Friday, June 6, 2014

Question your assumptions: The Graduate

It has occurred to me recently that there may classic movies I am "giving a pass."

In other words, I saw them once, a long time ago, and have since been according them a respect in my personal film rankings that is more akin to their general sense of widespread acclaim, than the specific love I may feel for them myself.

Evidence of this abounds, and it can be found at work in my Flickchart rankings. I have used the movie-dueling site to work toward a definitive ranking of all the movies I've ever seen, from first to worst. And while I know an exact ranking of these titles is an impossible task, in no small part because my feelings toward most movies are in a permanent state of flux, I do strive to make the rankings as precise as I can with the means at my disposal. In other words, I try to make them "feel right."

Inherent in the task of ranking movies you haven't seen in a while is that you have to assign them a certain value relative to the titles about which you can speak more authoritatively, either because you've seen them more often or because you've seen them more recently. In these valuations, some movies inevitably sink lower than they should; others artificially rise.

More often than not, the ones that artificially rise the most are the ones about which I felt positively, but about which I know others went gaga. These are usually what are considered the classics -- classics I might have liked a lot or even loved, but have seen only that single time, many years ago. I am likely to elevate these classics to where they're doing battle with some of my tested all-time favorites, the ones I've seen a half-dozen or more times. I think, "I know these movies are great, so I have arbitrarily decided to assign x amount of greatness to them."

So I think it's valuable, from time to time, to go through and revisit these movies to get a better sense for what you're really dealing with. And so it is that I bring you a new periodic series called Question Your Assumptions, where I take whatever opportunities I have to re-watch highly regarded movies that I may be artificially inflating to greater heights than they really deserve. I mean, I know I liked these movies quite a bit -- but should I really be ranking them among my favorites?

I may only be formally introducing this series with a banner now, but rewatching these movies is something I've been informally doing for a couple years now. Just off the top of my head, I think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Annie Hall and Chinatown as movies I have subjected to this questioning of assumptions, all within the past three or four years. In the case of Butch Cassidy, my affection was greater than I remembered. Chinatown, less. And Annie Hall about the same. In any case, it's worth knowing. And it's worth pointing out that these movies are all within my top 150 on Flickchart, so we're really talking gradations of greatness here.

And so it was that on Wednesday night, when my wife was out at a meeting and I had no idea what to watch, I reminded myself that Mike Nichols' The Graduate was streaming on Netflix, and had been for some time. The Graduate was a perfect candidate for this nascent series -- it's currently sitting at #111 on my Flickchart, and I've only seen it the one time, probably sometime in the mid-1990s.

Well, I must say, this is much more an odd duck of a movie than I'd remembered.

I'm not going to do anything like a thorough analysis of the film -- that's too high of a standard for me to live up to in the limited time I'm allotting myself to write these posts. More than anything, what I'll probably accomplish is to mention some things that struck me on a second viewing, particularly the things that ultimately impacted whether I'm ranking these movies too high, or in some cases, not high enough.

Why is The Graduate so odd? Well, I suppose you'd be surprised if I didn't tell you.

I had forgotten that Benjamin Braddock's love interest, Elaine Robinson, does not even come into the movie until it is more than half over. According to the traditional structure of any kind of romance, either comedy or drama, you would meet the protagonist's primary love interest early on in the movie. Whether or not it was revealed that this character was his (or her) love interest at the time is not important, because all you're trying to do is start building audience sympathy for this person. We need to be rooting for them early, even if we're not consciously aware of it.

What Nichols and Dustin Hoffman -- and, it should be said, Katherine Ross -- do so effectively here is to get us to love Elaine Robinson in just one scene. And it was a scene I had forgotten entirely. Eager to fulfill only the most minimal requirements of his date with Elaine, a date he was coerced into and one that flew in the face of his lover's explicitly stated desires, Benjamin takes Elaine to a strip club. He's sure that by behaving curtly toward her and humiliating her with his choice of venue, he will queer any feelings Elaine might have toward him and nip in the bud any possible discussion of a second date.

What Benjamin doesn't realize is how he will react to the human toll of this humiliation. As a go-go dancer with tassles on her nipples lowers these extensions closer and closer to Elaine's head, and Elaine looks at him with a sense of deep sorrow and shame over the way he's chosen to insult her, Benjamin loses all his former resolve. He meant to crush Elaine, in a way, but he didn't anticipate what it would feel like. "Do you dislike me for some reason Benjamin?" The question is so sad and plaintive that when Elaine flees the seedy joint, crying, he can think of no better way to prove that he's not that guy than to engage her in a deep and loving kiss. It's as though he's recognized all the out-sized cruelty of Elaine's mother in that one moment of humiliation to which he's an unwitting party. Impulsively, recklessly, he casts aside Mrs. Robinson's foreboding words and gives himself into the passion of the moment. From that time onward, we want these two to be together. (Incidentally, I couldn't help but think of Taxi Driver -- still just a twinkle in Martin Scorsese's eye at this time -- and Travis Bickle's oblivious attempt to take Cybill Shepherd on a date to a porn theater.)

The script of The Graduate is so economical in these scenes of establishing the budding romance between Benjamin and Elaine that it's the very next day that Mrs. Robinson forces Benjamin into admitting to Elaine that he slept with her mother -- and yet we feel the loss of their relationship as something tragic and epic. So firmly has the inevitability of their connection been established that it takes only a single date to get us to that point.

Thus continues a series of erratic decisions by Benjamin that probably began when he first called Mrs. Robinson from that hotel, and only get more erratic from here on out. Benjamin vows to marry Elaine, even though she officially doesn't ever want to speak to him again. Benjamin moves to Berkeley to effectively, albeit politely, stalk her. The stalking actually works, sort of, and Elaine starts to entertain the notion of marrying him. Until her father intervenes, nearly coming to blows with the man and seeming to finally put a permanent end to any possibility of Benjamin and Elaine. In almost the very next scene, Elaine is not only officially engaged to this other guy (Carl), but actually at the church ready to marry him. If there isn't something surreal about these sequence of events, I don't think I understand the definition of surreal.

From here, Benjamin begins a mad hunt at high speeds to find that church and prevent Elaine from marrying her rich Aryan dufus. There's real blood and passion and craziness in this man, and his chase memorably culminates in the scene at the church, banging that window, screaming that name, and -- against all odds -- actually whisking the bride away from the altar onto the back of a bus leaving town. Followed by that memorable closing shot, where the two compulsive young lovers have made their ecstatic choice, and then are quickly overcome with the sense of spiritual disappointment and ennui that comes with all the questions that lie ahead of them. The thrill of their hunt is almost immediately replaced with the anticlimax of achieving their goal.

Like I said, an odd duck of a movie indeed.

And also an incredibly funny one, especially in the first half, when Benjamin trips all over himself first avoiding Mrs. Robinson, and then ultimately giving in to her, but in a fashion made klutzy by his overwhelming sense of guilt and wrongdoing. Hoffman plays these scenes perfectly. Especially funny are his dalliances with the hotel clerk played by Buck Henry, who also wrote the movie.

(As another parenthetical aside as it relates to another classic movie -- are those flashes of Anne Bancroft's skin, where we are meant to get an idea of her nudity without actually seeing it, a direct homage to Pyscho?)

Clearly this is a seminal film full of quotable lines, iconic moments and memorable performances. It ushered in a new era of Hollywood and was one of the earliest of a type of awkward comedy that has blossomed in the years since. Hoffman also became kind of a template for stammering, stuttering nebbishes who would particularly take off in the films of Woody Allen.

But is it my seminal film full of quotable lines, iconic moments and memorable performances?

Yeah. Yeah I think it is.

I don't know that I like it more than I did the first time, but I think I appreciate it more as an extremely unconventional film that must have blown the minds of the people who saw it at the time. At the same time I find it scruffy and shaggy and imperfect in many ways.

I suppose if it had been a bit more "perfect" in the traditional ways one might think of a movie being perfect, it wouldn't have made a name for itself. It wouldn't be The Graduate.

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