Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Graduate

The greatest scene in The Graduate (1967) is the final scene. Elaine and Ben have escaped from the church where she has just gotten married. They run after a bus and board it. It looks like a school bus, clearly not the kind of transportation these upper middle-class white Californians would normally favor. The bus is full of laborers, Mexicans, lower-class whites. They are headed somewhere—some destination the film doesn't divulge. Ben and Elaine are flushed with excitement and victory. They have broken away from the lives their parents had planned for them, from the marriage Elaine's parents had forced her to. But as the final seconds of the scene pass, the mood subtly changes. The excitement fades. Ben and Elaine begin to look a bit uncertain, even regretful. The future is beginning to dawn, and what it holds we cannot know, but it certainly holds more difficulties and complexities that they had not begun to anticipate, until now. And then the film ends.

The fading looks on Ben and Elaine's faces speak volumes. What can they mean?

The Graduate is one of the five movies discussed in Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. It effectively represents the schism between generations that Harris is concerned with, though The Graduate in and of itself isn't concerned with Hollywood, it's concerned with the United States, with the developing culture wars, especially the generational conflicts for which the 60s are so notoriously famous. It's not that those conflicts developed in the 60s—they just became more evident.

Much of the film, especially the first half, is devoted to illustrating the gap between Ben Braddock and the generation of his parents. He returns home from college, newly graduated, a long list of campus achievements and awards trailing clouds of glory behind him, and he has no idea what he is going to do with himself. This in and of itself doesn't particularly concern him, though it certainly becomes a concern for his parents.

The future that Ben's parents envision for him is encapsulated in the most famous line (or what I recall as the most famous line, a one-word famous line) from this film: "Plastics." This is what a friend of Ben's father tells him is the future. "Plastics." What he means is that Ben should get involved in the field of plastics — there's money to be made there. From the film's viewpoint, "plastic" is a way of describing the entire generation of Ben's parents: their affluence, their swimming pools, their opulent and sprawling houses, their extravagant gifts (red sports cars, scuba gear), their bragging over the exploits of their offspring. One of the grotesque moments in the film is when Ben's mother demands that all the people at her party be quiet so that she can read from a list of Ben's achievements.

The Graduate strikes me as painfully dated. When I first saw it in 1967 I felt the excitement of the film. I knew what that word plastics signified. I certainly identified with Ben. I sat through the film twice the first time I saw it. Then I saw it again after I graduated from college, probably five years later. Suddenly it seemed not so current, and next to the film playing with it in a double-bill, Easy Rider (1969), it seemed even more out of date. Easy Rider still strikes me as a film that speaks with a kind of primal if contrived authenticity—it's about the failed American dream.

Probably the reason for the anachronistic quality of The Graduate is Ben and Elaine themselves and what they yearn for. They want each other, of course. They want marriage with each other—at least Ben wants to marry Elaine—it's not quite clear what she wants. Their entire drama is acted out in the context of their parents' wealthy lifestyles, without which the film could not exist. Elaine attends an affluent mostly white university. Ben graduated from such a school. For a graduation gift he receives a swank red sports car. Both of them apparently do not have to work. Ben travels to Berkeley to be near Elaine. His income source is unknown—it's probably his parents. All the faces we see in this film, especially the faces at the university Elaine attends, are white faces. Essentially this is a film about mid-twentieth century white early adulthood angst. It may also be, at least from the 2008 perspective, a film about how Ben and Elaine are going to end up like their parents.

In a certain way the film is aware of this fact. Ben is fascinated with the story of how Elaine's parents first met and had sex together—in the backseat of her father's car, when they were in college. He revels in this story. One reason must be because in the back of his mind he can see the possibility that this story could be his own story. Change a few details, the time and place, and it might be his story. Of course, he is wholly alienated from everything Elaine's parents signify—their wealth, their privileges, their swank lodgings, their dissipated sense of cultural and social fatigue. Sex with Mrs. Robinson for him is just another way he can make his alienation more complete. Shortly after the film was released, an interviewer asked Mike Nichols what happened to Elaine and Ben after the picture ended. His answer: "They grew up to be like their parents."

Has anyone ever noticed that although the music of Simon and Garfunkel helps to create the mood and tone of the film, it really has virtually no connection with the plot, with the story itself? As famous as the song "Mrs. Robinson" may be, the lyrics don't make a whole lot of sense, especially when they're set against the events in the film.

Technically, the film is fine. Mike Nichols as director is at his best in this film. He has never been better. Dustin Hoffman at the age of 29 gives an utterly brilliant and convincing performance as the 21-year old Ben Braddock. It's difficult to believe he made this film when he was on the verge of becoming 30. But separate the brilliance of his acting (and that of Anne Bancroft) from the film and separate Mike Nichol's excellent handling of characters and the technical and creative expertise he brings to the film, and what is left is a social melodrama that probably would not make sense to many 21 year olds these days, most of whom are running as fast as they can towards the lives that Mr. and Mr. Robinson embody.

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