Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Graduate at 40, Me at 37

Does liking a movie make you shallow?

Particularly when that movie is the just-released 40th anniversary special edition of The Graduate, which I purchased last weekend and watched it from start to finish for the first time in years?

To say that I “like” The Graduate is actually an understatement. Ever since I was eighteen I have referred to it as my all-time favorite movie, the movie that underscores everything I love about movies, the movie that most explicates my worldview. Up to now I have never even owned a DVD copy: perhaps because, like so many of my favorite films, it has seemed to own me. Yet the fact that I was born three years after the film’s initial release invites the question of whether The Graduate is a stuck-in-amber product of the 60s, or if it still speaks to modern audiences, including those of us who didn’t see it for the first time until the end of the Reagan Era.

Ownership is a pivotal issue concerning The Graduate, as some from the generation who sang its praises upon its initial release now deign to tell us that the movie hasn’t aged well. Compare an excerpt of Roger Ebert’s original review from 1967—

The Graduate, the funniest American comedy of the year, is inspired by the free spirit which the young British directors have brought into their movies. It is funny, not because of sight gags and punch lines and other tired rubbish, but because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.

—to his reassessment of the movie in 1997:

Today, looking at ``The Graduate,'' I see Benjamin not as an admirable rebel, but as a self-centered creep whose put-downs of adults are tiresome. (Anyone with average intelligence should have known, in 1967, that the word ``plastics'' contained valuable advice—especially valuable for Benjamin, who lacks creative instincts and is destined to become a corporate drudge.)

With all due respect, Roger, I think you were more right the first time. Benjamin’s not a creep (okay, he’s a stalker, but not in a creepy way), and the only put-downs that I recall are those that the ostensible grown-ups aim at him:

Mr. McCleery: You’re not one of those agitators, right? One of those outside agitators?

Mr. Robinson: I think you are filth. I think you are scum. You are a degenerate!

Mr. Braddock: Look, I think it’s all right for a young man, after he’s done some very good work, should have a chance to relax and lie around and drink beer and so on. But after a few weeks, I would think that that young man might want to take some stock of his situation, and start to think about getting off his ass!

I have a friend who always laughed at the “after a few weeks” line, as if four years of college never precipitated burnout and uncertainty. But there is legitimate concern in Ben’s father’s voice too, as well as later when Ben’s mother gently inquires to his evening whereabouts. (There’s a lovely, never-talked-about moment in the “April Come She Will” montage, when she watches him dive into the pool with her back to the camera.) The Graduate takes some satirical jabs at Ben’s parents and the Robinsons and the “plastics” gentleman; but I think the scenes that show Mr. Robinson’s earlier affection for Ben, or the extended middle sequence where Mrs. Robinson sadly talks about how getting pregnant forced her to give up college and abandon her interest in art (scenes wonderfully performed, respectively, by Murray Hamilton and Anne Bancroft), show that the film isn’t devoid of sympathy for them.

What The Graduate is filled with—and what I primarily respond to—is the possibilities of cinema. The endlessly imaginative camerawork and staging of scenes (courtesy of director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Buck Henry, and cinematographer Roger Surtees) get you completely inside Ben’s head. From the opening credit sequence, behind which Ben stands inert on a conveyor belt at the airport (notice that he is moving from right to left, which someone [David Lean?] once said went against the grain of the natural progression in a movie frame from left to right), to the unspeakably sexy camera angle underneath Mrs. Robinson’s leg, to the diving-in-the-pool sequence (shot from inside Ben's scuba mask), to the astounding scene where Elaine realizes that Ben and her mother have been having an affair as her face comes back into focus, it’s the most brilliant depiction of a subjective point-of-view that I have ever seen in a movie.

And yet, at the very end, as they are seated on the bus, Nichols pulls back and asks us to look at Ben and Elaine objectively for the first time. The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum made a valid point when he argued that having Benjamin running away with Mrs. Robinson instead of her daughter would have been the “true rebellion.” It certainly would have been a different movie. But it’s hard for me to accuse a film of gutlessness or pandering to a younger audience when it concludes with the poetic ambiguity of this one. (One of the enjoyable special features of the 40th anniversary edition, titled “Students of The Graduate,” features a current filmmaker calling that final scene a “pure actor’s moment.” The commentary track with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, however, has Nichols explaining that the expressions on Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross’s faces came about because he had just given them an off-camera tongue-lashing and had left the camera running.)

Through the years there have been rumors of a sequel (albeit less so since Bancroft’s death in 2005), as though to suggest that some sort of closure was warranted following that open-ended final scene. But who needs one when the original holds up so well? When I was an undergrad, the university I attended (and which would eventually leave me feeling burned-out and indecisive) had a special showing of the movie; and the students I attended it with—Generation Xers like me, many of whom had clearly never seen it before—were as utterly involved in the story as the 60s generation undoubtedly were. It belonged to them.

It may be true that Ben has no creativity, that he is destined to live an unfulfilling life. But when I see a man steal the bride from her wedding and then lock the congregation inside their own church with a crucifix, I can't help but think that other viewers are a lot more worried about his future than I am.


Chris said...

I've always thought The Graduate was an interesting movie, but also tended to be puzzled by the generational hype it attracts. From that perspective I think Ebert was overreacting both times. But I've never thought seriously about it as a piece of cinematography. Except that, now that I think about it, you can see bits of it everywhere. Sadly, I'm thinking of my generation's The Sure Thing and a certain shot by the pool.

Craig said...

"The Sure Thing," definitely. And countless parodies, including at least one from "The Simpsons" that I remember.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing up this movie and showing us that it is a film worth seeing again. It's been a long time since I saw it and I do have visual memories of a few iconic moments, but you describe a lot of good, interesting stuff that I don't remember having seen.

Something that really struck me as I read this is the similarity between the point that Ben is in his life with that of George Bailey's in It's a Wonderful Life. I would never have put these two movies together, but both have characters that are kind of frozen at a point in their early adulthood, they are poised to take the next step in their lives, but aren't doing it yet. The reasons they are each in this position are very different and have to do with differences in their generations, differences in the social pressures on men at each time, differences in the spirit of the times. George Bailey can't go become a decorated war hero like his little brother because of his trick ear, he can't go to college because his father dies and he has to take over the Building & Loan, and he doesn't make a lot of money because he cares too much about the little guy. His actions all follow the call of duty and service to others. The first time he really asserts himself is when he tells Sam Wainwright that he wants nothing to do with getting in on the ground floor of the plastics industry (which would go on to make big money in war production.) Both George and Ben may be unsure how to take who they are into the next chapter of their lives, and have doubts about what to do, but somehow both characters have a strong enough sense of things to just say no to the people who want them to get into plastics.

"Plastics as your future" seems to be an important symbol in both films of superficial success, the quick buck, and the expolitative American approach to getting ahead. Both characters are heroes because they walk away from this without hesitation.

Craig said...

Siebert--It's been awhile since I've seen the movie, but I was totally unaware that George Bailey was also invited to go into "plastics." I think the term represents a kind of emotional deadening too, where Mrs. Robinson is at this stage in her life. (I won't compare it to Mr. Potter, however, as he's barely two-dimensional for any subtext.) "It's a Wonderful Life," of course, is a darker movie than it's given credit for. People always remember the end of the film but not what it took to get there.

Ronak M Soni said...

That opening scene you talk about ... it's in Jackie Brown!
I've watched fifteen minutes or so (till Mr.Robinson gets home, I think, but I also remember his walking into her room when she's naked), and it's seriously amazing how tight the framing is. At the time, I thought it was an effective depiction of the confusion poor Hoffman feels, but with distance it's seems more and more ... judgmental of he guy.

Craig said...


I think "judgmental" is very accurate. He's actually very judgmental of himself. Extremely innovative camerawork: Surtees, the old veteran DP, reportedly had a lot of fun trying new things.