Saturday, February 19, 2011

Graduating from The Graduate

The Graduate is one of the must-see movies of the 1960s, and I have seen it once every five years or so starting in 1967. That means nine or ten times overall, including last night, and that, I think, finally is enough. Besides, nowadays the film raises a question, at least for those of my generation, that was unintended in 1967, and it is one that has no pleasant answer.

Like all the best movies, The Graduate is very much of its time, yet transcends it. Dustin Hoffman is at his finest in his breakthrough role as the new college grad Benjamin. The script is intelligent and funny. The Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack is just marvelous. The clever direction is chock full of small metaphors that are easy to miss on a first view; as one small example, when Mrs. Robinson tosses Benjamin the keys to his car, it is not just the keys he fails to catch.

It is more than just a period piece. Young 21st century newcomers to the movie still can relate to the generation war; the rebellion of offspring against parents is, after all, a constant. All teens and young-20s in every place and time, when contemplating their futures, agree with Benjamin when he says, “I want it to be different.” They mean different from the lives of their parents. While more recent college movies (comedies anyway) might lead a viewer to believe college campuses are populated entirely by shy brainy geeks and incredibly good-looking self-satisfied idiots, few campus denizens, in truth, are either. The typical student is in between: as unbrainy, ungorgeous, yet ungeeky as Benjamin. The time immediately after graduation remains today, as it was then, full of disorientation and confusion for them. They face the post scholastic world with awkwardness, inexperience and uncertainty. Their fantasies of a Bohemian future, which were easy to sustain while in school, upon graduation suddenly look like fantasies indeed; what looms instead is an unpleasant prospect of a dull grind to pay bills – or, almost as daunting, yet more school. As for romance, there either is no wonderful relationship in prospect or the existing one is looking a lot less wonderful than it did at first.

The purely 60s elements of the film include (not very jarring) matters of style and fashion – and, of course, the sound track. For the most part these are quaint. Less quaint is an undercurrent of conceit (truly part of the 60s Zeitgeist) that Boomers really would have lives different from those of their parents or of any previous generation—that we had burnt the old rulebook and wouldn’t be trapped by the old corrupting social constraints and hypocrisies. We were liberated. When Anne Bancroft shouts at her daughter, “It’s too late!” Katherine Ross shouts back, “Not for me!” And yet it was. We didn’t know it in 1967, but it really was. After some still-youthful self-indulgence (overindulgence really) in the 70s, Boomers pulled the rulebook back out of the ashes and found it had been charred only slightly. Ultimately, you see, most of us didn’t have the courage to be so very different from our parents after all; the ways that we are in fact different (e.g. a lower work ethic) aren’t much about which to brag. The dawning of the age of Aquarius simply will have to wait, maybe forever.

The Graduate still works as a story about individual young people, and first time viewers can and do relate to it in that way. Most enjoy it – though, be warned, the pacing is more leisurely than is typical in today’s movies. For those at whom it initially was aimed, however, the movie may well evoke a twinge and the question, “Where did we go wrong?”

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