Literature on film: Liberal Arts 0 Comments

A film about what happens when you finish university or another pixie dream girl teaches her guy about life?

I have an unhealthy interest in films about school and university. I really like watching scenes where people learn and study. I especially like watching films where people discuss books and films – you get the drift. Yes it is just literature being used in a tokenistic fashion to establish characters and reinforce plot, but … it’s cool, okay? Part of me just loves the tone of these films – which has everything to do with the educational-institutional-American-teen-genreness and wanting to inhabit it. Yes I liked Gilmore Girls. A lot.

These interests lead me recently to watch Liberal Arts (2012) a film about a liberal arts graduate Jesse (Josh Radnor) from Ohio whose relationship has just ended, and who works in the admissions section of a university in New York. He’s in his mid-thirties and it seems life after college isn’t filled with the boundless possibilities he thought it would be. He gets a call to attend one of his favourite lecturer’s retirement dinner and in the process meets and starts a pen pal relationship with Zibby/Elizabeth (Elizabeth Olsen), a current liberal arts student and member of drama improvisation group. She’s 19 and lives by the only rule in improvisation: always say yes.

The basis of their letter writing starts as opera and classical music, to which Jesse is introduced via a mix CD Zibby gives him. Cue the pixie dream sequence in which the listless male (or manboy as he is later called) has the world of New York opened up for him by the power of music. They discuss the music he is listening to and she eventually asks him to be her gentleman caller. He visits and they have many more literary discussions about texts and whether it is right to only read books that make you happy (Zibby’s view) or whether it is important to only read great canonical texts which develop one’s taste (Jesse’s view). Case in point: Twilight. It gets a bit pretentious.

There is more to this film than the above, but the above relationship is the basis of this discussion because of the frequency with which young women appear in films to guide the lost male protagonist – ala the manic pixie dream girl. Liberal Arts comes very close to this trope. I am still unsure if it avoids one of the major themes associated with the manic pixie dream girl. Sex. Zibby, though 16 years younger than Jesse wants him to be her first, he says no because “sex is complicated” and he respects her too much. After they fight he hooks up with a female lecturer that he’s admired for years, she picks him up in a bar. He gushes about how amazing her classes were and she kicks him out of her bed before he can catch his breath. It is she who calls him an effeminate manboy with a gooey heart and suggests he gets some armour.  While this happens, Zibby gets drunk enough to consider sleeping with a lacklustre youth who likes her.

In the end Jesse and Zibby remain friends and she suggests she wanted to grow up too fast and saw him as a short cut. I was a bit disappointed by the ending, Jesse meets a book shop clerk and they talk about getting old together. It is hinted that Zibby continues being an intelligent and happy student at college. From this point of view both character do undergo important changes, realising what it means to grow older and accept where you are in life.

So, while Zibby has a few qualities of the manic pixie dream girl, she also differs greatly and is more interesting than most. The main point of difference is that she is seeking a sexual relationship with an older person, while it has been suggested that pixie dream girls are non-sexual beings. She does have more of a developed character arc than some manic pixie dream girls, but she also functions primarily as a catalyst for Jesse to realise life’s not so crap and that he should open up more. The tagline on the poster is: Sometimes students make the best teachers.

What do you think? Do you have a favourite literary film?

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