Monday, May 02, 2005

We Need a Movie

Although academia has its share of decent novels, it doesn’t really have good movies. There are movies from the student perspective, but not much from the faculty or administrative perspective. As long as our public image is defined entirely by either hung-over memories of college days or pathetic right-wing failures like David Horowitz, we’re in trouble. We need the kind of Hollywood treatment that other professions get. (Hollywood images of deans are few, and generally unflattering. Think of Larry Miller being sodomized by a giant gerbil in Nutty Professor II, or of Dean Wormer in Animal House. Something must be done.)

Of course, The Simpsons had Dean Bobby, skilled hacky-sack player and former bassist for the Pretenders. My closest real-life Dean Bobby moment was a few weeks ago, when a circle of students invited me to join their hacky-sack ring. I politely declined.

We need some good grad school/faculty/dean movies. Not just the hot-babe-sidekick-is-an-oceanography-grad-student, but movies that really deal with what higher ed is actually like. Watch as the heroic middle manager bravely balances the budget in the face of state funding cuts, spiralling equipment costs, and intransigent unions! Okay, I’m not a screenwriter. Still, there should be something out there.

I had hopes for We Don’t Live Here Anymore, but it was mostly about marital infidelity. The academic backdrop was mostly just that. Lianna had a few moments, and the only William Dean Howells jokes I’ve seen in a movie, but it was more about lesbianism than academia. Sylvia was, in some ways, about academia, but I’ve had just about enough of the tortured artiste thing. Sometimes a movie will have a mad genius professor who helps the action hero save the day, (or a mad genius professor who turns evil, like Doc Ock in Spider-Man II) but I’ve been around professors for a long time (and been one myself), and most don’t have super powers. Some can barely dress themselves.

Filing Cabinet of the Damned suggests that any work of fiction can be improved by the addition of monkeys or ninjas. Sylvia desperately needed both. Simians hurling feces at Ted Hughes would have been right on so many levels. (This would also work with David Horowitz, actually.)

In grad school, I had an idea for a murder mystery set in a graduate program, in which a prominent faculty member and notorious prick is murdered, but the catch is that, since he was so dreadfully nasty to just about all of humanity, everybody was a suspect. In the end, the detective dropped the case, convinced that it would be immoral to punish someone for offing such a bastard. I never got very far with it, though. Couldn’t write dialogue.

A dissertation movie could have an intermission that becomes the ending.

Phantom of the Adjunct. A mysterious adjunct is rumored to roam the hallways, wreaking havoc on any hapless souls who venture near. She is eventually lured out of hiding with a job offer that mysteriously vanishes just as she is taken into custody. I’m ready for tenure now, Mr. DeMille.

The Melancholy Dean. Is he insane or scheming? He replaced that department chair so quickly!

Remains of the Dean. Capture the poetry of repression as the tragic hero stifles any sign of human emotion in the face of political turmoil. Will he step up as events unfold, or simply continue to avoid conflict at the price of his withered soul?

Casting is key. The reason Boston Public was such a great show wasn’t the writing – oh my, no – but the casting. The teachers were staggeringly good-looking. Clearly, a similar treatment is needed for higher ed. Dean Angelina Jolie must decide whether to fund Professor Orlando Bloom’s center for the study of postcolonial literature or Professor Antonio Banderas’ long-suffering grad student, the neo-Foucauldian Halle Berry. Meanwhile, disgruntled adjunct Catherine Zeta-Jones’ forbidden love for teaching center director Taye Diggs threatens to derail her unionization drive. Will the state budget pass in time?

Throw in some monkeys and ninjas, and you’ve got yourself a movie.