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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

entry arrow10:00 AM | The Film Meme No. 52

[52nd of 100]. I'm sure people will not see this coming: why am I including in this list a romantic comedy directed by John Radnor, famously Ted Mosby of How I Met Your Mother, of all people? But why not? This 2012 gem remains a pleasant surprise, it's it's philosophical with the warm feels, and it's my idea of a little film that could. But first a preamble: to quote the late great film critic Roger Ebert, "The movies that last, the ones we return to, don't always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart." And boy, does this one have a sure aim straight to mine. Why do you suppose that is? In all honesty, it serves as a romanticized confirmation of my own neuroses, of my own questions about living. But also this: have you ever met someone you fall into a long and engaged conversation with, often defying the hours, and you are surprised to have found a kindred spirit? This film feels like that. Our protagonist Jesse [played by Radnor himself] is in a rut, having settled into a largely unimaginative job as an admissions officer in a prestigious New York university. You can tell that he is an existential zombie from the way he's listless or distracted, or clearly divorced from his environment, or in the unconvincing way he tells an incoming freshman as soon as the movie begins: "You know how high school to college, it can be a big transition, especially if you're not from a big city, so we try to help out in that transition in a number of ways." He lies -- his eyes and his voice betray what he knows: there are no transitions, and help cannot be found. At least as far as he is concerned. So at the outset this is basically a tale of a man in arrested development. Then he gets a call from an old professor in college inviting him to attend his retirement party -- and something sparks in Jesse's tired life upon his arrival on campus. Perhaps this is just his fantasy of escape? Here he is reminiscing and running about his old haunts in college, remembering how it was to be young. At this juncture, we realize this: the past for us is mostly happy in our present consideration simply because we were younger then. It feels that way at first with Jesse on the loose in his old campus, drowning happily in nostalgia, his body memory activated by signifiers of his glory days when he was ... well, younger. But it's not enough for the film. It refuses to have that narrative as its focus. It insists on grappling with the exigencies of the now, and not the recollection of the past. And then we meet Zibby [played with such grounded winsomeness by Elizabeth Olsen]. You could make a case for her being a manic pixie dream girl, but I don't care. She's a freshman on campus, and she's into improv and classical music ... and Twilight. Her temperament and openness to possibilities stirs something in Jesse, and makes him start refusing the givens in his life as a dead-end. What follows immediately is Before Trilogy territory: a series of conversations in various [photogenic] parts of campus, while girl and guy delve into music, and books, and philosophising over age and youth and maturity, expectations and disillusionments. They soon start corresponding. And those letters become the heart of the movie. In one marvellous sequence of this correspondence, they write about the beauty of surrendering to classical music, which allows the film to do a montage of assorted classical tunes which also allows Jesse to see his world anew. It's a beautiful epistolary sequence set to fine music, and it's unforgettable. The movie does not give us our expected ending, which is for the best. But what a trip! The movie is just an exhortation to stop once in a while in the impossible dervish of our lives to smell the roses. It doesn't present "smelling the roses" as easy -- and realistically, it's not -- but it offers it as a possibility we can try with one foot behind us. I like that; it's romantic, and it's somewhat practical at the same time. There is much to admire in the simplicity of this message, and the way it embraces its articulations of joy. Surviving contemporary life has proven difficult enough of late, and I think we need the reminders such as this to take it easy, when we can. But the film is also kind of a morality tale of old, with Jesse as our Everyman meeting assorted characters as aspects of life in various stages of flowering or withering: there's Zibby of course as the bright-eyed but down-to-earth optimism of youth. Then there's Zibby's opposite in John Magaro's Dean, a perpetually unhappy sophomore who likes to read David Foster Wallace [uh-oh], and who Jesse feels the need to connect with. Then there's Zac Efron's Nat, a gypsy of life whose stoned existence makes him both wise man and clown. Then there's Richard Jenkins's Professor Hoberg, whose pessimism about life has not rendered him immune from its disappointments. And finally there's Allison Janney's fantastic Professor Fairfield, who teaches Romantic poetry with gusto, but ironically retains a sardonic take on life itself. Asked how she could be the epitome of detached disappointment without self-pity when she's surrounded by Romantic poetry, she lets out this diatribe: "[The Romantic poets] were miserable men who were granted a few moments of transcendence, and they had the talent and foresight to grab pen and paper to write them down. Byron was probably the happiest of the lot, only because he put his dick in everything. My advise to you is this: put some armour around that gooey heart of yours." Ouch, but also hahaha. They offer different pathways for Jesse to take in his reawakening -- and the film offers us the same as well. So it's a film about growth finally. "I'm finally starting to act my age," Jesse writes Zibby in the end. "A wise man in a red hat once told me, 'Everything is okay.' I didn't believe him then, but for some reason, I'm starting to." Consider this film as your wise man in a red hat. Everything is okay. What's the film?

For the introduction to this meme, read here.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich