Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dorf on Film: Waiting for Professor Melfi

In the heyday of psychotherapy, Hollywood films often portrayed psychoanalysts as miracle workers. Think of Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, for example. But recently, Hollywood has more often offered contemptuous views of therapists. Think here of Woody Allen as Zelig, rushing off to teach his class in “advanced masturbation.” Among its many charms, “The Sopranos” was notable as a recent Hollywood product that portrayed psychoanalysis in a sympathetic, if morally ambiguous, light. (Yes, I know “The Sopranos” was a tv show, but, well, it’s not tv, it’s HBO.)

But if Hollywood has begun to portray psychotherapy in a more balanced fashion, its views of academia remain highly stereotyped. Three relatively recent films are notable. The Squid and the Whale, Smart People and The Visitor all feature late-middle-aged men as academics who are by turns, emotionally empty, fatuous, lazy, and ultimately engaged in churning out meaningless blather in their professional capacities. Two of these films (Squid and Visitor) are really outstanding in other respects, and none of them is necessarily making the point that ALL academics embody only these qualities, but the overall impression is hard to shake.

Notably, these are three indy films. Mainstream Hollywood’s stereotypical professor is a little different. Law professors tend to look, sound and act like John Houseman in The Paper Chase. Occasionally, one sees the professor/teacher-as-inspirational figure, although such characters are usually high school teachers. See, e.g., Dead Poets Society; The History Boys (okay, not a mainstream Hollywood feature). Sometimes one gets a truly embarrassing version of the professor as rock star, as in Barbra Streisand’s godawful The Mirror Has Two Faces (a film that asks the vital question “Is Barbra Streisand still pretty,” and gives the answer: “yes, she sure is”). I suppose the Indiana Jones movies fall into this category too, although Indy’s status as an archeology professor is usually ignored a few minutes into the movie.

Just WHY writers and directors see academics as cerebral but emotionless irrelevancies or, in mainstream films, as unrealistic superstars, is an interesting question. I’ve long thought that the unflattering portrayals of psychotherapists were the product of unsuccessful or at least prolonged therapy. But it’s hard to see how or why movie makers would have been scarred by academia. (Woody Allen is a famous exception. At least according to his early comedy routine, he was kicked out of NYU for cheating on a philosophy exam: “I looked into the soul of the boy next to me.” That’s a paraphrase.)

Whatever the reason, we academics are still waiting for our version of Dr. Melfi.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Paul said...

Perhaps Eric Cartman in "Eek, It's a P***s"?

C.E. Petit said...

I suspect that it's sheer ignorance, as much as anything else. I've observed this problem with depictions of military leaders in H'wood (TV, film, commercials, whatever): The filmmakers — and, in particular, the screenwriters and directors — seldom have much, if any, personal contact with "these kinds" of people, and thus resort to either stereotypes or undercharacterization.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

C.E.'s explanation sounds pretty much right, although there is the more sinister ever-present anti-intellectual strain in American culture. Professors are, of course, the intellectual elite, so what better way to exercise one's disdain for intellectualism than to make these characters emotionally frail? In particular, to make the men "not really men".

This isn't limited to Hollywood, either. The most recent and vivid example I've read is the protagonist's girlfriend (and her friends) in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

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