Reviews

Nobody Feels Like an Adult in 'Liberal Arts'

Throughout this wispy, low-key love story, dir. Josh Radnor evokes the passage of time: the way that life seems full of possibilities early on and then you leave campus and "decisions get made."


Liberal Arts


Director: Josh Radnor
Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, Zac Efron
Rated: NR
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-14 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-10-05 (General release)
Trailer
Official site

Like Zach Braff before him, Josh Radnor stars in a successful, often inventive sitcom and moonlights as a sensitive writer-director. Also like Braff, Radnor's cinematic sensibility draws on his sitcom work, through a more melancholy indie-movie prism. As Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother, Radnor trades in idealism, romantic enthusiasm, and occasionally insufferable pretension. As Jesse Fisher in Liberal Arts, Radnor's second feature as writer, director, and star, he tends toward nostalgia for happier college days, romantic ennui, and more than occasional insufferable pretension.

Jesse works as a college admissions counselor in New York City. His latest relationship ends early in the film; we see that he's the sort of sensitive ex-boyfriend who, when confronted with a "Yours or mine?" question about a book, will say, with a touch of generous-seeming hope, "Mine, but you can have it if you want." Before he agrees to return to his alma mater in Ohio to celebrate his favorite professor, Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), he fakes checking his schedule; he knows -- and you know -- that he has nothing else to do.

When Jesse reaches the campus, he doesn't have much more to do, apart from attend that retirement dinner, but he nonetheless feels more at home, soaking up the youthful energy of his surroundings. The movie treats the liberal arts college campus like Woody Allen's version of Manhattan: it's witty, beautiful, full of promise, and cut off from the rest of the world. At its best and most resonant, the film portrays upscale college life as an experience so idyllic and nurturing that it can't possibly prepare you for the disappointments of real life.

Returning to school, then, allows Jesse to stumble across the kind of magically promising romantic partner that seems to make more sense on campus. In his case, it's Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a current student and the daughter of Hoberg's friends. Despite their 16-year age difference (in one amusing shot, we see Jesse literally doing the math to figure it out), the two of them connect. They walk around campus, share ideas, talk about growing up -- though they refrain from throwing themselves into each other's arms, at least at first. They decide to keep in touch when Jess goes back to the city, with Zibby -- a remarkable but also predictable girl, without discernable flaws -- conveniently eschewing the technological touchstones of her generation, agreeing to hand-write letters back and forth with Jesse. Their exchanges accumulate volumes of earnestness and cutesiness, eventually, embarrassingly gushy.

Of course, they decide to pursue a real relationship, and much of Liberal Arts deals with Jesse's discomfort over doing so. He and Zibby move from looking at each other with gentle longing to arguing over the merits of books as entertainment: She says, "I like it!" He says, "That's no reason to read something."

Throughout this wispy, low-key love story, Radnor evokes the passage of time: the way that life seems full of possibilities early on and then, as Jesse points out, you leave campus and "decisions get made." Hoberg, about to retire, confesses that he has "never felt not-19," and warns Jesse not to wait around for signs of adulthood. "Nobody feels like an adult," he intones.

The movie has lots of similarly smart observations and good lines, but not many good scenes. Instead, Radnor's writing favors winding, articulate but dramatically inert conversations. While a 19-year-old girl giving an informed, rational argument as to why a 35-year-old guy would be philosophically correct to sleep with her has a novelty of sorts, it also has the spontaneity of a dissertation defense, perhaps because of the movie's transparency in offering alternate romantic partners for Jesse.

It's also possible that the wanness comes from an incongruity of "message." As Jesse learns to "act his age," his changes don't really register; he may idealize college life early in the movie, but he never seems more than halfway convinced that he could relive it. Between Liberal Arts and happythankyoumoreplease, Radnor's filmmaking so far stakes out talky, neurotic Woody Allen-ish territory, but without Allen's sharper comic instincts. For that matter, Radnor could use the energy and inspiration we see each week in How I Met Your Mother, which chronicles disappointment and hope more convincingly.

5

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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