Fifteen years ago this week I turned in my last set of college grades, and I’ve never looked back. Teaching wasn’t for me—I still cringe when I think of myself at a podium, hemming and hawing—but I have plenty of friends who’ve made it their life’s work. I doubt many of them would consider their profession well-represented in the movies. Not that there aren’t plenty of lecture halls: there’s never been a better place for a lazy screenwriter to unload a bunch of exposition. And hundreds of movies deal with the student experience, relegating the professor to the role of ice-cold taskmaster (think John Houseman in The Paper Chase). But when I try to think of movies that actually delve into the world of college faculty—as, for instance, Mary McCarthy did in her wicked satire The Groves of Academe—I mostly draw a blank.
When movies do focus on college professors, they’re usually about something other than the character’s work, which may be used as a plot device but is almost always treated with a whiff of contempt. Take The Savages, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a frustrated theater professor in Buffalo who’s trying to finish an esoteric book on Bertolt Brecht. Or Smart People, with Dennis Quaid as a frustrated English professor at Carnegie Mellon whose book on the closing of the American mind is snapped up by Penguin; the editors clean up its tendentious prose, retitle it “You Can’t Read,” and hope to launch Quaid as the latest cultural theorist people love to hate. Or The Visitor, with Richard Jenkins as a frustrated economics professor whose department sends him to New York to deliver a paper he coauthored with a younger colleague but didn’t actually research or write.
One movie that does get down and dirty in the world of academia is Chen Shi-zheng’s Dark Matter, which begins a weeklong run today at Facets Cinematheque. (The movie, which ends with a shooting spree in a lecture hall, screened here in April 2007 as part of the Asian American Showcase festival; nine days later the Virgina Tech massacre banished it to commercial limbo.) Ye Liu (Purple Butterfly) plays a docile but brilliant Chinese student, Lu Xing, who arrives at a California university to pursue a PhD in astrophysics under his idol, Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). The renowned author of the Reiser Model of the universe, the professor knows firsthand how quickly an academic star can fall to earth; years earlier, his own theoretical breakthroughs discredited the work of his academic mentor, and he reacts with anger and alarm when Lu develops a radical new notion that may send the Reiser Model into the same dustbin of history.
I think I know this guy. Though I operated at the bottom of the academic food chain and did my damnedest to steer clear of department politics, I spent enough years teaching to see people whose professional status and personal esteem was tied to their ideas and who would fight to the death defending them regardless of their relative merit. There’s something pathetic about it, because an academic begins his career trying to advance the search for knowledge and sometimes ends his career trying to halt it. If you’re lucky, you might get tenure. But your ideas never will.