#800 The Graduate
Criterion Release Date: 23 Feb 2016 (LINK)
First and foremost, I think The Graduate is over-rated. The first time I watched it when I was in college, I dislike the character Benjamin, played by the fantastic Dustin Hoffman in an aptly awkward performance. This could be due to the fundamental flaw of the story, in my opinion Benjamin is a “psychopathic” stalker/loser rather than a rebellion as many viewers claimed to be. Many praised the film defining the 60s, but I couldn’t witness the film’s cultural impact in the 60s, nor elicit anything remotely connected to the significance of that era from watching the film alone.
Roger Ebert put the sentence in more concise way than I could, he wrote “The Graduate is a lesser movie. It comes out of a specific time in the late 1960s when parents stood for stodgy middle-class values, and “the kids” were joyous rebels at the cutting edge of the sexual and political revolutions” He later concluded in the same review written thirty years after the film’s premiere, “It is a good topical movie whose time has passed, leaving it stranded in an earlier age”. Time did not treat the film well.
But what save the film from disappointment and metamorphoses into an enjoyment, are the witty dialogue, clever use of jump cut, montage and overlapping sounds, precise cinematography and direction coherent to the theme, and the impeccable performance by Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. In short, The Graduate is the “indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie” in a middle-class (maybe much richer) white family. The first half of the film is fantastic, with Benjamin Braddock, a recent graduate from college feeling disoriented in life and lost in society, being seduced by his parents’ friend Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). The film holds so much of momentum and promising direction, one could hardly be bored by it.
The political turmoil of the 60s, Vietnam War and Cold War, were never a concern in the Braddock family. Mr and Mrs Braddock (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson), as their other middle-class friends, seems to be enjoying an overtly carefree living style, holding parties and buying his son a diving suit as a birthday present. Benjamin, passing the age of puberty, is having an existential crisis, with a loss of purpose and motivation, he drifts pointlessly figuratively and literally in his swimming pool.
The opening shot of Benjamin on a landing airplane looking forward ambiguously, the claustrophobic close-up tracking shot of Benjamin being meaninglessly “harassed” by his parents’ friends in his own welcoming party, or the visually “not moving forward” running shot before the finale, there are visual ticks and cinematic techniques by the director Mike Nichols and the cinematographer Robert Surtees that reinforcing the stagnant situation of Benjamin.
Mrs Robinson is without a doubt the “Lady Eve” of the film, seductive and manipulative in the first half, destructive and indomitable in the latter. Anne Bancroft embodied a middle-aged women whose youth was lost due to premarital pregnancy and now leading a monotonous married life. Sex or no sex, Benjamin is her toy. That’s the rebellion I think the story should be and strong at. When Mrs Robinson only has a few scenes in the second half, the film lost its intensity. In my opinion, the film did fall apart slightly when Benjamin falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).
The relationship between Benjamin and Elaine, as convincing as the performance is, doesn’t ring genuinely true and romantic to me. Their first date is “charming” when Benjamin fails to discourage Elaine by taking her to a strip club. Elaine overnight becomes the purpose of Benjamin’s life, but it could not be named as love when Benjamin turns into a stalker literally when Elaine learns his sexual past and moves away to college. Elaine is a stereotype of “neighboring girl” that is under-used, there are only bits and pieces of the mother-daughter relationship which, if more, could potentially be an insight to her characterization. The worst is Elaine’s supposed fiance, almost a use-and-dump role from a character book that solely purpose is to marry Elaine off.
These, still, could be accountable as the unnecessary sideline from Benjamin’s story, as The Graduate is, first and foremost, the story of Benjamin from his perspective. Repeatedly, the film uses a point-of-view shot, as we are watching through Benjamin’s eyes. For instance, the birthday scene with the camera looking through the lens of the diving suit, only Benjamin’s breathing sound is heard while the words from the outside people are cut off entirely. It tights to the lyrics of the famous opening song “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, as nobody listens to Benjamin (except Elaine, I presume), and nobody is worth listening to.
The music by Simon & Garfunkel is the soul of the film, lyrical and melancholic, it enhances the subjectivity of the film. It’s all about feeling and emotion. The film caught the rebellious 60s culture almost accidentally, but it’s not as radical as Easy Rider (1969) nor as groundbreaking as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) in American cinema. If saving Elaine from an erroneous marriage is the rebellious way out of the adult world of hypocrisy and nihilism, the film ending unaffectedly shows the uncertainty of the solution in the face of Benjamin and Elaine, a question of “now what”.