Tuesday, December 8, 2009

an education

This weekend K and I went to see An Education, and I loved it! I think K was kind of indifferent, but then he was never a sixteen year old girl with a passion for literature (although, unfortunately, I think at sixteen I was in a literary latency period between Sweet Valley Twins and Simone de Beauvoir that resulted in really bad fashion choices and even worse taste in music. I know I’m not the only one out there who wishes she had been a supremely intellectual, well-dressed, well-coiffed teenager from the sixties and somehow just… wasn’t).

The film is based on Lynne Barber’s memoir by the same name, and it follows a young girl through her relationship with a much older man in 1960s London. Jenny Mellor is a pretty typical teenage girl with above-average intelligence whose only dream (encouraged, if not established by her parents) is to read literature at Oxford. To improve her chances of accomplishing this singular goal, her young life is a carefully constructed collection of “hobbies” and other extracurricular activities that make her appear well-rounded. There is more to it, of course. Jenny tolerates the dirge of daily life because she views her acceptance to the distant Oxford as an invitation to intellectual Nirvana—a place where her mind will expand to prodigious proportions. In the meantime, she concerns herself with perfecting her precocious pretension and imagining all things French to be the epitome of romance and the cerebral experience, which unfortunately only emphasizes her naivete.

Then, one rainy day, a charismatic older man offers her a ride, and everything changes (one can’t help but note the metaphorical significance of David “taking her for a ride”). We can tell right away where this is going. Peter Saarsgard’s portrayal of the seedy-but-suave David doesn’t leave much to the imagination (although Saarsgard is almost incapable of playing a character seed-free, if you ask me), and even if you haven’t heard the story before you can intuit the ending from the moment she slips into his car. However, you do get the sense that Jenny knows exactly what she is doing. It didn’t strike me as a story of stolen innocence in the slightest. Throughout the film, as David escorts his young mademoiselle to concerts and art auctions and later on weekend trips to Oxford and Paris, you do perceive that Jenny is falling in love—but not with David. She is falling madly in love with the culture-rich life that he offers her.

They spend all of their time with another oddly-matched couple, the charming Danny and his delightfully dim-witted mistress, Helen, and it seems as if the only thing keeping the foursome together is a shared love of the good life (and a prosperous business partnership).

With Helen’s help, Jenny is transformed from an average school girl into a glamorous young likeness of Holly Golightly.

The only real potential chemistry is between Jenny and Danny. His relationship with Helen is a joke (his eyes roll almost instinctively every time she speaks), and he is clearly drawn to Jenny’s genuine, earnest love of culture.

Although nothing develops between them, I’m not sure that it would have mattered to Jenny which man ultimately pursued her. She loved the lifestyle enough that the partner was secondary. When the subject surfaces, Jenny seems neither surprised, excited or disgusted by the prospect of eventually sleeping with David—she simply accepts it as a reasonable condition of her position.

After her romantic trip to Paris, a seriously awkward incident with a banana and an almost-as-awkward marriage proposal from a considerably confused man, Jenny logically weighs her options. She can study her way through the remainder of her senior year, which is a complete drag, or she can gallivant around the world on the arm of a not-altogether-revolting gentleman and live her life free of worry and certainly devoid of boredom. Her parents, somewhat inexplicably enamored of David from Day One (I know my parents would have responded much differently had I brought home a man twice my age when I was in high school, but I assume in this case David also acted as a catalyst for the aging couple to rediscover a side of life they had lost in the day-to-day of married life), suddenly encourage Jenny to skip Oxford and settle down, revealing new feelings on the subject of a woman’s education—that she really only attends University to find a husband. When Jenny expresses that it seems the headache of all the hard work and studying was a waste of time and that it would have been a whole lot easier for everyone if her parents had just sent her prowling around nightclubs, her father’s response is that it was probably worthwhile—after all, David probably wouldn’t have been interested in her if she were a dunce. To further cement her decision, Jenny looks around at the well-educated women in her academic environment and determines that they are all dead already—wasting away while grading exams, teaching dead languages, wearing prim suits and spectacles and apparently doing nothing exciting or adventurous with their lives. She discovers too late that she will only ever have the life she wants if she creates it for herself, and that she cannot depend on anyone else to create that life for her.

However, her decision resonated with me for many reasons. We’ve all been there. After four years of college, I maintain that the most valuable lessons I learned were from the so-called “University of Life.” This is not to say that I have no appreciation for the academic experience—I do value the education I received—but I often find myself wondering if it was really worth it, or if my time in Boston was really just an absurdly expensive social experiment. Especially now, as I consider pursuing a Master’s degree, I wonder … why? Is it merely because I want to shake things up a little bit? Use higher education as an excuse to completely overhaul my current lot? Is it because I feel uninspired and I want to learn something new? Because if that’s all it is, I could save a hell of a lot of money “reading literature” in a cafĂ©, rather than a classroom. Is it because I need a syllabus, a schedule, or some other sort of direction? Do I need the motivation of a grading system? Do I really think there is a career out there that I would want to dedicate the next two years of my life to? If I want to travel, wouldn’t it be best to keep the debt-level down?

I won’t get into my many opinions on the educational system in this country, but I think it’s absolute madness that I torture myself over the decision to go back to school. If finances couldn’t stop me, nothing could—I’d be back in a heartbeat with a book under my arm and a skip in my step, and I’d do it properly this time. The first time around I was in school for all the wrong reasons. I had to get a degree. I didn’t know for sure that I wanted to work in film, I just knew that I liked movies and I liked making movies and maybe something might come of it. That’s a good enough reason to make a movie, but not a good enough reason to drop $160,000 (granted, my share comes to about $14,000) on sort-of learning how to make movies. And so be it. It was a good four years and, for the most part, I don’t regret it. But now that I actually want to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, I’m stuck. And if K suddenly became insanely rich and wanted to escort me to concerts and art auctions and jazz clubs around the globe I would very happily settle in to a lifetime of reading literature in cafes instead of classrooms and living, living, living, living, living!

But I can’t depend on anybody else to gift me the life that I want, so I must create it. There can be no shortcuts to this:

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