Friday, February 15, 2008

Hollywood depictions of academics

What's the best film ever made about academic life? It seems like there have been so few.

For my money, the best is "Altered States" (1980). While technically a sci-fi/horror flick, this is a rare vision of the promises and limits of academic life. Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) theoretically has it all. He's a tenured Harvard professor who publishes regularly and occasionally sleeps with his undergrads, but he's bored, dammit! He studies the concept of consciousness and just knows that there's more out there that we don't yet understand. So he pushes the limits, doing field research which often involves sitting in a flotation chamber and taking psychoactive drugs generated by indigenous peoples in remote mountainous regions of Mexico. He gets lectured by his colleagues on his responsibilities to science and to his family, but he keeps pushing it anyway, discovering a link to the consciousness of hominids who walked the earth millions of years ago. Ultimately, he loses himself (literally) in his work, unable to keep his head in the here and now. Only the love of his ex(!)-wife, a fellow academic, pulls him back to the present.

And then, of course, there's Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, who is reappearing in theaters this spring. Look, "Raiders" (1981) was a classic, "Last Crusade" (1989) was a most enjoyable romp, and "Temple of Doom" (1984) was kinda stupid and offensive. That said, I just never bought Jones as an academic. Sure, he's devoted to his work and his students love him, but his passions obviously lay elsewhere. Recovering antiquities and preserving them in museums is field research for an archaeologist; killing Nazis is not, and that's what he spends much of his time doing. It's a great hobby, of course, but no self-respecting department would grant tenure for that.

A few others come to mind. "Wonder Boys" (2000) was an enjoyable look at faculty life. I have to admit that I never saw the film adaptation of "The Human Stain," (2003) but the book by Phillip Roth was excellent, and did a nice job portraying the professional environment of a liberal arts college.

What other good ones are out there?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why I am not surprised you would like Roth?