September 6, 2011

#17: The Graduate

"People talking without speaking // people hearing without listening..."

Mike Nichols' 1967 comedy The Graduate is an ode to the counterculture of its day, demonizing the boring adults that make kids grow up and celebrating the apathy of youth floundering in its newfound adulthood. It struck a chord with a generation, but does it strikes that same chord now? Do we still love that dopey Benjamin Braddock and take delight in his naughty affair or do we sympathize with Mrs. Robinson? Well, a lot of that depends on your point of view.

Company: what a great, eclectic group of people tonight! Paul, major movie lover with his own favorite-movies movie quilt; Christian, newly graduated attractress and counterculture vulture; Hannah and Joe, also newly-grads and film fans with their own series of Disney-theme movie nights

Cuisine: peanut M&Ms, chips and homemade salsa (easiest salsa ever!), sea salt brownie bites (courtesy of Paul) and whiskey-7

Our first glance at Benjamin Braddock (first-time Oscar nominee Dustin Hoffman) is following him on a moving walkway at an airport, supposedly flying home from his recent college graduation for a party. What a fitting first image, showing our apathetic hero moved along the way as he's moved through life thus far, unsure of why he's in college in the first place and unsure of what lies ahead. At his own graduation party, he makes himself scarce, uncomfortable with the attention and prying questions about a life he knows less about than anyone there. Nichols follows Braddock and his guests at a sometimes uncomfortably close distance, keeping them in the forefront, as if studying them like an anthropologist, until we get our first glimpse (in the distance, mind you) of a woman who takes a keen interest in Benjamin. 

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"

Mrs. Robinson (Oscar nominee Anne Bancroft) is caught in a loveless marriage to Benjamin's father's business partner, and just about the only thing we don't learn about this woman is her first name. Needless to say, she's a woman who knows what she wants, and she'll be damned if anyone is going to stop her from getting it. She makes Benjamin leave his own party to drive her home, invites him in for a drink, continuously assures him that she isn't trying to seduce him and then appears naked before he rushes downstairs to avoid being caught by the newly arrived Mr. Robinson. Once he escapes the house, he has to think it over. And think it over he does.

Benjamin's parents have bought him a scuba suit for his graduation and demand he try it out publicly in their pool. He's duly mortified but Mr. (the hilarious William Daniels) and Mrs. (Elizabeth Wilson, looking too uncomfortably adjacent to Mrs. Robinson) Braddock insist, shoving him back into the water. Whether he likes it or not, college is over and real adult life is here, and he can sink or swim if he wants. As Mrs. Robinson tells him, "Ben, you'll never be young again." But hey, he's got the scuba suit! Seems like he'll be fine.

Soon enough, he's calling on his admirer and bringing her to a hotel for intimacy sans conversation, just the way she wants it. His general malaise gets worse if anything as he lays in the pool, completely aimless and now preoccupied with thoughts of Mrs. Robinson. It's not that Benjamin is a sleaze bag for carrying on the affair with a married woman, though he is, but the point Nichols is making is that he's too young to really care about the consequences of his actions, although he knows full well what they could be.

Adulthood, although he's living it, is still a foreign concept. He's in a perpetual state of arrested development ("hey, that's the name of our show!") As he drifts in the pool, the adults who come to greet him are only shadowy figures. And though I love the music of Paul Simon, the Simon & Garfunkel tunes that score the film act not as lyrical commentary on the action but rather as musical symbolism for the free spirit of youth culture. Paul Simon had this great way of making his music sound undeniably contemporary and yet still harken back to something that felt old, not only with the music but also the heightened poetry of his lyrics. And all the kids were listening to them in the late 1960s; what better way to appeal to your target demographic? Nowadays, soundtracks are used all the time, but using pop music as underscore was a new innovation in the new wave era of Hollywood. Although one wonders why more of their songs aren't used instead of repeating the same couple of songs over and over throughout the film.

After a few months, Benjamin is growing bored with Mrs. Robinson and focuses his attention on her more age-appropriate daughter Elaine (Oscar nominee Katharine Ross), a bonehead who should see Benjamin as an aimless loser but somehow can't. We don't really get to know much about her, except that she tends to believe whatever anyone says. The elder Robinson expressly forbade this romance, less because she loves Benjamin and more because she's laid her claim to him already. Why does Benjamin go after Elaine? It's not really explained. Is it boredom? Is it love? Is it defiance?

Whatever it is, Mrs. Robinson won't have it, and without saying a word she exposes her affair to her daughter, who shrieks like a banshee and writes Benjamin out of her life forever... until she gets bored and decides to forgive him... and then plans to marry someone else anyway... until she decides not to do that either. See! Bonehead!

 "Goodbye, Benjamin."

Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson had a good thing going, and his actions forced them apart, even though it was all her doing (or undoing) that left them both back where they started, lonely and longing for companionship. She's not a monster for doing this (although it's certainly undone her -- she looks like hell once their affair goes awry), she's a scorned lover and I might do the same. It's interesting to me that over the years Roger Ebert's love for this film has decreased and he's rescinded some of his earlier praise, stating that Mrs. Robinson is the only likeable character. She's truly the only one onscreen who's fleshed out, who goes for what she wants and takes at least a little identifiable pleasure in getting it. I understand her. I don't understand Ben or Elaine, or why the last third of the film suddenly introduces an urgency that launches us toward the inevitably bleak ending.

It's not that I don't like the movie. The performances, particularly Ms. Bancroft's, are admirable. The camera work is intelligent and exciting. It's that I'm confused by the motivations of these characters. Certainly, this famous last scene, in which Ben interrupts Elaine's wedding, steals her away and then sits calmly on a bus with her, unsure of what they've done, is memorable for its ambiguity, but it doesn't make clear what the message is. Is youth culture doomed to apathy, to boring adult lives? Is a huge, brash move necessary to jump-start your life? Once you've got what you think you want, what's the next thing? Will there always be a next thing? Is happiness defined by what's just out of reach? The film asks these questions and hangs the answers over the audience, who might be too young to know the answers and too apathetic to ask for them.

The Graduate certainly exists in the American film canon as a revolutionary film for youth, but I'm not sure that as an adult I appreciate it the same way I did when I was in college. From Benjamin's point of view, it's moving. From Mrs. Robinson's (though I'm not 36 yet, like Anne Bancroft was), it can be frustrating. To be fair, too many films on this list focus on adulthood anyway, because that's where the artisans sit when they make the classics, but is this what the counterculture has to show for itself? Thoughts?

Next up: more obsession over youth and glamour as Norma Desmond readies for her close-up in Sunset Blvd.

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderful review. Thanks for a fun night!