Sunday, May 02, 2010

"An Education" for those who've already seen or don't intend to see it

Last night, I finally got around to seeing "An Education," a tough movie to watch without cringing as both a Jew and a young woman. First, the Jewish bit:

The story begins with a very pro-Jewish (well, pro-tolerance) message - those horrified by Jenny dating not just an older man but a Jew come across as foolish and narrow-minded.* Then, after David reveals himself embody every possible anti-Jewish stereotype (aside from his striking physical resemblance to Peter Sarsgaard**), things are not so clear, and David starts to look like a character out of some 19th century novel, in which you'd excuse him as a character on account of PC didn't exist back then, the Holocaust hadn't yet happened, and so forth.

The movie really, really reminded me of "Six Degrees of Separation," except that instead of a seemingly cultured Jewish conman in exploiting British post-WWII sensitivities regarding Jews and lingering hostilities towards blacks, while sexually corrupting young women from good families, that movie's about a seemingly cultured black conman exploiting American 1990s PC sensitivities regarding blacks, all the while sexually corrupting young men from good families. (After this occurred to me, I googled and lo and behold, I'm not the first to have had this thought.) Both movies are on one level straightforwardly racist, on another based on true stories in which members of certain minority groups behaved in stereotype-consistent ways, and on yet another so thoroughly directed at audiences who will identify with the majority-group characters that their depictions of the minority ones seem almost too naive to offend. The films are not about blacks or Jews, respectively, but about what blacks or Jews meant to the non-hyphenated folks whose feelings and nuance we're supposed to take as the ones that really matter. Blacks and Jews are adventure, excitement, exoticism, etc., etc., what Said said, and etc. some more. So there's something squirm-inducing about any representation of a minority used entirely to serve such purposes, without acknowledgment of the minority's own humanity. But at the same time, my sense, particularly from "An Education" (but this could be because I saw the other movie several years ago), is that there's just such an absence of consideration about the fact that discrimination is not merely frowned on at dinner parties, but a genuine threat to members of the targeted groups. As in, anti-Semitism isn't merely an ideology that limits the number of potential romantic partners for non-Jews in an anti-Semitic society, but it's also something of a problem for the Jews in such a society. Anyway.

Then there's the not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman angle, the one far more central to the story, if only because half the world (and a greater percentage, I'd imagine, among the viewers of a movie like this) are women, while the percentage of viewers for whom it will register that David is Jewish is minuscule. Jenny looks to be in her mid-20s (because of course the actress playing her is not 16), smokes cigarettes like a pro, and yet we are to suspend disbelief, slip into that Period Piece, These Were Simpler Times mode, and believe that simply on account of being 16 (but almost 17, a subtle difference that at such an age can matter tremendously) and a virgin, one in a school uniform at that, David can show her some bright shiny objects, take her to some bright shiny nightclubs, and she'll agree to marry him without having ever been inside his house, without even knowing where he lives. As in, the shocker at the end ought not to have been so surprising - the man was either married to another woman, gay and living with the man whose house they're always at, or full-on living in his (bright, shiny) car. It's not just that she's younger and he's older, but that he's Experience and she's Innocence - the movie does nothing to this cliché to make it more interesting. The movie's more about authenticity than complexity, more worried with correctly imagining how someone of a particular age, gender, and milieu would act under given circumstances than with creating anything that might challenge expectations. This is extra-true of the female characters, so we have a timid-but-curious schoolgirl, a spinster teacher, a pre-Freidan housewife, and of course a dumb blonde. Yes, of all the aspects of this movie (which overall I actually quite liked), the one that offended me most was its depiction of The Blonde.

*Jenny's father's no fan of The Jews, but quickly comes around to David and even OK's her marrying him at age 12, 16, whatever. My theory is that Dad is himself a crypto-Jew (the actor, unlike Sarsgaard, looks like there's at least a chance he'd have some Jewish ancestry), and that this explains his frequent comments about Jews (self-hatred?), his pro-David stance, his aversion to alcohol, and his one-track obsession with helping his offspring ascend the meritocracy (he values education!). How much more interesting this story would have been if my theory were an honest-to-goodness part of the plot...

**I took this casting choice to be an attempt at being progressive - see, Jews don't necessarily look Jewish - although it could also be read as adding to David's sneakiness that he could pass for a man with consecutive a's in his last name.

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