As a college professor, I’ve never felt that films get college professors right. Sometimes we’re eccentric and quirky, or egotistical, or venal, or somehow out of touch with the world. Often we’re shown having relationships with students, or as burned out, or as super-intelligent., or as excessively privileged, or as bitter failures. In reality, college faculty vary widely in personality and type and basic characteristics. All of them are human beings. It’s difficult to identify a stereotype. We get an array of professor types in The Man from Earth (2009, dir. Richard Schenkman): one man is having an affair with a student, another is a burned out biologist, another a Bible-thumping literalist, another an anthropologist interested in the deeper questions of human existence, another a senior psychologist at the end of his career. They all behave in a goofy, artificial way, not as I’ve seen my own colleagues behave (most of the time), but not necessarily in a way fundamentally unbelievable.
What I like about these professors is their interest in, and fascination with, ideas. The whole film takes place in a rustic small cabin that belongs to a colleague, John Oldman, who has announced, unexpectedly, after ten years of teaching, that he is leaving for parts unknown. His colleagues and friends come over to check on his well bring, to dissuade him from his decision.
He tells them an incredible story—he claims to be 14,000 years old, a surviving Cro-Magnon man, who by some quirk of biology and genetics has never aged beyond his 35th year. He spends much of the film convincing his friends of the truth of his story. He recalls an astonishing number of historical details, claims to have studied with Buddha, and describes his wandering back and forth across Asia and Europe and finally to North America. He makes one astonishing revelation. His friends spend much of the film in varying stages of disbelief and outrage, but they also plunge into the discussion he invites them to have—on the implications of life and its meaning for a man who never grows old, on the possibility that he story he tells them may be true.
I enjoyed listening to the ideas and questions bandied about in this film. They cover everything from the meaning of identity and memory and love to time and death and belief. Unfortunately, these professors talk on the level of somewhat intelligent and extremely stoned college students. The script is written on the same level.
This film interested me for its willingness to dramatize the exchange of ideas, for its concern with deeply profound questions, and for its failure to be more than it is.