Welcome To Academia
Film Review by Gary Michael Smith
Writers Kirk Davis and Elzbieta Szoka deftly weave a parable of power and politics; greed and sex; lies and revenge; and deceit and desperation in the halls of the fictitious Ivy League Victorian University. “Academia” was masterfully shot digitally in the fall of 2008 on the Tulane University campus in New Orleans as well as at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Expertly directed by Kirk Davis using enchanting narration and haunting music (by Chris Hajian), it gives the viewer the foreboding feeling of “Desperate Housewives” meets “Mad Men” with a little “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” thrown in for classic gothic mystery storyline and a similarly apprehensive soundtrack. But in the case of this film corruption and oppression in academia is revealed, destroying idealism and innocence—on both sides of the lectern.
“Academia” is a fairy tale gone badly because of disillusion and delusions, egos and eccentricities. Young and idealistic graduate student Sophie (Jess Weixler) is made all too aware of academic politics and pettiness while attempting to get approval for her PhD dissertation. But after losing her favored committee member Revis Williams (James LeGros) to a promotion, Sophie finds herself dealing with a pathologically vindictive committee called the Hydra where she learns hard lessons on how to get what you want from the masters of manipulation.
Sophie’s remaining committee comprises a caustic collection of agenda-driven egocentrics: Deborah Hansen (Laila Robins), a frustrated but cunning Shakespeare professor; the sleazy and destructive professor Richard Valentine (Dan Bakkedahl); and the fake feminist and power hungry professor of Cultural Studies, Valery Villanueva (Callie Thorne) whose plan for vindication comes to a head with the appearance of ex-porn star Bambi Bazongas (Shanna Forestall).
With the dissolution of tenure on the line and grant funding being frivolously squandered, some cash-conscious students mount a protest while professors jockey for such powerful positions as University President and Dean of Students. Anyone who’s ever been involved with higher education—whether as faculty or within the student body—may be able to relate to this dark satire that’s strong on plot structure and character development.
A look into “Academia”
By Spencer Dorsey | Section: Nov 6th, 2009 Arcade, Issues, November 6th Print Edition
The 20th Annual New Orleans Film Festival featured locally shot “Welcome to Academia,” a bold film that reveals the behind-the-scenes drama and politics at a fictitious Ivy League school. Filmed on Tulane’s campus in 2007, the movie deals with the role of pure academic research at universities and whether school administrations really care about their students.
On the one hand, the dean of Victorian University desires a traditional curriculum, free of radical professors and lazy students. On the other hand, Victorian’s professors serve up classes like “Pornology 101” in which students watch porn and discuss its feminist implications. The film is about top administrators stepping on the toes of lesser administrators and placing self-interest above the needs of students and professors.
"Academia" centers around Sophie, a doctoral student whose happiness and confidence in her research become compromised by the “hydra” of faculty members who sneer at every aspect of her thesis. Pressured by each professor to take his or her own specialty and somehow apply it to her own research, Sophie finds herself engulfed in university politics when she tries to please each member of the hydra but ends up irritating the other two. She must decide whether to be happy with her research or to bastardize it by integrating her advisers’ respective advice.
After the university president steps down from office, the new president shakes things up and appoints certain colleagues (including the attractive female professors for whom he so lusts). Trapped in a web of mistresses and cheaters, Sophie’s thesis becomes less of an important academic achievement and more of an object over which the power-hungry administration members use to spark jealousy and demonstrate their intelligence. But at what cost does the hydra manipulate Sophie’s thesis? Will Sophie even receive her doctorate?
Overall, the film raises some doubts about the purpose of private universities. It even draws some similarities between the fictitious Victorian University and Tulane. In an attempt to boost dwindling enrollment at Victorian, the president raises capital to create a new student center. Using our real Lavin-Bernick Center as the final product of Victorian’s fund raising, students and faculty alike wondered if the edgy building design was for students’ or administrators’ enjoyment. At such an exciting time at Tulane in terms of restructuring departments, boosting enrollment and taking on new construction projects, “Welcome to Academia” certainly deals with the controversies at American private universities, including our own, in an effective, entertaining way.