Melissa Roberts is an English Literature undergraduate at the University of Manchester. She is entering third year and writes for a number of publications.
We are creatures of our past, we fall victim to it day after day, existing mentally in a place that is inexplicably superior to the present. I can never understand why we need to live in a time in our minds rather than embracing the present and looking forward. Is it because the past is solid and knowable? There is no threat of the unknown there, we remember it and know it is great—at least the parts that we choose to remember are. Maybe that is why we are so infatuated with the parts of our lives that have already happened, because we can be selective over what we experience; we can exist within a cocoon of good memories without needing to face the abyss of the future.
It is this concept that Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts (2012) focuses on. Under the facade of a romantic comedy, the film brings into question our obsession with things that we used to have or used to enjoy: things that we can control. The romantic aspects of the film still remain intact, making for a quaint, if not slightly Lolita-esque love story between Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) and Jesse (Josh Radnor). Yet as the film progresses we begin to understand Zibby’s role is not that of a romantic lead but instead of a way for Jesse to cling helplessly to college and a life that he loved.
Jesse makes a common mistake, he makes his life choices based on previous choices and what he expects to happen; his relationship with Zibby is a perfect example of this, he sees what he wants to see: a mature, level headed student. It isn’t until he discovers that she is a virgin that our perception of her shifts, all of the things that we had previously viewed as mature now seem to be the desperate actions of a girl who feels a need to behave in what she thinks is a mature way. Her approach to sex and dating is defined as “old fashioned” rather than naive as are many of her other youthful personality traits. This realisation alters the perceived genre of the film for viewers.
When we sit down to watch a romantic comedy we do so for a variety of reasons, we know how we want the film to make us feel, we want to revel in the fact that this is not our life and we want to know that the ending will be happy before the opening credits have even begun. If you are scared to deviate from this formula then Liberal Arts is not the film for you. However, this is what makes it so great, in destroying our hope for the rom-com ending it forces us to join Jesse in his pursuit of the unknown and not rely on past experience and what we think is going to happen.
This sudden change of genre allows the film to give us more than we would have previously hoped for. Instead, we are prompted to feel hope and intrigue rather than the numbed enjoyment of an ending rife with predictability. Once the love interest is no longer attainable the film shifts and all of the characters who at first seemed secondary become an intrinsic part of the plot and the message of the film—the danger of a reluctance to move on.
I’m not suggesting that romance does not have an influence on life, merely that when making choices in life we should think about why we have picked one thing over another. When we begin to confuse desire we can no longer understand what we want for our future and our past. Until we can separate one from the other we can never progress, maybe that is what we should look for in the world rather than clinging to the control that memories provide us.