Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Graduate

I've known about Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) since I was about ten or eleven because of the extended parody at the end of Wayne's World 2 (1993). Despite seeing the latter film maybe a hundred times or more when I was a kid, I've never had much desire to see the Nichols original. Roger Ebert's three star re-review from 1997, which I read as a teenager, and Jonathan Rosenbaum's two star (worth seeing) review from the same period, which I first read a few years later, certainly didn't offer much motivation. It was finally A.O. Scott's Critics' Pick video from The New York Times website a few weeks back that made me want to see it--less because of anything he said about it than the clips from the film itself. That's just as well, because I'm at an age now where I'm better suited to appreciate the film's subject (post-university malaise) than if I had seen it when I was younger.

The thing that struck me about the clips in Scott's video were the strange, off-kilter framings, which is not something I expected to find after seeing two of Nichols' recent films, Wit (2001) and Closer (2004). Those two films, like Nichols' first feature Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1965)--which I once saw an hour of on TV before changing the channel--were both adapted from prestigious plays and were essentially vehicles for their stars without much formal interest, giving me another reason to pass on The Graduate. To a much lesser extent, the same could be said about this film: in several early sequences between Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, Nichols lets the majority of the scene unfold in a single unbroken master shot. However, his manner of framing and lighting these shots is a lot more impressive than in the later films--which if memory serves, have far more close-ups.

The plot charts the hero's substitution of an aggressive older woman for her more passive daughter. As the film opens, Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) is on a plane home after graduating from university. (If we learn what his major was, I must've missed it, but I did catch that he was on the track team.) On his first night home, his parents throw a welcome back party, but since Benjamin apparently has no friends, all of the guests are well into their forties or older. Benjamin would much rather sit in his room by himself, which may be why he doesn't have any friends. One of the party guests, Mr. Robinson (Bancroft), who's the wife of Benjamin's father's law partner, asks him to take her home. She invites him to come in, and almost has to drag him through the door kicking and screaming. I found this aspect of the story a little difficult to relate to, growing up as I did in a post-American Pie (1999) world.

Once she gets him inside, Mrs. Robinson tries to seduce Benjamin without admitting it. When Benjamin utters his famous line, she denies it so thoroughly that he feels compelled to apologize for even thinking it. Benjamin's embarrassment reaches a crescendo when he walks in on Mrs. Robinson nude, and just as he's about to run out the door, Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) walks in the house. Benjamin, thinking quicker than I was while watching the film, darts into the living room and pretends to be finishing his drink. I like it when the characters in the movie are smarter than I am, but this is the only time in the film I could say that about Benjamin or even Mrs. Robinson.

There's a funny scene, a few days later, when Benjamin calls Mrs. Robinson from a hotel, drunk, and she asks him if he wants to get a room. The idea hadn't occurred to him. This leads to a steady affair, but while a man of my generation would think that was awesome, Benjamin persists in thinking of it as some sordid thing. After a few nights of wild off-screen sex, Benjamin decides he wants to have a conversation with her before getting down to business--less because he has anything to say than to trigger the revelation that Mrs. Robinson wanted to study art before getting knocked up.

Earlier in the film, Benjamin's parents pressure him to ask out the Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), when she returns home from Berkley for the summer. Mrs. Robinson fiercely opposes it, and Benjamin, in a bind, decides to take Elaine out once and act like a jerk, driving recklessly and taking her to a titty bar. When she cries and walks out, Benjamin decides that he really likes her, and to make nice, he apologizes and takes her to a fast food place. (Some beatniks in the next car blast quiet folk music so the screenwriters don't have to write dialogue for them.) When Mrs. Robinson learns that Benjamin wants to continue to see Elaine, she threatens to reveal the truth to her about their relationship. Benjamin decides to tell Elaine first, but he's not able to before she figures it out for herself (a realization underlined by having Elaine's face slowly come into focus). In American Pie, Stifler's mom (Jennifer Coolidge) was the ultimate prize, but here Mrs. Robinson is merely an impediment to Benjamin having a "normal" relationship.

For the first hour or so, Mrs. Robinson is the most compelling character in the film because she's the only one who knows what she wants. At the same time, I was increasingly frustrated with Benjamin, who doesn't seem to want anything. He resists. When he tells his father that he's "just drifting," while sunbathing in the pool, he doesn't know how right he is. He only figures out what he wants about mid-way through his date with Elaine. And it's at this point that Mrs. Robinson jumps the shark and becomes the film's least interesting character; she's not trying to seduce Benjamin any more, but is merely an obstacle to his goal. Once you accuse somebody of raping you, it's not likely they're going to sleep with you later, and the Mrs. Robinson of the movie's first half was at least smart enough to know this.

I realize that I've fallen into the same trap as Ebert and Rosenbaum by spending too much time talking about the plot. So let's talk about the style. Despite being a self-proclaimed drifter, the film keeps associating Benjamin with a deep sea diver. In an early scene, there's a close-up of Benjamin, framed in the dead center of the 'Scope image, sitting in front of an aquarium; in the tank, on the lower left side of the frame, is a plastic diver. This shot gets awesome when Benjmain's father (William Daniels) enters the room and sits down with Benjamin, his giant out-of-focus head blotting out most of the left side of the screen. His father invites him to come downstairs to join the party, but Benjamin says he'd rather be alone. Later, Benjamin's parents give him a diving suit for his birthday and ask him to model it for their friends at a second party scene. The sequence ends with a lengthy long shot of Benjmain standing at the bottom of the pool. The film associates the image of the deep sea diver with isolation and depression.

The songs by Simon and Garfunkel also function as leitmotifs. "Scarborough Fair" is associated with Elaine, and first appears over a montage showing Benjamin driving to Berkley to see her. (This trip apparently takes two days; I've never been to California, but it only takes a day to drive from Quebec City to Toronto.) "The Sounds of Silence" is used three times during the film, once over the credit sequence, which shows Benjamin in medium close-up and in profile against a white wall, standing on an unseen conveyor belt in an airport--another kind of drifting. It reappears over a fade to black while Benjamin is having sex for the first time with Mrs. Robinson, and continues over a non-narrative montage sequence that begins with several shots of Benjamin sunbathing in his parents' pool. He then gets out of the pool, puts on a white shirt and walks in the house. The film cuts on the action of him opening the door, but in the next shot he's completely dry. The camera pulls back to reveal that he's in the hotel room with Mrs. Robinson. The sequence ends with Benjamin back in the pool, explaining to his father that he's just drifting, "here in the pool." In a sense, the film has been drifting with him for several minutes without furthering the plot. Finally, the song reappears again over the final shot of Benjamin and Elaine on a bus, underscoring the replacement of the daughter for her mother. In each case, the relationship of the lyrics to the plot is tangental, if not non-existant. (Although "Mrs. Robinson" makes explicit reference to the story, the relevance of a line like, "God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson / Jesus loves you more than you will know," is hard to fathom.) Instead of creating an association between the lyrics of the song and the story, they create an association between two or more moments in the film.

Seeing The Graduate after Wayne's World 2, I found myself mentally comparing it with that film, and certain details just seemed wrong. In the church, when Benjamin calls out "Elaine" instead of "Cassandra," I felt like the name should have three syllables. Mrs. Robinson is clearly mouthing "Son of a bitch," but I haven't a clue what the groom (Brian Avery) is supposed to be saying. What a let down from Wayne's World 2, where you can clearly see that the priest is saying, "Son of a bitch!" But while The Graduate may not live up to that classic film, Nichols' style is enough that I'm glad I finally saw it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day Four

The difference between Steven Soderbergh as an independent filmmaker (1989-96), and Steven Soderbergh as a studio filmmaker (1998-present), is the difference between a writer-director and a director-cinematographer. With the exception of the much maligned Kafka (1991) and his Spalding Gray performance film, Gray's Anatomy (1996), neither of which I've seen, Soderbergh wrote all of his early features himself, including what I regard as his two most interesting and fully realized films overall: sex, lies & videotape (1989) and King of the Hill (1993). Though more conventional in form, the former has a freshness of characterization that's missing from much of Soderbergh's subsequent work; and the latter, adapted from A.E. Kotchner's memoir about growing up during the Great Depression, is especially strong on period ambiance. (Before going mainstream with Out of Sight [1998], Soderbergh also directed one more adaptation, The Underneath [1995], and another original screenplay, Schizopolis [1996], but I haven't seen either.)

Although Soderbergh has photographed all of his films since Traffic (2000) himself, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, he takes writing credit on only two: Solaris (2002), an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's SF novel that was first filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and "Equilibrium," his segment for the portmanteau film Eros (2004). And like the others I've seen--Out of Sight, The Limey (1999), Erin Brokovich (2000), Traffic, Full Frontal (2002) and Bubble (2005)--it's impossible to remember a single thing about the films more than a half-hour after watching them. Why are these eight films so forgettable? There's the immediate thrill of seeing techniques associated with European art cinema being assimilated by Hollywood filmmaking, but once that wears off, we're left with nothing. The Limey, for instance, applies non-linear editing techniques derived from Richard Lester's Petulia (1968) and the first five films directed by Nicolas Roeg (themselves indebted to the early films of Alain Resnais) to yet another revenge yarn about Cockney gangsters and crass Hollywood insiders. I'm reminded of Jonathan Rosenbaum's description of Bernardo Bertolucci as a filmmaker who "ultimately chose stylishness over style and both over content."

Che (2008)--which was playing in Toronto in a "Special Roadshow Edition," with the credits printed on a booklet and an eighteen dollar admission price--is certainly the most ambitious of all of Soderbergh's films, as well as the most unusual. A four and a half hour war film about the Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), it largely eschews interiority, taking a relentlessly ground-level view of guerrilla combat. Yet, there's a part of me that suspects Soderbergh only agreed to direct the film as a pretext to try out the new digital camera, the Red.

The film is divided into two parts, each about 130 minutes long, with a fifteen minute intermission in between. The first part, based on Guevara's book, "Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War," depicts Guervara's involvement in the war against Batista. We see him tending to wounded soldiers, leading his troops through the jungle, picking up new recruits as he moves closer to the capital. The second part, based on Guevara's Bolivian diary, shows everything that went wrong there: the lack of popular support, the CIA-backed military counter-insurgency, Guevara forgetting his asthma medicine. In Halifax, the film is playing as two separate features, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," but you really need to see both parts; each half completes the other.

Del Toro won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year, but I suspect there was a conflict of interest (the jury's president, Sean Penn, co-starred with Del Toro in 21 Grams [2003])--or at least, that's the only way I can account for it. Although the screenplay is based on Guevara's own writings, we don't come to know him very well as a character in the film. Near the end of the first part, Guevara casually mentions to a female soldier, Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno), that he has a wife and daughter in Mexico City, but this is the first and last time the viewer hears of them. The first part ends just after Batista's exile from Cuba, and when the second part picks up several years later, Guevara is married to March, with whom he has several children. Early into the film's second part, however, he leaves Cuba in secret to lead the revolutionary movement in Bolivia with March's knowledge and apparent consent. Why did Guevara desert both families? The film doesn't provide any psychological explanation deeper than Guevara's desire to spread the revolution to all of Latin America. Nor does it presume to know how Guevara felt as he was leaving or how March felt about being left. In other words, the film takes the life at its word, so to speak, without providing any kind of interpretation or commentary.

The movie's first part cuts between Guevara's trip to New York in 1964, where he spoke at the UN, and his involvement in the Cuban revolutionary movement, beginning with his first meeting with Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) in Mexico City in 1955. The scenes in New York were shot on grainy, high contrast black-and-white film stock, while the scenes in Cuba were shot in colour on the Red, which in optimal lighting conditions results in images of hyper-clarity without grain. Throughout, Soderbergh favors long group shots over close-ups, which is in keeping with the film's intellectual detachment. (When the film shows Guevara's death from his point of view, it's a way of not showing the viewer his expression.)

Like many of Soderbergh's films, Che lives in the shadow of another, greater film--namely, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966). Although Che sympathizes completely with Guevara and his comrades (in contrast with Pontecorvo's more even-handed approach), I suspect that Soderbergh is less passionate about the revolution than he is about Pontecorvo's film on it. And at the end of the day, he goes back to Hollywood and directs Ocean's Fifteen for a huge pile of money. If Soderbergh were more engaged by his material, he might've tried to do something more original instead of relying on Pontecorvo as a role model.

Stephen Daldry's The Reader (2008) is a film of surprising complexity and nuance. The film, which opens in Germany in 1958, starts out in Red Shoe Diaries territory with a pale, effeminate teenager, Michael Berg (David Kross), having an affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmizt (Kate Winslet)--somehow without his strict parents or anyone else ever knowing about it. The film becomes interesting when it skips ahead eight years to when Michael is a university student. His class takes a train to the Hague, where Hanna is on trial for war crimes during World War II. The film is sharply critical of the trial, showing how a small number of low-ranking Nazi war criminals were given harsh sentences while the majority of the people responsible were either given lighter sentences or never brought to trial in the first place. Hanna is certainly guilty of doing the things she's accused of, and her answers to the judges reflect the moral myopia of some one who's incapable of seeing beyond the task they've been assigned to perform. Where Hanna differs from her co-defendants is that she still doesn't get it, which makes her easy to scapegoat.

The film is not perfect. There are big revelations that attentive viewers should see coming a mile away. Also, it takes some time to adjust to English actors playing German characters while speaking in English with heavy German accents, and it's always distracting when you have two actors playing the same character at different ages. (Michael is played as an adult by the very unfeminine Ralph Fiennes.) But despite all this, the film moved me because it's such a compelling subject, and the storytelling is fluid throughout. So far I've seen four of this year's Oscar nominees (the only one I haven't is Milk [2008]), and this is by far the best.