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‘San Andreas’ Movie Stereotypes Academics

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For many years I lived right on the San Andreas Fault. (The real estate agent told me don’t worry, my house was on “rock.” Not to be confused with the Rock, the star of the summer’s mega-disaster movie, San Andreas.)

Years later, I moved over to the East Bay’s Hayward Fault. Finally, after a brief period on the other side of the country, home to numerous other faults of the non-geological kind, I returned back to the Central Valley of California, where even in its fault-free flatness, one cannot apparently escape the effects of the big earthquake.

In San Andreas, the Rock drives up the center of the state from Bakersfield (home of the Buck Owens museum for you Hee Haw fans) only to find the road has fallen into itself as the massive quake has created a chasm that cannot be crossed.

Such a reassuring movie to see while on vacation in the middle of the country!

As disaster films go, it is much more realistic than say, the old technologies in Towering Inferno or Earthquake.

In the “movie as amusement ride” category, it’s not bad.

But my big complaint is in the casting.

Surely, one cannot fault a film’s diversity when you have the Rock saving damsels in distress at every turn.

No, my beef is with the movie’s stereotypical view of professors.

Mind you, I have only been a lowly adjunct. But must Paul Giamatti be the default stereotypical “look” for those of us on the front lines in higher ed?

Giamatti, as you may or may not have realized, has inherited the character role once reserved for someone like Wallace Shawn, of My Dinner with Andre fame.

Giamatti at 5’ 9” is at least seven inches taller than Shawn, so we must consider that an upgrade. But we are still left with an aging, paunchy white male who dons what I call the “friar’s haircut,”  the one where the halo has burned in a bald spot on the top of the head, leaving a ring of hair that most brothers just shave off.

Giamatti knows a little about academia, being the son of A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former Yale president, who later became the former commissioner of Major League Baseball. It seems shocking now that Giamatti, born in 1938, passed away in 1989 when he was just 51. Now at just about the same age, his son is in this year’s summer blockbuster with the aforementioned Rock, and the fetching Carla Gugino.

In San Andreas, Giamatti plays a Cal Tech professor straight out of Central Casting. He’s a bedraggled, passionate academic, consumed by his work, and passionate about the use of science to predict major earthquakes in order to, yes, save the world.

But why go with the stereotypical look?


Why not Ice Cube? Or Denzel? Or someone like the part-Filipino, part-Latino Lou Diamond Phillips? Or how about the strong female geologist who is the counterpart of the aging White male? Why not a Sharon Stone or a Queen Latifah?

Must the academic look paunchy, middle-aged, with the friar’s cut? And male?

I have liked Giamatti since his appearance in Howard Stern’s film version of Private Parts. (I was a pull quote on page 583 of the hardback).

Yes, Giamatti’s character kind of saves the world from a predictive data standpoint, but the filmmakers don’t even let him get a very professional but celebratory hug and embrace from the sexy TV reporter Serena, played by Archie Panjabi.

Again, I won’t fault the movie for diversity. Will Yun Lee does play a young sexy Asian American professor/researcher, a co-author to the Giamatti character. But instead of being a co-hero in the entire movie, they give him the glory of an early death while saving a young child.

Some consolation. Was it so hard to show an Asian American scientist?

And don’t tell me that Giamatti helps add to the “realism.”

This is a mega-disaster film where all of California is destroyed. Realism is far from the filmmaker’s vision. More like outrageous imaginary death and destruction.

And yet one of the only things they managed to leave intact is the stereotype of the un-hot academic?

O woe!

Award-winning journalist and commentator Emil Guillermo writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Twitter@emilamok. Contact:

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