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Thursday, May 22, 2014

May 22, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: Love Story

[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On the enduring appeal of fantasies, romantic and communal.
Every September, as part of the first-year orientation activities, Harvard screens Love Story (1970) for its entire freshman class. The screening is partly self-referential, as the production was one of the last allowed to film on the university’s grounds (it caused sufficient damage to contribute toward a change in university policy that now prohibits such filming) and so offers a rare opportunity to see actual Harvard buildings and settings on the big screen; and it’s partly tongue-in-cheek, as orientation leaders and administrators dress up in ‘60s/’70s apparel as part of the experience. But however ironic our young American filmgoers might tend to be, there’s still something quite striking about an annual Harvard screening of a film designated one of the most romantic of all time.
It’s not just that Love Story is self-consciously and thoroughly romantic, though—it’s that it creates its romance through a combination of just about every relevant cliché and stereotype, of both Harvard and love stories, possible. Its star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks (he an elite Harvard legacy and hockey player, she a working-class student supporting herself through school) fall in love at first sight and pursue their romance despite opposition from his snobby Harvard father, supporting each other through the darkest of times and coming out on top, only to meet a tragic fate through an unnamed terminal illness. Indeed, Love Story is such a collection of romantic clichés that it even coined its own, in the enduring catchphrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” (which is ironically perhaps the least accurate cliché in human history, as anyone who’s ever tried to make a long-term relationship work can attest).
The film’s romantic fantasies are generally universal and longstanding, more connected to Romeo and Juliet than Harvard. But they certainly utilize two distinct but perhaps interconnected stereotypical images of Harvard and higher education in America—the elitist, legacy side embodied by Ryan O’Neal’s path to the school and romance; and the upward mobility, American Dream side exemplified by Ali McGraw’s. (In that sense and only that sense, perhaps McGraw’s untimely demise could be read as more cynical or socially critical than clichéd.) Just as the film’s lovers do, our current narratives of higher ed embrace the democratic, upward mobility image and reject the elitist, legacy one—and of course, the former is indeed a far more positive goal, one deployed in direct response to the latter’s historical and ongoing prevalence. But it’s worth recognizing that both are fantasies, simplified and romanticized images of identity and community that must be analyzed rather than taken for granted. I’d apologize for saying so, but blogging means never having to say you’re sorry.
Last Harvard movie tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?

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