Thursday, August 19, 2021

CANON OF FILM: "THE GRADUATE"

THE GRADUATE (1967)

Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay: Calder Willingham and Buck Henry based on the novel by Charles Webb

 

I feel like "The Graduate" is one of those movies that's gonna seem particularly out-of-step the further and further along we get into this post-"Me Too" future of ours. That's not a complaint or a criticism, just an observation. In fact, the downgrade and diminishment of "The Graduate" starting happening long before that. On AFI's 100 Greatest Movie Lists, "The Graduate fell from #7 on it's original list to number #17 ten years later. Honestly, I didn't particularly get why at the time. When I posted my Top 100 list, I had "The Graduate" in my Top 20 still. Would I have it there now...-? (Deep breath)

Well, I was a lot younger then.... It's still such a huge part of the culture landscape,  that I don't think it'll ever go away fully but it's definitely a movie that's about to finally not age particularly well. A lot of that is Dustin Hoffman's fault, who's basically been blackballed from Hollywood ever since he got called out for his antics, and his only known possible production that he's been linked to since, is a Broadway production of "Our Town" that may or may not happen with COVID now, but either way, let's face it, probably is not the best choice of production. It doesn't help that one of the movie's most well-known improvised scenes, involves him actually groping Anne Bancroft's breast. That scene, as great as it is within the context of the movie, plays a lot differently now that we've recalibrated what his motivations might've been. (It also doesn't help, when you realize just how much closer in age Hoffman and Bancroft actually were at the time.) 

But perhaps, I was just young. The best time to watch this film is when you’re young. Like, a 21-year old male fresh into college, trying to determine what to do with your life, young. I know, the statement seems a little half-baked, but trust me, it’s totally baked.

Whatever it's future status, unlike say "Gone with the Wind" who's cinematic accomplishments really aren't realized in modern cinema, arguably “The Graduate,” is the most influential American film post-“Citizen Kane.” Editing techniques that seem fairly normal today came from this film. A famous montage continually zeroes in on Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman in his first film role) face in one room until it gets so close, then we continually back up to show him now in another room, in another place in time. That was “The Graduate,” and that’s just one of its inventions, like-wise the use of it's modern pop music as soundtrack, by using the Simon & Garfunkel songs to underline the action.

The movie’s opening sequence finds Benjamin having forced to go to a party in his honor for his achievements, with his friends,- well, really his father’s friends. Everyone has advice, sometimes good advice about what he should do about the future, and he doesn’t want to hear any of it. (Trust me, I know the feeling.) Using any excuse he can to get out, he decides to take his Dad’s business partner’s wife home, the notorious Mrs. Robinson. In reality Anne Bancroft was 36 and Dustin Hoffman was 30, but good lighting makes him seem younger and her older, and they have one of the funniest sequences in a film filled with surprising and funny sequences after she, does indeed, seduce him.

After the affair has gone on for awhile, Benjamin, still working hard to go aimlessly through life, decides to go on a date with her daughter. Elaine (Katharine Ross) How he tries to sabotage this date, and then the events that culminate in him crashing a wedding, and by the way, the most unbelievable and most homaged wedding sequence ever, you have to experience to believe, and then laugh. And then reflect, as they presumably do on, well, just, how ridiculous and stupid what they just did was. (Yeah, I don't think "The Sound of Silence" is anybody's wedding song, for a reason.)

I won’t reveal much more except to note that this movie is about that future unknown. Life has one plan while you may have another, as Mrs. Robinson reveals in a sequence where she talked about once being an art major before having to get married. Benjamin tries so hard not to fall into that trap, that he eventually sets absolutely no goals for himself, leaving his ideas and actions simultaneously endearing but lacking in thought. He manages to get away with the daughter in the end, although he used all the wrong ways to do it, mainly because he lacked the drive to do it thoughtfully. 

In hindsight, Mrs. Robinson is the film’s only interesting character. We are curious as to Mrs. Robinson actions, and why she does what she does. But that’s because Benjamin has lived so little life that he hasn’t experienced enough of it to be interesting. That’s what inspires him through most of the second half of the film, not the love of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, but the need to have a life-altering experience. Too bad he didn’t know about the LSD going around at the Berkeley Campus he goes to. Many other late ‘60s staples are missing from the film where they should be, because Benjamin is not even inspired enough to join the hippie crowd, or maybe he just cut himself off from society so much, he honestly didn’t know about it? He is a nothing in a time where everybody was doing something. The best idea he comes up with is to just float in his family's swimming pool. 

I once observed that Hoffman goes through more doorways in the film then an Antonioni heroine. I kinda attributed that, mainly to Mike Nichols having inspiration from Antonioni, but I don't think I realized just how much inspiration he had, especially from films like "Blow-Up" or "L'Avventura", the former where a character seems completely at odds with the mod scene around him, and the latter, which is literally about a vacation, that continues on, even after one of the characters, just literally disappears. Usually when an Antonioni heroine goes through a doorway, it's an association with her, and usually a symbol that something is changes as she enters some place new, however a male character, especially if he's not the main characters, usually doesn't find such illumination. Is this a sly joke on Nichols part on just how little Benjamin actually evolves, going through doorway after doorway and not gaining any real new insight?

Maybe that's just how it feels now. 1967 is considered one of America's seminal film years, and Nichols won the Oscar for Best Directing for this film, an extreme rarity for a comedy, especially when the film didn't win any other Oscars, but it makes sense. The cliches of the college graduate unable to find his/her place in the modern world have basically all started from this film, and the styles of the filmmaking looks like nothing else that came before or since, even Nichols's first directing effort, the brilliant "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" basically just seems like a staged version of Edward Albee's play with a couple naughty words changed and an added location or two. 

At the right time of life, "The Graduate" will always be a film that'll resonate as much now as it did upon it's original release, because when you’re an early twenty something, the pressure to do something with your life will make you think doing nothing is a great idea. I'm in my thirties and I still like the idea better and better as I grow older. Perhaps that feeling of ennui will just never fully die off.... 

Who need a future in plastics, anyway? 

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