Searching for an honest image of the American college student

If the press it’s been receiving this week is any indication, the latest film by director/writer Mike Judge, entitled Extract, is, much like Judge’s previous two live-action works (Office Space and Idiocracy), fairly funny and painfully on-point. Though the depiction of cubicle-centric life that Judge achieved in Office Space lacked the documentary quality of its spiritual successors (such as both of the British and the American versions of The Office), it nevertheless hit on something undeniably true despite its comically stylized attitude towards its subject matter.

Judge’s approach is somewhat elliptical in that he seems less concerned with remaining faithful to the awkward rhythms and silences of everyday banality in middle America at the height of capitalist development (indeed, in this week’s Village Voice, J. Hoberman argues that Extract is partly a defense of capitalist society) and more concerned with creating an image of a way of life that most audiences can relate to.

But if we accept that Judge has been even slightly successful in this endeavor (an honest interpretation of the state of things rather than a documentary-style reproduction, though no less truthful), then we have to wonder why other milieus are so difficult to capture with any sort of truthfulness. The specific milieu I have in mind is the American university, a little piece of the world that has been consistently betrayed by art, whether by cinema (nearly any comedy set in a college), MTV (need I mention College Life or any of the True Life shows?) or even in literature (though I admit I haven’t read Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons).

People seemed to consider the short-lived (and Judd Apatow-penned) TV series Undeclared to be a step in the right direction as far as honestly depicting the life of an American college student goes, though that show restricted itself almost exclusively to the dormitory. I don’t think anyone would be mad at a film, novel or TV series which sought, like Judge, to capture the essence of student life without reproducing  it exactly, injecting it with the style necessary to extract from it a measure of verité. Here I’m imagining a work in the vein of Godard’s Masculin féminin (1966) or, more recently, Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures (2002), though it’d follow our society’s biochem and comp lit majors instead of our pretty drop-outs and romantic burn-outs. Whether such a work of art is possible remains to be seen; in the meantime, Extract opens everywhere on Friday.

P.S. For the record, my two favorite cinematic depictions of student life were both written and directed by Eric Rohmer: La boulangère de Monceau (1963) and La carrière de Suzanne (1963).

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