Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: And the Oscar for Best Graduate School Movie goes to....

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And the Oscar for Best Graduate School Movie goes to....

       It’s Oscar Week!
       As the red carpet events draw nearer by the day, as I’m making sure I’ve read and considered all predictions and arguments, as I double-check my Oscar scorecard and consider last minute changes, wondering if Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spenser (both brilliant) will split the voters for The Help and allow Melissa McCarthy (human and hilarious) to take the category, wondering if a dark horse like Nick Nolte will surprise everyone, wondering if the lovely adventure in literary nostalgia Midnight in Paris has a chance to take home a statue, as I look forward to Sunday to settling in with pizza, wine, and popcorn for one of my favorite nights of the year, I begin happily reflecting.
        I reflect on the years past when I have always made time to watch this event, even when movie years hadn’t been particularly exciting, or when the nominees hadn’t reflected the truly inspiring movies of the year, or when I hadn’t even had time to see any movies during the entire year. I reflect on the movies I am grateful to have seen this year, taking time from my graduate studies to escape into the magic of Midnight in Paris, the laughter of Bridesmaids, the triumph of The Help, the enterprise of Moneyball, the catharsis of Warrior, the soaring spirit of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
       I think about the movies I have yet to see, one of which I may choose as a reward for myself in the coming months as I finish a chapter, or present at a conference, or complete a dreaded and toilsome task such as doing my laundry.
       Finally, as I close my books from the day’s work and settle into my pajamas, sinking into the couch, I begin thinking about how the movies have always helped me reflect on my own current station in life. I think with awe about the enormous, undeniable debt that Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers owe to the institution of graduate school, having over the years inspired countless creative and poignant cinematic explorations of the trials, tribulations, triumphs, hardships, heartaches, hilarity, incidents, accidents, and ultimate life-affirming redemption in the life of a graduate student.
       Or… err, um…. My reflection comes to a screeching halt as I bolt upright on my couch. Well, okay maybe not countless… but there are some, right? I mean, at least a dozen or so good movies? about graduate school?
       I’m sure I’ve seen some. As I reel through the movie-memories in my brain, I sort through all the undergrad movies and boarding school movies and law school movies and… hmm.
       But I’m sure I’ve settled in for a good rom-com between two grad students falling in love…. for a hefty drama about someone’s nervous breakdown leading up to his dissertation defense…. a twisted absurd surrealist depiction of the way graduate school propels a soul into the next realm of existence and possibility….
       Um. Well actually… Let me Google this.
       How pleasantly surprised am I to see a list come up! “The 7 best grad school movies of all time.” Okay, I say, here we go. As I click on it, I think dubiously, “Seven?”  Then I force the doubt away. Seven: yes. I mean, it’s not 10, but “Top Ten” --  that’s an arbitrary convention anyway. Okay, so let’s go with seven! Seven great movies dedicated to exploring the idiosyncrasies and uplift of graduate life. I fold my legs crisscross under me and pull my laptop onto my lap.
       Already as I read the intro, I like what I see. The author boldy asserts, “But what about those movies focusing on graduate-school living and the difficulty of appearing classically sharp while subsisting on a penny-pinching budget? Why does a character named ‘Booger’ receive all of the hooplah while graduate-school movies garner the attention of day-old French fries in the campus cafeteria? It's time to dust off the brush off and pay homage to the seven best grad school movies of all times.” I couldn’t agree more.
       Okay so here we go. Number 7 is none other than ….. Patch Adams. I start to feel a little bit of a confused, slightly sinking feeling, remembering that this was one of the absolute worst movies I’ve ever seen, and also remembering that this movie was not about someone in graduate school but rather about someone who got kicked out of medical school. Hmmm… if this is any indication of the rest of…. Well –
       Then I squash the negative voice inside my head and rationalize to myself that it’s still early! After all, we’re only on number 7! I mean number 7 out of 7.  We’re fine. Okay. No big deal.  We’re building up.
       Hope renewed, my eyes move down to Number 6… Legally Blonde. Well, but wait a minute. I mean, sure, I love Elle Woods and all, and her video admissions essay and the bend and snap and all of that… but that’s law school. Well but there are plenty of movies about law school… I was talking about “grad school,” like English and history and anthropology and physics majors writing dissertations and having teaching assistant adventures...
       Sigh and regroup. Okay. Maybe #5 can redeem us all.
       Flatliners.Grrrr…..Med school!!!
      #4 –The Paper Chase.Hmmm…Law school!
      #3--Rounders – DOH! law school AGAIN!
      #2--Beautiful Mind… okay, well, yes, Princeton, etc…maybe… but really more a portrait of a extraordinary mind rather than an extraordinary matriculation.
      #1…. Drumroll…. GOOD WILL HUNTING! Okay, yes! There is a dorm room love scene, I think, (even though Minnie Driver’s character is a med student…perhaps pre-med?) and math problems written on a chalkboard done by a non-graduate student, and a jerky professor, and a (pseudo) intellectual (pseudo) invective in a Harvard Bar. It’s everything I ever wanted in a movie about the life of a graduate student.
      With utter defeat, I glance over the list again.  2 medical school movies, 3 law school movies, one movie about an incredible mind who spent his life at Princeton University, some of which as a graduate student, and one movie whose title character is actually against the idea of institutionalized higher education.
      Where are the inquiries into the life of a scholar, pursuing truth, beauty, and intellectual liberty through higher, higher education? Where ARE the stories of the self-made man and woman who pursued intellectual triumphs while “penny-pinching” through most of his or her 20s and early 30s, sacrificing some basic conveniences or niceties of life that, with any luck, comes with a BA, for something he or she believes is worth studying, worth immersing oneself into? 
       Or do the life choices of a graduate student seem so uninteresting, so trudging, so slow-moving, so pain-staking, so rewardless to outsiders -- or to graduate students themselves? --  as to make it not a viable setting for cinematic reflection?
       I’ll need a few days to sort this out. Perhaps a little more digging.... 
       Part Two of “Best Graduate School Movie” coming on Sunday!
       In the meantime, what movies can you think of that best represent the grad life? Post a comment here or on FB! 


  1. Wonder Boys is probably the most representative, plus it's a solid movie.

  2. YES!!!!!!!! Good one... that is definitely going in my Part 2's Top "8". :P Thanks!!!!!

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