Thursday, March 04, 2010

an education in willful denial/part two

"But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy."

-William Shakespeare,
"The Merchant of Venice," Act II Scene 6
Cinéphiles - and in that group I would lump both critics and your more-than-casual moviegoer - can be a lovelorn lot.

I know. I've been there. There have been times when I loved a film so irrationally that no amount of nudging could sway me from my crush.

I understand why most of my friends and colleagues have fallen head over heels in love with "An Education." It has a pedigree that any self-respecting cinéphile would find irresistible - a young female filmmaker from the Dogma school, Lone Scherfig; a writer who is a literary darling, Nick Hornby; an attractive leading man who is also a serious actor, Peter Sarsgaard, and a charming new face, Carey Mulligan, in the lead role. And it doesn't hurt that the material (based on Lynn Barber's memoir) evokes those late '60s, Carnaby-era Brit films that starred Alan Bates, Rita Tushingham, Charlotte Rampling and Lynn Redgrave. Yes, bliss.

What surprises me is the determination of its fans to overlook, downplay or flat-out deny the anti-Semitism that's such an important part of the narrative of "An Education." When I've brought it up, the response has been one of anger. I'm not asking anyone to love "An Education" any less - only to acknowledge an aspect that, in many ways, makes the film more fascinating and complicated. When I originally expressed these thoughts last 16 October in a post titled Peter Sarsgaard Channels Alan Bates; The Unexpected anti-Semitism of Lone Scherfig's Beguiling/Troubling "An Education," 26 comments were generated.

My initial hunch was that everyone was so in love with the endearing Mulligan that they were blinded, unaware of what they were actually watching. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that Sarsgaard is the single most important element in the film - his presence, his casting. Sarsgaard has matinee-idol good looks and an unfussy, easygoing talent that, in tandem, are so dazzling that it's easy to miss exactly what his character, David Goldman, is all about. Reviews of the film have alternately referred to David as "an older man," "a charismatic older man" and "an attractive older man" (take your pick) who seduces a much younger woman named Jenny (Mulligan, natch). His Jewishness is barely even addressed, even though the film itself makes a big deal of it. What's troubling about David isn't that he's Jewish but that the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to make him a negative stereotype.

This telling excerpt from an astute 2 December post written by Irina Bragin, for pretty much encapsulates how the character is presented in the film:

"David enriches himself by ruining good English neighborhoods, deflating property values and looting cultural treasures from displaced widows. He moves blacks into white neighborhoods: 'Shvartzes,' he tells Jenny, 'have to live somewhere; it’s not as if they can rent from their own kind.' The only identifiable Jew in the film, he constantly uses the collective 'we' to justify his wickedness: 'This is how we are, Jenny,' Goldman editorializes. 'We’re not clever like you, so we have to be clever in other ways, because if we weren’t, there would be no fun.' He uses the word 'stats' for old ladies he victimizes. They 'are scared of colored people; so we move the coloreds in and the old ladies out and I buy their flats cheap.' Along with his partner, Danny, David barges into a house, military style, and speeds away with precious relics. 'We have to be clever with maps,' he tells Jenny. An ancient map, he rationalizes, 'shouldn’t spend its life on a wall…. We know how to look after it…. We liberated it.'"

To discuss "An Edcuation" with the people who adore it, one would come away with the impression that none of the above is even in the film.

It simply goes by them.

If one were to read "An Education" on the print page, Peter Sarsgaard would not be the first actor who comes to mind when one thinks of David. I've tried replaying scenes from "A Education" in my head but with other, more obvious actors in the role. Adrian Brody. Maybe Adam Goldberg.

What, I've wondered, would the audience response have been with a another David on screen, a different David? Would it have been same?

Anyway, all of this makes "A Education" more compelling to me, much more provocative. But its acolytes will hear none of it.


s. brimberg said...

I'm familiar with the Bragin piece which you quote and I think it's important to note that she does not merely give her opinion of the film, pro or con, but quotes concrete facts from the film - dialogue and scenes. I agree with you that it's possible to be aware of the film's agenda while still liking and admiring it. Or it should be possible. Like you, I've found that most people deny the stuff you've written about.

Luis Cortes said...

Right. A movie can be good but still troubling. It can be a favorite film and still have flaws. What's so intricate about that concept?