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TV REVIEW : 'Surviving Desire' Skewers Academia

January 22, 1992|RAY LOYND

Romances between college professors and their students have been going on for a long time. But as any professor will admit who ever fell for a student's comely ankle dangling from the front row, it's a dangerous attraction.

In "Surviving Desire" (on PBS' "American Playhouse" at 9 tonight on KPBS Channel 15, at 10 p.m. on KCET Channel 28), a professor of literature in Upstate New York is snared, seduced and dumped by a bright-eyed gamin.

In real campus life, it's often the professor who does the dumping. But as fools and mortals ruled by desire, the characters in this one-hour film do animate one of higher education's more unspoken and darkly comical extra-curricular activities. It's ripe ground for a dramatist, and writer-director Hal Hartley has spun a story that seems autobiographical in its self-consciousness and its mocking literary pretensions.

A young prof named Jude (the quick-witted and depressed Martin Donovan) is so smitten by a vivacious, waif-like student (Mary Ward) that his idea of teaching Dostoevski is to keep reading out loud the same old paragraph about love until his students rebel.

The guy, it turns out, is a terrible teacher, so infatuated with the pixieish brunette at the front of the room that he's rendered almost comatose in class. These are funny scenes if you've ever felt that loss of control, and the filmmaker's off-kilter style gives the production a kind of sophomoric theatrical energy.

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