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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Liberal Arts: A Story About Knowledge

"For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."
-Ecclesiastes 1:18




It's pretty easy to get annoyed with Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother (seriously kids, where is your damn mother?), so it's a good thing that actor Josh Radnor also writes and directs thoughtful, earnest movies. Radnor's first feature, Happythankyoumoreplease - which he wrote, directed and starred in - was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2010.
Liberal Arts premiered at Sundance earlier this year and reached theaters this month (limited release, or check your cable provider for the IFC release). It's a love song to academia, intellect, and a gentle warning to the dangers of nostalgia and the ideals that come along with knowledge.

The story follows Jesse (a college admissions counselor), a thirty-something who battles ennui with his job, personal life, and life in New York City. As the desperate point of apathy is reached, Jesse receives  a call from his favorite college English professor, Peter Hoberg (played by Richard Jenkins), and he is invited to return to his alma mater in Ohio to attend a retirement party. As any flailing academic would, he eagerly returns to the arms of the one who provides knowledge. When he arrives on the grounds of his former campus, it seems nostalgia might drip from his pores - what a placating medicine. 
While there, Peter faces retirement as gracefully as most face deletion from academic life - with terror; and Jesse meets a free-spirited college sophomore, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and they quickly connect over consuming dialogue about education, books, classical music, and theater  An obvious tug-pull relationship develops between Jesse and Zibby and it becomes clear that she will play the role of the passionate improviser, and Jesse the intellectual - the heedful idealist. While he is there Jesse also meets a "yes-please" hippie (thank you for the laughs, Zac Efron), and encounters Dean (Joe Magaro) an at-first patronizing genius, who turns out to suffer from the darkness of intellectual mania and isolation.
Eventually life must go on, as it does, and Jesse returns to New York. An ardent Zibby leaves Jessse with a classical music mixed CD in hand (where can I sign up for this offering?) and promises to begin a relationship of the pen. Their letters serve as an emotional and romantic catalyst for their relationship and eventually Jesse is headed back to campus to reconcile with reality and romanticism.

The writing in this movie is earnest, witty, and especially poignant for our generation of young adults. Rador delivers concise and genuine dialogue, but wavers just slightly in filling the spaces without dialogue -the narrative movement. Overall, the film's message and emotional thesis was clear and well delivered. At times it bordered on the sentimental as it reached for narrative solutions. But where there were lulls or bits too sweet, they were certainly made up for by unfeigned acting performances. The casting was near perfect and the performances were ravaging - in the best way.  It seems that Rador truly acts with his heart bleeding on his sleeve, which is why Ted Mosby and Jesse seem to have similarities.  I couldn't help but notice them, but I also couldn't help but empathize with this character and his "gooey little heart". Richard Jenkins, break my heart - another convincing and truly devastating performance as a "life after academics" professor struggling with the loss of intellectual identity. Allison Janney also gives a hilarious, raw performance as a Romantics professor. Just perfect. And then of course, Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen nearly over delivers in this role giving us just the right amount of emotional maturity, balanced by the vulnerable presence of one of the most important presences in the movie: youth.

I was truly delighted by this film in many ways. It's no secret that it spoke to me on many personal levels, being the "victim" of a liberal arts education, and suffering under the brute hands of romanticism and nostalgia at all times. It certainly was intentional that the Romantics were woven into the film - the cruelest of literary periods.  For at the same time as one must learn to rely on emotions as their aesthetic guide, they must also remove the intellectual perspectives that inhibit the raptness of the present moment. Knowledge does not allow for the unascertained of the present; therefore we can only romanticize the past, and theorize about the future, but untimely fail to understand what this feels like. True emotion is only experienced in the present, everything else is just knowledge, memory, or theory.

The relationship between Dean and Jesse was one of my favorite parts of the film.  Not haunted by romanticism or nostalgia like other characters in the film, Jesse ultimately suffers devastatingly from the weight of his intellect. Jesse and Dean meet first in a coffee shop and briefly discuss an unnamed author, though it's clear by reference that the author is David Foster Wallace.
As I marinated further on the film, I couldn't help but think about the commencement speech that Wallace gave at Radnor's alma mater, Kenyon College, where this movie was mostly filmed. I read through the speech and found a quote that seem fitting as pairing to, or thesis for, Liberal Arts.


"Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education--least in my own case--is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me." - David Foster Wallace, Commencement Speech Given at Kenyon College, 2005






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