Movie of the Week: The Graduate

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Yeah, that’s right, I’d never seen The Graduate before. Everyone has their blind spots, and for me it’s most non-James-Bond movies before 1975. Thankfully, my girlfriend is much more on top of movies from this era, and Netflix decided to cooperate with the Instant Watch availability, so this great blindspot of my cinematic experience has finally been accounted for. (And YES, this is technically last week’s movie after the post I put up last week was for the week before, but I assure you we will be back on schedule soon, as long as you don’t mind three of these within a week.) Follow along while I react to an almost-fifty-year-old movie that’s already been analyzed to death…

The Graduate is obviously a very iconic movie, though it’s interesting that the most iconic moments all seem to happen very early in the story. The opening credit sequence (no duh in that case), the seduction scene, Benjamin in the scuba suit, and “Plastics” all happen within the first half hour. It had the odd effect of having the movie feel very familiar initially while leaving me completely unaware of how the story would develop. And while it’s a very distinctive film for sure, one that I don’t think is very easily categorized. It has a fair amount of humor (most of it at the expense of Dustin Hoffman’s expertly awkward bumbling) but tonally it’s very melancholy and the visual aesthetic is more in keeping with a drama than what I’d expect from a comedy film (especially one from the ‘60s). It makes for a compelling mix, and one that kept me invested even without the relatable emotional arc.

The film does a very good job of displaying postgrad life as a sequence of rushing, both to escape your parents’ grasp and to become an adult yourself. Nichols perfectly captures the cloying, smothering adulation Benjamin receives in the beginning, praise that isn’t really meant for him in the first place, and the feeling that he’s a trophy. It’s perfectly understandable for him to try and undermine that feeling by being exactly the sort of person his parents wouldn’t want him to be, by having an affair with their friend Mrs. Robinson (played engagingly by Anne Bancroft). Almost as understandable- but under the circumstances a little more bizarre- is Benjamin’s grasp at normalcy, by trying to get an appropriate girl for himself and becoming an actual adult, but rushing it to the point of being foolhardy, right down to making that appropriate girl the daughter of his fling, Elaine (Katherine Ross). In both cases, it’s a directionless search for an identity, of trying to determine who he is through other people rather than by making his own choices.

As a postgrad myself, I certainly understand the anxiety and uncertainty that come with being flung into the adult world. While I do feel a little bit more confident in what direction I want my life to go, I’m still just as unsure about what might get me where I want to go. I’ve been lucky to find myself in some really great places along the way though, and to find a terrific partner to share those places with, enough that while I understand Benjamin Braddock’s plight, I don’t feel that I share in it (isn’t everything so awesome and cuddly and beautiful?!?!?!?!?).

Anyway, here’s Shiran’s reaction, which I’m sure will end less cloyingly than mine did:

Brendan touched on one of the things I like most about The Graduate, which is its genre-fluidity. It’s an extremely funny movie that’s also melancholy and sadly evocative; at once both satirical and sincere. I haven’t revisited The Graduate since I graduated (hee!) high school, and now with a fancy BA film degree I can clearly see a lot of French New Wave tendencies in the movie. The film’s visual language is expressive and playful, and you can sense Mike Nichol’s pure enthusiasm from behind the lense. That’s a powerful feeling, and one that i think potentially saves it for some people who might otherwise find it a bit detached or absurd. When I think about the movies I’d hope to write someday, I’m caught between wanting to make work that’s funny enough for my dad to laugh at but also expressive and poetic and tough. The Graduate is one of the few movies I can think of that pulls it off, and it’s set quite a high bar to aspire to.

Back to me again at the end of this week, and we’ll still be going classic, though of a much more popcorn-y variety. Stay tuned!

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