An Ode to An Education – Reflections.
You know those nights where you just lie in bed, try to sleep but for some reason simply can’t? So you just lie there in the dark and think, and think, and think? You get the blue funk thinking about your future, you fret about the present, and you reminisce your past. There were moments of triumph and of pride, and moments of embarrassment that make you cringe every time you recall them. But memories they are, nevertheless, and memories they are, sweet and honest.
Personally, I’m not that kind of person who would just fall into a deeply emotional juncture and do all kinds of intense reflections, especially not when I’m busy dealing with final exams. Yet it was exactly a few days before one of my exams that I “fell” into this (nearly) sentimental pit where everything just seemed to have paused and in some ways you just feel incomplete and lacking of something – you just don’t know what you’re doing with your life.
I know this sounds cliché, but now that I’m finally in university, in the midst of frantically rushing through piles of lecture notes and preparing for my exams, I just stopped and started pondering about the meaning of an education. And I’d like to put this across through my apprehension one of my favourite movies – An Education.
A rainy afternoon it was, marking the beginning of a callous education, when a maroon Bristol drove into the dreary life of a teenage schoolgirl. It pulled over and a suave, attractive stranger offered her a lift home. She was Jenny – a girl bright enough to study English at Oxford soon, played by the wonderful Carey Mulligan, and he – David – a London hustler twice her age, fluent in the language of worldly sophistication, played by the charming Peter Sarsgaard with the subtle mystery of a swindler.
Off they head towards the world of champagne, glamour and, as we speculate, perplexing danger. Ever so often, literature cautions us with tales of young girls seduced by slick roués, but perhaps too easily allured by bubbling wine, pseudo-sophistication (which she just started to learn), and in a terrible hurry, Jenny was on the verge of burning her academic bridges she needed for Oxford.
Ever since the ‘renaissance’ of British films, synonymous to the ‘British New Wave’, personal themes in British settings are vitalized and pursued by filmmakers and writers. ‘An Education’ seems to go with the flow, adding to it the bittersweet romanticism of nostalgia and coming-of-age. Credits must be given to screenwriter Nick Hornby (previous works include ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘About a boy’), who brilliantly adapts former journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir of her 1960’s schooldays and Danish director Lone Scherfig, for her sensitivity to (British) subtlety and the depiction of the romantic elements in Jenny and David’s relationship.
As the camera roll with dazzling nightclubs and concerts, and with David’s slow, high-minded talk, we start to worry whether sense is made. It’s easy to bring this up with a big bang amplified with swelling music, but the filmmakers adroitly made sure David’s predatory aspects don’t surface too quickly: The goal is to keep things subtle to achieve a wry-comical effect – and it’s done right to the brink.
The era itself, which catches Britain around the time when metamorphosis began, is as noteworthy a subject as romance ‘Under Paris Skies’ in the film. Jenny displayed this. Her goal is to enter Oxford, but she knew there’s more to life than being academically educated as she pondered in mists of French cigars and lying in her bedroom listening to Juliette Greco LPs. One would regard her as the girl who thinks, acts and talks like a woman but was yet still an ingénue: what she needed was an education in life studies. What she craved for was not necessarily the fact of losing her virginity, but full access to an epitome of sexiness, a world that was the opposite of the starched life she loathed. Admission to the dolce vita was the apple held out by David, and even as he took advantage of her innocence, she, in a way, used him to find her way to that world. We dislike David for being the seductive liar, but he’s as eager as Jenny to saunter in glamour, and like Jenny, we are attracted to this handsome enough man because he encapsulates the poise of this world of luxe that we can’t help but give longing glances.
Of course, no ‘kitchen-sink drama’ is complete without the ruined woman suffering from costs of curiosity and pleasure, as girls of this kind are bound to roll tears down their cheeks once the champagne loses its effect. Nonetheless, this is not yet, in any way, ‘kitchen-sink’, so we don’t see Jenny so much of a ruin but rather a gritty heroine who finally gets accepted by Oxford. Credits must again be given to the filmmakers for their sensitivity to subtlety. Yes, perhaps they are too spellbound by the mystique of the era to care about sadder parts of the story, but by this, the romanticizing of nostalgia can be once again achieved. It’s an aching story, but isn’t the nostalgia in it what makes us relate to and love it so much?
You know how in life – especially during the years of university life – there are just so many wonderful, glamorous distractions and allures and seduction like magic spells just luring you – keeping you thinking and thinking and wanting? By that I don’t necessarily mean (hot, handsome) sex predators and pricks chasing after young college girls (or guys) (on second thought I don’t know about these predators – I’ve seen things and heard stories, so they may or may not be part of the equation, but yeah.) – but the lure of glamour in jobs, societies, the world of wines and spirits, parties and whatnot.
At times you just feel like you’ve got it – you’ve got everything under control, you’re striving, you have a decent job, you’re making friends, you’re expanding your network, and everything just seems perfect. But then, out of a sudden, things just seem to be completely offhand – slipping through your fingers and leaving you completely confused and exhausted, just like the champagne losing its effect on Jenny. There’s pressure from everywhere. Maybe its the expectations people have on you; maybe it’s the fact that you’re a first generation university student in your family (I know it’s very true in Hong Kong); or maybe it’s just that you want to be better. It’s a painful feeling, I know, and they haunt you, but in all honesty I feel like it’s all up to you to sort it out. You’re the only one, in fact, who is capable of doing that. Perhaps for some people, they need a reality check, or just some major event or realization to help them put things in perspective. Or perhaps for others they just need nights like these to think things through and comb through the frustration. I guess that’s one of the most valuable things and experiences that one can go through in the years of university life, for I think this is exactly the fundamental prospect of an education. They’re not things you can learn only from your textbook – but they can, I’m sure, help you go through the challenges in life.
Here’s an ode to an education.
(and good luck to all those who are still fighting the battle of exams. May the force be with you.)