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.

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