Saturday, October 15, 2011

The PhD Movie

The PhD Movie came to Perth this week and was shown in joint UWA/Curtin screenings on Thursday, with proceeds going towards supporting Indigenous literacy programs. It's always a bit odd watching films in a lecture theatre - more like watching a really big TV with a bunch of people you don't know - but it was an appropriate setting for the film.

For those of you who don't know, Jorge Cham has been drawing the Piled Higher and Deeper comics since his own postgrad days in the late 1990s, and the comics and associated speaking tours and merchandise sales have taken more and more of his time over the years. The comics are about the life of graduate research. They focus mainly on the sciences, but humanities get a mention ocasionally (like here and here). The humour tends to be subtle and observational. Here's one your supervisor will want to pin on their wall. Here's one you can both enjoy. Sometimes the strips are educational rather than amusing: Cham has drawn material out of his speaking tours, and some of the most interesting strips are of the "Tales From the Road" variety, like the one from CERN or the MD Anderson Cancer Research Centre.

Cham approached the Caltech Teatre Arts group to see if they would be interested in making a film based on the comics, and it's out now, touring university campuses around the world. All of the actors and most (if not all?) of the crew are real-life Caltech students or staff:

Cham: Part of the theme of the movie is that scientists and academics are multidimensional. They aren't the awkward, geeky, nerdy caricatures that we see in popular-culture stereotypes. They have different passions and talents. I thought it would be cool artistically if the production of the movie also carried that theme. They could also relate to the material and knew how to keep it truthful. Often, people who make movies and television shows about scientists have no sense of what the reality of their lives is like. [source] [see also]
There are definitely moments when you can tell the actors are amateurs, but that doesn't actually detract from the film: maybe even the opposite. "Who cares if your comedic timing is a bit off; you're a real scientist!" You really got the sense that everyone involved had a good time making the film, and the fact that the film is in the first instance only being shown at universities - and that one of the characters, Tajel, advocates for grad students throughout the film - really emphasises the aspect of it being "of the people, by the people, for the people" of academia.

(spoilers from hereon in)

The film is structured as a thesis, from Introduction to Discussion (Procrastination). The characters all have some depth to them, Cecilia and The Nameless Grad Student (who actually - and to my mind unnecessarily - gets a name, Winston, at the end of the film) more than the others. The story lines fold in neatly into each other, and they are all familiar in one form or another from the comics themselves: at the end we even get to see Slackenerny being issued his nine-month countdown to thesis completion. Cecilia's struggles with teaching (the neverending marking, really really wanting to be liked, dealing with unmotivated students and inane pleas for extensions) are funny and real and the tedium of Winston's research will be familiar to many.

There was one moment that I think was especially telling of the realism at the heart of The PhD Movie, particularly when you consider how it would have been treated in a standard romcom/ college life Bildungsfilm. Cecilia has given up on her dancing hobby in order to focus on her research, and has in the process slighted a very sweet young man. At the last minute Cecilia decides to enter the dance competition she had been training for, realising that the most important thing is to have a balanced life.

Now, let's pretend this set-up greets us in the finale of a multiplex film. Aside from the necessary tweaks in wardrobe, professional hairstyling etc that would be required to turn a Lady Scientist into Competitive Dancer (not forgetting the disapproval of parents and supervisors for her pursuing something so frivolous in the first place), Cecilia would run into the arms of her suitor, they would perform a spectacular dance number and win the much-coveted entry into the state finals. Her parents/friends/supervisors would just happened to have seen the performance, realised it made her happy and told her they love and support her, just as she is.

Not so in the PhD Movie. Cecilia puts a dress on and leaves for the competition. The clothing doesn't transform her: it's just a dress, it's still the same Cecilia. Her admirer is at the competition, in the audience. They acknowledge each other and smile. Of course he's not going to be the one dancing with her: he's a beginner (romance is in any case unlikely as he's an undergrad). Cecilia's victory is in her decision to take part in the competition, not in how she ultimately does in it: we see her walk on to the floor with other numbered contestants, and that's all we need to know.

That particular scene made me very happy. It's an amateur film and it has its flaws, but the filmmakers have kept the trials and triumphs of the characters funny yet realistic, resisting cheesiness in the process. Not bad at all.

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