Everyone and their mothers know about Kenyon alum Josh “The Rad Man” Radnor’s magnum opus Liberal Arts (2012) because everyone and their mother watched it after being accepted into Kenyon. Not only was this film written, directed, produced, and starring Josh “Radatouille” Radnor, but it was filmed at Kenyon College. (Here! Where we go!) And while Liberal Arts is really not a bad film, it’s not that good of one either, and the thrill (thank you) of it really comes from watching the places you live show up on screen, and being reminded that this institution has a real reputation with real alumni.
So after getting high and taking extensive notes, I am gonna tell you the spooky things my friends and I noticed while watching this masterpiece.
1. The Beginning
This starts off in my room, but very quickly goes to shit. My friends, Foldyboi, Cornteeth, and Potato-Chip, decide to mark our experience not by writing notes, but by recording the entire two hour long session of watching the movie on Voice Memos. I quickly make sure this doesn’t happen but I did catch this on recording.
CORNTEETH: Give it to El Duende he needs to be the hero. Take the wheel Duende!
POTATO-CHIP: Why is Josh Radnor wearing a long sleeve shirt over a short sleeve shirt? This is not 2006.
FOLDYBOI: Guys we’ve made so much progress. We’ve made it down the hall.
At this point in the movie someone steals Josh “Radboi” Radnor’s laundry, to which Foldyboi shouts, “This doesn’t happen! Nobody steals clothes like this! No one steals laundry! Why is this in a movie like this?”
Foldyboi also sees a character onscreen eating a sandwich, and his mind immediately jumps to Taco Bell, as every high mind does. He does not stop asking for a Triple Double Crunchwrap for a considerable amount of time. At this point, we are forced to move into Cornteeth’s room to finish watching the movie. We are in the pursuit of snacks, and we feel somewhat hopeless, until Cornteeth shouts “I have a way!” and pulls a corn cob out of her bag. “See we put this in the microwave and popcorn comes out of it.”
“Cornteeth,” I say, “Do you believe that that will work? Do you really believe that?” I am imagining a plain corn cob sitting in the microwave, boiling and possibly catching fire, but I am quickly informed, “No, the cob goes in a bag and makes popcorn.” I’m not convinced, but it works and soon we are eating the driest and blandest cob of popcorn I’ve ever had. I don’t know what happened to the cob.
“But isn’t it crazy,” Cornteeth asks, “that we all needed snacks and I just had this magic cob in my bag! Like a corncob that makes popcorn sounds fake but I am able to buy it and could buy it whenever I want. That’s crazy.” It is.
- The movie
For anyone who hasn’t seen Liberal Arts here’s the plot. Josh “The Radster” Radnor, plays a 35 year old dissatisfied New Yorker with an ambiguous job named “Rosh Jadnor” who is invited back to his old school “Not-Kenyon College” because an old professor of his is retiring. This professor is based on Peter Rutkoff, who still works here, but that’s okay because the plot needs Rosh to get to Not-Kenyon.
Once at Not-Kenyon, Rosh meets a nineteen year old student named Zibby (bECcause sHes kWirky!) who proceeds to seduce him. Rosh uses this relationship to relive his youth for a bit, and runs into a carousel of other characters that include:
- Zac Efron, a “townie,” transformed from jock to stoner just by wearing a puffy hat.
- Dean, a brilliant but troubled student who reads Not-Infinite Jest written by famous Not-Kenyon not-alum Not-David Foster Wallace. The depiction of mental illness in the film is a whole other article, but for the sake of length let’s say on the whole it’s not great.
- Allison Janney, who plays an embittered literature professor that Rosh Jadnor eventually sleeps with, but still manages to kill it in this movie because she’s Allison fucking Janney.
It’s important that I keep mentioning Not- in front of everything because the movie does not have the rights to anything. As a result, all of the books look like what they are, but the titles are blurred out, and characters have to keep referring to them as “that book.” So for example, Twilight becomes “the bad vampire book” and Infinite Jest becomes “that long but brilliant book.”
The plot is pretty standard. Rosh and Jibby have an awkward relationship that crosses into romantic and verges on sexual, but Rosh stops things in time, uses these children and Allison Janney to see the value of adulthood, and decides to appreciate adulthood and not have sex with a nineteen year old girl. It’s a typical indie “finding yourself” kind of movie.
But the way high Foldyboi sees this movie is truly incredible. He thinks that the girlfriend Rosh breaks up with in the beginning of the film takes place, chronologically, at the end of the film. This makes the film as a whole a kind of flashback into how a 35 year old and 19 year old’s relationship would go if they went for it, showing the tragic ends of a tragic love.
“No Foldy, no,” I say. “This is not some Kaufman thing, this isn’t Eternal Sunshine. The film is linear there are no flashbacks.” But this takes a great deal longer to settle out.
- Some spooky things-
FOLDYBOI: My legs feel like they are draped in wet salami. Does that ever happen to you?
This movie might actually end up being bad publicity for Kenyon. I mean, yes, a film was filmed on our campus, and that’s really cool. But this film is largely about the seduction of 35 year old Rosh Jadnor by a fantasy teenager named Jibby.
You also can tell that they had to take some creative liberties with the campus to make it look like a real college campus. When driving around the campus, it becomes apparent that Josh “Radical” Radnor is just driving in circles around the only two roads that make up central Gambier. When Caples shows up in the background, Cornteeth sings, “There she gooooooes…”
The film crew probably anticipated that Kenyon would have several bars, a lot of restaurants, etc. Once they got here however, I’m sure the crew realized they’d need to improvise. Because of this, Ascension becomes a fancy restaurant, two different bars are filmed in the two different sides of the VI, a Hanna triple becomes a double, and Old Side is the only side of Peirce.
Old Kenyon parties are chill and calm, and everyone is standing at a respectable distance from each other, talking like normal people. It makes us all wonder if Josh “Radberal Arts” Radnor actually went to Kenyon. Peirce is the most realistic part of the campus shown, but still, everyone has trays and Old Side has tons of room to sit in.
POTATO-CHIP: Like Peirce would even look that busy at two o’clock!
FOLDYBOI: Oh my God, Chip you’re a scientist!
- Rosh and Jibby sitting in a tree-
The spookiest parts of this movie are the sex parts, and without a doubt the romantic and verging on sexual relationship had between Rosh Jadnor and Scribby. This is insane. Rosh Jadnor is in a nineteen year old girl’s room, and he justifies this in many ways–Glibby is mature for her age, she is the one seducing him, etc. At one point, Rosh does the math. When I was 19, he writes, she was 3. This is not looking good, but wait! When I will be 87, he writes, she will be 71. Rosh Jadnor shrugs and drives eight hours back to Not-Kenyon. Sounds good to me.
ME: She’s nineteen Josh, it doesn’t matter what kinds of books she reads!
Cornteeth points out this creepy trope in movies where the girls have quirky nicknames so that the protagonist can kind of force an intimacy on her when he calls her by her full name. For example, when Rosh Jadnor (to this movie’s credit?) refuses to have sex with Yibby, (especially after she admits this would be her first time) Rosh calls her Elizabeth, instead of her self-given nickname Bibby. Creepy yes, but despite this Foldyboi admits that this works in real life.
Aside from the can of worms that is writing a character in your screenplay who is nineteen years old, then seduces a thirty-five year old man (I cannot emphasize this enough) and is still a virgin, which is too intricate, spooky, and laced with “marijuana thinking” to really dig deep into right now, there is so much more weird sex in this movie.
Rosh Jadnor has sex with Allison Janney’s character out of nowhere, despite being his professor sixteen years ago (the same age difference between him and Mibby by the way), and then goes on a long monologue about how adulthood sucks, and flips him off with the longest middle finger I’ve ever seen. At one point, I swear, Rosh Jadnor asks her What is the point of this scene?
There’s more I can get into. I can talk about how the movie revolves around Rosh Jadnor constantly driving from New York to Not-Kenyon for no reason, something so bad, the smartest character in the film, Dean, practically says The fact you’re even here right now is a pretty big hole in the script. Dean’s attempted suicide is also (despicably) used to escalate the plot, to which Cornteeth responds by singing over and over, “Suicide should not be a plot contrivance, suicide should not be a plot contrivance.” I could talk about how Zibby can’t properly explain the values of improv despite the fact that Josh “Rad Fool” Radnor was a Fool on the Hill. I could even talk about the creepy, pseudo-philosophical letters Rosh and Zibby send to each other, and how Radnor pretending to be David Foster Wallace is a personal affront to my morals and values. Instead, however, I will only say that I feel bad, because I’m sure that Liberal Arts was made with good intentions. It was a passion project that Josh Radnor headed, and displayed a love for Kenyon that I have not seen anyone else show for any other college. I mean if it’s so great that you go and make a movie about missing that college, at that college, that’s really something. Even if this place does feel like a cartoon college sometimes.
More than anything, this movie was probably really impactful and beautiful to and for Josh Radnor, even if it’s nothing more than fun recognition for anyone else.
- Recap- This movie in one sentence.
CORNTEETH: “That’s really good,” says Josh Radnor to Josh Radnor’s writing.
FOLDYBOI: A mixtape is like a music scrapbook guys.
POTATO-CHIP: We just need to finish this fucking movie. We’ve been watching it our entire lives. We have to.
ME: My favorite is when Josh Radnor says “If music be the death of me, you have blood on your hands.”