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Footnote and other academic movies (spoiler alert)

May 14, 2012

I finally got around to seeing Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, making me likely one of the last academics in America to get around to seeing this film.  The Israeli film is based around a father-son pair who teach Jewish studies, both specializing in Talmud, at Hebrew University.  Since I think that most readers of this blog have already seen the film, I’m going to feel free drop spoilers into my comments.

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We may ask, why are academic movies so bad, when the academic novel is such an established art form?  Most academic movies are so wildly unrealistic as to bear no relationship with institutions we know; the vast majority take the perspective of the student (e.g., The Paper Chase, Legally Blonde, Real Genius, Educating Rita) or are simply absurd satires (e.g., Horse Feathers, Back to School) or are about academics as weirdoes (Good Will Hunting, Beautiful Mind) or present a super-simplified view of academic discourse (Human Stain, Oleanna, Wonder Boys).  Indeed, until recently, the only movie about academics that I could really recommend for viewing was Horse Feathers.

But Footnote is an academic movie, and a good one too.  Right at the beginning, when my friend Daniel Boyarin (UC Berkeley) is skewered by name on the big screen – I knew I was going to enjoy this film.  The plot really is about the change in the approaches of the humanities with the rise of cultural studies putting aside a more traditional approach, and about the attractions of fame, etc.  Some scenes are perfectly spot-on – a meeting at the Education Ministry in a tiny room (“please bring in a chair from the other room”) where everyone needs to get up for anyone to get in or out.  Petty rivalries disguised as great matters of principle.  The relationship and competition between fathers and sons, and the nature of masculinity (the son is surrounded by women who constantly flirt with him – most surprisingly by the midwife delivering his wife’s baby.)

The film also shows, in an indirect way, the power of scholarship to get at the truth.  The son is awarded the prestigious Israel Prize by the Education Ministry; but his father, who has been nominated for years for the award, is notified instead by accident.  When the son realizes the truth, he makes a sacrifice by begging that the award be given to his father instead, and he writes the official commendation by the judges.  His father turns around and viciously attacks the son’s scholarship in the newspaper, but later realizes – through textual analysis – that the award was originally intended for his son, and that his son was the won who wrote the text of the official commendation.  The movie ends unresolved – the father (played amazingly by Shlomo Bar Aba) is faced with a moral dilemma that will leave him bitterly unhappy either way.

I love how Cedar also mixes in many subplots – a possible affair by the father; a difficult choice also for the mother, who is clearly troubled despite her deadpan acting; and vicious rivalries that simply explode on the surface between scholars.

Footnote is the first movie that I can recall that gives a realistic idea of academia – without simply tarting it up or trying to make academics seem wildly sexy or dangerous or dead from the waist down.  It touches on certain universal human emotions, and shows how ordinary life is full of moral complexity and difficulty.  It is a worthy successor to Cedar’s war movie, Beaufort

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