How do you miss something that you have never experienced? This question has darted through my mind as I reflect on being nearly halfway through my time at Cornell. Out of my four semesters, two and a half have been online. The class of 2024 has spent its college career completely virtual. How do I look fondly back on my years at college — an experience so universal that an entire movie genre about it exists — when I have never had a “normal” college experience to begin with?
As a film nerd, I was more than excited this October to watch Cooper Raiff’s directorial debut Shithouse, which took home Best Narrative Feature in 2020’s virtual SXSW film festival. Shithouse is an emotionally complex film about hookup culture in college, spending most of its time focused on the ramifications of that hookup and its impact on the characters. Not as flashy as classic college comedies like Animal House, Shithouse is subdued in depicting the underbelly of that same high-speed collegiate world. The humor is dry, biting and authentic, reflecting the coming-of-age struggles of homesick freshmen.
Made while Raiff was a sophomore at Occidental College, Shithouse takes an autobiographical tone as it depicts college exactly while its production team is living through it; as one reviewer wrote, “the film every first-year film student wants to make.” It should be something relatable to a college-aged audience but with the pandemic it feels like just more escapist entertainment.
Watching Shithouse while trapped in a dorm room deprived of meaningful human contact for months left me longing for that life. For those like me who were lucky enough to have even some part of the normal college experience, you begin to be reflective. Maybe I took my first semester for granted. Every little moment or missed connection becomes all the more important when you realize it was so fleeting.
I didn’t engage in the wild parties and hookup culture, which are now labeled quintessential parts of college life. And of course, that is not all college should be — there is also spending time on the quad, making spontaneous trips to the grocery store, meeting new people in class not over Zoom. It is college life as it should be. But watching Shithouse at its most intimate moments, I have wondered about what could have been had I been given the rest of my underclassmen semesters.
Then this past month I watched Josh Radnor’s 2012 romantic dramedy Liberal Arts. A somewhat dated romcom, it follows Radnor’s 30-something English major and admissions officer Jesse Fisher as he returns to his alma mater and falls in love again with his school and a current student. This case of arrested development was intoxicating to watch as Jesse struggled to divorce himself from his lively past in college, showing up to parties with a stoner Zac Efron and connecting on an intellectual level with a young, bookish Elizabeth Olsen. Compared to the bustling, adult world of New York, the comforting womb of Fisher’s alma mater draws him back in. While Liberal Arts hails from an adult perspective, this romantic view of college is ever-present, as Fisher constantly strives to connect with his past to the point of entering into a relationship with Olsen’s Zibby.
I struggled so hard to connect with Fisher’s love of his alma mater. It was something more than school pride: it was the little memories he forged with friends and professors and the impressions he made on strangers. And then I realized that he was drawn to that fundamentally human component of college which can only be found through a collective sharing of youth. But that memory of college was — and is — foreign to me. Or at the very least, a distant memory which plays out like fiction.
There is this foreign feeling which emerges from watching what should be your life play out on screen: every once in a while, when watching a movie or an episode of television, I notice characters are not wearing masks, not socially distancing or going out to parties and restaurants, and think “that can’t be made today.” Otherwise realistic works of art are sapped of that reality when the crushing changes of the pandemic sink in — and it becomes all the more painful when that work of realistic art is meant to represent your youth.
How does one watch a film meant to cater to your hyper-specific experience in this hyper-specific time, when you have been deprived of that experience? Am I supposed to make peace with the fact I lost nearly two years of my youth and just watch these films as if they were a foreign experience to me, like I would some work of escapist fiction? If that is the answer, it is a disheartening one.
Like many people at Cornell, I have this romantic notion of an elite liberal arts college which I can return to at any point in my life to relive the glory days. Much like Josh Radnor in Liberal Arts, I want that joy and youthfulness to rush back to me and leave me renewed. All the time I have invested here should pay off, right? Liberal Arts is a reflection on an amazing four years. But what if I have only two of those years? And what if those two years are nothing like the coming-of-age exploration of modern relationships. like those in Shithouse?
It is a common criticism of Hollywood that we are force-fed expectations for life through what we see on screen. But neither of these films is conventional Hollywood fare — both are indie movies produced on micro budgets which grossed barely $1 million apiece. They are genuine expressions of art and relationships plucked from personal experience. This is the real deal.
I cannot be left with anything but a sense of melancholic escapism when watching these films. It sinks in that we will have an experience nothing like what has come before or after. We are fundamentally unable to connect with these stories the way we should.
The pandemic will end. We will go back to class, to ragers, to meeting strangers. But we will never be that starry-eyed freshman filled with ennui and struggling through random interpersonal relationships. And when we look back at our time here with rose-colored glasses, we won’t have nearly the same fondness for a campus as a certain emotionally stunted English major might have. These opportunities have been taken from us. All we can do is live vicariously through film, documenting a youth we never experienced.
Avery Bower is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].