Graduate

This evening your humble reviewer attended a screening of The Graduate, which of course has long and correctly been touted as one of the greatest and most insightfully representative films of the 1960s.  He had seen it before and now wanted to see it again, this time on the big screen, because it is instructive and (more importantly) fun to revisit the classics, particularly when the classic in question features Dustin Hoffman in his star-establishing turn, Anne Bancroft in one of the most seductive performances ever to hit the screen, plus one of the finest pop soundtracks imaginable courtesy of Simon and Garfunkel – and yet there was something a little sad and discordant about your reviewer’s experience, beginning with the quietly stark sight of the almost totally bald head of the man standing in front of him in line to buy a ticket.  Your reviewer was one of only a very few people under the age of sixty in the theater, most of those in attendance probably having seen The Graduate in its original theatrical release.  The advanced age of these human remains of the 1960s was driven home when one straggling white-haired woman bumbled in, fell in the aisle, spilled her popcorn, and cried out “Help!” after struggling futilely to raise herself.  And yet, hard as it may be to believe, these geezers once belonged to a generation of rebels – as this second film of Mike Nichols attests.

The Graduate is a film about discomfort and uncertainty.  It opens and closes with images of pensively staring Dustin Hoffman in worried transit, first sitting in an airplane on its way to Los Angeles – mid-air furnishing for the movies a perfect metaphor for transition, a physical context for soul-searching in characters temporarily suspended between two geographical points representing stances and stations in life – and finally riding in a bus with somebody else’s bride, seemingly having won the day – but to what purpose?  Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock at no point appears comfortable with himself or in his surroundings until his cathartic coming of age in the arms of Mrs. Robinson; and even after discovering and asserting his will, he appears at the end to have arrived where he started – in uncomfortable uncertainty.  The Graduate is a film about the discomfort of being young in a world dictated by the old, the growing pains of a country and a civilization breaking out in revolting countercultural acne; the discomfort of innocence confronted with corruption; and (subtextually, the protagonist’s surname notwithstanding) the discomfort of an awkward Jew in good WASP society, with Dustin Hoffman doing for the quirky Jewish nebbish what Marlon Brando did for the t-shirted blue collar macho slob in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Benjamin Braddock is a young man of few if any discernable ideals or positive ideas about the changes he would like to effect in his life and his world; he is an intelligent and even scholarly but thoughtlessly selfish person and yet heroic in his way as he attempts to find his path on a shifting emotional and societal ground.  In 1967 his generation’s rebellion was newly blooming, a work in progress, its future a glorious mystery.  Now Braddock’s bus ride of destiny is over, the revolution very nearly complete.  His generation’s leaders, once installed in the centers of cultural and political power, proceeded to usher in an era of rot and corruption worse than anything that had outraged them in their university days.  Now that the hippie is the Man, politicians are more untrustworthy than ever, young men are still shipped off to die for corporate profit in absurdly unnecessary conflicts, and crony capitalism now masquerades as progress as yesterday’s victims set themselves up as despots, the only discernable accomplishment of their druggy governance being the gradual dismantling of everything that was still right with the world before they came along, took it over, and congratulated themselves on liberating it.

Still, and as The Graduate wonderfully documents, there really was an exciting time when nobody knew where the bus was going; the journey was just beginning, the travellers were young and beautiful, the music was gently thoughtful and vividly happening, the cultural impulse seemed to be to freedom rather than cynical tyranny; and the knowledge that the bus would eventually swerve drunkenly off the road of restraint and all reason and into an abject abyss of squalor in no way diminishes the artistic achievement of The Graduate and its classmates of the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls cohort, eloquently bittersweet though certain of their triumphs may have become in retrospect.

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