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Posts Tagged ‘The Graduate’

So, as you may or may not be aware, of a weekend more often than not I like to take in a movie. Just for a change, you know. Occasionally, most often in the summer, I do find myself in the awkward position of having already seen anything remotely promising. It’s a bit less common for this to happen in the middle of February, but there’s a first time for everything. Basically, I found myself facing the problem of the only two significant new films available being Fifty Shades of Grey and Shaun the Sheep.

So what’s the problem, you may be wondering. Well, I hate to say it, but sometimes I am perhaps a bit more concerned with the look of things than I ought to be, and I am fully aware that the only thing that looks worse than a spud-faced man in early middle age turning up to watch a children’s film, unaccompanied, is the same spud-faced man in early middle age turning up to watch a softcore bondage romp, unaccompanied. The nigh-on unthinkable prospect of chickening out of going to the cinema entirely loomed.

Luckily I was directed to the only cinema in Oxford I had yet to partake of, which gives us the opportunity for one of our increasingly-rare editions of New Cinema Review. I have to say that while the Ultimate Picture Palace near the St Clements end of Cowley Road is by no means the most basic cinema I’ve ever been to – that honour still goes to the Island in Lytham St Annes, where the ticket price of £3 a head is absolutely reasonable, given the general quality of the place – it is certainly not far off: only one screen, which opens directly onto the street, a concessions stand in the back of the theatre itself, and toilets under the screen. The seats are not exactly opulent, either, and I’m a little surprised the place hangs on, given it charges roughly the same for its tickets as the still-superior-despite-a-soulless-corporate-makeover Phoenix on the other side of town. But hey: I’m not going to knock the place too much, as it spared me an awkward flogger or fleece moment.

The film I went to see there was Mike Nichols’ famous 1967 comedy-drama, The Graduate. This is one of those movies which seems to have drilled its way into the public consciousness: certainly I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of it, even though I didn’t properly watch it until just the other day. Everyone knows the famous shot of Dustin Hoffman, framed with Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg, everyone knows the ‘Are you trying to seduce me?’ line, everyone knows the climax in the church, and – of course – everyone knows Simon and Garfunkel’s wonderful songs. But what’s it actually about? Is it really worthy of such fame?

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The film concerns Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman), a young man recently returned from college to the family home somewhere in suburban Los Angeles. His parents are delighted by his academic prowess; he is a credit to them, and his qualms about what he’s going to do next are casually brushed aside. A party in his honour brings him into the orbit of close family friend Mrs Robinson (Bancroft, who’s top billed, by the way), who executes a devastatingly clinical seduction on the lad. (In real life, by the way, the age gap was only about six years, rather than the twenty or so implied in the film.)

Benjamin finds his time with Mrs Robinson is the only thing that he enjoys and looks forward to, but things become much more complicated when the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) returns from her own studies, and he finds himself obliged to take her out on a date. He finds himself very attracted to her, much to the fury of her mother. Is this true love? And, if so, can it find a way?

The first thing that must be said about The Graduate is that it is a very well-made piece of entertainment: what could have been a slightly insipid comedy of sexual manners is given real heart and soul by a combination of elements – the strong performances of all three leads, especially Hoffman, Nichols’ creative direction, and the songs. It’s the latter which give the film its distinctly dreamy quality, although Nichols’ work is also a factor. This is quite an overtly directed film – Nichol’s use of effects like a handheld camera, almost subliminally fast cutting, and fast fades are eye-catching – but this doesn’t feel intrusive. In a strange way this isn’t really a naturalistic film at all, but a kind of fable, and Hoffman’s work reflects this – he starts off as an almost-comically hapless stooge for the other characters, before slowly evolving into more of a rebellious figure. When all three of these elements come together, as in the superbly impressionistic sequence where Benjamin’s summer basically devolves to his stumbling back and forth between the family swimming pool and his trysts with Mrs Robinson, the results are spellbinding.

That said, I have to say I found the first half of the film, concerning Benjamin’s affair with the mother, to be rather stronger and sharper than the second, which depicts his romance with the daughter. Several elements of this are just a bit too contrived to be convincing. The ease with which Elaine is coerced into getting married is rather convenient, as is the way in which Benjamin manages to track her down to the church.

Nevertheless it does feed into the theme of the film, which is probably why it has lasted: The Graduate does capture the feeling of a moment in time like few others, that moment of incipient rebellion which was to lead to the hippie movement, the summer of love, and a thousand acts of dropping out. At the start, one gets the impression that never in his life has Benjamin been considered as a person in his own right: his education appears to have been entirely geared towards starting him in the right sort of career, rather than allowing him self-discovery. His parents parade him as a kind of exhibit or trophy, disregarding his own concerns about his life. Even Mrs Robinson exploits him as a kind of toy – tellingly, we never learn her first name, the implication being that Benjamin has to remain deferent to her on the grounds of her seniority, despite their supposed intimacy.

In short, the first part of the film is about youth being controlled by convention and orthodoxy, with no thought that there could be any other state of affairs. The rest of it is about breaking free – and while Benjamin doesn’t grow his hair or become a stoner, his revolt is pretty comprehensive: he rebels against his parents’ expectations and the idea of graduate school, he rebels against Mrs Robinson’s desire to control him, and, in the climax, he rebels against religion and the convention of marriage by breaking into Elaine’s wedding.

Yet the film is not quite as straightforward as it first appears – endorsing this kind of anarchic behaviour would be a bold step for a studio release in 1967, after all. The film ends on a finely achieved note of ambiguity, as Benjamin and Elaine’s joy at their escape abruptly fades, replaced by – well, it’s hard to say. There is, perhaps, the faintest echo of the earlier idea that Benjamin is really happiest only when living in the moment. As another famous piece of pop culture suggested at around the same time, there is some truth in the notion that it is often better to want than to get, and for me The Graduate seems to suggest that dreaming of something is often preferable to having it. This film may be a crucial piece of 60s pop culture, but it is remarkably down-to-earth, and very cynical, for all that it remains a very funny and entertaining film.

 

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