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Building My Movie Poster Puzzle: The Graduate

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In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

The Graduate is an iconic piece of pop culture from late 1960s America, right? And large parts of it are set in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Also, there’s the very famous Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. It’s about a disaffected, but naive young college grad who encounters the vagaries of the changing sexual culture of the time. And yet, really nothing about the movie reminds us of the hippie culture that is so associated with all of that stuff. Dustin Hoffman’s central character has more in common with the characters from Mad Men than with those from Hair. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but the twenty-five plus years between my last viewing and this one had allowed me to forget what its characters are really like. Let’s have a chat about it!

When taken in the context of today’s social landscape, it’s hard not to judge Benjamin Braddock and the rest of the cast of characters as the inhabitants of massive privilege. Ben has just graduated with honors from Stanford University at the film’s opening and everyone is congratulating him and offering him advice about how to handle his future. The world appears to be Ben’s oyster. His parents live in what seems to be a relatively upper class lifestyle and have the disposable income to buy him a convertible sports car and full scuba gear that he apparently didn’t even ask for. And yet, Ben is restless and uncertain about his life.

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I guess that’s what can come from seemingly unlimited options. Well, in this case it also comes with an extramarital affair with one of his parents’ friends. This is the premise of the film, so if you’ve never seen it before I really wouldn’t consider these spoilers. In real life, Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker, Great Expectations) was just six years older than Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie, Rain Man), but the characters are supposed to have something closer to a twenty or twenty-five year gap, with Ben announcing that he is twenty. Hoffman was fully thirty at the time, but plays younger effectively, and Bancroft’s mature look was enhanced with appropriate costuming and makeup, resulting in a reasonably realistic March/September pairing. According to Mel Brooks, he had cast Hoffman as the Nazi playwright in his movie The Producers, but was awoken the evening before shooting was to begin by the actor telling him he wanted to audition for a role in a Mike Nichols film instead. Brooks released Hoffman to audition, perhaps assuming that he was too old for the role opposite his own wife. Yes, Bancroft’s project stole Hoffman from her husband’s first feature film production. They appeared to weather the problem with little trouble, though as Brooks and Bancroft would remain married until her death in 2005.

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As I mentioned above, The Graduate is one of the more iconic films associated with the Baby Boomer generation, and is widely venerated in that population. If you’re a cinema fan you have likely been introduced to multiple images, scenes, or lines from the film prior to actually seeing it. When I first saw The Graduate as a recent high school grad back in 1988, home video was still in its relative infancy, so what I saw was a pan-scan version on videotape. In contrast, my viewing a couple of days ago was in the full widescreen format and was digitally remastered. Despite this technological difference, the overall experiences of the story and performances were not significantly changed. Here, have a look at one of the film’s more famous sequences.

Now, all on its own that scene plays like a bit of screwball comedy, but that’s not the tone of the film at all. What struck me this time around was the slightly cold and formal tone of the movie’s opening scenes. This is almost certainly intentional in order to attempt to reflect the main character’s feeling of remove from the world around him. This not only is reflected in how the camera work is done, but in the performances of the actors. At first this struck me as a bit stilted and unnatural, but as the story progress and the characters are revealed in more detail, the performances soften as well. The Simon & Garfunkel songs mirror this gradual transition, with the stark “Sounds of Silence” dominating the early portions of the film and more lively or romantic songs such as “Mrs. Robinson” or “Scarborough Fair” taking over in telling the story later on.

I’m sure plenty of you have seen The Graduate before. What did you think of its construction, tone, and its largely unlikable characters?

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Posted on July 30, 2016, in Movies, reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?

    Plastics.

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    • The Graduate has several sharp moments like that which are widely known and might give someone who had not seen it the idea that it is more comedic than it actually is. This is not a romantic comedy – – or even a comedy at all. There’s more going on here with the build of the central character.

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  2. I think this puzzle is trying to seduce me.

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  3. I haven’t watched The Graduate in quite a few years. There’s a copy in my DVD collection, but that collection currently resides in several boxes in the garage. We ditched the old DVD stand so I don’t know if I will bother unboxing them. I’m sure I will catch The Graduate again at some point in the future.

    My first viewing of the movie was an odd one. I have mentioned before that my dad was really strict with what we were allowed to watch. MTV was forbidden. I remember being forced to turn off an episode of Family Ties in which Mallory’s virginity was a subject. I told my dad that I had already seen the episode and that Mallory retained her virgin status, but I was still forced to turn the channel. And yet, sometimes he would voluntarily expose me to something that was far more inappropriate than an 80’s sitcom.

    That was the case with The Graduate. When we got our first VCR (a Beta of course) Dad went out and started catching up on movies he had missed or didn’t remember very well. One of the first movies he brought home was The Graduate. I remember he very quickly grew uncomfortable, but he had insisted we watch it. So he couldn’t really chase us out of the room. When it was over, he said he didn’t remember it being so sexual. All he remembered from the movie was the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.

    As a kid, I didn’t really know what to make of what I had just watched. I certainly had no point of reference. It just seemed so strange. And as you indicated, the movie’s tone is so distant. There wasn’t any emotion I could latch onto. Not surprisingly, I just could relate. I have seen the movie several times since and come to appreciate what you call the “sharp moments”. But it really hasn’t gotten much easier to relate to Benjamin Braddock.

    I remember seeing The Graduate for the second time on the big screen in college. spoilers The ending really perplexed me. It ends with Benjamin and Elaine smiling big stupid grins at each other after he has ruined her wedding. Presumably, this is supposed to be a happy ending. But these characters have no future together. Not only has he ruined her wedding day, he has also destroyed her parents’ marriage. He knows her mother intimately. How can they possibly have a meaningful relationship after that?

    Putting that aside, there’s a lot to like about the movie. It’s smart, funny and well-acted.

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    • I was similarly surprised to find the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack in my Dad’s music collection. I think because all of the imagery is firmly middle of the road for the 60s that a lot of more conservative people went to see the movie and focused on the parts of it they liked. For my Dad that might have been the vocals by S&G and the photography of northern California where my parents had lived a few years earlier. Apart from The Carpenters, the soundtrack to The Graduate is probably the most modern pop music my Dad ever had that I didn’t purchase for him. Most of his huge collection was focused on jazz and classical music and almost all of the pop music he had was from about ’56 to about ’63. There is probably some stuff in my collections that would surprise people.

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      • My dad had no such collection. He was just vaguely aware that S&G had recorded music for the movie and that he liked it. I’m not sure he ever actually watched The Graduate when it was in theaters. I was unclear as to whether or not this was his first viewing of the movie. He absolutely hated hippie culture. I recall being forced to turn off a PBS documentary on The Beatles because he couldn’t deal with those damn hippies. But with home video, he caught up on some of what he missed during the 80s. I remember how mad he was when he sat down and watched Easy Rider. Not what he was expecting.

        Funny you mention The Carpenters. Their greatest hits tape was the only recorded music in our house for a long time.

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        • There’s a reason that the Carpenters were so successful. They appealed to the squares without completely turning off all but the most staunch hippies. Sure they were a little corny and over-produced, but they were undeniably great songwriters and Karen had a beautiful voice.

          My Dad was so anti-hippie that I was surprised when in about 1990 my Mom happily sat down and watched an MTV Unplugged episode starring Paul McCartney with me and appeared to be enjoying herself. When I quizzed her about this she indicated that she took this kind of stuff a lot less seriously than my Dad did and she had liked the Beatles when they first arrived on the scene. It can be a shock when you find out your parents are two different people. 🙂

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        • It can.

          I remember in high school, Paul McCartney was in town for a concert. My mom had no idea who he was. She was a teenage girl in the 60s and could not name the members of The Beatles. I always thought this said a lot about my parents’ level of pop culture awareness.

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        • I’m sure you meant to type that McCartney was a “he,” right?

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        • Actually, what I meant to say was that mom had no idea who she was. Mom was very confused. Or I typed that too quickly. ;-P

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        • or maybe by her sensibilities, anyone with hair as long as McCartney’s would have been confused for female?

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        • Possible. But I don’t think she was all that aware of their hairstyle either. Asked to differentiate between The Beatles and The Monkees, I doubt Mom could.

          On another instance, Bishop Desmond Tutu was in town giving a speech. When Mom overheard me discussing it with a friend, she started laughing. I asked her what was so funny and she said she thought we were making up funny names. At the risk of getting political, if you were to free associate with her and say “Hillary Clinton” her immediate response would be “liar” and that was true 20 years ago.

          Looking at it from their point of view, my parents must be really confused how they ended up with a kid like me.

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        • Yeah, I’m definitely the odd card in my family when it comes to some things. My Dad was enough of a renaissance man that he instilled in me my love for art and music, but I don’t think he expected me to take it in the direction that I did. My Mom is currently wrestling with the Presidential race. If somebody like Romney was running again there would be no question about where her vote would go, but she is clearly very uncomfortable with Trump. Of course she has seen enough Fox news and spends enough time at her conservative church that Hillary is persona non grata as well. Meanwhile she firmly believes that she has to vote no matter what. This is going to be tough for her.

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        • You have seen some of the discussions on my personal FB feed, so you know what I am dealing with. The kids are very upset that Grandma told them she is voting for Trump. I tried to explain to them that there is no way to convince her otherwise. If the choices were Hillary and Satan, Mom would cheerfully vote for Lucifer himself secure in the belief that she picked the better candidate.

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        • Yeah, like you said, politics isn’t our focus here at the blog, but The Graduate really does hold a pretty unique place in pop culture that led to this discussion. When my Dad graduated from High School he was offered a scholarship to the University of North Carolina and only turned it down when an appointment to the Naval Academy appeared at the last moment. That led to him being fully ensconced in the Navy starting in 1959 and stretching through his retirement from the service in 1983. I often wonder how different he might have been if he had ended up in Chapel Hill, which is a very different place from Annapolis. My parents might have still met the very same way they did, so it wouldn’t have necessarily wiped me from history.

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        • I’m glad you brought it back to The Graduate. It’s a very strange complicated thing; the relationship we Gen Xers have with the generation that preceded us. (And I think the same will be said as the Millennials push us into irrelevance.) The Graduate is one of those movies that really encapsulates a lot of the Baby Boomer experience. As a Gen Xer, it’s almost impossible to think about the movie without considering the generational differences.

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        • The Graduate is really not a flattering portrait of anybody no matter what generation they belong to, but it is a good movie with an excellent soundtrack that holds a place in history and a place in many people’s hearts. Something similar might be said for a movie like Reality Bites.

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        • Reality Bites was a pretty transparent attempt to create a Gen X movie which was probably why most of the Xers were turned off by it. The Graduate, despite being unflattering, was embraced by a generation of young people who seemed to relate to the protagonist’s feelings of uncertainty about the future. I don’t know what it says about Boomers that they embraced such an unflattering portrait of themselves or what the failure of Gen X movies says about us. But it’s interesting to consider.

          As I said before, I am constantly puzzled by Hoffman’s broad grin at the end of The Graduate. I am certain Boomers see that scene very differently than I do. They probably imagine Benjamin’s interruption of Elaine’s wedding as terribly romantic and the final shot as hopeful. But I see it as the latest selfish act of a self-obsessed individual that will only lead to more heartache for everyone involved. If Benjamin Braddock learned a lesson, it was that it is acceptable to put his own self-interests ahead of those of others.

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        • of course Elaine’s actions don’t point to somebody who knows what the heck they’re doing either. Why was she marrying that guy to begin with after her interactions with Ben? Because the plot needed her to?

          Obviously The Graduate is a much better movie that Reality Bites, but the unflattering portraits of the target audience and the popular soundtracks seem like interesting parallels.

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        • Agreed on all counts.

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    • The three words that come to mind for me when summing up the “The Graduate” is moody, aloof, and uncertain. It isn’t very theatrical, and I kind of like that. I think it’s an excellent film nonetheless.
      I think Beta players are pretty neat. I wasn’t exposed to many in my lifetime so far, but I had a friend who’s parents had Beta, and what they’d do is rent movies from the store and use their Beta player to record the tape, so they had quite a huge library in the 1980’s.
      Very quickly, I’ll mention that I don’t Care for Hillary either, and I’d like a female president, but not her, because that’s like cheating (kind of like my friend’s parents with that Beta player) or a shortcut in gender progression.

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  4. My father was conservative in his tastes, but not in his politics. He was a left-leaning Libertarian who voted for Democrats or Pat Paulsen. Due to his conservative tastes though, he hated hippies, although he loved the Smothers Brothers. He couldn’t stand the Beatles and wouldn’t listen to any pop music after the Beatles invaded America. To take a ride in my dad’s car was to take a ride with elevator music – symphonic or instrumental versions of 50s, 60s, or 70s pop hits, or the occasional standards. His taste in movies wasn’t quite as conservative as his taste in music, but things that generally related to a counterculture he didn’t like. I get some of my tastes in movies from him (He loved westerns, but not spaghetti westerns, and he loved film noir). I also lean more to his taste in music than the vast majority of people my age. My mom, also quite conservative, but in EVERY regard, was a bigger fan of Dean Martin than of the Beatles at the time they came to America. Neither of my parents were into hippie culture or protesting anything. I don’t know if things might have been different for my parents if my dad had gone somewhere other than Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. I don’t know that my dad ever mentioned an opinion of THE GRADUATE, but I know my mom doesn’t like it. I thought it merely okay when I finally saw it about 15 or 20 years ago. To me, I didn’t understand the big deal about it, or why it was considered so great or so important. Without seeing it again, I reckon I still won’t.

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