by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Never judge a book by its movie. "... ...J.W. Eagan.
Commentary of the Day - May 6, 2008: Smart (or Not so Smart) People. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
Until we retired, my wife was a high school teacher (and a damn good one, I might add) while I taught literature classes at a small private college. I mention this because for many years we have had an ongoing discussion about why it is that she can tick off dozens of films about inspirational high school teachers while I am hard-pressed to come up with a single college professor, with the notable exception of last year's The Great Debaters in the feel-good camp. In that film Denzel Washington plays the black college professor (and poet) Melvin B. Tolson as he whips an unlikely crew of debaters from tiny Wiley College in Texas until they are a lean-mean-debating machine, able to best Harvard in the l935 national championship.
As coaches on film go, Tolson is an exception. Most of the time they are jocks who whip younger jocks into shape. One thinks of classic films such as Knute Rockne: All American (1940) (with Pat O'Brien as Knute and none other than Ronald Reagan as the Gipper) or a host of more recent, and ever more predictable efforts, such as Hoosiers, Remember the Titans or We Are Marshall. The list goes on and on but the films are largely the same: everything militates toward the climactic moment when the clock is winding down and only a thirty-foot jump shot or a fifty yard pass will save the day. Usually, the day is saved because that's what the formula of feel-good film demands.
It's not quite that coaches are more intrinsically interesting than are classroom teachers, but there's not much the camera can do if it is stuck in a confined space where there are no bleachers or screaming crowds. Drama requires action, and that is something the average sports movie has in abundance.
At this point my wife, who has a small threshold of tolerance for movies about sweaty guys pumping iron, reminds me that there's plenty of "action" in films about high school teachers who turn young lives around. As proof she can reel off dozens of films from classics such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to tear-jerkers of the Good Morning Miss Dove, To Sir With Love, and Mr. Holland's Opus sort.
When I point out that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a better novel and film than any of these, she admits that I have a point, but she insists that a four-hanky film is its own excuse for being. What Miss Brodie demonstrates with chilling precision is how an influential teacher can become too influential and, indeed, downright dangerous. On this point we both agree.
College professors are horses of very different colors. The question is: Why? Sometimes the pressure to publish is the culprit. Sometimes grade-grubbing students simply wear one down. Sometimes academic politics (usually defined as becoming ever more vicious as the stakes go down) take a toll. Often, as is the case with Smart People, the most recent entry in the college teacher sweepstakes, it is all three.
Smart People’s screenwriter, Mark Jude Poirier, has long lived in the belly of the academic beast, having taught at Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Iowa, Johns Hopkins, and Portland State. It was the last school which propelled (some might say "kicked") Poirier into screenwriting. He had published a collection of short stories (Naked Pueblo, l999) and a novel, Goats (2001), both to good reviews, but Portland State gave him his walking papers nonetheless.
A Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship turned a novel that had been banging around in his head into Smart People. It would be pretty, as Hemingway might have remarked, if one could say that Lawrence Westerhold (Dennis Quaid) is simply going through a middle-aged crisis, but Westerhold is a professor and therein lies the essential difference. He is in a full-blown funk, partly because his students are boring and overbearing (one comes to see him a few moments before office hours are officially over; Professor Westerhold simply moves up the hands of his office clock and dismisses him), partly because he is having trouble publishing his magnum opus, The Price of Postmodernism: Epistemology, Hermeneutics, and the Literary Canon (the ms. finally gets accepted as You Can't Read, a book that is dumbed down and gussied up), and partly because he wants to be department chair -- a long shot at best because he hates his colleagues (they return the favor) and he never attends department meetings.
Poirier adds other dimensions to Smart People: Sarah Jessica Parker as Westerhold's on-again, off-again love interest and Ellen Page (the spunky teenager in Juno), as his sassy, over-achieving high school daughter (she gets an early acceptance to Stanford). No matter. What we mostly see in Westerhold is a slightly overweight, largely inept or oblivious (he takes up two spaces to park his seen-better-days car, pompous, condescending jerk -- and that is mostly what college professors on film come to -- that is, when they aren't seducing their students (Sarah Jessica Parker is a former student, now a doctor, who still is seething about a C on her Middlemarch paper), smoking dope, or otherwise breaking the law.
No doubt a part of these stereotypes spring to cinematic life because there is a grain of truth in them (department meetings are as bad as Smart People makes them out to be), but I also suspect that screenwriters bring their academic bruises with them when they sit down at the keyboard.
It's a shame that Hollywood has problems with putting professors on the silver screen. I say this because the vast majority of college teachers do care about their students and influence them every bit as much as high school teachers do. Well. . . maybe almost as much. Be that as it may, I don't figure on seeing any college versions in the Mr. Chips mold any time soon. After all, what did he write, what grants did he get, what conferences did he attend? Besides, college life shouldn't be painted in soft watercolors -- and neither should its professors.
© 2008, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.
The Irascible Professor comments: To the IP it seems that the best films about higher education have dealt with the graduate realm. Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital starring the late George C. Scott as Dr. Herbert Bock, the director of a Manhattan teaching hospital comes to mind. Likewise, John Houseman's portrayal of Harvard Law School contracts professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. in The Paper Chase (1973) was both Oscar-winning and memorable.