“Dark Matter” is an obscure and powerful movie based on real facts -- which is the least important thing about it. Briefly the idea is that brilliant Chinese students come to an American university to study but one brilliant boy is so focused on his work that he fails to understand the cutthroat politics that have evolved out of the old European mentoring system as it is shaped by American competition for status. His professor/advisor is so threatened -- partly because the young man is discrediting the professor’s theories -- that he blocks the young man’s success, denies his thesis, prevents his graduation. The young man -- driven by his obligation as an only Chinese child to be a great success and unable to find any outside help either from his own cohort or from Americans -- doesn’t just kill himself (which is a Chinese way to preserve honor) but accepts the American way of lashing out by shooting the professor and his more assimilated and therefore more successful competitor. Then he kills himself.
The movie had guarded success, partly because of the participation of Aiden Quinn as the professor, cast against his usual sympathetic roles, and partly because of Meryl Streep as a wealthy and empathetic woman who can’t think of a way to intervene beyond a small word to the professor. Neither can the Chinese student find a way to explain himself to her so that she can wise him up. There is a tender but useless scene between them when he is reduced to selling cosmetics door-to-door. For “face.”
It’s all very symbolic, of course, but I’m sure a lot of American graduate students have run into this same dark matter that forms of sea of denial on every campus. Students are there for the benefit of the professors and not the other way around, the same as authors are there for the benefit of the publishers and not the other way around. The American corporate, hierarchical, entitlement way of running institutions is a “people eater.”
Liu Ye, the lead actor, and both writer/directors, Billy Shebar and Shi-Zheng Chen, are also “dark” matter even on imdb.com. But not on Google. (Billyshebar.com) The writer/directors are members of a circle of independent people who work mostly in theatre and opera. Liu Ye is an international figure with a French wife, unknown to the Americans who -- like the pretty barista courted by Liu Ye’s character, confuse cosmology with cosmetology. But then, his character also confuses cosmetology with intimacy.
The other movie I want to bring up is “The Ruling Class,” a 1972 cult satire which confronts some of the same issues, since the American university system is directly derived from the British class system and endorses the same universal human drive to be the best, the top, the most powerful, absolutely in control, able to stigmatize as crazy anyone who differs or gets in the way. Peter O’Toole believes he is Jesus. His peers and family define that as crazy. Due to Peter’s father accidentally hanging himself in a episode of paraphilia while declaiming Brit conquerer nonsense in a cockade hat and a ballerina tutu at the top of stepladder with a rope around his neck, Peter becomes an Earl. Things turn out the way you’d probably expect, except that the action occasionally breaks over into music hall bits. Otherwise, it’s as much concerned with inheritance and unreliable servants as Downton Abbey.
There’s a little biting comment on science in the form of psychiatry: the Christ character, faced with an electrical Anti-Christ (electroshock therapy), changes psychoses and becomes Jack the Ripper. All the while he flaunts his new persona as a politician in the House of Lords, sounding like the most right-wing of American Taliban in his calls for draconian control of the underclasses, he is secretly murdering women -- including his wife, mother of his child.
In China they also have mass murders of school children, but usually committed with knives because there is not the American access to guns. Cultural matters always include the facts of the material culture. If simply removing the artifacts -- like guns -- would make a difference, we could do it smiling. If we could prevent sly back alley murders of women and other vulnerable people by making powerful movies with big stars, we’d have gotten the job done long ago. If commentary would make the difference, all mass murderers would have been buried in it by now.
Opinion is forming that the recipe is supplied by the media: be a young male, wear black and a mask, use a semi-automatic with a big magazine, plan ahead in cryptic computer messages, and so on. The idea gets into their heads. They’re loners. No one suspects their desperation. They play it out in video games. (So far no girls in pink.) The proposed responses also sound like video games: tasers, bear spray, arming the students and teachers. In fact, schools have had in place for two decades now detailed protocols and codes for loudspeaker alerts indicating lockdown, freeze in place, take cover. Someone, possibly a cop, sits at the front door to intercept visitors.
“How could this happen?” the citizens cry. “We’re nice people. Our school is small. We all love each other.” 700 students, grade K-4 is NOT small. Nor is any suburb of Hartford an innocent rural town. It is a place where people think of themselves as average, though in fact they are quite privileged.
The year I lived in Hartford (actually Wethersfield, a little historic engulfed town) my landlady, a social worker, took me to the local cemetery and pointed out all the boys in her son’s cohort who had committed suicide or had been committed to an institution because of paranoid schizophrenia, the diagnosis of Peter O’Toole’s character in the movie. When I took the bus across town, I sat alongside lanky Caribbean boys with boom boxes on their shoulders and marijuana on their breath.
We aren’t being honest. Our movies are holding up mirrors, but we don’t take in what we see. Even Peter O’Toole, Aiden Quinn and Meryl Streep, who do seem to get it, can’t make us look at what we’d rather ignore -- a culture built on sand, determined to build castles.