Professors on Film

I had the great pleasure of catching a matinee of Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages yesterday (winter break=weekday matinees=bliss). The accolades for the film are everywhere, so I’ll spare you my own review here. What struck me in off moments, however, was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, John—a depressed, overly-rational expert on Brecht and a professor of drama in Buffalo. Despite significant differences in characterization, I couldn’t help but think of Steve Carrell’s Frank, a depressed/suicidal, emotionally-distant “foremost expert on Proust” and a professor of literature in Little Miss Sunshine. I’ll admit that like most of America, I took a pass on The Human Stain, but having read Roth’s book, I can imagine the characterization of Coleman Silk that stems from his lifelong elision of his past, his dismissal from the college, and disturbing relationship with a cleaning woman decades younger than him. Let me guess: depressed? Unable to cope with the real world? [Sidenote: K. just reminded me that Dustin Hoffman’s professor in Stranger than Fiction is the exception here: quirky and a mainliner of coffee, but seemingly a relatively happy chap with an improbably large office. Of course, he studies living authors, and that might account for the difference. :)] And, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s probably necessary to note that all of these characters are literature professors.

This is by no means a comprehensive study; let’s instead call it an intuition with a few examples. But, dear reader, what on earth is going on with representations of professors?!! Who are these guys?! Does anyone really know them? Worse yet, did anyone ever take a class from one of them? I understand that professors, like psychiatrists, occupy a certain region of the American pysche, and thus cliches and caricatures are born. But there are two things, specifically, that chap my hide here.

First, it’s the equation of literary expertise and depression. More: John/Frank/Coleman each have a failing or failed relationship that they’re engaged/engaging in. Isn’t that just too Madame Bovary? Emma isn’t the only one who is led down the path to ruined love by books. Even Jules (the Hoffman character) seems unattached at best—in fact, do we ever see him outside the confines of the school? He bears a torch for an author who famously kills people in her books. In short: the equation seems to be a redux of an old chestnut about the dangers of literature (makes you incapable of “good” love!), with a dash of American anti-intellectualism (too much book-learnin’ will make you weird!) for good measure.

Second, on a note of perhaps useless call for some sort of realism, is it impossible to imagine a woman as a professor? Maybe just one? Somewhere? Is that asking too much? It’s not such a new thing for women to have doctorates in literature, I’ve heard—just ask the MLA. I’ve been out of undergrad for over 10 years, and I had a good-sized handful of smart, quirky, engaged female professors even back then. In graduate school, there was a collective of brilliant, well-published, psychologically-sound, sartorially-gifted lady doctors. I can only imagine that there are more now than there were then.

So what gives, Hollywood and indie-filmmakers? How about one measly female professor who’s not eating barrels of Zoloft in 2008? I’d consider it a personal favor.

5 thoughts on “Professors on Film

  1. Well, what about Dr. Diane Turner, Thorton Melon’s (Rodney Dangerfield) literature professor in “Back to School” (1986)?

    To think I was about 10 years old when that particular charicature of the female professor entered my “american psyche.” Ah, puberty in the 80’s in a house with older brothers. Rage at the dying of the light.

    Here’s to the triple lindy!

    [after Diane gives Thornton an ‘F’ for his report, which was actually written by Kurt Vonnegut]
    Diane: Whoever *did* write this doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!
    [cut to Thornton’s dorm suite]
    Thornton Melon: [on the phone] … and *another* thing, Vonnegut! I’m gonna stop payment on the cheque!
    [Kurt tells him off]
    Thornton Melon: F— me? Hey, Kurt, can you read lips, *f— you*! Next time I’ll call Robert Ludlum!
    [hangs up]

  2. This has been a pet peeve of mine for some time. Like C, I actually like Back to School’s portrayal of an English professor (even if she dates her student).

  3. Don’t we men have to be apologetic for appreciating this type of comedic character? Isn’t Dr. Middleton getting at the lack of “positive” portrayals of the female scholar? Sure, the movie still cracks me up, and Dr. Turner’s character seems to live with the poetic fervor that she tries portraying to her students, but doesn’t she also appear naive as to an “authentic” Vonnegut? Also, shouldn’t we feel guilty for her whole backlash against feminism and her appreciation of the sexist, perverse (though incredibly hillarious) Thorton Melon? Is she portrayed as anything more than libido-driven intellect? (see quote below). However, this isn’t to say I can’t laugh at all that, but is her characterization a guilty sort of joke? Do I align myself as a Melon-head when I dig Dr. Turner for how naughty she can be?

    Diane: Ever since the women’s movement, most of the men I meet go out of their WAY to show you how SENSITIVE they are. Before, they were too macho, and now they’re too… soft. You all want us to know you can CRY.
    Thornton Melon: No, with women, I never cry. Never. I beg.
    Diane: If we finish this bottle of wine, you won’t have to beg.

  4. I think a paper by most any author about their own output would rate an F. It’s a rare writer who’s all that self-aware and dispassionately observant. It would be painfully stifling [type six words, stop and realize you’ve hit the subconscious rage about you breach birth, stop and cry]. But I was thrilled to see Vonnegut (the hero of my teen years and remote mentor since — I have a picture of him in front of me as I write this, for a project I’m in the midst of) on celluloid, which is about all I recall from the film.

    I would add a vote for the anti-intellectualism argument, especially from the POV of screenwriters, who tend to be very defensive about their status as writers in the first place, let alone in consideration of the pantheon of academia. How many may have been English majors at that moment of decision between grad school and a more lucrative career? Who wants to think they made the wrong choice? Why not portray the other path as the sorrowful one?

    Sez the woman who is not now nor has she ever been an English major (but knows many who are or were)…

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