Monday, June 30, 2014

Reeling Backward: The Paper Chase (1973)

Something that many of us do in life is look back on our youth with, if not exactly regret, then melancholy puzzlement. The things that seemed so important to us back then are rendered inert, even pointless with the perspective of the passing years. We ponder the years and mental/emotional energy spent on stuff that we now regard with little value.

This can be especially true when it comes to our schooling. I didn't really have a social clique in high school, but I was part of the stratum of grade-grubbing academic overachievers who were focused solely on putting together the best possible college application. Taking the most challenging classes, rocking a 4.0 GPA, academic societies, the "right" extracurricular activities -- it was part of the perceived on-ramp to the highway of success that had been mapped out for us going back to elementary school.

"The Paper Chase" is about a rather similar journey, cycled forward a few years later. Set at the prestigious Harvard Law School, this film based on John Jay Osborn Jr.'s novel follows first-year law student James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) as he struggles to navigate the hyper-competitive waters and earn accolades, particularly from the demanding professor of contract law, the legendary Charles Kingsfield. 

John Houseman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing Kingsfield, and would even go on to reprise the role in a TV series that ran for a total of four seasons (split by a hiatus). Houseman is a strong presence, but the role isn't particularly demanding, essentially asking that Houseman be Houseman -- which is to say, the persona he came to inhabit during the latter part of his career: emotionally distant patrician, clipped elocution, a strong whiff of snobbery and disdain for his lessers.

The film would also earn Academy Award nominations for screenplay, by writer/director James Bridges, as well as sound. The movie is considered to be a nearly word-for-word adaptation of the book, so in a sense the screenplay nomination was an endorsement more of Osborn than Bridges. 

Certainly, the film suffers from shoddy pacing, seeming to grow very slow and myopic in its storytelling, then skimming over stuff that would seem way more important than the time and emotion the filmmakers invest in it. This is especially true when it comes to the romance between Hart and Susan (Lindsay Wagner), a woman is eventually revealed to be Kingsfield's daughter.

The relationship seems to exist entirely so we can have this big reveal moment, but it doesn't grow or ebb or evolve or anything. They get together for sex from time to time, go off on weekend jaunts, but can't move any further because he's studying all the time and she's his nemesis' offspring.

Now about that animosity between pupil and teacher: it exists only in the mind of Hart. The basic story of "The Paper Chase" is how Hart rises to the challenge of his stern taskmaster, not only mastering the lessons of the classroom but also how to earn the right to act as an officer of the courts. He sneaks into the law library's hidden archives to review Kingsfield's own notes from his days as a law student, and reads all of his academic writings going back 40 years. 

Initially trounced by the burden -- on the first day of class, Hart is embarrassed when Kingsfield quizzes him on material he failed to prepare, sending him scurrying to the men's room to vomit -- he eventually become the cocky favorite, boasting to Susan that he's several steps ahead of his adversary, her father. 

The truth is that the aged Kingsfield barely knows who he is, repeatedly having to lean upon a seating chart of his classroom with photos to be able to tell his students apart. One of the final scenes has Hart complimenting Kingsfield on how much the class meant to him, and he's knocked down a peg or five when the professor asks to be reminded of his name once again. There's a great reaction shot of Bottoms, as he realizes his grand quest to vanquish his academic foe has been a sustained ride of utter self-delusion.

Bottoms, one of the most promising young actors of his generation (which includes Richard Gere and Jeff Bridges, his co-star from "The Last Picture Show"), largely disappeared from the film scene after the 1970s, popping up from time to time, especially to portray President George W. Bush in several different settings. 

His poofy white-man afro was a constant source of mirth for me while watching the film. This appears to be as far as the counter-culture invades into the fictional Harvard law scene of the early 1970s, with the long-ish haired students sporting coats and ties and neurotic ambitions about landing the right job with the right law firm. They may take up causes, but there are no rebels here.

The most interesting thing to me about the movie was the group dynamic of the students in Kingsfields' class. They quickly segregate themselves into three categories: those who are destined to fail, the anointed who dominate the Socratic dialogue led by Kingsfield, and the muddled middle, which is where Hart assigns himself -- those struggling to keep up but too intimidated to talk in class. In one of he film's best scenes, Hart forms, and brilliantly executes, a plan to move to the upper echelon.

The different types are encapsulated in the study group Hart gets invited into. Graham Beckel plays Ford -- I should mention the students all are referred to by only their last names -- a wealthy scion from a family of lawyers. Edward Herrmann, who was born looking like George Will's taller sibling, plays the young patrician-in-training, Anderson. James Naughton is Brooks, the hopelessly outclassed student who lacks the brain for even basic analysis of the case law, despite a photographic memory.

My favorite is Bell, deliciously played by Craig Richard Nelson, the sniveling overachiever type who looks down upon everyone else as his underlings. Each student in the study group is assigned to write an outline of each of the courses they share so they can prepare for the make-or-break exams at the end of the term. Bell haughtily refuses to share his 800-page treatise with anyone except Hart, though later he changes his mind. 

"The Paper Chase" is a well-acted, reasonably engaging drama that never quite finds its center. It is transparently obvious that Hart is deluding himself about his adversarial relationship with Kingsfield, so that aspect doesn't hold any surprises. The romance is a fizzle. The only time the movie truly finds its mojo is in those crackling classroom scenes.

It's too bad it takes four decades of remove to have the hindsight to recognize what's really important -- in filmmaking, in academia and in life.

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