Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? The silence makes its lonely sounds for you ...I watched The Graduate (1967) this weekend for the first time in a long time. That's the classic Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a big star.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. But that is one weird flick. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) graduates from college and heads home to Los Angeles, where his obviously prosperous parents throw a party for him. Ben is seized by something like stage fright and can barely bring himself to go downstairs to the party.
Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) getting ready to do the wild thang
This is the first of several mysteries about the characters that remain unsolved throughout. Why is he pathologically shy? Nichols makes it pretty clear that Ben is bewildered and lacking direction in life. If we missed it earlier, at one point he shows Ben having a conversation with his father while Ben is drifting on a float in the family pool - and he even points out to Dad that he's drifting - and Dad tells him it's time to get a grip, or something to that effect.
And we get that he's super self-conscious and feels like he's living in a fishbowl. The fishbowl symbolism is really heavy. In one of the stranger scenes, his parents give him a scuba-diving outfit for his 21st birthday and insist that he demonstrate it in the pool for all their guests. We see the scene from Ben's point of view through his mask and we hear his breathing through the mouthpiece. Fishbowl, on display, self-conscious, performance demands, yeah, we get it. It sucks to be 21.
Then there's his father's partner's wife, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Her character was also made famous by the Simon and Garfunkel song about her which is in the soundtrack. At least twice. Another of the unsolved mysteries of the film is why they play the same Simon and Garfunkel songs over and over: "Mrs. Robinson", "Scarborough Fair", "Sounds of Silence". I lost count of how many times they played "Sounds of Silence". I'm lucky I didn't scream by the third or fourth time. And opening theme and a reprise I can understand. But the same songs over and over? What was up with that?
(It could be worse. I once saw a documentary about the Rolling Stones recording "Sympathy for the Devil". It basically just showed them in the studio, singing versions of the song over and over. I haven't checked to see if that one is available on Netflix.)
Anyway, there's steamy sex involved in The Graduate. Well, kinda-sorta. Involving Ben and Mrs. Robinson, who tells him she's twice his age, i.e., 42 or so. But you don't actually see much of sweaty bodies or heavy breathing and stuff. Heck, this was 1967 and there wasn't even a psychedelic bed scene! If you use your imagination, there is one scene where you might think that Mrs. R is giving Ben a handjob. But I've seen cosmetics advertisements on TV that are steamier than that scene. Actually, most cosmetics ads I've seen are sexier than that.
Which brings me to other unsolved mysteries of the film. Like why is Ben attracted to Mrs. R? She's slender and seductive. But at 42, she's not aging well. She tells Ben in the scene where she first tries to seduce him that she's an alcoholic; I think she's knocking back a bourbon during that scene but I couldn't quite tell. She comes off as dissipated and hard at the same time. In that first seduction, she almost gets him into bed just as her husband Mr. R is arriving home. She and Ben then carry on an affair for months which, from what we see, is pretty much sex and booze and sleep but little romance or talk. When Ben insists on talking one night, they wind up having a big fight in which she makes him promise he'll never go out with her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross), which his father has been pressing him to do. It's not really clear why she's so insistent on that even, she seems so lacking in emotional attachment.
It's not quite as grim as this makes it sound because a lot of the lines are funny. But it comes across as pretty dark to me.
Which brings us to the next bundle of unsolved mysteries, Elaine. Ben finally does agree to ask her out on a date. She's a student at UC-Berkeley home in LA for a break. He takes her out and is rude to her and takes her to a strip show where she finally breaks down in tears. Then he kisses her and they go have burgers and have a great time. Maybe I missed some subtle clue, but as far as I saw, they only had one date and they fall in love.
Then the next day (!) he fesses up to his affair with Mom. Elaine is upset. Mrs. R is upset. Ben is upset. So then he starts stalking her. He eventually goes up to Berkeley to stalk her some more. One of the weirdest scenes is when she comes to his room one night demanding to know why he had raped her mother. This was the story Mrs. R had told her. He tries to explain it wasn't that way and she's talking over him the whole time. Then she screams and apparently buys his version and talks to him calmly and expresses concern about his well-being. A bit odd for someone who two minutes before was sure he had sexually assaulted her mother. Then it's always possible that was Elaine's version because we don't hear Mrs. R telling Elaine that.
Then Ben and Elaine have a courtship of sorts, that mostly consists of her showing up at his room one night, asking him to kiss her which he does, then he proposes to her and she says maybe and leaves. More stalking ensues over days or weeks or Lord knows how long, mostly with Ben constantly asking her when can they get the blood test for the marriage license. Eventually Mr. Robinson shows up in Ben's room one night and grumbles at Ben for boinking Mrs. R. Then Mr. R tells Ben that he won't be allowed to see Elaine again. Mr. R isn't so good at the stern daddy putting down his foot in front of the unsuitable prospective son-in-law because he's obviously scared of Ben. I guess psycho-stalkers freak him out.
So somehow Mr. and Mrs. R have disappeared Elaine off the face of Berkeley. So Ben now has to stalk her up and down the state, including breaking into the Robinsons' house and having one last confrontation with Mrs. R, who was as cold as ever but didn't ask him to hop into bed with her this time. Mrs. R, by the way, is the only one he does hop into bed with as far as we see in this movie. At this point, he's only had one actual date with Elaine, plus several stalking encounters which she tolerates and occasionally seems to enjoy and two trips to his room but not overnight visits. Ben does get out of his burglary job the knowledge that Elaine is about to be married to some guy who seems generally sane, stable and nurturing with a likely prosperous future.
Which Ben must, of course, prevent.
But before we get to the climactic scene, you might think that with the Simon and Garfunkel vaguely "socially conscious" songs, with the words of the prophets on the subway walls and neon gods and stuff, that the film would deal explicitly with some kind of social issue, like one of the characters being outraged over racial discrimination or something. A logical assumption, but wrong. Since a big part of the movie is set in Berkeley, which in 1967 had been famous for years as a center of protest, that would be a natural setting for it. But the closest it comes is when Ben's grumpy Berkeley landlord asks him if he's one those "outside agitators", and Ben assume him he's not. Which is true. Ben is only there to stalk his ex-lover's daughter, with whom he's had one date. The scenes on the Berkeley campus show young white people dutifully going to class. Not even a throwaway scene of a protest sign or someone smoking a joint.
Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross): cute but clueless and also attracted to stalkers
So, back to the story. After Ben learns about Elaine's impending marriage through his LA burglary, he rushes back up to Berkeley where he manages to find out the wedding is taking place in Santa Barbara in a Presbyterian church. So he zips down to Santa Barbara and finds the church. The front doors are locked but he goes in through a side window. Burglary skills come in handy for obsessive stalkers, I suppose. For some reason, instead of going into the auditorium, he rushes up to the second-floor choir loft at the back of the church. The choir loft has a thick plate of clear glass in front of it so he can't actually hear anything going on in the wedding ceremony. (Sounds of silence, get it?) He's a bit late, so the bride and groom are already kissing after having been pronounced husband and wife. So he starts pounding rhythmically on the thick glass and shouting "Elaine, Elaine, Elaine..." which the crowd can hear as a whisper.
Elaine turns and looks up blankly at Ben for a couple of seconds. Then she turns around - we get this in sound-of-silence mode even though we see it from Elaine's viewpoint - and she sees her parents shouting angrily up at Ben and looking pretty hateful. And her new husband also shouting at Ben, understandably so. Hopefully, one of them is shouting, "Why the [bleep] would they put a thick plate of glass in front of the choir loft?"
Seeing this apparently makes Elaine decide she would prefer the stalker to her new family bliss. So she shouts, "Bee-eeen" and runs to him. Ben grabs a cross from somewhere and swings it in front of them to hold back the angry mob crowding in on them. Then they run out the front door and Ben uses the cross to block the doors shut. Ben and Elaine run off and jump on a bus, her in her wedding dress of course and he looking like a disheveled stalker who's been driving all night and they sit on the back seat with the other passengers staring at them.
Cue "Sounds of Silence" for the upteenth time. "Hello darkness my old friend/I've come to talk to you again" seems like odd incidental music for this happy-ending scene of what is more-or-less a romantic comedy. The camera stays on the couple for a minute or so. Ben is smiling with what may be satisfaction at finally getting a second date with Elaine. Elaine actually looks dazed and troubled. At least it was kind of different: they didn't just sit there and smooch while the other passengers applaud, as you might have expected.
I like to think that in that final scene Elaine is reflecting on the fact that she had just dumped her husband of about five seconds who might have actually been good for her and protected her from her parents from hell. And that the realization is dawning that her life is a total mess as she feels the shattered fragments of her psyche fly off in all directions.
I'm not enough of a film buff to know why it was such a big deal at the time. The dialogue is funny. But the characters are screwy and the story is over-the-top implausible. Maybe in 1967 Ben going with both the mother and the daughter was cutting-edge scandalous for a Hollywood film, at least for people who had never read a William Faulkner novel. (The screen still isn't quite ready for Faulkner.)
And maybe somehow the staging of Ben's stalking didn't come off as quite so demented in 1967. Although I'm can't really see how it wouldn't. About the only characterization that makes sense is that Elaine is a dishrag who lets herself be pushed and pulled in all directions by the insane people who surround her.
Or maybe I'm just so accustomed to the age of "True Blood" and "Dollhouse" that a romantic comedy about a stalker, a Barbie doll and Barbie's burned-out but horny alkie mother with love scenes that would probably breeze right by a Disney Channel censor just doesn't do it for me. Okay, they show a bra here and there and I don't actually see the Disney Channel more than about five seconds at a time while channel-surfing, so maybe it wasn't quite that tame. But, gosh, couldn't they have at least thrown in a bad LSD trip or small riot or an Indian cult leader or something? Or maybe even a likable character?
Tags: the graduate movie
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No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."
-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?
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