Summer 2010: Letter from the President

President James Wagner

James W. Wagner, President, Emory University

Ann Borden

College and the Movies

By James W. Wagner

Among the many fortieth anniversaries being noted this year—the disbanding of the Beatles, the rescue of Apollo 13, the first Earth Day, the ratification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the lowering of the voting age in the U.S. to eighteen—so far no one has called attention to the 1970 release of the movie Love Story. It doesn’t exactly stand out as classic cinema. Yet it does have a classic way of treating college life—as nonessential but decorative background.

Anyone who has seen the movie may remember little of it besides the loveliness of Harvard Yard in autumn and the beauty of the Harvard houses’ red-brick colonial architecture along the Charles River. As a “location,” the university serves magnificently. As a “setting” in a more classical sense—as a place that by its own characteristics and feel serves to heighten or shape dramatic action—Harvard in this movie could as easily be Emory or Berkeley or Michigan or Duke. In fact, the location might simply not have been a university at all.

Most movies that use campuses as location use them in this way—as backdrop for the drama, not as an element of the drama. The distinction here is not trivial. We can hardly imagine King Lear without the stormy heath, or Robinson Crusoe without the particular island on which the hero is stranded, or the opening of The Grapes of Wrath without the grinding landscape of the Dust Bowl.

We might, however, imagine the classic college comedies taking place off campus. The Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers could as easily be set in a professional football franchise rather than Huxley College. We might imagine Legally Blonde taking place in a white-shoe law firm—or in Ben Matlock’s law firm, for that matter—rather than at Harvard Law. And although Animal House plays on a host of stereotypes about college, the plot could just as well pit two country clubs or two biker bars against each other, rather than two fraternities.

Even when it comes to serious drama on a college campus, Hollywood prefers “location” or backdrop to “setting.” In A Beautiful Mind, a Princeton graduate student demonstrates mathematical genius along with disturbing character traits, but in the end his brilliance wins him the Nobel Prize despite the challenges of his personality. Princeton here functions merely to give the main character his bona fides—to certify him as brilliant because, after all, he’s at Princeton. But all of the drama could take place anywhere else than a campus.

Even in that seemingly most serious of examinations about the examined life, The Paper Chase, the struggle between the hero (a first-year Harvard law student) and his antagonist (a demanding yet fallible professor) resolves itself much as the drama in the wholly off-campus movie The Graduate resolves itself—through the decision of the hero to flee with his soul mate from convention and family expectations. The campus, if it functions as a setting at all, is something the hero escapes.

Missing in all of these films—however good they are, and however much we enjoy them—is a sense of the campus as a setting that actually does shape character and influence choices. College campuses can, in fact, serve as antagonist or as ally, as intimidator or mentor. Also missing from these films is an understanding that institutions themselves have character. They draw people to them the way wise and good people attract friends, or they repel or frustrate people the way certain unsympathetic characters in the movies do (think of Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty or Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and think of Enron).

Here’s a movie I’d like to see, in which a campus serves as setting, not merely location:

A young woman moves into her freshman residence hall, eager to start her path toward a life in medicine or law or teaching or nursing or business or the arts (note to screenwriter: take your pick; it doesn’t matter). She makes friends from faraway places or different backgrounds, takes classes with weird or difficult or entertaining professors, enjoys a broader social life than she has known before, and gets drawn into tutoring kids after school (or helping to resettle refugees or building a house for Habitat for Humanity). As time rolls along, a semester of research in Mali confronts her with the capacity for people to experience community even amid deep poverty. A year later a campus tragedy brings students, faculty, and staff together on the Quad for a candlelight vigil, and she is there. Sometime later various campus groups challenge the university’s positions on a number of issues, and she gets caught up in the debates over institutional ethics.

By the time the young woman prepares to graduate from college, she still plans on a life in medicine or law or teaching or nursing or business or the arts or whatever. But she will be a different medical student or law student now than she would have been four years earlier, a different teacher or nurse or business leader or artist; not merely because she has gained more knowledge, but because she has been transformed inwardly.

This is the drama that colleges and universities are about, this inner transformation. It’s a drama in which the setting plays an absolutely vital role.

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