Category Archives: SPOILER WARNING

Hold the Whipped Cream: Feeling Good About Feel Bad Fiction

Due to the oh-so-timely nature of single/hand/clap’s triannual posts, pop culture bits of the here and now are subject to be spoiled at any time. Unless the spoilery feature in question is inspired by wheat beer, however, I’ll try my best to offer a warning. This is that. If you haven’t seen last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode “The Rains of Castamere” and don’t truck with that study about spoiled stories being more enjoyable, I would recommend coming back later. Please, come back.

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No, but for real, though? Really?

This week in internet rage, once-mild-mannered Walgreens cashiers throughout the Midwest leveled pyroclasmic paragraphs at Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, hoping their sweaty words might banish his corporeal and ethereal forms from the extant realm. Of course, these are folks, like me, who hadn’t read the books and as a result lacked the hindsight and conditioned, Zen-level self-restraint of readers who had no doubt drafted the same livid letters on Windows ME, a dozen years earlier. I get it. I was gutted, too. The red wedding of “The Rains of Castamere” gives the show’s fans about as much quarter as it spares for its blindsided guests. It’s going to take a lot of Tide to save those tablecloths.

If you sense a shade of twisted glee in my words, you’re not mistaken. Fiction without misfortune is a game of Twister without sexual tension. Discomfort, grief, and pain provide the bursts of euphoria that many readers, viewers, and video game players, myself included, continue to chase in their pop culture diet. “The Rains of Castamere” is one of only a handful of wedding episodes I’ll defend to Internet Death (this season’s hard-earned Parks and Rec union being another). I don’t donate hours upon hours upon hours of my life to make-believe bullshit just to experience fleeting happiness spurred by a protagonist’s easy achievement. Success in fiction is the necessary relief of tension before plot can resume. Stories need conflict like Batman needs Joker, like Maher needs Coulter; otherwise, where’s the beef?

Okay, so I hope Bill Maher isn’t Batman; forgive the squeaky metaphor.

My favorite part of David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, outstripping Trent Reznor’s grinding compositions and James Bond’s best performance since that time he went gambling, is the trailer. As the camera creeps toward an icy manse, propelled by Reznor’s torturous static, the tagline boldly asserts itself as “THE FEEL BAD MOVIE OF CHRISTMAS.” Okay, we’ve all seen a handful of other films that are arguably feel-worse: Stoker and Sucker Punch both come to mind for two completely different reasons (guess which one I hate). Considering books, the selection of spirit-eroding fair expands to an incalculable list. For a novel to be considered Real Literature, an element of Total Bummer seems mandatory. When the commercial yang of Real Literature has the Happy Ending covered from every sun-soaked angle, however, a reprieve in the shade is refreshing.

Ooh, I hope it's a wedding! (screenshot courtesy of Chad Concelmo and Destructoid)

Ooh, I hope it’s a wedding! Mother 3, a prime example of storytelling laced with heartbreak.(screenshot courtesy of Chad Concelmo and Destructoid)

I’m not a sadist. I’m not fixated on the battered adjectives “dark” and “mature.” I don’t obsess over the character studies of Neon Genesis Evangelion or blare Smashing Pumpkins in my black bedroom with a skip-protected Sony Walkman. In my experience, however, the day-to-day of a human being doesn’t feature much closure. The tidy, satisfying, “agreeable” narrative is a human invention, born out of a distinct lack of poetic justice on Earth. To support that claim, here’s a repulsive anecdote plucked straight from my own, pathetic day-to-day. It’s no red wedding, but it’ll do just fine.

A few days ago, I drove past the local strip mall and settled at a stop sign. A young woman standing at the sizzling street corner grabbed my attention. Her clothing–a brown knit cap, a green hoodie, dark jeans– struck me as somewhat insensible given the weather, the humidity being one step above swamp and one step below Swamp Thing’s anus. She pivoted her ragged cardboard sign, a prop of hardship nearly as iconic as the plaid knapsack and bindle, to appeal to passing traffic, to appeal directly to me. I only read as far as “Out of —–” until I was overcome with a volatile mixture of shame and selfishness that pinned my eyes to the intersection ahead.

Some psychological defense mechanism buried in the reptilian region of my shitty psyche prompted the following rationalizations:

She might be a crook. She just wants money. I could be robbed. Even if she doesn’t rob me, she’ll probably just waste my twenty bucks. 

Causeless suspicion gave way to an inflated sense of futility.

I could give her less but then I’d have to go all the way to the ATM (a whole quarter-mile away). Anyway, there really isn’t any room for me to pull over (except for the nearly empty Arby’s parking lot on the corner) and I don’t have time to talk to her (the iced coffee I had left for being the far more urgent matter).

And then, because it was inevitable, the washing of my hands entirely:

Someone else will come along.

Deep down, I knew she wasn’t a thief. If I had actually suspected her, I wouldn’t have arrived at the weak conclusion that her knight would come along with his twenty bucks and fulfill the destiny bequeathed unto him and certainly not me. I wrote that happy ending as a psychological tool, a rusted shovel to bury the nagging, inconvenient truth in its tiny coffin.

So I kept driving, obviously. My glance only wavered toward the rear view mirror a few times on that long stretch of road between Sonic and my secret shame. Once I tasted the needless cream whipped atop my deliberately chilled, chocolate-flavored coffee, I had nearly forgiven myself for my valiant failure. Then, I turned back onto Washington.

Is she still there? Oh, please let her not be.

She was, of course. As I approached that contentious corner, a spontaneous burst of neurosis froze my hands to the wheel and my foot to the pedal. I drifted on for three blocks, detouring. She probably hadn’t even noticed me pass; thank god for that. I’d have felt way worse if she’d made eye contact or if, like, I’d spotted a single, tiny tear crawling down her cheek. Or if she slowly mouthed “why” and fell to her knees in my rear view. Good thing I didn’t look.

You want whipped cream on that? You do, right? Of course you do. What? Under your fingernails? I'll get the pliers. And more WHIPPED CREAM.

You want whipped cream on that? You do, right? Of course you do. What? Under your fingernails? I’ll get the pliers. And more WHIPPED CREAM.

Back at my lot, I rattled a coffee-bereft Sonic cup and peered in at the remaining pile of ice, unrecognizable as such having been completely transformed by whipped cream.

Maybe they won’t know it’s just frozen water if we fucking murder it underneath this sugary cow shit. 

My left leg dangled from the car door, not ready to commit to pavement.

I should go back.

I spent about fifteen minutes deliberating, swinging my foot like a pendulum, weighing my guilt against my willingness to be inconvenienced.

I should do it. I’m going to do it.

As I doubled back to satisfy my conscience, a Hallmark Original Movie premiered inside my head, without commercial interruption. I was already doing it.

I smile as I see her leaning against the stop sign, still doing her thing. She wipes beads of exhaustion from her brow until the sweat overwhelms her hands, runs down her face, from the creases of her hazel eyes. I coyly slip into Arby’s and emerge after five short minutes, carrying a large sweet tea.

“I hope you like sweet tea,” I say sheepishly as I approach with drink outstretched. It’s a funny thing to say because that’s exactly what I brought. My joke isn’t lost on her.

“Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice,” she laughs, flashing her whites. Somehow the single gold tooth only enhances her charm. She’s a tramp with a heart of gold and a tooth to boot. I hold her bindle while she accepts.

Voracious, she empties the cup in moments and pries open the lid to scoop out whipped cream. While we chat, she swirls gobs of the stuff onto her finger and into her mouth. I’m tantalized by a speck of white hitching a ride on her dimpled chin. Soon, I can’t resist the temptation to dab gently at the cream with a thumb. I’m surprised; I had no romantic intention, just an unwavering sense of humanism and a few bucks to lend, but now it seems that my measly twenty dollars is the least pressing matter on both of our minds. Her false tooth testifies with a sensual glint. Using my opposite thumb I tap her button nose affectionately while the same hand’s pinkie finger tucks a few adorable strands of dirty blonde hair behind her ear, with some effort. As I lean in to impart her with a taste of my altruism,

she crosses her eyes,

grunts like a caveman,

and takes a frothy dump, right on the dry grass.

She was gone. The street corner had been vacated.

As fantasy disintegrated, disappointment faded into a vapid smile.

Someone else came along. That’s great.

After pulling into Arby’s and ordering a large sweet tea, I counted the change.

Damn.

I’d had to break that twenty.

Schoolhouse Rock tells us that Necessity is (literally) the mother of Invention. With fiction, that’s true in a couple of ways. The sunny tales we tell our children, those were invented of the necessity to explain a reality so incomprehensible and frightening in its totality that it needed to be divided into verdant meadows and creaking forests. The grass of the idyllic meadow is soft and inviting; provocative fairies and vaccinated animals drink from dinky acorn tea cups and recline against La-Z-Boy mushrooms. There will always be time for excursions to the meadows, but be wary: the tea cups brim with high fructose corn syrup. A protracted visit will leave you fattened, sluggish, and entirely devoured.

Pictured: Labyrinth, a film ostensibly intended for children.

Pictured: Labyrinth, a film ostensibly intended for children.

If you can crawl away, do so. Pull yourself up, careful not to tip over, and let that momentum carry you stumbling into the sanctuary of the abyssal forest. The sun of the meadow cannot penetrate the forest’s thick canvas. Slivers of light skip across the suggestions of a world primordial. Your eyes slowly adjust to the hue of obsidian. Rustling leaves are drowned in the ringing of ears are drowned in perfect silence. The thrill of fear urges your limbs forward.

George R.R. Martin’s squat outline leans against a mossy rock. He lives here, apparently, and listens as the trees whisper tragedies. You wave but he evades eye contact and turns his head affectedly. He’s thinking of killing someone. You attempt to conceal your bruised ego with a cool-looking shrug before carrying on.

The forest can never be fully learned. Its trees uproot and shift with each visit. However, the mementos you return with are precious. They inspire further exploration. As you continue, you note that the forest has another constant: this land is at an incline.

You ascend into new darkness, pioneering the black, and begin to feel good about feeling so bad.

Yeah. Just don’t kill Arya.

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Project Silverscreen: Requiem for a Dream

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary (1976; the bicentennial edition):

Re•qui•em (rek′wê ∂m, râk’-, rêk’-) n. [ME. < L., acc. of requies, rest (see RE- & QUIET): first word of the Introit in the Latin Mass for the Dead] [also r-] 1. R.C.Ch. a) a Mass for the repose of the soul or souls of a dead person or persons b) a celebration of this c) a musical setting for this 2. any musical service, hymn, or dirge for the repose of the dead 3. a dirgelike song, chant, or poem

You know what it is! …is not the new slogan for Project Silverscreen, a sometimes belated weekly feature that takes a look at a classic film and vaguely nods, but not before displaying some words on your screen. Maybe read them, because someone in 2012 went to the effort of locating and transcribing a physical dictionary for the sake of authenticity.

Stop smiling, ma. It’s not that kind of movie.

No matter where Requiem for a Dream starts, you can be certain it won’t end up anywhere sunny and verdant. The title promises this much. In a twisted way, however, the whole damned ensemble of Darren Aronofsky’s seminal downer does fulfill their deepest wish. Just as last week’s film, The Graduate, ends on a long, pensive look at the ebbing adrenaline of its eloping couple, Requiem lingers on four similar, sequential images. After twenty, largely dialogue-free minutes of escalating horror, an overhead shot resolves each of the four primary characters’ narratives with one idea: at the nadir of their lives, these victims have achieved absolute anesthesia. If you’ll indulge some freshman-level psychoanalysis for a moment (it’s the kind I’m best at), Requiem for a Dream’s ending is a classic return to the womb.

One ideal–freedom from emotional pain and external oppression–is the sanctuary everyone seeks inside and beyond Aronofsky’s film. Sara Goldfarb hopes to find it by earning celebrity, a commodity that she fantasizes will nullify her son’s dismal life and her husband’s death. Harry Goldfarb, his girlfriend Marion and his partner Tyrone have less distance to fall: obligations flit from awareness as soon as they pass out of sight; their only concern is scrounging up the cash to accommodate the next trip. Infantilism, the way our recollection of infancy surfaces within our personality, is the name of the game for the dreamers: drugs are the “good mother” of Freudian theory, a constant embrace that protects them from harsh reality, the “bad mother” of responsibility and hardship, an amalgamation of all their discomfort. Much of Freud’s work has fallen out of favor, but the idea of the “splitting” of the mother, a consequence of traumatic mothering, still resonates. Considering how Freud’s criticism informs the ill motivations of Requiem for a Dream, it’s difficult not to imagine the addicts’ needle as a debilitating teat–maybe on a super cold day.

Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst not quite as famous but just as foundational, offers another understanding of infant psychology and, tangentially, the infantile adults of the picture. Lacan presents human development as a journey through several worlds. Lois Tyson, in Critical Theory Today, provides a succinct outline: we are inaugurated in fog, not perceiving where one’s self ends and the exterior world begins; after Lacan’s Mirror Stage (estimated at approximately six to eight months) we develop a sense of self as if examining our physical boundaries in a mirror and the fog begins to lift; the Mirror Stage begins our existence in Lacan’s second world, the Imaginary Order. Tyson describes the Imaginary Order as a “world of fullness,” a complete and satisfying union with the mother where the Desire of the Mother is the single determining factor, the last word in contentedness. The Imaginary Order is, as far as the infant can tell, a perfect existence. It’s our first benchmark for quality of life and, unfortunately, nothing afterward compares. We learn language, we develop meaning; we learn what it means to be separated from perfection forever. The Symbolic Order comes along, mucks everything up and forms the prison from which we’ll try to escape every day of our lives.

We were talking about a movie, right? There’s a whole lot of Lacan in Requiem for a Dream, some bits more blatant than others. Mom is everywhere: Tyrone gazes wistfully at a photograph of his own mother throughout the film; Harry and Marion futilely seek perfect companionship in each other; Sara, Harry’s own forgotten mother, grasps at old times and an old dress which is tinted with the rose color of nostalgia. It’s important to note that Sara also clings to a photo of Harry’s graduation that features Harry, departed husband Seymour, Sara and the red dress; although Sara presents the moment captured in this photograph as the height of her own happiness, the Harry in the photo isn’t smiling. From the moment we are initiated into the Symbolic Order, lack is a fact of life. We are never without that emptiness, even in our best moments.

Requiem for a Dream isn’t a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of drug addiction. Drugs are simply a convenient, universal, modern day substitute for Gatsby’s Daisy (or, more recently, Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop and his Julia). They are the ensemble’s objet petit a, Lacan’s term for, as Tyson puts it, “anything that puts [them] with [their] repressed desire for [their] lost object” (that object being, of course, the mother of the Imaginary Order). The various drugs of Requiem for a Dream are used as opiates to distract from a bleak present and fading future.

Toward the end of Aronofsky’s film, Harry revisits a dream from earlier. He stands on a sunlit pier suspended over blue ocean. It is a rare scene in Requiem, one saturated with light and luscious colors; we know it can’t be real.  Harry casts his eyes toward the pier’s end where Marion waits with back turned. As she turns around, he stumbles back, engulfed in darkness. Marion, the pier, the ocean dissipates. That lack comes creeping back. As our fallen friends assume the fetal position, we get the feeling they have finally earned their permanent place in placebo paradise.

Next up: Chinatown

Contextual Gaming: Persona, Ludonarrative Harmony and the Weight of One’s Bufula

In which the video game Persona 3 and its ending are discussed. Fair warning.

A playscape, a word I discovered during a brief dip into Wikipedia, the shallow end of the internet, is an architectural term which refers to playgrounds designed to resemble natural environments. I’m not going to talk about playground design theory. Even so, the playscape is a salient idea for my argument. To avert the dangerous possibility that anyone will ever have any interest in single/hand/clap, I should preface this entry now: I am going to talk about the Japanese role-playing franchise Persona, specifically the third installment, and the satisfying degree of ludonarrative harmony it displays. If you didn’t get the first part of that statement, maybe go do something else; I hear Breaking Bad is pretty good. If you were with me until the last part, try skimming this excellent critique of BioShock by Clint Hocking. I’ll be here.

No, wait, come back! Video games!

Long context short: back in 2007, Hocking coined the ultra-fancy term “ludonarrative dissonance.” Ludonarrative dissonance is nothing more than conflict between the way a player plays a game and the themes promoted by the game’s narrative. I’ll stop bolding now; sorry.

Ludonarrative harmony is the opposite. A game with ludonarrative harmony promotes its narrative with its interactivity. As a frustrated Hocking suggested, this is ideally how a cohesive, narrative game should be–unless, I guess, you’re a designer trying to be all ironic and make a point about the state of the industry or whatever, in which case just play The Stanley Parable and be happy that someone already got to it and made it funny to boot.

Unlike Hocking, I’m not breaking any new ground here. What I want to do is shed some light on a progressive development in modern game design. In the current games criticism atmosphere, where consensus is rare and optimism is rarer, derision is à la mode and pretty easy game. Kudos are largely dismissed by the overwhelming current of internet cynicism; if the game is Japanese, any praise is apparently “subtle racism.”

Now, I’m not trying to condescend, but I would assert that Persona 3 exhibits potent ludonarrative harmony. The result is a frequently draining, equally rewarding experience of mimesis, or art imitating life. It’s a playscape. Catch me on another day and I might let loose on a tirade concerning some of Persona’s archaic, frustrating design liberties: excessive dungeon recycling, the insistence on “save points” (why do we need those again?), the fact that time and time again, hobbled bosses will instantly trump the player’s party with a ludicrously destructive attack he was never fairly conditioned to expect. There are multiple facets of Persona that seem handmade to disrespect the player and require a masochistic threshold of pre-established tolerance for JRPG tropes. Amazingly, even the objectively bad parts of Persona seem to support its ultimately satisfying, “ludonarratively harmonious” (only time I’ll say that; sorry again) arc. Persona is about those choices and your own. Persona is about making the most of what you have while you can. Persona is about how you choose to invest your life into others; it’s about studying for a final that’s never handed back.

To be clear, the Persona games are not about player freedom. That bit is crucial: Persona 3 can be boiled down to a series of accumulating decisions made under very specific constraints and one concluding consequence. At this point in the discussion, I’d hope you’ve either finished Persona 3 or couldn’t rent Breaking Bad: the narrative of Persona 3 is a steady chug toward certain death. As a refreshing distinction from games such as BioShock, however, Persona 3 never attempts to don the weighty clothes of unrestricted choice. It is a meticulously themed, thoughtfully paced presentation. It’s hardly ambitious but deftly executed. Persona 3’s denouement reflects your decisions in the appreciative faces of those with whom you chose to spend your time.

Maybe not with this idiot.

There is that: the franchise’s signature mechanic, the Social Link, lends weight to your choices. As you follow the rigid schedule of a dedicated high school student (or take enough in-class naps to qualify for a diagnosis of mild narcolepsy), social and beneficent (your general save-the-world, slay-a-few-psychosexual-demons business) duties yank at your sleeves from every direction. With only so much free time in a period spanning less than three school semesters, your attention within and beyond the gates of Gekkoukan High is highly sought after. Go ahead; blow off the art club nerd’s invitations to hang out next Sunday in favor of spending all day grinding levels in the game world’s sadly unplayable, fictional MMO Innocent Sin. He’ll shrug off your refusals for a while, but eventually your turbulent friendship will dissipate and leave an ultimatum: either begin the process of reparation or cut ties for good. There is a strict economy at play in Persona; you won’t have time for everyone. Maximizing that time is essential. Life is short; yours is shorter.

The arcs of those you do meet, such as one girl who must face her inferiority complex by coaching a grade school sports team, can be  less inspired than others, such as a whiskey-swilling, brusque monk who sees in your own the face of his long-absent son. When they land, however, they land firmly like dropkicks to the gut. The localization writers at Atlus should be commended for exceptional work: emotional crescendos that might sound flat or cloying if composed by a lesser pen increase the player’s fondness of the Social Link characters and eagerness to pursue a stronger bond. It’s a rare example of how quality writing and resonant themes can drive a game even while other elements are left wanting.

Earlier I mentioned how even Persona‘s weaker areas contribute to a cohesive whole: the primary area in question is Tartarus, the half-baked, towering dream-castle wherein the player reaches new heights in tedium. In a review, I might be more severe toward the whole, uninteresting slog. For the purpose of criticism, it’s an admittedly effective metaphor for life’s more discouraging moments. The amount of measured sadism and anti-commercial intuition required to produce a microcosm of life as entertainment is respectable. Sometimes life sucks. Through all of Tartarus’s hardships and drudgery, time never rests; if the player refuses to move on, stymied by indolence, a personification of Death drives him or her forward. As the underlying, subconscious presence that motivates our every aspiration in human life, Death’s appearance reminds players of their ephemeral existence even within the warped world of Tartarus. Likewise, each ascension in the castle is one step closer to the end.

Additionally, the game’s turn-based skirmishes, arguably its one concession toward convention, have been adapted to suit the theme of momento mori (“remember you must die”). Persona 3’s protagonist is a silent vessel: you fill in every detail save the My Chemical Romance haircut. With full responsibility over one’s self comes complete lack of control over others: just as you can’t hope to dictate how a friendship develops, you also can’t micromanage your party’s actions in battle (until Persona 4, that is). You are left in charge of your own life. In an even greater departure from traditional JRPG design, that life is unique. There are no Phoenix Downs to help you back on your feet. Once your avatar is downed, you are escorted out of the game with a quick reflection on mortality and retired to the title screen. If you don’t manage your resources throughout Tartarus and make the right calls in battle, you will die.

Then there’s the small bit where you continually place a gun to your head.

William Blake, an outspoken proponent of taking life by its balls and plucking the pubes of opportunity one by one, includes this sentiment among his invigorating Proverbs of Heaven and Hell: “The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” Blake’s cosmic reflections are echoed in Persona 3 by Akinari Kamiki, a young man wrestling with fatal illness.

The meaning of my life is not something I should worry about. It’s really what others think of my life or what I was able to do for them. So… for me, or you, or anyone… the meaning of our lives is something that we make but don’t see.

It’s not maudlin. It’s not an outlying bit of philosophical nonsense. It is Persona 3’s thesis statement, an idea that summarizes every moment preceding and following it.

When you’ve made your final choice in Persona 3, you will find yourself resting in the arms of one of your closest companions. You say nothing, make no dramatic, closing gesture to punctuate your fading life. For a game that can be so frequently exhausting in its expository jabber, the last moments of Persona 3 are heavy with silence. The emotional response, the catharsis, to your fictional death is earned organically, bred internally, having culminated out of choices that brought frustration and determination, success and failure, heart-swell and heart-break. It’s an affecting example of ludonarrative harmony, a small slice of life, and you don’t need an open world, dialogue trees and the option of infanticide to achieve it.

That feeling you get when you wrap up 80 hours in a game about mortality? That’s irony.

Project Silverscreen: The Graduate

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.