The Graduate

The Graduate ★★★★★

Hello The Graduate, my old friend. I've come to re-view you again...

There's a moment in The Graduate's famous theme song, Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence," that always gets me. It's not the famous opening line; it's the instant when the electric guitar enters and starts its up-and-down arpeggioed chiming. When I hear that, I'm hooked; the guitar transports me to the tinny fantasy world that its lost protagonist Benjamin Braddock escapes to all throughout the movie. It's a wonderful sound, one of the many sublime elements of this most sublime film.

What can be said about this mighty masterwork that hasn't been said already? Quite a lot actually. As the years go on, this deceptively simple yarn, about a lost college graduate's (Dustin Hoffman's) affair with the family friend's wife (Anne Bancroft) and his subsequent love for the wife's daughter (Katharine Ross), ages fine like wine. It means different things to newer generations. In this sense, its much broader themes can never go out of style.

The Graduate, interestingly enough, gets a very knee-jerk response from people that I talk to. (And critics that I read.) There seems to be two extremes: the camp that adores The Graduate (I firmly plant my feet here) and the one that absolutely loathes it. The latter camp has existed ever since Pauline Kael idiotically called director Mike Nichols' technique "a bad joke" and "a television commercial". Nowadays, people will acknowledge The Graduate for its apparent strengths in cinematography; it's the best-directed film of Nichols' extremely spotty career. However, where people find dissent is in what it's saying. Ever since it came out, there have been huge debates over where exactly The Graduate stands in relation to the youthful protagonists. Does it glorify them? Does it condemn them? Is it self-aware of its ridiculous progression in the third act? Do we hate on The Graduate because it shows stupid kids doing stupid things, or do we laud it because it is a hilarious reflection of those stupid things which are so central to youth and maturation?

Is it a reflection of late 60s youth? In a way, sure, but Nichols explicitly removes any contemporary reference to Vietnam, protests, black riots in urban cities, etc. (With only one crucial line, uttered by Ben's landlord, about how "[he] won't stand for outside agitators" in his boarding house.

Is it a pro-youth film? Lots of people think so. But I think there's ample evidence in the film's narrative that Nichols doesn't necessarily find these kids (i.e., the "dream couple" of Benjamin and Elaine) to be all they're cracked up to be. Like you point out, Benjamin obsessively searches for Elaine to the point that it comes off as rather creepy. Indeed, this is one of the major modern-day complaints Graduate skeptics will lob at it. "Oh, Benjamin's SUCH a stalker!" I emphasize "modern-day" because it occurs to me that, beyond the pretentious critics embodied by the likes of John Simon and Pauline Kael, nobody in The Graduate's contemporary period really acknowledged this stalker-ish aspect of the Benjamin character. The youth to whom this film was targeted saw Benjamin's actions as romantic, daring, a fuck-you to the establishment represented by the "mean old baddie" Mrs. Robinson. My evidence for this, beyond talking with some of my teachers who were my age right now when the film came out, is this telling review by the 25-year-old Roger Ebert. It is very indicative of the response to the Benjamin character:

"Dustin Hoffman is so painfully awkward and ethical that we are forced to admit we would act pretty much as he does, even in his most extreme moments.

and also...

"Benjamin's acute honesty and embarrassment are so accurately drawn that we hardly know whether to laugh or to look inside ourselves."

Ebert, like many other starry-eyed youths, saw a nobility in Benjamin's pursuit of his gal. He saw himself in the boy, which of course Nichols allows the youth to do. This is built into the contemporary mood of The Graduate. But hark! nearly 30 years after the fact, Roger Ebert seems to repudiate his youthful reaction to The Graduate (justifiable) and attacks the film itself for being rather stupid and outdated (not justifiable; I'll explain why in a minute). Per his 1997 review:

"Well, here is to you, Mrs. Robinson: You've survived your defeat at the hands of that insufferable creep, Benjamin, and emerged as the most sympathetic and intelligent character in "The Graduate.'' How could I ever have thought otherwise? What murky generational politics were distorting my view the first time I saw this film? [...] Great movies remain themselves over the generations; they retain a serene sense of their own identity. Lesser movies are captives of their time. They get dated and lose their original focus and power. "The Graduate'' (I can see clearly now) is a lesser movie.

Now hold on there, Jethro! What Ebert has just pointed out is a perfectly reasonable reaction to the movie at his age (50-something), looking back at his effusive reaction to the film with about as much fondness as a frathouse hangover on New Year's Eve. What I do not find justifiable, however, is his chiding The Graduate as a "lesser movie" simply because, to his eyes, it looks different and more ridiculous in 1997 than it did when it first came out. His response, actually, was indicative of the seeming backlash that greeted The Graduate in the 90s and early 2000s, where several reviewers and youthful audience members who had gone to see it at the ideal age (20-somethings) were now older (50-somethings), wiser about the world, and saw the supposedly childish values at work in The Graduate as evidence that the film was never all that great.

This is where I believe they're wrong.

I believe that this film, as written by Buck Henry and as directed by Mike Nichols, was an absolute satire from its very conception--not only of the older, WASP generation (as embodied by Mister Robinson and Benjamin's parents) but of the youths, too! Its reactionaries confuse it as outdated, when in fact it is a timeless story of the never-ending struggle between the youth and their elders. When we're on that bus at the end, with Benjamin and Elaine's blank faces looking off at God knows what, we're not meant to identify nor hate their idiotic guts. They're simply young kids who probably made a huge mistake. The Graduate is not a "lesser film" ,to quote Ebert, because its characters look rather foolish to the next generation of viewers. It is a masterpiece because it so effortlessly shows what it feels like to be young. That Mrs. Robinson "emerges" as the most sympathetic and intelligent character in The Graduate is not some new revelation that could only happen after The Graduate stopped being a thing. This was in the film's tapestry to BEGIN WITH!!

Go back and listen to that devastating, all-too-real monologue that Anne Bancroft delivers in bed (where she tells Benjamin of her life story and her experiences in college, but just wants to have sex with him to make herself forget all those bad memories) and tell me that doesn't reveal her as more sensitive than meets the eye. Nichols knew his film had to have staying power, so what does he do? He adds these crucial scenes with Mrs. Robinson at the beginning of the movie, so that when the film is reviewed in later years, we can see that her surprise, outright villainization in the third act is just a self-conscious concession to the expectations of youth of 1967. They didn't want to think of Mrs. Robinson as anything more than what she supposedly represented: their parents. And their parents are WRONG! DEAD WRONG, MAN! WHAT KID DIDN'T THINK THAT AT ONE POINT?!

But like that final shot in The Young Girls of Rochefort (where Jacques Demy throws in the happy ending we've been waiting for not out of organic resolution to the story, but because he HAS to; it's built into the conventions of the film), Mike Nichols ends the film by presenting Mrs. Robinson as a comic baddie ("Bwahahaha! You're too late! Guards! Seize him!") because it mimics how Benjamin sees her now. He hasn't talked with the woman for damn near 3 months or so. The last time we saw her was crouched in the hallway, alone, crying to herself that once again a love affair didn't work out. What we're seeing at the end of the picture, therefore, is NOT Mike Nichols's feelings on Mrs. Robinson. What we're seeing is BENJAMIN BRADDOCK'S feelings of her. And what Benjamin feels was that she was a foolish harpy the entire time and she doesn't deserve to stand in the way of "true love" between him and Elaine. But, ah! the audiences of 2015 and beyond will know better. That final image of Mrs. Robinson standing in the hallway will linger in our mind far longer than anything that comes afterwards. It's too sad for words. And once again, the youth (Ben, Elaine) are too narrow-minded to realize that Mrs. Robinson isn't bad. No person is "bad" outright. They just project what they want to project onto their set image of Mrs. Robinson.

The movie is channeled through two perspectives: that of a college-aged graduate student (Benjamin Braddock as played by D. Hoffman) and that of a 40-year-old intellectual sophisticate who doubts his own youth (director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry). Because of this, we're always meant to be take everything we like about Ben with a grain of salt. He's a romantic? Bullshit; he callously takes Elaine to a striptease show, wearing stupid sunglasses the entire time like some hip, privileged, bougie geek, and only bats an eye when the stripper starts twirling her pasty-whirligigs on Elaine's head and she starts to cry. He's a misunderstood intellectual? Even so, he's in better shape than most kids of his time period, who were being shipped off to Vietnam by the handfuls (bonus points if you were a male of color). Even the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, which initially takes on an air of romantic wistfulness and acoustic hipness, becomes more and more annoying as the film goes on. Why? Because Mike Nichols (cleverly) repeats the song "Scarborough Faire/Canticle" to the point of insanity. It's a perfect reflection of what Benjamin is feeling ("I'm gonna get that girl, and the newest album by S&G will get me through it. Fuck the Beatles! S&G is where it's at. Dig those cool sweaters."). But to the audience, we're just tapping our feet, slightly annoyed at this creepazoid who goes all the way to Berkeley to pursue a girl who obviously wants nothing to do with him. And she actually falls for the seduction! Why? Because she thinks he's a romantic!!! It's Nichols/Henry showing the youth is not prone to lapses of common sense from time to time.

And The Graduate is so devilishly ingenuous because it has it both ways and succeeds! It managed to be one of the greatest countercultural statements ever produced on American screens. Millions of young kids went to see it and they saw not only movies but their whole lives as similar to what they see up on screen. They booed the bad guys (Mrs. Robinson, though today we rightfully recognize the magnificence of Anne Bancroft's sensitive portrait of her character) and they cheered the "good" guys (Benjamin and Elaine). AND!!!! It also manages to stay fresh today, because people are starting to recognize what a marvelous satire of youth and generational conflict it really is. And this is all just me tackling its themes; it's to say nothing about its gorgeous photography and how Nichols furthers the story through his long-takes that aren't gratuitous or overused, his appropriation of European art-film methods to reflect the bourgeois entropy of his young protagonists (Antonioni 4 The Krazy Kidz of '67!), and his subtle set decoration which recalls every single upper-middle-class home you've ever set foot in and wondered, "Man I want this...." In fact, none other than Bosley Goddamn Crowther of "The New York Times" (who the newspaper famously booted after his [cranky, oldmannish] pan of the other 1967 American masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde) may have had the most on-the-nose reaction to what The Graduate really was:

"There sweeps ahead a film that is not only one of the best of the year, but also one of the best seriocomic social satires we've had from Hollywood since Preston Sturges was making them. The overall picture has the quality of a very extensive and revealing social scan."

The magic of The Graduate is its ability to straddle satire and seriousness in its inimitable way. It's the definitive portrayal of post-college, 20-year-old ennui ("What the hell am I going to do with my life?") and a ripping joke on everybody caught in the system: the middle-aged housewife, the young dumb-bum lovers on the run, the white privileged folks and the students on campus. But it's mature enough to realize, as Jean Renoir realized all those years ago, that everybody has their reasons. And everyone is a character. Here is to you, Mrs. Robinson. And you, Ben and Elaine. I wish you luck, because you're definitely going to need it.

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