Good Will Hunting is my Least Favorite Movie of All Time: An Opus in Three Parts

Guest blogger Dorothy Gambrell cartoons for Cat & Girl every Tuesday and Thursday and lives in an “up and coming neighborhood.” She went to college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

I. Good Will Hunting is my Least Favorite Movie of All Time

“Art” can mean a lot of things. Almost anything, really. But surely it has never referred to the movies I saw at art cinemas in the late 1990s. Emma. The English Patient. Shine. Movies whose running times were spent complementing the audience on their fine taste in movies. Movies that feigned intellectual discourse by taking place in a foreign country or at a past time or by being based on a well-received novel. You know – middlebrow.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

I was home from college for the summer when I saw Good Will Hunting. We watched it together, my family, on the couch in the den where the television was and where we spent most of our time together. The living room was reserved for guests we never had, and the Christmas tree. Middlebrow.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

My parents – like most of the world – loved Good Will Hunting. But not me. No way. If Good WIll Hunting had just dressed up the cheap thrills of a coherent narrative in vague sentiments of educational merit, well, there was nothing novel in that. But Good Will Hunting was different. Good Will Hunting was insincere. Good Will Hunting was 126 minutes of Gus Van Sant encouraging his audience to congratulate themselves and then mocking them when they did so – with a sly wink at those of us cultured enough to “get it.”

That was me, all right. I was in college. I had read Walter Benjamin! I got it.

A movie that tells you you’re smart is a movie that appeals to people who want to be smarter, an audience that spends even its leisure time aspirationally. An audience that sends its children to expensive colleges, that believes in education as the surest path upward into the meritocracy. An audience that wants to better themselves and believes that such a thing is possible.


II. On Just Now Rewatching Good Will Hunting, Previously My Least Favorite Movie of All Time

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

As Will drives away from Boston we can feel safe assuming he ends up in California with a job and a girlfriend. It’s the promise the movie has made to us. We can assume that four years later, when Skylar graduates from medical school, Chuckie and Morgan are drinking beers across a pickup truck at a construction site. But the futures within movies take place in an infinite present. And fifteen years later Will Hunting will be fifteen years older in a world that’s never seen a Governor Schwarzenegger or a war in Afghanistan. Or the gentrification of Southie.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Clark the obnoxious graduate student thinks he can impress Skylar with his academic browbeating of two townies. But when Will proves more than his equal, Clark resorts to the sheer weight of social privilege. In the future – the future world of Good Will Hunting, where characters grow older but the year remains 1997 – we know that if Will and Clark meet at that drive-through it will be as two upper-class tourists. In the future where it is 2011 the joke is on a guy getting a Humanities Ph.D. who thinks he’ll end up making more money than anyone. In 2011 Clark gave up his part time adjunct position at Florida Gulf Coast University to go to culinary school, and the locally sourced lamb burgers he sells at a drive-though in Vermont have been featured in the New York Times Style Section.

He will never finish paying his student loans.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Will’s intelligence is unquestioned, but the opportunity to leave of Southie doesn’t present itself until he catches the attention of an MIT professor. His therapist teaches at a community college, but they only meet because the therapist’s MIT roommate was Professor Lambeau. Will’s relationship with Skylar isn’t just a relationship with someone who can recognize his intellectual gifts  – it’s a relationship with the people she’s met at “Private school, Harvard, and now Med. School.” You can get a Harvard education at the library for a dollar and fifty cents in late fees, but you can’t get the social contacts.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Good Will Hunting is the myth of the self-correcting meritocracy written by two guys who went to fancy colleges and had some personal interest in the continued relevance of that meritocracy’s institutions. And when I saw it as a college student – as an incipient if reluctant member of that meritocracy – I bristled. I bristled at the aesthetics I was in training to leave behind, and values that had sent me on my way. I bristled at the new aesthetics and expectations I was encountering, like I had entered a religious order and was only now realizing what vows I had sworn to uphold. And I realized, suddenly, on that old couch whose worn center springs pitched everyone towards the middle, amid shelves heavy with twenty volume collections of “the classics,” in the room with the television where we spent all our time, what it was I was losing.

But now, fifteen years later – now that meritocracy and its advantages are a distant smudge on the horizon – now I can’t bring myself to care.

Now I don’t hate Good Will Hunting very much at all.

III. But I May Have Overthought This

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Images Cinema is currently showing The Help.

White people really like Good Will Hunting: An interview with blogger Christian Lander

Bostonians really, really like Good Will Hunting. We recently spoke via email with author Christian Lander of the famed blog — and subsequent book — Stuff White People Like. He has a new book called Whiter Shades of Pale: The Stuff White People Like, Coast to Coast, from Seattle’s Sweaters to Maine’s Microbrews. We asked him a few questions about his new book, Boston, and of course, Good Will Hunting.

Christian Lander (Photo credit: Jess Lander)

BLOG WILL HUNTING: Did your travels as a published author, perhaps on your first book tour, affect the way you see the (white) world? I was struck by the similarities — looking from your book tour dates to the cities you profile in the new book.

CHRISTIAN LANDER: Absolutely. Like most people I fell into a bubble of only visiting cities where I had close friends or were absolute must stops for white people (New York, San Francisco). I had a rough idea about the makeup and attitudes of these other cities but it wasn’t until I actually visited them that I realized that they were as predictable as me. Which is to say, very predictable.

Whiter Shades of Pale: The Stuff White People Like, Coast to Coast, from Seattle's Sweaters to Maine's MicrobrewsBWH: I suspect there are particular questions that authors get asked all the time. What is the quintessential question people ask of you at author talks?

CL: “Is there anyone who doesn’t get it?” And the answer is always yes. You can’t write about race, or you can’t write anything even close to satire without an drawing an audience that doesn’t get it.

BWH: Following up on that, I’d imagine you’ve been pitched some pretty esoteric blogs. Any that were particularly memorable?

CL: Not sure I’d call them esoteric. Most people won’t tell me their idea for a tumblr blog, they’ll just do it, and before you know it we have a site of “Cats that look look like this lesbian I know.” Boom. What I find are people who have done brilliant spin off sites: Stuff Educated Black People Like, Stuff Black People Hate, White Stuff People Like, etc.

Red Sox hat, from Whiter Shades of PaleBWH: I’m of course particularly interested in your Boston section. Why did you choose to kick off the book with Boston?

CL: I wish I could say I had a burning desire because I had my heart broken by a girl from Brookline or a particularly harsh rejection from Harvard. But the truth is when we were arranging the book we tried to do a rough geographical tour, and we figured we should start in the Northeast. After all, that’s exactly where white people started.

BWH: I feel like you sum up the Good Will Hunting phenomenon perfectly in your comment about Bostonians being “proud of their blue-collar roots” but “two generations is as close as they will ever get to a job requiring manual labor.” Matt and Ben made this film that was so intensely proud of its grittiness, and much is made of their true-blue Boston backgrounds, but they were Cambridge brats who were teachers’ kids and went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin. Assuming it wasn’t actually Damon and Affleck, what was your inspiration for this astute observation?

CL: The “Boston” movies help (Good Will Hunting, The Town, The Departed) and since I have a lot of friends from Boston (mostly classmates who I met at McGill), they all sort of take on this pride that Boston is somehow still a place where you can be white and tough and I guess sort of smart. It was fun to see people taking pride in these roots and then finding out that their parents were lawyers. It’s like when they call professional sports teams “blue collar.”

Harvard sweatshirt. Yet for some reason they are awkward about telling you they went to Harvard ("I went to school in Cambridge").

BWH: So… does Good Will Hunting fit? Is it something White People Like?

CL: Absolutely, because we all like to think we were smart enough to go to Harvard but chose not to.

Christian Lander at Harvard Book Store

Christian Lander will be signing books and speaking here in town, at Cambridge’s own Harvard Book Store, on Saturday, January 22.

Oh, and incidentally, here on Blog Will Hunting we’ve been known to whine “They got a book deal; why not me?” Check out our takes on LOLCats and Cake Wrecks.

Mommying Will Hunting

Blog Will Hunting welcomes guest contributor Claire, mother of two, and a contributor to the blog Rants from MommyLand.

Have you ever noticed that there are no parents in Good Will Hunting?

"That's a good takedown."

There are brief references to Will’s biological and foster parents, Skylar’s wealthy father, Sean’s abusive dad, and Chuckie’s Ma (and her VCR…). Certainly, Sean and Lambeau become a type of hybrid father figure to Will, together tumultuously strengthening Will’s ability to form healthy emotional attachment. But there are no actual moms or dads written into the script and we never witness any authentic parenting in the movie.

As a mother to two young children I sometimes find myself thinking back to this film and wondering, what about the parents? What’s their deal? What parenting successes led to Chuckie’s unabashed confidence? What drove the horrific foster parents to utterly ignore Will’s obvious genius?

Despite the lack of parental presence in the film there is still a lot of child-rearing wisdom to be reaped. In fact, I’ve managed to successfully incorporate several brilliant GWH one-liners into my own mothering repertoire.

Bill takes down Morgan

For example, the baby hates to don his snow suit. By the time I stuff all four extremities into the ball of down fluff he is sobbing as if I’ve submitted him to some kind of torture device. But then once he’s strapped in the backpack or the stroller and he’s outside in the fresh air he is hands-down the happiest kid in the world. At this point I get right up in his face and declare, “How do you like me NOW?!

A selection of various lego bricks via The Morning News | A Common Nomenclature for Lego FamiliesNext example: My 2.5 year-old decides to dump out every single Lego, block and puzzle piece we own about 35 seconds before we’re supposed to leave for preschool. My response? “Jane! No more shenanigans. No more tomfoolery. No more ballyhoo. Put. On. Your. Shoes.” If my request is subsequently ignored I have been known to take a deep breath and mutter, “Keep antagonizing me, watch what happens.”

And my personal favorite: as I break up a scrum between my son and daughter a sudden stench makes my eyes sting. I ask, “OK, who made a poop?” <They both look innocent.> I point to the guiltiest-looking child and announce, “Ya suspect!

Ya suspect!

Thank you, Good Will Hunting, for allowing me to share these truly awesome parenting gems with my kids, especially the most graceful way to exit an awkward social encounter: “I swallowed a bug.

Legos image via The Morning News, “A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families.”

The Mind of a Genius — Too Pure for Paper?

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for all the vertical reflective surfaces in the Boston area.

Good Will Hunting mirror
Good Will Hunting
The Social Network window
The Social Network

Thanks to these windows and mirrors, our genius janitors (Good Will Hunting) and entrepreneurial college students (The Social Network) can work out their formulas in an aesthetically pleasing manner with an inherent visual metaphor for self-reflection, intellectual clarity, and access — just through a window — into the analytic mind.

Bret Schneider of Chicago Art Criticism writes:

A Beautiful Mind window
A Beautiful Mind

For some reason it is common among films portraying genius to aestheticize their intellectual process by showing the protagonist writing on glass, mirror, or other reflective surfaces. In Good Will Hunting the film opens with the solitary genius writing abstract mathematical formulae on mirror, with few other objects in sight. A man and his mind, alone in a room. Oh wait, but also an obscure writing utensil that one would need to go far out of their way to procure. A Beautiful Mind has a similar scene, where the main character, a sociopathic math genius, writes his ideas on transparent glass. A plethora of pi glyphs and some mundane squares, punctuated by some other recognizable shapes like triangles and greater-than or less-than symbols writ in white mar the view of his dormitory window. Apparently geniuses are too pure for paper.

The following deleted scene from Good Will Hunting finds him math-ing away in his grungy Southie studio apartment. We see library books, and then a rare moment of him writing on notebook paper (actual paper!), which transitions to a scene in which he walks to the room’s periphery and starts writing on the wall.

Furthermore, a close look at the following still from the film also shows that Will has at one point resorted to doing math (homeomorphically irreducible trees, perhaps?) on the window shade. (Also check out Will’s beer of choice — a box for locally brewed Sam Adams sits in the lower left corner.)

Will Hunting at the window

Mathematician Keith Devlin (who discussed the math of Good Will Hunting on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1998; their conversation is considered here on Blog Will Hunting) defends this trope.

One of the most derided scenes in Good Will Hunting is where the hero starts to write equations on a bathroom mirror. Conveniently forgetting that the great Irish mathematician Alexander Rowan Hamilton scratched the key identities for the quaternions on a stone bridge — the only writing surface available to him at the time inspiration struck him — the critics scoffed that no mathematician would ever do such a thing. … Depicting a mathematician scribbling formulas on a sheet of paper might be more accurate (and you’ll see Crowe doing that in A Beautiful Mind, just as we saw Damon doing it in Good Will Hunting) but it certainly doesn’t convey the image of a person passionately involved in mathematics, as does seeing someone write those formulas in steam on a mirror or in wax on a window, nor is it as cinematographically dramatic.

That sums it all up rather nicely, I think. Both a visually-striking metaphor and a shorthand for the urgent intellectual passions of a genius, this cinematic cliché, like any other, gets its storytelling work done efficiently… even if the readiness of the appropriate writing utensil for such a purpose is rather unlikely.

When Ben Affleck’s character enters the Harvard bar in Good Will Hunting he announces, “So this is a Hah-vahd bar. I thought there’d be… equations and shit on the wall.”

Sorry, Ben — “equations on the wall”? That’s only in the movies.