Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dark material: critiquing the critiques

Though I can’t say I’m addicted to movie-watching (mostly I’d rather play on the internet), since we joined Netflix I’ve occasionally seen something really sticks and inspires a little deeper thinking beyond “oh, that was entertaining” or “sheesh, that stunk.”

This weekend we saw the movie Dark Matter, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, an Americanized Changsha (PRC) ex-pat.

Several reviewers conclude the movie is about miscommunication. I think it is in fact a round condemnation of the Confucian tradition underpinning self-censored communication, and more importantly, paralysis of recourse, in the master-student relationship. Another of its large themes is American academe’s constitutional lack of support for trainees whose paths go wrong. While this is a tremendously timely issue (release of Dark Matter was in fact delayed until events at Virginia Tech slowly worked their way off the front pages) I don’t believe it was sufficiently unfolded in the movie to garner the attention of viewers not steeped in the culture of the American academy (as I have been all my life). Both themes are of towering importance as flaws in the Chinese system and the American system both bear responsibility for slowing the pace of scientific progress and disappointing, if not ruining, lives that otherwise are full of potential.

The story is set in a generic American physics department where the charming, eager mainland Chinese student, Liu Xing (performed by Liu Ye), excitedly enters graduate school. He attracts the attention of a senior professor of cosmology, Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) who quickly welcomes Liu to his stable of research assistants whose sole purpose, unbeknownst to Liu, is to produce dissertations supporting Reiser’s theories of the universe. While this kind of thing can happen in American graduate programs, most students recognize a hopeless mentor and find another within their chosen institution, or elsewhere. For reasons that some reviewers have interpreted as obsession, Liu fails to do that and continues, as the years go by, to bang his head against the wall of Reiser’s mentorship. My reading of this is not as an early symptom of Liu’s eventual breakdown, but as his adherence to the Confucian culture (that did not just survive Communism, but fostered its dispersion and persistence).

Student Liu is indeed quite brilliant and pieces together clues along one of modern physics’ most intriguing frontiers, the eponymous dark matter, that seem to have substantial explanatory potential. The professor will have none of it, and is both intellectually and personally threatened by the possibility that his ideas could be dethroned. Reiser’s arrogance is further portrayed in a brief aside about his split with his own dissertation chair. Liu garners enough positive feedback from others that I, at least, am convinced he’s on to something of scientific importance and that his persistence is not self-aggrandizement but intellectual confidence. Liu’s choices are to change dissertation topic, change mentor, change institution, or go home. He takes none of these paths, I believe because of his unending hope of convincing Reiser of the value of his ideas and of earning Reiser’s praise.

In his letters to his parents in China, Liu repeatedly assures them of his successes, even stating that he will certainly win a Nobel prize. This has been interpreted by some reviewers as evidence of his growing delusions. I interpreted it as the normal behavior of a prodigal son “saving face” before his clueless, beloved, blue-collar parents thousands of miles away.

As his troubles persist, Liu does not reach out to his parents, his Chinese roommates, or to the sinophiliac Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), a self-appointed, maternalistic liaison for the Chinese students. Again, classic face-saving.

There is at last an overdue scene revealing Joanna’s dawning realization that Liu is in deep trouble (though it reads to me more like a verging sexual moment diverted in the nick of time). Streep’s character is otherwise nearly superfluous except that her air-headed efforts at bridging the culture gap for the foreigners serve to limn, for me, the absence of an effective support structure at the nameless university. In loco parentis? Not conventionally, for graduate students, anyway.

After years (signaled by the fact that all Liu’s roommates have finished their degrees and left the by now dropout alone in their beat-up student rental), Liu’s hopelessness finally pushes him over the edge. He explodes in a shooting spree, killing Reiser and the colleagues who collude in the suppression of Liu’s results before doing away with himself. In the end, Joanna Silver’s voluntary substitution for what the (cold, heartless) academic institution should have provided is redeemed. It is she who telephones Liu’s mother to inform her of her son’s devastating finale.

There is a lot more to this complex movie, including its occasional touches on the serious matter of public ignorance of science. Production-wise, it’s got lots of snippets of sensationally selected music. The character of Liu Xing is extremely well played and well directed. His accent and phraseology, mannerisms, even postures, are bang-on. His Chinese room-mates are also perfectly cast and realized. The Jacob Reiser character, annoyingly, is too stereotyped; in my view that is a major directorial blunder because academia is already on defensive with the American public. And the unnuanced Joanna Silver role certainly did not need Meryl Streep behind it. Though Streep is the queen of awkward-woman roles, and can accurately reproduce any accent in the universe including that of an American trying hard to master Chinese, the part might have been better played by an unknown so as not to distract those of us who admire Streep with thoughts about how haggard and skinny she has become.

I might add that the story is in part based on a similar 1991 incident at the University of Iowa in which a Chinese graduate student killed five people. It does happen.

The photograph is of physics students at Huazhong Teachers College, Wuhan, People's Republic of China, trying to hear a lecture by my former husband on, what else, cosmology (of black holes). There was not enough space for all the students who wished to attend;the seats at the table were for more senior attendees. September, 1980.


  1. Very interesting. Its well beyond my experience, although I here some interesting stories from my son who is in the final stages of his PhD candidacy in biology.
    In addition very depressing to read your take on Meryl Streep my all time forever favorite movie actress. ohwell were all getting older.

  2. I'm hoping Streep's appearance in the movie was in part the magic of Hollywood that made her up, coiffed, dressed, and lighted her to look that way. I have to admit, though, she no longer looks like she did in The Bridges of Madison County. Hey, Clint Eastwood is one of my big faves, too!
    Anyway, what is it about this getting older stuff??