Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The life of the mind, dramatized!

Over the weekend Cosimo and I went to see Agora, a movie set in fourth-century Alexandria and focusing on the female scientist and philosopher Hypatia. (The movie has had only limited theatrical release, but it's available next month on DVD.) The cinematography was stunning and the story potentially compelling, but in the end I found it disappointing: the narrative dragged, the Christians were cartoonish bad-guys--who nevertheless seemed more obsessed with defending geocentrism than debunking pagan gods--and there were countless missed opportunities to depict the movie's political and intellectual conflicts with more nuance.

Still, I was interested in the way the movie tried to dramatize the intellectual life. The filmmakers clearly didn't know how to portray Hypatia as a teacher: we see her instructing a group of young men on a few occasions, but they're awkward, flat scenes, and it's not clear that the men are there for any reason other than the hot pants (hot togas?) that Hypatia gives them. The scenes involving her intellectual investigations are a bit better, particularly toward the end; I liked the fact that the movie didn't shy away from some basic geometry or from a coherent explanation of the Ptolomaic universe and why it was so hard to escape that model.

It got me thinking about how hard it is to dramatize what we do, by which I mean, what we actually do, as teachers and researchers. There are plenty of compelling movies about teachers, though those movies tend to equate "good teaching" with having a charismatic classroom presence and endless amounts of compassion. But being a good teacher doesn't have much to do with the teacher's personality, and most of learning doesn't happen in the classroom. It happens inside students' heads, over a long period of time, in unpredictable and entirely undramatic ways. Movies can only hint at this, by showing us what we take to be external signs of those internal changes: the students start showing up for class and stop acting out. They speak excitedly and articulately. They pass tests and they win awards.

It's even harder to dramatize scholarship. The only even halfway successful movie examples I can think of feature research-as-detective-story: the scholar discovers new documents in an archive, or an attic, or some long-neglected record-books (possibly while receiving obscure threats from people in high places) and eventually OVERTURNS EVERYTHING WE THOUGHT WE KNEW.

Now, plenty of us work in archives on a regular basis. But even on the rare occasion that we turn up a shocking! new! fact! (that this writer was a secret homosexual or that that nobleman's poems were actually written by his sister), the discovery itself isn't the real work. We still have to spend countless hours working at home or in shabby libraries, reading crappy monographs and badly-photocopied articles, and cajoling the ILL librarian to order us just one more book after we've been blocked from the system. We write draft after draft, do more research, get some feedback, and revise. After a year or two or three, we might produce a 40-page journal article.

If it's good, that journal article will be referenced and wrestled with for thirty years. If it's really good, it could totally transform the shape of our field. But even if the response to a given work of scholarship is dramatic, there's not much dramatic about the process by which it gets researched and written. (Which isn't to say that it's not enthralling, at least sometimes, for the scholar herself; it just doesn't make for good cinema.)

But maybe I've just been watching the wrong movies. What are your votes for films that come closest to conveying what it is that we actually do, as teachers and scholars?


Renaissance Girl said...

This came out in Italy while I was there last spring! I wanted to see it then, and I plan to do so--I'm glad to have your review here to whet the appetite.

I can't imagine watching someone do what I do on film. Not enough popcorn in the world to entice me to gaze at someone sitting a a computer with her head in her hands.

Still, I secretly desire to have folks (read: my students) see those mystery thrillers as allegories for the life of the mind. It may happen inside the head, but I'd say there's still lots of drama, many reverses, sudden awarenesses of betrayal by those thoughts you held most dear, suspense, peril of insanity.

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie a few months ago in Spain. It was probably released there first as the director is Spanish, and famous there. Despite some clichés, I thought it was rather interesting to portray Christians as murderous zealots, and pagans as equally murderous zealots, and the politicking in Ancient Egypt universities, the ignorance of everyone involved... The whole movie is terribly reminiscent of what is still going on today. And it doesn't treat the audience as idiots.

I don't see a mainstream American movie say/do such things.

While it certainly isn't a great movie, I recommended it to my grad-level students.

Concerning movies describing what we do, I guess you'd have to consider 2 categories of movies: those that talk about teaching and those that talk about research. There are many movies about teachers (Dead Poet's Society for the inspiring teaching; an endless series for the uninspiring), and a few movies about researchers (eg. remakes of Dan Brown novels for the sexy, populist version; or The Visitor (2007), for the '1/2 failed' 'I-haven't-published-anything-in-years-angst' version). Some may be inspired from Real Life. But they're all works of fiction.... and even documentaries are normally edited.

If we were to condense our lives in 1h30, we could probably all wrestle some good drama, with interesting discoveries, some failures, effort, the occasional 'eureka' moment, doubt, and what have you. This doesn't mean that a student will really understand what it's like. Does everyone always learn something after watching a movie? (Is that why we go to the movies?)

Our lives may have mattered, we may have made discoveries... but as suggested in 'Agora', sometimes those discoveries will be fully explored only years later, by people who may have had no inkling of our existence/research. Our lives may matter in ways we could not have imagined... and not mattered in ways we thought they would.

Susan said...

most of learning doesn't happen in the classroom. It happens inside students' heads, over a long period of time, in unpredictable and entirely undramatic ways.

Could we just remind the assessment zealots about that?

Sorry, I just loved that sentence. I have no ideas about movies. For me the dramatic scenes always come at about 4 AM, when I can't sleep, and I suddenly see some crucial connection. Then I have to spend months making it actually work.

Renaissance Girl said...

Not quite about the undramatic exterior of research, but have you seen/ read _Wonder Boys_? Something nice in there abt how projects get endlessly stalled.

Flavia said...

Anon: I don't have a problem with portraying the Christians negatively, but I thought it could have been done in a more nuanced way. For instance, there was a really great opportunity to make more out of the fact that the young slave Davus was attracted to Christianity (and that the patricians, for all their more enlightened intellectual thought, didn't seem to be aware of or concerned about their class privilege or what it was built upon). And really: Davus was a missed opportunity all the way around. He should have been the heart of the movie, but instead his ambivalent loyalty to Hypatia wound up appearing to be more about his (deeply creepy) desire for her rather than any real attraction to or interest in science.


I've been thinking hard about movies that do a decent job of depicting the intellectual life, and I'm really coming up dry. I'm not sure exactly why this is: several of Tom Stoppard's plays, most notably Arcadia (which I was thinking about the entire time I was watching Agora) do a fine job, and so it should be possible to do it in a film.

(Novels are easier, I think, since they allow one to get inside the head--the thought patterns, the obsessions--of a character, especially a first-person narrator.)

I understand that the big eureka moment that scholars on film get (finding the secret cache of letters that proves that Queen Elizabeth actually wrote Richard II, for example) is meant to stand in for the much smaller, less dramatic finds that we all occasionally make. I'm cool with that as a way of telegraphing the kind of excitement we feel about discoveries that no one outside of our subfields could possibly appreciate.

But even if you make a big find...so what? That's a news item. Scholarship involves taking that find and laboring to understand it and contextualize it, slowly reevaluating everything we thought we knew in light of this new development. And much of scholarship doesn't involve a discovery, really, at all: just a unique and dogged intelligence finding meaningful new patterns in old material.

Flavia said...

RG: Dude, I love Wonder Boys. Though I think perhaps all movies that involve the creative process have the same problem as the one I'm identifying as a problem in the depiction of scholarship: it's hard to represent, because the most interesting parts are all internal.

(Almost all the movies I've seen about writers are either about how blocked they are or how no one recognizes their genius. So the drama focuses on their struggles to write at all, or their struggles to get published--not on their struggles to restructure the first half of their novel, or make a character come alive, or end a scene differently, etc.)

Withywindle said...

I've also been having trouble thinking of a good movie. But I think the right person to do it would be Mike Leigh. Topsy-Turvy had one of the better renditions of the creative process--the accumulation of incident registered by Gilbert, the visit to the Japanese village in Kensington, and then the widening of the eyes--wonderfully done by Jim Broadbent--cut to rehearsals of The Mikado. I think Leigh would be able to do a similarly good job rendering academic research.

But which real research story do you want to tell?

Vardibidian said...

Speaking of plays, what about Michael Frayn's Copenhagen for research? It's only one of the things going on in the play, of course, but they talk about years of work on a narrow topic with a handful of colleagues, the slow work on small advances that may lead to big advances, and even the discovery that the researcher has been in a dead-end path for a long time while other people have gone in other, more fruitful directions...


Flavia said...

Withy: I saw Topsy-Turvy right after it came out (and possibly after having a few drinks?) and remember nothing about it except the sword of Damocles. Will have to rent.

Am not sure I have a particular research story I want to tell--just one that features more than the eureka-in-the-foreign-archive moment.

Vardibidian: have neither seen nor read, though I meant to, at one point. Thanks for the recommendation!