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An academic’s life is none too cinematic. Those employed in the fields of law, medicine, or finance may grumble at onscreen depictions of their trades—while, I imagine, privately preening at the attention—but their jobs are at least worth dramatizing. Who can find narrative momentum in the minutiae of peer review?
One way to make academics seem interesting is to thrust them from the ivory tower and into the world, as seen in films from the European art house to Hollywood. In Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” a professor of medicine (Victor Sjöström) steps out of his office and into a series of surreal encounters with memory and death. In “Arrival,” the linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has only begun her lecture before class is dismissed on account of extraterrestrial activity. Various onscreen “ologists” have their fun out there in the field: the paleontologist couple from “Jurassic Park”; the Harvard professor of religious symbology from “The Da Vinci Code”; and the blockbuster archeologist Indiana Jones, who began his movie run as a drool-worthy vision in tweed. The latest film in the franchise, released earlier this year, finds the old prof heading into retirement, his most unorthodox maneuver yet.
If a movie professor remains confined to campus grounds, he (it’s almost always a “he,” isn’t it?) must have a reason for doing so, something freakish: genius, say, or madness, or some combination of the two (see: “A Beautiful Mind”). Even then, campus is often a mere waystation. I might be the only one who preferred the first forty-five minutes of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” over the latter two and a quarter hours, before the titular physicist is whisked away from academia to turn his ideas into a weapon of mass destruction. Nolan stokes the fantasy of a self-consciously academic environment with all the necessary tableaux—oaken surfaces, chalk dust, the Socratic method—illustrating J. Robert Oppenheimer’s faith in campus life as the center of the universe. (In my experience, virtually every professor on Earth labors under a similar illusion.) During his graduate studies in Europe, young Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is absorbed in the breaking thought of his time, not only in physics but also in literature and the arts. In a montage, we see Oppie in the classroom; Oppie at a museum, in a face-off with Picasso’s “Woman Sitting with Crossed Arms”; Oppie at a chalkboard, at his desk, or turned away from it, smashing wine glasses against parquet floors and observing the scattered aftermath. This is academia as romance, independent study as origin story, and I, for one, was entertained. “Algebra’s like sheet music,” the elder physicist Niels Bohr tells him gravely, adding, “Can you hear the music, Robert?” Cue the strings. Later, as a professor at Berkeley, Oppenheimer works down the hall from Dr. Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), who, in high-waisted trousers and a variety of vests, gives Indiana Jones a run for his money. Oppenheimer’s classroom is initially near barren, which is to be expected when you’re “teaching something no one here has ever dreamt of.” Then, in a series of shots, we see a crowd gradually form—a star professor is born. (Ominously, the professor is preoccupied with what might happen when stars die.) As “Oppenheimer” tips into the forty-sixth minute, though, our hero takes his leave from the realm of theory and devotes himself to the admittedly far more spectacular imperatives of war.
Hollywood has recently discovered a new way to keep academics on campus without putting audiences to sleep: just “cancel” them. At the beginning of the new film “Dream Scenario,” Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is a man who inspires no passion. At the fictional Osler University, his classes are sparsely attended. Worse, he hasn’t published anything of note or even, maybe, anything much at all. He is merely a man with a job. “There’s nothing wrong with being just a professor,” a former classmate says. (I’m reminded of Larry Gopnik, the physics professor at the center of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” being told, “Doing nothing is not bad. Ipso facto.”) But Paul very much disagrees. He wants to be known, poor thing, and, this being a movie, relevance must somehow find him.
One day, he discovers that he’s been appearing in people’s dreams. The dreams are intense and extraordinary in the way that dreams can be, but the Paul of everyone’s unconscious remains, well, inert. His daughter dreams that the sky is falling, while Paul, rather than rushing to save her, or himself, continues raking leaves. “You don’t do anything. You’re just there,” an old girlfriend tells him, of a dream in which he strolls breezily by as she tends to a gravely injured friend. Word spreads from there—strangers are dreaming of Paul, too—and soon the press wants an interview. Paul doesn’t pretend to understand the dreams; he knows, in keeping with the ethos of our time, only that he ought to capitalize upon his minor celebrity. He might have written a best-seller and settled into a cozy gig as an opinion columnist, if not for what comes next. The dreams about him change. On the upside, Dream Paul is no longer so feckless. Unfortunately, he has instead become violent—menacing, choking, and bludgeoning his dreamers.
Cage has a documented talent for playing the “remarkable nobody,” giving off-kilter vitality to the dull, the generic, and the passive. But his last turn as a scholar, the faithful historian (and treasure hunter) in “National Treasure,” had a helluva lot more swashbuckling. In “Dream Scenario,” Cage is the consummate drab professor: gradients of gray, a receded hairline, spectacles over his squinting eyes. (The best scene in the movie takes place in the apartment of a young woman whose erotic dreams, starring an unusually proactive Paul, sour when she discovers that Paul’s real-life technique in the bedroom fails to live up to the fantasy.) In the course of the film, Paul transforms from a nobody to a somebody to persona non grata. The same apparatus that rallied around him as a curiosity soon recoils. His students “don’t feel comfortable” around him, and, when they prove unable to overcome their “triggers,” Paul is placed on a leave of absence.
The film posits itself as a parable of cancel culture, but the story’s premise removes the variables that would ordinarily lend intrigue to the proceedings. Paul’s alleged offenses are literally the stuff of dreams. We’re not meant to think highly of him, but we’re meant to think even less of an audience who shuns a man based on a shared experience that resides only in their heads. Paul is dumbfounded that an institution would take these concocted versions of himself seriously. “Dreaming is like a psychosis,” he says. “I have nothing to do with it.”
Public disgrace has come for movie professors before: Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” in which the narrative of a professor accused of racism takes an ironic twist, and J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” about an English professor undone by an affair with a student, have both been adapted for the big screen. (In a different register, Oppenheimer, too, faces disgrace, when the Communist sympathies he expressed during his campus days come to roost in Cold War America.) But those stories, set decades ago, predate the ripening of Gen X and the social Internet, which have brought handy new dramatic opportunities for screenwriters to seize. The first such example that I recall watching was Netflix’s 2021 series “The Chair,” in which Sandra Oh plays the recently appointed chair of the English department at a New England-y university, who is tasked with discipling a colleague and friend, Bill (Jay Duplass), after a clip of him giving an offhand Nazi salute during a lecture on Fascism goes viral. On the whole, “The Chair” serves up a facile, if droll, microcosm of contemporary literature programs. Its depictions of intradepartmental dynamics might appear truer to life than whatever “Grey’s Anatomy” cooks up in a given week, but the students—conspicuously diverse and wielding vague progressive contrivances—are straw men assembled from hand-wringing opinion pages. The viewer understands the salute to have been a gaffe, ill-timed and unwise in the way that certain professors—popular, unkempt, and, yeah, sorry, male and white—are sometimes permitted to be. A gaffe, we can agree, is not a fireable offense, but what can an administration do when the Internet does its thing, much less when students have feelings?
The portrait of a cowed institution has little in common with the reality of campus politics. The truth is that a university, like any other institution, chooses which complaints it will hear, whom it does and does not want to protect. How stark that has been of late, as campus leaders pursue their own students and faculty for pro-Palestinian sentiment, a position that, for decades, has seemed more verboten within academia than being a sex pest. Yet an errant verisimilitude—film’s prerogative—doesn’t quite address what’s at issue. The problem with the stock scenarios of hyperreactive youths and the Pauls and Bills who unnerve them is not that such persons do not exist but, rather, that the people writing them seem incurious about the heart of their antagonism.
Another cancel-curious new film, Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure,” but it opens with a scene of its own creation. Its protagonist, Professor Thelonious (Monk) Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright, has issued a provocation to his literature seminar in the form of a potent epithet: “Nigger,” emblazoned on his classroom whiteboard. The slur may not be irrelevant given the day’s lesson on Flannery O’Connor, who authored the short story “The Artificial Nigger,” among other works. Naturally, though, nobody in class has thoughts on the reading. The students are fixated, instead, on how that word makes them feel (hint: “uncomfortable”).
In my few years as a professor, I can’t say that I haven’t at times felt the slightest bit like Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), in “Tár,” who, during a master class at Juilliard, is quizzical, then astonished, then demoralized, then enraged by her students’ refusal to sit with a work of art on aesthetic terms. As she sees it, youngsters these days conceal their bad taste by obsessing over identity politics. Tár is galled by one student in particular, a self-identified “BIPOC pangender person” who shrugs off Johann Sebastian Bach, citing the composer’s “misogynistic life.” (Perhaps Tár would feel buoyed by the news that her dear Bach nevertheless surpassed nine million monthly listeners on Spotify.) I assigned this scene as homework last month during an English course I’m teaching on intergenerational strife. On discussion day, I braced for impact. The scene is heavy-handed, verging on crude, in its betrayal of what the doctoral candidate Asa Seresin (in a work I also assigned to the class) has described as a “seething contempt for the spoiled, ineffective, self-obsessed Gen Z archetype.” I was curious to hear what my students thought about the scene less as a mirror held to their own experiences than as a study in the parodic treatment of “kids these days.” I am not one of those professors who indulges in public anecdotes about students, but suffice to say I found our version of intergenerational encounter—millennial to Zoomer—full of good faith and good humor.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but in “American Fiction” the opening scene’s portrayal of kids these days serves a narrative purpose: Monk is pressured into taking a leave of absence from the university, allowing the plot to abandon his academic endeavors in favor of his literary ones. In both the film and the novel from which it was adapted, Monk writes esoteric novels that, his agent tells him, would sell better if they were “Black novels”—as in, novels about gangs and inner-city folk written in eye dialect. Monk does, in a way, surrender to market forces, spewing out a “gritty” novel that drives the publishing industry wild. But “American Fiction” dulls the thrills of its source material. “Erasure” is a novel about an English professor who would kindly like to be excluded from race as a project of meaning-making until, like a man possessed, he is overcome by it. “American Fiction,” blunting Monk’s ambivalence, is a pleasant enough film about a professional writer with a righteous grudge against the Tyler Perry-industrial complex. The film asks why publishing sees Black authors as a monolith and permits itself a monolithic answer. “Erasure” thinks that question is something of a waste of time. “It used to be that I would look for the deeper meaning in everything, thinking that I was some kind of hermeneutic sleuth moving through the world,” Monk narrates in the book, “but I stopped that when I was twelve.”
Musings, digressions, asides—figuring out how to convey the stuff of thought is one of cinema’s definitional challenges, but don’t tell me that the pondering can’t look good. The “life of the mind” may have diminishing purchase in reality, but cinema can prolong the fantasy, with or without the theatrics of cancel culture, so long as the filmmaker has the audacity to make it interesting. For an exquisite portrayal of academic life, I recommend “Losing Ground,” the 1982 film by Kathleen Collins, centered upon Sara (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor—and, blessedly, not a man—who is writing a paper on ecstatic experience. Sara begins the story in a lecture hall, but she is gradually pulled from her too-comfortable routines of rumination—in her office, in the library—which have so far failed to yield any breakthroughs on her project. She follows her artist husband to a retreat upstate, in the hope of jostling her ideas loose by letting loose. In one scene midway through the film, she wears a bright dress and a flower in her hair, a sort of vacation drag that she seems to hope might manifest a revelation. Gorgeously shot and studious about its people and places, the film takes a keen interest in the professor’s life as equal parts intellectual and libidinal and pedagogical, both frustrating and full. “I want to understand what it feels like to see something that has not yet happened,” Sara tells a psychic whose insights are underwhelming—yet another failed search. “What am I looking for?” she asks. “Losing Ground” proves that the question is film-worthy. ♦