Sunday, June 7, 2009

Abstract Thoughts About The Graduate

The Graduate, dir. Mike Nicholas, 1967 (4.5/5 stars)

The first time I saw The Graduate, it was on my tiny, long-retired television screen. It was one of the best movies I've ever seen. Perhaps the most entertaining motion picture I've ever witnessed. At thirteen years old, I already related to Benjamin Braddock's sense of disillusionment, confusion, and indecisiveness. I had an impaired sense of judgment, much like Ben. I did not know where to look for the light at the end of the tunnel. I just wanted to sit around all day, contemplating, searching for a definite route in life. I've always been a little ahead of the game, but somehow, it just seems like I've wasted all that time on thinking without any meaningful action.

The Graduate is also one of the most important movies ever made about the exterior glories of youth and the inner time bomb that probes the core of youth. It's simply timeless. But I'm rather bipolar about its wonders. My second viewing somewhat plagues me with the question, "Why is Benjamin Braddock such a creep?" But there's this unexplainable, puppy dog charm to his strange, and sometimes stalkerish antics.

One of the charms of The Graduate is that it uses music to express the characters' senses of confusion and temptation. Mike Nichol's groundbreaking 1967 film not only left a mark in the world of American comedy, but it also used music as a cinematic device to its fullest potential. I don't want to over-exaggerate or anything, but without The Graduate, I doubt we would have those monumental music-within-a-nonmusical-movie moments in later films. Thanks to this film, I was introduced to the music of Simon & Garfunkel. "The Sound of Silence" haunted me, like blind ghosts stuck forever on a clothes hanger. To this day, it still does. And the world of cinema was taught how to properly inject a little bit of pop into their primary medium.

The film's plot spotlights the awkward, nervous, and bored Ben (Dustin Hoffman). Ben recently graduated from college with a bachelor's degree and track star fame attached to his name. He's a golden boy of sorts: everyone wants to what the future has in store of young Ben. But it's the old family friend, Mrs. Robinson (Ann Bancroft) who sees a different kind of potential in Ben. Mrs. Robinson attempts to seduce him and succeeds. The two begin a vacuous affair, built on evening meetings at the local hotel. When Ben's family forces him to take out the Robinsons' college-aged daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), Ben seriously falls for her. In result, he must face Mrs. Robinson's raging disapproval.

Most of the time, I cheer for Ben. I want things to turn out well for him. But my conscience tells me he's a real creep. (Roger Ebert also describes Ben as a "creep," perhaps for slightly different reasons.) There is something completely unlikable about Ben. He's a social underdog, for sure, but he's a quietly despicable social underdog. People like him don't get anywhere in life. At the end of the day, guys like Ben may have won the girl, but things will be completely different in another month. The girl would've faced reality by then. Ben is alert when he finds purpose in life, but when he captures the reward, he doesn't know what to do with it. He's one of those guys who knows how to kill a man, but won't know where to dispose the body. That's Ben in a nutshell.

Hoffman is perfectly cast in this role. I want to hate Ben, but I don't. Hoffman plays Ben like a guy who's completely lost at sea and uncomfortable not only with his sexuality, but with the purpose of his mere existence. Hoffman can also deliver some excellent aw-shucks humor and convince that he's serious about his ridiculously awkward antics. The opening scene sums it all up: Hoffman has that amazing blank look on his face: slightly nervous, yet strangely, a bit hopeful. Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" blares in the background.

Benjamin Braddock is one of those characters that has cemented Hoffman as a credible actor after all these years. Here's a breakthrough performance at its ripest. I would say that Hoffman's performance in this film acts as the very foundation to his decades-long, tremendously successful film career.

But Mrs. Robinson is an entirely different story. She's manipulative and conniving, yet sexy and alive. She's this middle-aged woman, confined to the boring limitations of a domestic servant to the California suburbs. If she lived in a more modern day and age, life would have been brighter for her. I deeply resent Mrs. Robinson, although I do sympathize with her unfortunate circumstances. Bancroft plays Mrs. Robinson as an untouched enigma, which makes the character both fascinating and horrific at once. And Bancroft, in her late thirties, still looked like a golden goddess.

I hate Ben and Mrs. Robinson. I love Ben and Mrs. Robinson. It depends on my mood. When I'm cynical and depressed, Ben and Mrs. Robinson are my heroes. When I feel absolutely fine and sedated, Ben and Mrs. Robinson are devilish tools.

But Nichols does consciously showcase the playfully satirical aspects of The Graduate. The film is a surprisingly insightful look at the late-sixties, youth, counterculture, the American suburbs, the American Dream, aging, college, lust, and love. What are they? What are their purposes? What are their functions? Does it all matter?

I've watched The Graduate with my mom and my English class on two separate occasions. Both my mom and my English class seem to think this famous little classic is "weird." Okay, I'm just going on a limb about my entire English class, but my mom actually said it. Apparently it's hard to explain why exactly she feels that way. She just does.

My mom is rather repulsed by Ben's actions. She thinks Ben is one of the most filthy, disgusting cinematic characters she's ever seen on screen. And she's seen quite a few movies, many of which includes gory violence and rape. I certainly don't understand her deep resentment for Ben, but it's there.

My English class is supposed to connect The Graduate to the general idea of existentialism. Does Ben make his own decisions? How does he execute his existential way of thinking? No matter. But did they like the film? My friend said he thought it was "weird" as well.

My English class just finished viewing the film on Friday. From this particular viewing, I conclude that it is one of the most entertaining motion pictures ever made. It's mostly due to that hilariously suspenseful climatic scene, where I observe the clueless hero chase the current girl of his dreams. But that still doesn't stop me from feeling the great urge to punch Ben in the face. Or wonder what the hell he and Elaine are going to go after they take off in that yellow bus. But I do wish everything works out for everyone involved. As much as I feel this heavy disdain for the characters in The Graduate, I want things to work out well for them. Perhaps this way, they'd feel less troubled and I'd like them more, even though I won't see their journey to a brighter path. I mean, at least I want things to be okay for them, you know what I mean?

There's a possibility that I may hate this movie again once I think everything through. But for now, it's as terrific as I want it to be.


  1. oh my gosh this is an amazingly insightful review. well done!! when I eventually get round to doing mine, it'll be awful in comparison.

    ah well.

    I think I need to rewatch this film, but briefly, for me the higlights were camera work, music and acting. the camera was just simply amazing - while hitchcock is one of my favourite director's and I adore the filming style of his films, the graduate I feel broke down new barriers with its naturalistic experimentative style. The music - I can't add much more to what you said - but the sounds of silence is haunting, scarborough fair appropriately melancholy - reflecting I feel the conflict within Ben's character. It's slightly strange that the more upbeat song of the soundtrack is mrs robinson - despite the fact that she is one of the more tragic characetrs in the film - it's a nice contrast I feel. And lastly, acting. wow. dustin hoffman is awesomeness defined in this. I agree with you, he's a bit of an ass...but imo, I feel that it's a coming of age story of an incredibly weak character, uncomfortable in his own skin and sexuality who lets himself be seduced and has an affair and acts like a total twat basically, but grows up and becomes a man - albeit a still flawed man - when he falls in love. that's what I feel anyway. I just love this film. It was one of the best filmic experiences of my life - watching it. and your review is amazing. xxx

  2. Thanks Anahita! I'm glad you enjoyed my review. I kind of typed it up on a whim. I forgot to mention so many things. The cinematography is actually quite mind-blowingly awesome. I love the clausaphobic feel of the opening scenes and how Nichols uses the rule of thirds to showcase the characters.

    I also love the use of "Mrs. Robinson" in the climatic later scenes. There's this kind of brewing intensity about this earlier version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic that's has a little more kick than the version that we know so well. "Scarborough Fair" isn't one of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs, but it's nicely used in this film, as you said, to showcase Ben's internal conflicts.

    I wouldn't exactly say that Ben officially becomes a man. And perhaps he doesn't officially fall in love either. He's still a confused, worried kid who learns to take the first step in controlling his own life. Unfortunately, he doesn't know where to go from there...but somehow, it seems like he'll figure it out.

  3. I also look forward in reading your review of the film, Anahita. I'm sure it'll be excellent. The Graduate is an interesting film to discuss.

  4. the alienation of suburban life...a wasteland of plastic people in plastic houses with plastic children and plastic cars. i don't have much hope for ben; elaine will put a ring thru his nose, and that will be that. she will become her mother - and poor vacuous ben will become her father - omg!

    have you read that they are having some difficulty sorting the weakage of the air france plane from all the other crap floating in the middle of the ocean. it makes you think, doesn't it. does ben even have the ability to really think?

    btw, i grew up in the suburbs; so, i am allowed to condem the life-style just as the movie did.

  5. Bravo, baby!!!

    Wow, you really have a firm grasp of the existential dilemmas and the underlying discord in this classic motion picture.

    I understand a lot of what you're saying. I've felt exactly the same regarding many of your viewpoints.

    I first watched THE GRADUATE on the late late show at 14. Must confess that I was highly conflicted when I first saw it and really wondered what the hell all the fuss was about.

    But during subsequent viewuings I fell madly in love with it. It has been copied relentessly. There are many films like it. But it stands entirely alone. It has a genuinely iconoclastic feel and rhythm.

    THE GRADUATE is DIFFERENT. But that's precisely what I adore about it. Mike Nichols, of course, is a genius in every sense of that word.

    Was the affair Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin had morally wrong? Of course. But that didn't faze me.

    Even at 14.

    He was young. But still technically an adult and able to make his own decisions. Plus not only has this kind of behaviour been going on since the beginning of time (and will forever more - that's just the way people are) but everyone knows walking in that Ben and Mrs. Robinson have an illicit relationship.

    It's one of the more famous aspects of the film. People that would have a big problem with that probably shouldn't watch it.

    But I have great admiration for your comprehension of the complex situations and the feverish emotions on display here.

    Though the sixties were long before our respective times, it's one of the decades that I have a mad infatuation with. I've read widely about those ten years of anazingly expansive growth and this is what I've figured out.

    Dustin as Ben is basically one of the first "antiheroes" ever captured on film. It apparently was quite the volatile time. The killings at Kent State were a few years away. But there was Vietnam. Lots of drugs. The Summer Of Love was slowly starting to turn brutal.

    The antihero in film (largely male - but there were some female prototypes as well) became incredibly popular after this movie became a world wide smash. In that respect, you really aren't supposed to like Ben or Mrs. Robinson.

    I do. Tremendously. I feel a great sympathy for both of them. But Ben gets far more of my understanding than her. He's just out of school. Still trying to find his way.

    Despite her passionate nature, she's a nasty, manipulative, cold piece of work - a real opportunist. I bet she was waiting for her moment with him FOR YEARS. She just seems like the type. When he came home from school and she knew her husband wasn't going to be home for hours, she took it to the wall.

    There is no way that Ben would have pursued her on his own. She was married. Far too beautiful and intimidating. Back then they didn't understand that a woman's attractiveness and sensuality doesn't necessarily decrease with time.

    Eventually, sure. But we're just getting to that point in North American society now. The 60s were the dark ages. Young men were not paired up with women old enough to be their...aunts. No matter how hot they were.

    But the world is finally catching up.

    THE GRADUATE was an ENORMOUS hit when it was released at Christmastime in 1967. I imagine older people were either shocked or titillated (maybe a bit of both?) but I think that most audience members under 30 strongly identified with Ben's angst and confusion.

    It was a masterpiece for that particular time. I hear people say it hasn't aged well. But I think a lot of the subtext (not to mention the big issues) are extremely relevant today.

    I also really liked your pronouncement that SIMON & GARFUNKEL were MTV...nearly 15 years before it officially started in earnest. Fabulous crystal clear observation.

    All in all, an exceedingly brilliant, observant review of one of the all time greats.

    But I would expect nothing less from you, Marcy. You're the bee's knees, girl.

    Have you seen SHAMPOO?

    I think you should try that next...

  6. Great review Marcy, I too love this film. I thought the acting was top notch and the music was great. One of Hoffman's best films.

  7. Marcy, what can I say? wonderful review. Glad to see you alive and kicking on here. The Graduate is my favorite movie. I relate to Ben's sense of disillusionment deeply, and at the same time relate to his selfishness and stupidity. I am the same as you with the characters though. Sometimes I find Ben to be my hero, and then others, I just think he is a loser.

    My character I was completely wrong about was Mrs. Robinson. She is such a wonderfully complex character that I can't even begin to say sometimes I love her and sometimes I hate her. She is utterly human while at the same time being utterly lifeless.

  8. cryminy - i apologize for dumping on the suburbs - above - as most of us are either there, or have been there. i was in a bad frame of mind, and it sort of spilled out. not that i was wrong, of course...but you understand... mumble, mumble....(slinks back to dog house)

  9. I'm sorry for the late response, Miranda. I'm glad you stopped by, though. I loved reading your fantastically insightful comments about The Graduate. And I'm always flattered by your praise...

    I love the sixties too. It's one of those decades that I'd love to visit. It was a time of real change. Nothing was ever the same after the sixties. The seventies was the final straw.

    I've always felt a tiny bit more sympathy for Mrs. Robinson than for Ben. Ben has his whole life ahead of him, despite the wall he has driven himself into.

    But for Mrs. Robinson, time is running out. She has spent most of her life stuck in a deteriorating marriage and fading dreams. She's certainly manipulative, but extremely worthy of our sympathy. She's already used up all her second chances.

    I'll definitely check out Shampoo some time!

  10. Thanks Farzan!

    Dustin Hoffman is such an incredible actor. I love him. He has so much versatility and vitality. And he seems like a genuinely great, funny person too. I saw him on the Tonight Show several years ago and he was absolutely hilarious. His imitation of Robert De Niro was priceless. I wished I could find a video of it somewhere...

  11. Shawn, I'm glad you enjoyed my review of The Graduate.

    Right now, I'm totally feeling like Benjamin. But everything might be different tomorrow...

  12. Davey, I feel your disdain for the suburbs. But I kinda love it too. It's hard to explain. There are both sides to a good thing--and a bad thing. So no need to apologize!

  13. Hi, I stumbled on to your blog when trying to understand why people are of the opinion that Ben is creepy or a loser. In regards to him being creepy, the main criticism seems to be when he is watching Elaine from his car after their relationship had been foiled. I'll admit from the modern lens this seems like a stalker, however in an era before the internet I think its completely in character for a slighted lover to take such actions. I can't speak for everyone, but I see it as the equivalent of checking the facebook of a girl who you still have feelings but can't be with due to some unassailable impediment.

    In regards to him being a loser, I kind of see how his character can be viewed as such if you only consider is post graduate loafing to be laziness. However, I think this is a flawed view in that the film establishes from the first scenes that Ben is an accomplished track star, certainly not a feat a lazy man could muster. Instead, I contend that Ben is experiencing ennui, he cannot find a path because the world around him seems completely "plastic". The facade of Mr.Robinson is quickly broken in his wife's infidelity. In the face of this absurd, stagnant, and frankly dreary world, Ben chooses to submission as a confused, virginal graduate. The point of the film, from this view, is that he actively takes steps towards fighting this depressing notions and doing something he considers worth doing.

    To me, all of these characteristics point to a noble character finding his way in the world. You seem to think that Ben is a despicable character who will ultimately fail in his endeavors. I really don't see this despite re watching the film dozens of times and would love some insight into why you intuitively feel this way.

    This is by no means an attack on your view as it is one I've heard it quite a few times, most notably through Ebert as you mention in your post. Any insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated, I very much enjoyed your review despite our differing opinions.