Thursday, March 09, 2006

the graduate

last night we stopped by the new location of mass ave video (which is very obscure for massachusetts avenue, right past where you think the street ends) because virago wanted to rent the graduate, which is supposed to be some kind of classic. there were some good lines and some nice shots, and the film started off strong enough, but i thought it became increasingly more unintentionally absurd once elaine entered the picture. as the plot moved on i became increasingly exasperated.

spoiler alert

what really bugged me, as a nervous, antisocial young man who even shares the title character's first name, was that i couldn't comprehend how benjamin braddock managed to get laid at all—ever—let alone why women seemed to constantly throw themselves at him. the man wasn't just "nervous"; he was completely and utterly inept socially. and i can tell you from many years of deep personal experience that social ineptitude does not get you laid. trust me on this one; it doesn't.

i can accept mrs robinson throwing herself at benjamin. she was a lonely woman who wasn't getting much attention from her husband and went out looking for someone who could provide what she needed. she didn't know where else to turn so she settled for the reasonably good-looking but categorically clueless son of her husband's business partner. fine: she was horny, and he was a young dude.

of course she had to work hard to bed him. i'm not sure whether people in the real world really throw themselves at each other with the intensity and desperation mrs robinson shows here, but i was happy to overlook this. and despite benjamin's total inability to satisfy her needs in any but the most physical way, i can understand why she kept up the affair: it was the best she thought she could get.

but then mrs robinson's daughter elaine came back from berkeley on break, and benjamin's parents started pressuring benjamin to take her out. why were they so adamant that he date her? i don't know; maybe that's how the dating scene worked in the '60s if you weren't a hippy, but i was willing to overlook that, too.

mrs robinson, naturally, was not cool with the idea of her lover dating her daughter. for some reason, though, benjamin couldn't comprehend her distaste. he just couldn't grasp that she would be jealous and confused by such a love triangle, and took it as some kind of personal insult. but he at least swore not to date elaine.

but faced with the choice between a "family dinner" with the robinsons and breaking his oath to mrs robinson and taking elaine out for a date, he chose to break his word. a stupid and totally irrational choice, but whatever.

so benjamin and elaine go on their date. the date scene reminded me of taxi driver (released 9 years later), but taxi driver got it right. when travis bickle took betsy to a porno theater on their first date, the date is effectively ruined. but when benjamin braddock took elaine to a burlesque house, sure elaine freaked out, but the next thing you know... they're making out in the street? and go on to have a wonderful date? what is it about this guy that women are so willing to overlook his troublesome behavior?

then it gets really ridiculous. elaine learned that benjamin had been sleeping with her mother and went back to school. benjamin decided that he was in love with elaine and was destined to marry her, even though they have only been on one date at this point. so he started stalking her. seriously, he does everything short of calling her and hanging up when she answers: he moves to berkeley just to be near her, slinks around on campus so he can watch her from afar, and pretends to be a student though he's not enrolled. elaine, despite believing that he raped her mother and ignoring his textbook stalkerish behavior, confronts him in person. this is a remarkably stupid thing for her to do, and in the real world she would end up dead in a dumpster, but in the movie, this kind of psychosis is portrayed as charming. instead, she eagerly forgave him for everything, but informed him that she was due to marry the other dude and that benjamin should stay away, as her family now hated him. (with good reason, since benjamin cuckolded mr robinson and then tossed mrs robinson aside after a measley one date with her daughter.)

there is an entire subset of the romantic comedy that involves the destruction of marriages. the premise goes like this: so-and-so is married/engaged to "the wrong person" but finds "the right person" at the last possible minute and ends up leaving the the wrong person to be with the right person. it's a terrible cinema cliche, but maybe in 1967 the idea was somewhat fresh. generally the audience is not supposed to sympathize with the wrong person in these stories. often this is achieved by demonizing the fiance or otherwise showing why their relationship is dysfunctional. but not so in the graduate. carl the fiance is only depicted in a couple scenes; his role is virtually a cameo (sort of like brett favre in there's something about mary ). maybe we're supposed to dislike carl because he's hunky, blonde, and fratty. maybe we're supposed to dislike him simply because he's benjamin's competition. i don't know.

from here, it's easy to predict the ending with a bit of knowledge of cinematic cliche. benjamin managed to find his way to the wedding, arrived in the middle of the ceremony, and caused a scene. for reasons we'll never know (because we know absolutely nothing about carl), elaine decided to jilt carl in favor of benjamin, who she had only dated once, who had stalked her, and who had also had an affair with her mother. the two got on a bus and presumed later got married and lived happily ever after, though mercifully this is not depicted so i can at least pretend that they had an ugly break-up a few weeks later.

it may seem like i'm being harsh but for the life of me i couldn't comprehend why elaine would want anything to do with benjamin. they say that girls like assholes, and to extent that's probably true, but in general girls do not like psychos and stalkers. nor do they—i'm going out on a limb here—like dudes who have boned their mothers. i'd think that would be a deal-breaker for most women outside the "jerry springer" community.

sure, the cinematography was good, the acting was good, and there were occasional good lines of dialogue. but the plot was asinine and my suspension of belief was shattered as soon as elaine entered the story.


syntax said...

funny thing is, in the book (which is a rare instance of the adaptation improving on the source material - chalk that up to buck henry being a better writer than charles webb) the ben braddock character was closer to the "carl the fiance" character. ben was supposed to be 6'4" with blonde hair and blue eyes - the archetypical california surfer aryan. they just couldn't find a good actor with that look, so they went with dustin hoffman.

there are quite a few things about the story that don't really hold up thirty years later, but the graduate was pretty groundbreaking in several ways: it helped put avco embassy pictures (arguably the one of the first successful independent studios outside of the "hollywood" system) on the map... it was one of the first "serious films" that used a pop song score instead of an orchestrated score (although, if you were like me, you really wanted to kill something by the eighth or ninth time you heard the "scarborough fair" cue)... not to mention the iconic scenes that are still being paid homage to (or ripped off) today--ben's circular jumpcut reaction to a naked mrs. robinson, the high-speed drive through that tunnel on hwy. 101 (a drive i've taken on numerous occasions, but nowhere near as fast and in a crappier car), the opening airport walkway sequence, the long underwater shot in the frogman outfit... and that ending "okay, we're on the bus - now what?" thing never fails to get me, even though it's one of the cheesiest scenes in the movie.

the graduate is a classic, one that i even genuinely enjoy despite it's faults (and you nailed most of the problems i had with it), but "iconic" and "influential" don't necessarily equate "good". or "relevant".

syntax said...

oh yeah... did you know that anne bancroft was only something like five years older than dustin hoffman?

stAllio! said...

did you know that anne bancroft was only something like five years older than dustin hoffman?

that just makes the whole thing that much creepier.

i'm glad you mentioned the underwater scene. that was my first wtf moment: i have no idea why his parents wanted him to do that, why he did it, or what it was supposed to symolize.

really, i quite enjoyed the first reel. but it was like they started to make a serious film about infidelity and after the first reel tossed out the script and replaced it with the script from the wedding planner (or the j.lo movie of your choice).

virago said...

i saw the underwater scene (and his being forced to use the expensive present that he saw no point in) as symbolic of how he had no control over his life at this moment in time (after graduating). it's kind of similar to how he had to go to college and be a big success because everyone was expecting it (as at his birthday party, where all the guests and his parents are expecting a big performance with the diving suit), but there's no substance and no real point to any of it. i could be wrong, but that was how it struck me.

syntax said...

i guess once he realized that in the pool was really the only place where he could get a moment's rest from his family and their friends... but still, there were several different ways that could have been handled, and was probably written around whatever equipment they had lying around during filming. i always saw the underwater scene as gimmicky at best (more of a showoff of new camera technology and filming techniques than anything else), but it does serve as a convenient story transition - i'm pretty sure that syd field would agree that plot point #2 begins as soon as you hear ben's voice calling mrs. robinson to initiate their sordid little ewww...