Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Family Gatherings Must Be Weird

Film: The Graduate
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Certain films slip under everyone’s radar. Every film geek and snob has a film or two that they haven’t yet seen for one reason or another. Me? I have a whole list of those films. One of the ones at the top was The Graduate until just now. For the generation before mine, the older section of the Baby Boomers specifically, this is a pivotal film in many ways. One could argue it as one of the most important films for that generation pre-Woodstock, and I don’t think that argument would be amiss.

Because it is such a pivotal and important film, it’s a difficult one for me to judge, because I my initial response to this film is to dislike it mildly rather than be completely enraptured by it the way I’m supposed to be. It’s kind of icky. It’s supposed to be a blend of comedy and drama, and I get that it could be seen that way, but so much of it is unpleasant that I have trouble seeing it that way. It’s not unpleasant in the way a number of films I’ve seen in the past two years is, but there is sort of an oily film over it.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just returned from college where he was quite the big man on campus. Now back, he is completely without direction, uninterested in getting a job and unequally uninterested in graduate school. He’s also very young—a college graduate and about a week from turning 21. At a party celebrating his return, he offers a ride home to Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who attempts to seduce him and tells him that she is “available” to him whenever he wishes. Just to make things jolly and fun, her husband (Murray Hamilton, immediately identifiable by his voice) is the law partner of Ben’s dad (William Daniels).

This goes on for awhile. Ben drifts aimlessly (and quite literally in the family swimming pool) and has copious amounts of sex with Mrs. Robinson. He discovers that he really has nothing in common with her. She’s essentially a bored housewife who drinks and smokes constantly and is looking for a little something more in her life, thus Benjamin. Ben, on the other hand, is pretty much disgusted with himself for sleeping with his father’s partner’s wife, but can’t break away because he doesn’t have anything else to do. This changes when he is forced to take the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) out on a date. After a very rocky start, the two end up falling for each other, making one creepy and strange love/sex triangle. Like I said, there’s sort of a film of oil on this movie.

And yet, in a very real way, I understand exactly what all of the hoopla is about. Liking this movie is all about the “when.” This is a movie that needs to be seen at a particular point in life, at a particular time or age, and I’m well past it. It reminds me in many ways of The Catcher in the Rye. People who read that book at 15 or so love it and identify with Holden Caulfield for the rest of their lives. I read that book in my 20s and wondered what all of the fuss was about. Furthermore, I wanted to reach into the pages and bitchslap that little snot.

And that, for me, is The Graduate. I’m in my 40s now, and find nothing appealing or interesting about these characters. Benjamin Braddock is a creep, a jerk. He does little but feel sorry for himself and whine about it. The world essentially gets handed to him on a plate, and none of it is good enough or interesting enough to do anything for him. Elaine is a mush and a bit of a twit, a pretty face with nothing behind it. And Mrs. Robinson is, bluntly, a selfish bitch.

But here’s the thing: all of that is completely intentional. I get precisely what the point of this film is, I think, or at least a possible reading of everything in it that makes coherent sense. I’m not going to say that everybody else has it wrong, but I will say that the people who find Ben appealing and somehow laudable have it dead wrong. He’s a punk and he’s supposed to be a punk. Ben does nothing but screw up, and that’s exactly what he’s supposed to do here. The film isn’t about Ben “rescuing” Elaine or about the affair with Mrs. Robinson, or Oedipal issues. It’s about listless people adrift in the world doing things because they can’t think of anything else to do. Ben and Elaine and Mrs. Robinson are pitiful and pitiable because they can’t really be anything else.

And so, for that, this film is genius.

I don’t love this film, and I’m not sure at this point if I even like it. I do, however, respect the hell out of what Mike Nichols has accomplished with it. He has, for lack of a better word, tapped into that feeling of ennui, that complete lack of a point that everyone experiences at one time or another. Everyone is Ben Braddock at some point in life.

I’m not that guy anymore, although I’ve certainly been him in the past. I think if I had watched this film during those years of my life, I may well have placed this as one of my favorite movies ever. I’d see Ben Braddock as something of a hero, or at least as a sort of cinematic spirit guide. But I missed my chance. And so this will remain a film for which I will have a deep and abiding respect, but it’s platonic. Try as I might, I just can’t love it.

As a final note, almost all of the most famous moments from this film come in the first 20 minutes. It's kind of a letdown when everything you know of a film happens right away; it's almost like there's nothing to look forward to.

Why to watch The Graduate: Arguably the most iconic film of the 1960s, and everyone borrows from it.
Why not to watch: There’s something unappealing about the characters and especially the situation.


  1. For those of us used to 50s movies, when films like MASH and The Graduate and Bonny and Clyde and Easy Rider started showing up, it sure made going to the movies fun. Golden Age.

  2. Yeah, I see that. Like I said, I think I saw this at the wrong age/time in my life. If I'd seen it 20 years ago, I think I'd have been enamored of it.

  3. Funny... I'll be watching/reviewing this next week for the 60/60.

  4. Pure coincidence. It happens to be the movie of the week for the 1001 Movies Blog Club.

  5. I think I'm going to have to watch the Graduate at least once - it's just one of those films isn't it? Great review as always :)

  6. It's definitely worth watching. It is objectively a great film, and you may well find that it speaks to you in a real way. It is excellently made and the acting is top-notch.

    Be prepared to hear the same songs over and over, though--there's a span where every couple of minutes brings another listen to "Scarborough Fair" followed by about 20 minutes of "Mrs. Robinson" without lyrics.

  7. You got it right when you said the movie isn't that impressive anymore. It was important to people when it came out, but it hasn't aged well.

    I don't think it's so much about seeing it when you are the age of the character, as it was about seeing it when the social changes it talks about were going on (the late 60s.) It ends up on most of the big critics best of lists because they saw it when it came out. If it were to come out now, I'm sure that many of them would see it with a clearer eye.

    On a related note - if you haven't seen it, the movie Rumor Has It is a sort of funny take on the lives of the people that supposedly inspired the original story (all fictional). It's not a great movie, but it might give you a few laughs now that you've seen The Graduate.

  8. That's an interesting thought. I hadn't really considered that the film hasn't aged as well as everyone thinks it has, but that would, essentially lead me to the same spot, wouldn't it? Either the film has aged too much or I have. Regardless of which is true, I'm still disconnected from it.

    I haven't seen Rumor Has It.

  9. I didn't really like the characters and I never understood the reason they do the things they do but somehow this story kept me completely involved and I'm finally glad to say that I have seen The Graduate. Nice review.

  10. The comment you make about Catcher in the Rye is an interesting connection - I, too, read Catcher in the Rye too late (when I was about 24 instead of 16), and I had exactly the same reaction to you. I wanted to slap Holden and tell him to shut his whiny ass up. Friends I had who read it as a teenager were far more connected to it than I was.

    Now, The Graduate. I actually saw this first as a teenager, and didn't get a whole lot out of it. I was about to head off to college, expecting that college would set my life in motion, I'd know what I wanted to do, I'd do it, everything would be great. I couldn't imagine getting out of college and just drifting. But when I got out of college, still not sure what I wanted to do (except I didn't want to do the thing my degree was in), I basically did that. I mean, I didn't have an affair with my father's business partner's husband, but yeah. When I saw the film again post-college (but still in my mid-20s), Benjamin's character suddenly clicked. Obviously I disagree with most of the decisions he made and the things he did, but I understood something about his situation and headspace.

    I still don't LOVE the film, but it's easily my favorite Nichols film (not a fan), and I can see its immense influence on films from my generation that I do love quite a bit - like Garden State.

  11. See, that makes a lot of sense to me--I've had a couple of points in my life when I drifted, and had I watched The Graduate in that moment, it would likely be a film that I love.

    That, and I'm glad to not be the only person who thinks Holden Caulfield needs to cowboy up.