"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Graduate

I think I first saw this classic when I was about 8 when it first premiered on television.  I'm almost as baffled by parts of it today.  Some call it a screwball comedy, but I think it's mainly just sad (except for Mr. Robinson's speech near the end - that was funny).

Benjamin is home from college and is quickly seduced by Mrs. Robinson, but soon becomes obsessed with her daughter Elaine.  Spoilers below, but it doesn't matter.  The charm of the film is in the way it's carried out more than the plot line.  (And the trailer tells all anyway - I hate that!)

It's curious that Benjamin and Elaine are both involved with university life, but Vietnam isn't mentioned.  There's not a sign of protest on the Berkeley campus except for Benjamin being questioned about being a possible agitator.  Maybe Nichols wanted to give the film a timeless feel, but it's pretty stuck in the 60s anyway.

Benjamin's character is relatable to a point.  He's adrift, held fast by inertia, and unable to choose a direction in life just yet.  He's going to procrastinate as long as possible as all his options look stale and boring. He's awkward and annoyingly adolescent - rudely talking loudly in a library, refusing to care about his affect on others, badgering Elaine with questions and proprosals.  He's having an angsty middle-class rebellion against very little. I understand the draw to Mrs. Robinson for a 20-year-old virgin, but it's curious why he'd fall so hard for Elaine.  She's the beautiful Katherine Ross, of course, but after just one date in which he watches her cry a bit in a strip club, they commiserate about their station in life over burgers, and he later spills it about her mom, he becomes totally obsessed with her and stalks her.  She becomes his goal in life.  Forbidden fruit, or she's just the best option he's got?  To a 20-year-old, she sure beats plastics.  It's funny that he announces his impending marriage to her while still unemployed and living at home.  He's young enough to not have thought that part through, but it's odd that his parents don't question how they'll live.

While Ben passively floats through life, Mrs. Robinson actively works to escape her futile existence. She also doesn't want to be the living dead - managing through life by rote.  She breaks free from the monotony of her situation with an affair.  There's one scene I find absolutely heartbreaking.  She tells Ben she knows nothing about art, but when he asked what she took in college, she says, "Art."  In that one brief conversation, she subtly makes it clear how much she's given up over the years, how much she's let go of her passions.  She forbids Ben to date Elaine, I think, because she has tainted Ben with this shameless experience, and she doesn't want it touching her daughter.  She doesn't want the sins of the mother laid upon the daughter, but, try as she might, she's impotent to stop it.

But Elaine is a conundrum for me.  When Ben tries to catch up to her bus at Berkeley, we can feel her discomfort when she catches sight of him and as he talks to her.  But after she rages at him a bit, she suddenly soften and feels - what? - suddenly she wants him to stick around.  Is she flattered by his obsessiveness? Or does she just feel trapped or bored with her prep-school boyfriend?  She's also avoiding the boring trap of the bourgeois life, so maybe she attaches to him to get a taste of rebellion.

Then he just proceeds to wear her down - it's the only move he's got:

Ben: "We can get a blood test today."
Elaine:  "Benjamin, I haven't even said I'd marry you yet....I just don't think it would work."
Ben:  "Tomorrow, then.  We'll get the blood test tomorrow."

Just like Tom in 500 Days of Summer, he can't seem to hear what she's saying.  Or he just doesn't care. Or he hangs on to the hope that his persistence will win in the end.  And, for Ben, it does.

He rescues her from a forced marriage - after it's over - but, as they sit on the bus together, it's clear they postponed the inevitable call to action with a little drama of their own, but now they still have to decide what to do with their lives.  It's a thrill to do something anti-conformist, but they didn't solve anything.  They're still stuck.

Creating a comedy or a tragedy is dependent on the ending.  Stop on a high note, and it's a comedy.  Stop a little later when it takes a downturn, and it's a tragedy.  For that, why some call this a comedy - much less a screwball comedy - is beyond me.


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