Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Plea for "Smart People"

Please forgive the pedestrian beginnings of my rebirth as a blogger, but I have to start somewhere. Went with Yana to see this film the other night (perhaps Kyle would insist on calling it a movie). Recalled seeing the trailer with excitement: a film that was about smart people and the kinds of things that they talk about, without being amounting to some silly drama about people that are caricatures of the intellectual sort. What has happened indeed to our intellectual culture?

The film is about an English professor (and this a poor choice since the English professor is the egghead par excellence), played by Dennis Quaid; his daughter, a young Republican, played by Ellen Page; his failed brother, played by Thomas Haden Church, who everyone likes because he's so damned funny; and a former student that becomes a love interest (Sarah Jessica Parker, sadly). Quaid's character is going through a crisis, is a melancholic widower with misanthropic tendencies, who is totally unlikeable, but the brother shows up to give him some assistance in returning to healthy social life. Everyone does some learning about themselves. It's a feel-good movie. It is not, however, a movie about "smart people."

The closest thing I have seen to a film about "smart people," as of late, is "Juno," which I thought was genuinely a good film. I remember when I first saw "The Gilmore Girls" and was excited because this was something approaching the cleverness of "The Philadelphia Story" and the machine gun back and forth between characters and thoughts and witticisms. But the show quickly fell apart, after a few seasons, in my judgment. Not very many models. And I went off on Claire Messud's book last summer. Of course, I don't read as widely as people like Leigh, so maybe she has a good suggestion.

Intellectual culture is not cut off from mainstream culture. Intellectual culture is just archaeology into mainstream culture. Culture at the level of a microscope. This is the way that I justify philosophy to my students: archaeology into why and how we think the way we do. Perhaps film is just not well-suited to represent these kinds of things. Before the end of this semester I read Mao II with my students, which is a Delillo novel from around 1991. The story concerns a famous reclusive writer, who after many years of anonymity appears, purportedly to negotiate for the release of a poet by a terrorist organization. At issues in the novel are two primary themes: first, the tension between the individual and the "crowd." Late modernity burdens individuals with the obligation of personal identity and freedom, supposedly, and mass movements like the Moonies liberate them from these oppressive demands. Second, the resemblance between the writer and the terrorist, both of who make "raids" on the "inner life of culture." The writer is threatened by the multitude of meanings and messages, subsequently diminishing the salience of any one. The writer had determined culture, had organized consciousness. In the contemporary world, the terrorist thrives by the power of the image that overpowers the silent dignity of words and arguments and imposes itself upon the individual. The writer, the terrorist, creates mass movements. Provides an alternative to the crushing obligation of individuality.

In some ways, I think this is really just about the word and the image, and their corresponding temporal modes. Intellectual culture observes the temporality of meaning and transformation, the passage of thought--it works through the mediation of language, primarily. The image is terrorist in intention. It presents a false simultaneity that intimates immediacy, makes us think we have been transported. And the film, rendered in time, how does it mediate between these realms? It creates time, like a drug that immediately separates us, transports us from our concrete surroundings. Never allows itself to be dominated by slowness (speaking of which, I watched Lost Highways again the other night--amazing!) and so dispenses with the fundamental moment of intellectual culture: boredom. And yet, our boredom, strangely, creates a transformation (like the film?). Sitting through the now.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Have you read Zadie Smith's On Beauty? That's probably the best book I've read recently that features intellectuals and academics as it's main characters.

Doctor J said...

I don't know this "widely-read Leigh" of whom you speak, but tell her that I'm always looking for good suggestions, too.

I thought that the novel *Straight Man* was one of the best pieces of lit featuring academics that I ever read.

DOCTOR J said...

You should try to see "The Visitor" before it leaves movie theaters...