Monday, November 14, 2011

The Graduate (Nichols. 1967)

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!"

“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know”. When thought about, these lyrics from the title song from 1967’s The Graduate do not make sense in context with the film. Originally, Paul Simon was writing the song about “Mrs. Roosevelt”, but quickly switched the name when he failed to meet his contractual requirements on the movie’s soundtrack. So really, the most famous thing about this movie had absolutely nothing to do with it. Either way, it is a great song.

The Graduate is a film that exclusively, and excessively, uses the music of folk’s most popular duo, Simon and Garfunkel. The music provides the most memorable, but maybe not the most well-liked, aspect of the entire production. Yes, the soft and sophisticated sounds of Art and Paul may provide a sensitive backing to the seemingly precocious narrative, but it is also very wordy. It is almost as if Nichols wanted the duo to be characters in the film itself. Their lyrics do not necessarily boost the audience’s participation in accepting the story, nor do the songs have any real particular relevance to the action or outcome. So why is the music in The Graduate so important and well-remembered?

In 1967 American youth was bursting out of their shells and out rightly becoming a significant target audience. As the youth changed, music changed. Music will always have its hand closer to the pulse of the young people, but movies do eventually catch up. This culminates in The Graduate. Though some movies (most notably Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963)) were using artist-specific music as their soundtracks, The Graduate used the RIGHT music for the RIGHT crowd and associated it with the RIGHT story. It made the use of popular music over orchestral scores a trend. No "Mrs. Robinson", no "Superfly". That would be a crime.

Music aside, The Graduate is a movie that does not seem to be about anything of drastic importance. The main character, Benjamin Braddock, does not look interesting, nor does he actively embrace his upper-class life. He has recently graduated from college and would like some time to think about what he wants to do with the rest of his life. I will be graduating college soon. I hope I will not be this pathetic, though I probably will be exactly like it.

Dustin Hoffman, in his first major role, plays Benjamin with an effective awkwardness with which the audience can easily relate. He is so conflicted, confused, aroused, nervous and excited that, given his circumstances, it is amazing he never developed an aneurism. Every emotion is so perfectly displayed on his face and presented effortlessly through his body language. He may not be the hero in this story – there may not be a hero in The Graduate – but he certainly works his way somewhere inside the heart of each audience member.

The story in The Graduate is so famous that I feel silly even providing a synopsis. Benjamin is seduced by a much older family friend who he only refers to as Mrs. Robinson. Anne Bancroft was actually 36 years old and only 6 years older than Hoffman at the time of filming. But, with a little bit of Hollywood magic, she was made to look in her early 40s. This does not mean that she is not sexy. She prowls on the poor college grad. She knows that her power lies in her persistence.

And why does she do it? I am guessing it is because she can. Her marriage is loveless and her life is filled with menial tasks. In her only moment of weakness she divulges that her college major was art. She has lost interest in her former passion. I wonder if all art majors end up that way. She uses Ben as a way to feel, maybe not alive, but in control. That all falls overboard when he falls in love with her daughter.

It is with Mrs. Robinson that people overindulge the sniffing of their farts with some sort of non-existent political or social critique that speaks volumes about the society of the times. I highly doubt that was Nichols’ intention. For me, The Graduate is a film about a woman who is bored in a life that she did not want. Ben is convenient for her, so she goes after him. This is not a movie about sex, but rather it is about living your life. Mrs. Robinson is the only character who knows how to go about doing that.

Taking a break from the story, The Graduate is my favorite example of sophisticated camera work in movies. It is my opinion that it features the greatest opening credits sequence in any movie ever made. Ben steps onto the moving platform and is forced to face his immediate future. There is no option to go backwards. His face stays stiff and the credits roll. Where will life take him? Only in Mrs. Robinson does he find a way to put his adult life on hold.

There is an abundance of quick zooms and unfocused shots that force attention to the exact place that Nichols wants it. Characters are frequently heard from out of focus or off the screen entirely. The framing of each shot is almost suffocating, but the audience is constantly reminded that there is life outside of the four corners on the television screen. This is a style that was brought over by British directors around that time. It was original then, and it is oft copied by today’s worthwhile filmmakers.

The Graduate does have some significant flaws – the biggest of which is Ben’s eventual love interest, Elaine Robinson. It is said that she is a smart girl, but this description does not correlate with anything that she does or says. Ben eventually tells her that he slept with her mother. She is appalled and throws him out. After a while, a few minutes in “movie time”, she forgives him without even having a sufficient conversation about what happened. She runs out on her own wedding, disconnecting from her parents in the process, in order to hop a bus to nowhere with a neurotic slacker with whom she has never had an intelligent conversation. The last 40 minutes of the movie do not make any logical sense.

Maybe the ending disappoints me because I have no grasp on the breathless and button-downed life that these poor kids were living. Something spontaneous may be exactly what Ben needs to set his life in order. It is here again that people misread that situation. These kids are not hippies, flower-children, punks or beatniks. They are bored. Here is the freedom that they crave. Maybe they’re taking the bus to Scarborough Fair?? I hope they say something interesting before they get there. It is a long drive from California.

The Graduate is a movie that is less about what it is about and more about HOW it is about it. Style is significant, acting is great and the music is innovative (though excessive). Dustin Hoffman made a career out of the movie, though he is not even the character of most interest. Mrs. Robinson is a mystery in attitude. For me, she is the villain, victim and central focus. Maybe I just get lost in her legs. “God bless you, Mrs. Robinson. Heaven holds a place for those who pray”.

The Graduate: A

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