In Defense of Professor Fleeber

It's easy to see that Fleeber, the college professor in The Freshman, is self-absorbed and mean-spirited, but I'm more interested in highlighting his admirable, Shakespearean qualities.

I'd say Fleeber is a model of intellectual passion (e.g. he mouths Godfather dialogue while showing scenes to his film class), and that passion pays off with surprising insights.
Fleeber( Paul Benedict), mimicking Michael Corleone on screen grabbing Fredo, saying, "You broke my heart."
For example, after showing his class the Godfather II scene where Michael Corleone confronts his brother Fredo for betraying him, Fleeber says: “A moment of epiphany. Michael Corleone kisses his brother full on the lips. An astonishing image, at once suggestive of love, inversion, power.” 

Professor Fleeber offers a great point here—intriguing and tantalizing, though necessarily undeveloped in this fast-moving comedy. If we thought more about Fleeber's comment on Michael Corleone's kiss of death, we'd find there's a lot going on here. That kiss is, as Fleeber suggests, an "inversion," a strange paradox: an embrace that both repels and pulls inward at the same time, a mixture of sex and death, a certain sort of creative power based on the violation of taboo, like the transgressions of kings, twins, and other founding figures in creation myths around the world.

I bet screenwriter and director Andrew Bergman knew he was onto something when he wrote that line, because, like Fleeber, he is a scholar of gangster films. Bergman wrote a PhD dissertation in American history about the way Hollywood films reflected social tensions during the Depression, later published as We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (1992). Bergman's book was well-received by scholars and published by NYU Press, the same university where Fleeber teaches. This is not to say Fleeber simply reflects Bergman's autobiography. This movie is a wild fictional comedy, and as Bergman himself noted in an interview, "We've all had Fleebers, whether in film school or some other cause." Still, at some broad level, presumably Bergman's scholarship informed Fleeber's insightful lines. (Either way, I'm impressed by Bergman's gutsy and successful career move, from writing academic books to writing screenplays for hilarious films like Blazing Saddles and The Freshman, among others. You don't see that combination every day, much less pulled off with this level of success.)

But to better understand Fleeber, rather than compare him with Bergman, I think it helps to compare him with a character from one of Shakespeare's plays. 
 
Fleeber and Shakespeare

At least to me, Fleeber most resembles Polonius, the babbling father of Ophelia and Laertes in “Hamlet.”  Both Fleeber and Polonius are self-absorbed, older male characters—and both provide surprising insight.
Polonius (right), King and Queen (left), Flckr ThemeFund
Although Polonius was a windbag, he uttered some of Shakespeare’s wisest, most enduring phrases, including “Brevity is the soul of wit,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and most famously, “To thine own self be true.” It’s not a coincidence that these pearls of wisdom came from Polonius, who, like Fleeber, is portrayed as a fool. When audiences get disarmed and distracted by the antics of a fool, that fool can slip in some fine insights.

Fleeber and Polonius have other things in common. Both are father figures in father-son dramas. And both are old men giving advice to young male protagonists who must figure out where cloistered study leaves off and action begins. Fleeber merely speculates in books and lectures about mafia in fictional movies; Clark goes to Little Italy and actually helps a real mafia Don pull off a huge scam. Polonius conjectures about power; Hamlet takes out his sword and fights to the death.

Uh, oh, I'm pulling a Fleeber again. I just realized that comparing The Freshman to “Hamlet” might be as outrageous as the Fleeber treatise, Guns and Provolone, in which Fleeber compares Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, and the Lake Tahoe scene from Godfather, II. The only justification for my outlandish, Fleeberesque comparison is that Shakespeare’s plays were the pop culture of his day, and "Hamlet" was his most popular play. The line between high and low culture is sometimes blurrier than we imagine.

Don't worry: I still think it would be funny to compare Kant and the Lake Tahoe scene, and I still dislike Professor Fleeber’s autocratic teaching style. I’m just saying that if you appreciate Polonius, you should give it up for Fleeber, too.

Remember this, above all: 
To thine own Fleeber be true.



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