Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Wonder Boys: Hormones and Extra Credit

She was a junkie of the written word. Lucky for me I manufactured her drug of choice.

Back in the year 2000 I was 16, lonely and desperate. It was the height of my pre Tom Cruise crush on Katie Holmes. Katie, and more specifically Joey Potter the character she played on Dawson's Creek, was the archetype of every girl I had a crush on to that point in my life: bookish, verbose: yet shy. Even though her smile was awkward, my horny teenaged self saw into her vulnerable eyes and fell in love instantly. It was for this reason and this alone I could not wait to see Wonder Boys. It was basically my dream to see Katie in a sexually aggressive role. Though I did wish she had a cripple fetish, rather than one for 50 year old English professors who wore pink dressing gowns.

My hormones at least knew the potential for a good movie. As my affection for Katie Holmes has diminished, Wonder Boys continues to be one of my favourite movies: simply because it’s a sardonic, intelligent portrait of relatable characters of smart people who make dumb decisions.

The plot is thus:

On the day his third wife leaves him and his literary agent arrives to pressure him to finish a novel seven years in the writing, Carnegie Mellon professor, Grady Tripp, also learns that his married mistress is pregnant. Seven years before, with his first novel, he was a wonder boy. So was his agent. Both now need something. Over the weekend, instead of making choices, he vacillates in a pot-induced haze. One of his students, James Leer, perhaps stirs paternal feelings in Grady and raises homo-erotic urges in the agent. Academic politics complicate things: Grady's mistress is the college chancellor, her husband chairs Grady's department, James has just shot the husband's dog. What to do?

It would take me years to realise this but the role of Grady Tripp is basically an amalgam of every academic I have come across since I started my university education 18 months after I first saw this film. As Roger Ebert points out in the review of the movie:

Wonder Boys is the most accurate movie about campus life that I can remember. It is accurate, not because it captures intellectual debate or campus politics, but because it knows two things: (1) Students come and go, but the faculty actually lives there, and (2) many faculty members stay stuck in graduate-student mode for decades.

It perfectly depicts the process of post graduate writing. The fact that you are so close to an intricate piece of writing that the author cannot see the forest through the trees. After Holmes’s character Hannah reads the draft of Grady's long awaited 1,200 page novel, she points to its considerable flaws. The dilemma of academic writing is perfectly encapsulated in this exchange:
Hannah Green: Grady, you know how in class you're always telling us that writers make choices?
Grady Tripp: Yeah.
Hannah Green: And even though you're book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's... it's at times... it's... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all. And I was just wondering if it might not be different if... if when you wrote you weren't always... under the influence.
Grady Tripp: Well... thank you for the thought, but shocking as it may sound, I am not the first writer to sip a little weed. Furthermore, it might surprise you to know that one book I wrote, as you say, "under the influence," just happened to win a little something called the Pen Award. Which, by the way, I accepted under the influence.

The other key element of academia is dealing with the students who think they know more than you do. In Wonder Boys this trait is personified by both James and Hannah. Not that this a bad thing, because I have been on both sides of the ledger. As a student I made it my arrogant mission to demonstrate that I had superior knowledge and intellect. Although my lecturers were always supportive of me, I never saw them as superiors, but rather peers. As an academic this intellectual tug of war led to some insecurity, lest some upstart invade my intellectual territory. The movie is the only one that I’ve seen that gets this balance exactly right.

At the same time though the great triumph of Wonder Boys is that it romantises both writing and academia. In an indirect way this movie sparked my love for the knowledge and started my quest to be part of the political intelligentsia. From that moment on the written word was my drug of choice and I became a junkie.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Todd:

    Your hormones chose well!

    Sometimes the writer makes a choice,

    sometimes the reader makes a choice

    and the publisher makes a choice.

    (If I didn't know better I'd have thought the professor would have written a Dick Francis or a Margaret Mitchell book: both very detailed worlds in their ways).

    It's a way of making/building a world, as well as being in it and reflecting it.

    And many of the girls wanted to be Katie Holmes, and the guys wanted to be with her.

    Another campus movie you might enjoy is Oxford Murders. Highly recommended from around here.