as a discussion about her grade which turned into an examination of the place of higher education in American culture, and the evolving expectations of students who spend increasing amounts of time and money to attend college. The conceit of the film is that this dialogue on education ends up being swamped and overtaken by the sexual harassment drama. This mirrors the way in which arguments over political correctness, as necessary as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, diverted attention away from the underlying systematic changes taking place in higher education. The whole power relationship between professor and student has changed, and John, who postures as a sort of intellectual maverick, is oblivious to the ways that he is really just another condescending blowhard of the old school, trying to lecture his way out of the accusations and constantly telling Carol to “sit down” while he explains things to her. As for Carol it is just as important that we see her as an entitled consumer of education as she is a woman who has (or has not) been wronged, and part of her arrogance comes from this newly discovered power that she is able to wield.
Fair warning: Wit is a bit of a downer. However, beneath the sad story of the main character’s struggle with cancer is a poignant tale about the meaning of the academic life and the value of knowledge and intellectual pursuit. From the beginning it becomes apparent that the main character, literature professor Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) will not make it out alive, and the film takes us through her excruciating last days in the cancer ward of a research hospital. However, Bearing faces death with, well, wit. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Margaret Edson, the HBO film (the title was W;t in the original play) follows Vivian Bearing as she prepares to undertake treatment for ovarian cancer. Bearing is a John Donne scholar, and the film weaves together the significance of Donne’s poetry and his examination of death in Bearing’s own struggle as she finds herself facing the very thing she has spent her adult life studying. Bearing is a welcome antidote to the dull parade of men behaving badly in the academic fictions of Philip Roth, David Lodge, and their male cohorts. Too many of these novels reduce female scholars to either objects of lust or conniving shrews. Faced with ovarian cancer and the bleak diagnosis that she will not survive, Bearing agrees to participate in a series of brutal treatments which will be of considerable value to medical research. In a twist, the young doctor assigned to take care of her was a student in one her classes, which were known for being among the toughest on campus. As she begins her treatments she is briefed about the severity of the treatments, and told that their findings will be a “significant contribution to knowledge” about ovarian cancer. Vivian’s response is that when it comes to the cancer treatments and to the pursuit of knowledge she will gladly take the full dose. Throughout the film, as the treatments become more excruciating, the phrase “full dose” becomes an affirmation of her commitment to the pursuit of knowledge in the face of difficulty, pain, and loss.