Sunday, March 10, 2013

Liberal Arts and Damsels in Distress: A Revival in College Movies?

It's no secret that movies about college have almost entirely descended into pure schlock by presenting these learning institutions as playhouses for adults before they have to face the real world. Really, since American Pie movies about college have been bores, telling the same stories of sex, drugs, fraternities, and incessant partying without regarding what college used to be and still is for the majority of people (there have been some exceptions, but they haven't been necessarily good, i.e. Mona Lisa Smile). Which is why I was thrilled when last year saw not one, but two really good movies about college hit theaters (granted, they weren't widely released, but I'll take what I can get). First came Whit Stillman's long-awaited return with Damsels in Distress, a glorious little movie about college girls trying to change the way guys are behaving on campus (in a sense, it's Stillman's direct response to the post-American Pie cinematic version of the collegiate male). It's definitely not for everyone, as Stillman is making a comedy purely about things he finds funny or amusing. And this why he's never gone mainstream. He'd rather have a small group of die-hard fans than pander to a larger audience and sacrifice much of his comic vision. Stillman's movies are strange, but I've never seen them as off-beat or quirky. There's something just plain cool and classy about them. They're too smart not to embrace, and too satirical to seem sentimental or self-consciously indie. After previously dealing with young New York socialites and Disco-era yuppies, Stillman is tackling college, an ideal subject for him. And while it's very much just about Stillman's own world, he's got some excellent and very funny things to say about college guys, cliques, and  and how absurdly melodramatic young love is. The other college movie to see from last year is the small, slight Liberal Arts from How I Met Your Mother actor-turned filmmaker Josh Radnor. This one's easier to consume, but again what I loved about it was that Radnor had something to say about college. He's concerned primarily with the fact that merely engaging in classic literature or ideas or art in general is not only no longer practiced, but suddenly hardly passé. He's made a very funny and insightful and breezy comedy about a 35 year old returning to his old college and falling in love. These movies aren't going to necessarily convince the people they're criticizing to change, but they will make the people who understand the problems feel some relief that the issues are being addressed. More importantly, perhaps, they're making college movies fun again. 

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