DIRECTED BY JOSH RADNORSTARRING: JOSH RADNOR, ELISABETH OLSEN, RICHARD JENKINS, JOHN MAGARO, ELISABETH REASER, KATE BURTON, ROBERT DESIDERIO with ALLISON JANNEY and ZAC EFRON
I like this book because it’s fun, it’s stupid and it makes me happy, Zibby (Elisabeth Olsen) tells Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), defending a trilogy of Vampire novels. She says she thinks he’s one of those people who thinks it’s cool to hate things. Talk about what you love, keep quiet about what you don’t. He says he thinks the country (and the world, in extrapolation) is in bad shape because of the things that people like – which, he says, are very bad. She asks him if he’d like to surround himself only with people who read the same books as he does.
She snatches the book from him, throws it aside and asks him why he’d rather have an inconsequential (stupid) argument about something he doesn’t even feel that strongly about, when she’s sitting in front of him and they have themselves to talk about.
It’s incredible how ‘Liberal Arts’ could reference itself in so many places. A lot of the things that happen in the film are much like the film itself. That, or I’m doing to the film what the film recommends us not to do to a work of art – be it a book, a song or a film (even though films aren’t really talked about) – dissecting it beyond measure, making an anatomy lesson out of something which can be beautiful without need for inquiry.
This is not new in a film. As would be the bane of every film that has wanderers in its midst who thrust upon each other arsons of discussion and debate, all in playful camaraderie, if not joyful romance, ‘Liberal Arts’ reminds you very strongly of ‘Before Sunrise.’ Zibby is a girl who shows maturity that’s usually construed as beyond her age. Celine (Julie Delpy in ‘Before Sunrise’) was more American than her French-ness could permit. Jesse (Ethan Hawke in ‘Before Sunrise’) took lessons in romance from the very same woman he would go on to use it against. Jesse Fisher (possibly in a sort of tribute) has to go back to college and find a sophomore to get his act together.
How much can what he does be called ‘getting one’s act together’? He is an admissions counsellor in New York whose routine we come across in a single montage much like Ryan Bingham’s introduction in ‘Up in the Air’ – where the asshole speaks – not as a narrator, but as part of a speech he delivers as later revealed, five minutes into the film. Here, Jesse speaks to invisible students with varying extracurricular achievements and writing skills. A while after we’re made familiar with his chores, we see him robbed of his clothes, having to buy a new shirt that a girlfriend of his says she doesn’t have to acknowledge on her way out. Ex-Girlfriend, that is. He receives a call, the next morning or many mornings after, from a professor of his – a favourite, the way it sounds – called Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins) back from University. The man is retiring and has discovered he’s being felicitated. He calls Jesse to do his share of the honours.
In ‘Deconstructing Harry’, there is a scene where Woody Allen calls himself a sixty-year old adolescent. Not in the same words exactly, but in words that sound more or less similar. Jesse is that guy who needs just a whiff of fresh-mown grass to fall down and roll in it. We see a montage of golden flowers, footpaths with shades of foliage, people reading books under trees, someone playing the guitar in the open. It had me wonder how important it is for a campus to be aesthetically pleasing for someone studying something as grand as British Romantic Literature. Would that really work in, say, the erect, hapless, never-ending bustle of a city like New York?
Why not? Zibby, a sophomore studying Drama who is part of a much talked about improv group, whom Jesse is introduced to through the Professor, would beg to differ. Jesse himself, after having made the discovery, wouldn’t get back to the same beliefs. How does she do that? Through a western-classical mix tape she gives him on the eve of their first separation. Jesse tells her he would write letters to her, in return. There’s no need to say that she would write back too. Cosi Fan Tutte, she says, would inadvertently make everyone more endearing than they would be, usually. In possibly one of the best-intended lines of the film, Jesse says: Grace, I realized, is not time or space-dependent. All we need is the right soundtrack.
Again, another self-reference. ‘Liberal Arts’ – the film – has the same soundtrack as Jesse, the character. Having said that, how graceful does that render it to be? Does Cosi Fan Tutte really make these people more endearing? I don’t think the music is really required, honestly. Radnor, by himself, is quite the likeable guy – again, another thing that the film says too, through Zibby. So is Prof. Hoberg, a classic representation of the American left-leaning intellectual who finds it hard to even groan about his job – the communist has always been a tricky character when it comes to an American treatment. To have made Prof. Hoberg as sour as Jenkins’ usual is something to think about. Is he sour because he is, or is he sour because that’s all Jenkins can do? Let me make it clear here that this doesn’t mean I doubt Jenkins’ capacity as an actor.
Considering that she plays a really hard role (speaking of which, I don’t really know how hard it is, because Jesse – you know – is easy), Ms. Olsen as Zibby is quite the catch. Life is improv, she says. No one knows the script. We’re just making it up as we go. Yet another self-reference that leads you to ask how scripted the film is. How fathomable is Zibby as a love-interest? There is no denying she’s fashionable, even if she has the habit of repeating clothes. What Jesse and Zibby share is unblemished as a college romance – complete with a roommate (almost) walking in on them. It is beautiful, because she is beautiful – as beautiful as the camera angles at the campus that oozes with the picturesque whichever corner you put the camera in. Like college, she reaches out and grabs. And takes you to places you wouldn’t have dared gone to had she not led you there in the first place. She’s like Suzanne, in the Leonard Cohen song. That the song itself wasn’t part of the soundtrack has got to be a surprise.
‘Liberal Arts’ takes a scenic route in a world that’d rather bypass it. It’s both biased and non-committal towards its core premise. The fact that the film, and Radnor (writer-director) could make the Professor’s side-story an integral part of the central plot, where the film itself deals with difficult things like life, aging and coping with desire and deliberation, says a lot about its intent – to show as much despair as it inspires hope; to show as much optimism as it urges you to think twice. If or if not the film becomes a Zibby in itself – who takes the reluctant Jesse in you on an experience you wouldn’t have taken otherwise – is something for every viewer to decide for himself. Or herself, though a woman would be kind of pushing it. Like George Eliot, in the seventeenth century, the place where these two want to go back to, but find themselves damned instead, to twenty-first century alienation and post-modern critique. Life beckons, in short.
But face it – it’s a scenic route to a felicitation ceremony that’s not even yours – a horrendous waste of your time, if you think about it. Harry Block (Deconstructing Harry, again) gets arrested at his for having kidnapped his son, where his real felicitation happens in his fiction. I found it extremely disengaging that Jesse didn’t have one of his own. He’s not a writer in crisis. He’s not the soul-searcher who finds closure in the very futility of his quest. His story begins and ends within the limits of the film. Optimism, sometimes, is not optimism at all without the adversity to pit it against. What we have here is a field-trip – a favourite restaurant, nostalgia-themed, which serves you food as your canteen did, back in the day. There is not as much in the food as there is in the memories absorbed from it. And there is only as much in these memories as there is willingness to submit to them.
Life, as the sceptics would say, goes on. So would Prof. Hoberg, old loon and retired warmonger who has peace to deal with, now. In that context, ‘Liberal Arts’ says little to nothing. It is well-photographed, decently paced and clever enough to keep you hooked. But it only cures you of loneliness as much as the 1100-page novel that kept you out of action in the first place. It increases and decreases, at the same time.