Way back in 2011 and before the Endtimes, two friends and I underwent an oath: to watch one highly-regarded film each week, selecting from a list I myself carefully compiled. A year passed. Now, we’re making good on that oath. No matter how long, esoteric or beguilingly paced, we’re paying each film on the list our devoted attention. In the end, maybe we’ll have learned a thing or two.
It’s not quite criticism; it’s not quite a review; I guess it’s Project Silverscreen.
The beauty of director Mark Nichol’s opus, The Graduate, is that it could be one of the best films of any year; the reality of its release in 1967 is irrelevant to its lasting appeal. As long as there are young men and women who paddle against (or submit to) the swirling eddies of post-collegiate ennui, The Graduate will continue to prick at our zeitgeist. I’m one of those indolent, young men, uncannily resembling Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in nearly every way save the implication that his actual undergraduate experience, skipped in favor of an in medias res exposition, was not an entirely rushed, sparsely satisfying period. Ben’s myriad athletic and academic accomplishments aren’t making his transition beyond academia any easier, though: the criteria for success he has been fed since primary school is suddenly useless. He has come within inches of his education’s celebrated culmination only to reach through what he thought to be solid, to have it blur into the horizon like a mirage. Months after graduation, I still feel the way Ben does, that I’m skimming the surface of the world on a raft, waiting for rescue or to drown in apathy.
Right, I’m back. That regrettably dark tangent is proof of how well The Graduate’s first act, our introduction to Ben and his neuroses (which are played to wonderfully endearing effect by Hoffman), works by fashioning him as an avatar for the viewer. It’s a method of characterization often attempted and so rarely successful: to place the audience directly in the protagonist’s shoes and establish an affinity which, if consistently developed, results in a cathartic payload magnified several times over. Crafting personally identifiable characters has been of popular interest since the inception of the epistolary novel. Those works stand as pioneers of first person fiction. The Graduate’s introductory act is first person film.
The film’s initial few shots, inaugurated by the ever-welcome “Sound of Silence,” are extended, continuous, strange, shoulder-height views that never feel composed. From there, the viewer lodges himself behind Ben’s eye sockets: one notable set piece emulates the “male gaze” as Ben struggles (and fails admirably) to stare a stark-naked, seductive Mrs. Robinson square in only the face; another plummets underwater and places the viewer behind a scuba mask as Ben reluctantly demonstrates his new wet suit for party guests. The camera is an observer: subjects are occasionally obstructed by moving bodies (Mrs. Braddock’s sequined party dress, a wooden knob adorning the hotel’s front desk) just as they would be during one’s most productive sessions of people-watching. Yes, The Graduate is a movie about people watching people (watching people, if you want to get obnoxiously meta), an idea that reasserts itself through composition and narrative frequently. Speaking in excessively broad terms, it is a film about long, paralyzing bouts of passivity and the sudden, rash fits of action which punctuate human life.
As the film climbs toward its frenzied, farcical climax and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson imbues our hero with a fraction of confidence, he accordingly loses a bit of that tendency toward passive hesitation. A change in camera work reflects his growth: the observing eye is further removed; the audience’s connection toward Ben weakens as his character grows more prominent and his situation more complex. This would appear to be the trade-off with avatars, and the reason why so many video game protagonists maintain radio silence, or why so many romantic love interests have absolutely sterile personalities: the true individual cannot be Everyman. The true individual has his own set of ugly problems. This is realism.
There is a clear moment when the scales begin to tip. Having been coaxed into an uncomfortable date with Mrs. Robinson’s own daughter (a plight which is, despite its over-use in today’s lexicon, definitely “awkward”), Ben is disgruntled and looking to project his frustration onto an innocent victim. What better way to greet his date, Elaine, than from behind a pair of sunglasses (worn at night, no less)? Where so much of the film’s emotion is previously emitted from Hoffman’s eyes and inferred using the audience’s privileged perspective, the affinity is now severed. The viewer struggles to keep up as Ben hurtles down the highway like a bullet with the trajectory of a sin wave and pulls Elaine brusquely into the front row of a burlesque club. Not quite redeeming himself, Ben at least recognizes the injustice of his plan as the curiously mean-spirited dancer’s pendulous breasts threaten to smother poor, sobbing Elaine. It’s strange to witness the fair-weather Elaine’s instant capitulation: immediately after exiting the club, they share a kiss, a hamburger and the revelation of true love. From here, the film transitions from a meditation on the consequences of indolence to those of spontaneity. It all gets reasonably ridiculous and carried away and, as the smiles fade from the faces of the eloping couple during their final filmed moment, it’s clear they feel a bit egg-faced, too.
Following a compelling first act, I’m not sure if what The Graduate becomes is a pear-shaped compromise toward narrative convention or a grounded rebuke of consequence-free, youthful rebellion. Not that any of that really matters: it remains a damn entertaining film.