Saturday 5 March 2011

Good to a lesser degree

The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols (1967)

Comedian Mike Nichols, in the mid-1960s, abandoned a flourishing comedy career with his partner, Elaine May, to become a filmmaker. His first film was the 1966 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton vehicle Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? His second, in 1967, was The Graduate - a film that, along with Midnight Cowboy, Bonnie And Clyde, and Easy Rider, ushered in mainstream Hollywood studios into the new era of director-centered cinema. Like many films that are landmark, for the external significance they bear, The Graduate has almost always been lauded as a great film. It’s not. It’s a good film that is more innovative than great, but which misses greatness for the simplest reason most films do - a screenplay that fails.

The plot is simple. Recent college graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns to Los Angeles after years at an Eastern university. On his first night back, at a party for him, the wife of his father’s business partner, MrRobinson (Anne Bancroft), whose first name Ben never utters, and the audience never finds out, seduces Ben. He escapes without consummation of the seduction, but shortly thereafter, calls her up to meet him at a local hotel, and an affair begins.

The affair goes on for a few months, until Mrs Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), comes home from college. Ben’s parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson), and Mr Robinson (Murray Hamilton), force the kids to go out on a date, much to Mrs Robinson’s jealous chagrin. Ben finds out he likes Elaine, after initially trying to brush her off by taking her to a strip club (a precursor to the porno film scene in Taxi Driver, save that Ben does his deed deliberately), where a stripper’s nipple pasties’ bangles look like they are drumming Elaine’s head. They plan a second date, and Mrs Robinson forbids it, threatening to tell her daughter of her affair with Ben. He races to her room to tell her first, and Elaine ends things with Ben. Then, after just two dates, Ben thinks he’s in love and resolves to pursue Elaine, even back to her college at UC Berkeley.

Nowadays, he’d be considered a stalker, and there are some funny scenes between Ben and Elaine, as well as Ben and his landlord, Mr McCleery (Norman Fell, who’d find stardom himself, a decade later in the TV sitcom Three’s Company). Creeley thinks Ben’s a radical, and wants to toss him out after Mr Robinson calls Ben a degenerate for having slept with his wife. Ben soon finds out that Elaine is scheduled to marry a blond WASPy guy named Carl Smith, and decides to interrupt the wedding. He arrives too late, as they are just married. Nonetheless, he bangs on a church window, and Elaine rushes to be with him. Mrs Robinson slaps her daughter twice, stating that it’s too late, and Elaine disagrees. It’s likely that she knows, as her mother told Ben earlier, that the only reason the Robinsons are together is because Mrs Robinson got pregnant with Elaine. The two then fight off the others, and lock them inside the church with a cross to seal the doors. They hop on a bus and the film ends.

The basic problem is that the film is really good, pushing near greatness, until Elaine finds out about the affair. She and Ben have only gone out once, and just on their second date, he seems to obsess over her, despite the reality of their having little in common. The love story that ensues is thus forced, and a bit pathetic, on the parts of both the parties. All the wacky adventures and musical montages (great as musical set pieces) do nothing to regain the wit, charm, and sophistication the film had when it chronicled Ben’s and Mrs Robinson’s affair. In that portion of the film, the art of cinema is virtuosic - from camera angles to editing to dialogue to framing, and on and on. One particular scene has Ben’s father confront him over his indolence, as Ben lolls in the family pool. The father blocks out the sun, just as his entreaty aims to block out his son. Just brilliant, and the film is suffused with these moments, plus the sublime music of Simon And Garfunkel, timed to film so perfectly that, even more than the musical films of The Beatles and The Monkees, acts as a precursor to the MTV generation.

Yet, after Elaine’s discovery, the film goes from a comic version of a John Cassavetes film to a slightly above average Hollywood love story. As a viewer who had never seen the full film, only its iconic moments, I was heartened to see how good the first two thirds of the film were, but the letdown at film’s end only becomes that much more of a disappointment.

While the film became iconic, and a smash hit, looking back on it today, it seems tame - socially (not artistically). All the major players are what would have been called Rockefeller Republicans. And while the film’s ‘daring’ approach to sex may have been the initial draw, it’s likely that its rather ‘safe’ tale accounts for its enduring grace in the high opinion critics still have of it. The film garnered seven Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Actress (Anne Bancroft), Best Supporting Actress (Katharine Ross), Best Adapted Screenplay (Calder Willingham and Buck Henry), and Best Cinematography, and Best Director, which is the only award it actually won, for Mike Nichols.

The DVD, put out by MGM, is a 40th Anniversary edition. A second disk is a 4 song CD, including ‘The Sound Of Silence’, ‘Mrs Robinson’, ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’, and ‘April Come She Will’, by Simon And Garfunkel. The first disk has the 105 minute long film in pristine condition, and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. There are several worthy featurettes: Students Of The Graduate, The Seduction, One On One With Dustin Hoffman(an interview), and The Graduate At 25. There is also the original theatrical trailer.

The film also has two audio commentaries, There is one with director Mike Nichols, one where he basically is queried by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, and a second one with actors Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross. Both have pluses and minuses. The Nichols-Soderbergh track often descends into insider speak between the two filmmakers - not only in regards to the film, but in inside references between the two men, who are obviously friends. On the positive side, Nichols does hit upon the most important motivation in the film - anger. Specifically, he focuses on the anger Mrs Robinson has toward the cosmos, for whatever grievances she feels the butt of. But, anger veins through all of the main characters - Mr Robinson is angry over his loveless marriage, Elaine is angry over something that is not named, but seems far deeper than the rather wan ‘betrayal’ of a boy she’s only gone out on one date with. But, Ben’s rage suffuses the whole film.

Online, there are a number of film trailer mashups on The Graduate, which portray Ben as off-kilter, psychologically bent, or a full blown stalker, and they are more on the money than they are humorous. No, Ben is not a budding serial killer, nor even a sociopath, but his rage has no focus, and inevitably, it will likely turn inward. In fact, as much of a letdown as the second half of the film is, it is realistic in the sense that it shows Ben doing all he can to screw up his life. Film critic Roger Ebert, who wildly praised the film in 1967, gave a much better and more sober assessment of the film 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.) Mrs Robinson is the only person in the movie who is not playing old tapes. She is bored by a drone of a husband, she drinks too much, she seduces Benjamin not out of lust but out of kindness or desperation. Makeup and lighting are used to make Anne Bancroft look older (she was 36 when the movie was made, and Hoffman was 30). But there is a scene where she is drenched in a rainstorm; we can see her face clearly and without artifice, and she is a great beauty. She is also sardonic, satirical and articulate - the only person in the movie you would want to have a conversation with.

Well, not really, since the conversation she and Ben have of art, during their affair, shows Mrs Robinson is no great conversationalist, but Ebert’s point that she is a bit more weighty than the other characters is correct. In short, Mrs Robinson is the only character who would have been at home in a John Cassavetes film, that is, a film for adults, and one could easily see Gena Rowlands essaying the part. Yet, Nichols also fetishises his film a bit too much, crowing to Soderbergh that the critics missed a moment in the first hotel room sequence between Ben and Mr Robinson, where, in preparation for her arrival, Ben stows some condoms in the night table. Well, the reason is because it occurs so briefly, and the camera is too far from the condoms to be able to make out what it is Ben tucks away, not because there was a critical lapse. The Hoffman-Ross track has some good observations and reminiscences, but too many silent spots where nothing at all is said. Hoffman attempts to speak on the innovative nature of the film, and this is true, as it is far more truly innovative stylistically (with POV shots through Mr Robinson’s legs, or through statue openings, and brilliant edits that switch between locations seamlessly) than Jean-Luc Godard’s imitative Breathless.

The film’s ending, while a narrative failure, considering the film’s beginning, is an interesting commentary on the shallowness of American life (then and now), as it celebrates the shallow (Ben’s and Elaine’s ‘relationship’), the idea that mere persistence ends up with reward, and that other people’s desires are meaningless. And, at film’s end, Ben is in no better emotional and psychological shape than he was at film’s start, save that he now has a mate to share in his anomie. There is also the sinking feeling that these two people will end up, in a few years, just like their parents, for they have rebelled against nothing but easy opportunity and privileges that the real rebels of their era were actually fighting to get. Would it have been too much for Nichols to insert another great montage (used elsewhere at ‘transition’ moments in the film and life of Ben) showing us Elaine’s and Ben’s romance over a few months, or even weeks, before getting to the scene where Mrs Robinson ‘outs’ herself? Because the film, and especially its end, is so shallow - see the early scene where one of Ben’s dad’s friends tries to excite Ben with the concept of ‘plastics’ as a buzzword - the film has nothing that penetrates the way that truly great films do.

The Graduate is a good film that spoke to its time, but offers little that can be related to nowadays - at least not without a knowing nod to its kitschiness. Yes, it’s light years above contemporary Hollywood tripe, but that alone does not make it great. Nor do the boasts of many bad filmmakers who cite this film, flawed as it is, as a seminal influence on them when they do not even come close to its overrated heights, in terms of quality nor content, mean much to the art in the actual film. Despite that, it is a good film, and a funny film. In fact, it is its comedic elements which make the film still appealing to watch, whereas its dramatic ones have wizened. Then again, it’s sometimes better to avoid the grown ups’ table when the kids have much better desserts. Ask Ben Braddock, and he’ll testify to that.


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Resources

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
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BFI’s Sight and Sound
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Barbican Film
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ICA Film
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National Media Museum
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