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The Conversation: Introduction and Mike Nichols’ ‘The Graduate’

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“The Conversation” is a new Vague Visages column bringing together three writers with a dedicated love and knowledge of cinema, engaging in a passionate debate about films new and old. The usual suspects include Drew Morton, Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University Texarkana, Landon Palmer, a graduate student/film scholar currently at Indiana University-Bloomington, and Justine A. Smith, a Montreal-based film critic and a regular contributor to Vague Visages, RogerEbert.com and other outlets. Each month, one critic will pick a film to discuss and frame the discussion for the other two writers to explore questions related to the film’s quality and significance.

“The Conversation” is unique to the world of web-based film criticism and appreciation in that each chosen film is not a necessarily informed by repertory screenings, home video releases, etc., but presumes that innumerable films are worth revisiting or introducing to contributors and readers on their own merits, offering new insights into our cultural present. We hope you join us each month as we explore the many things that cinema has to offer. For our introductory entry, Drew Morton has chosen Mike Nichols’ canonical coming-of-age comedy, The Graduate (1967).

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Drew: I watched Mike Nichols’ The Graduate when I was doing an inventory of AFI Top 100 Films that I hadn’t seen as a young undergraduate in Film Studies. Despite being in a similar position to the film’s protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the film simply did not connect with me. As a graduate coming from the lower middle class, I found his angst in the midst of his economic privilege. Hell, Benjamin got an Alfa Romeo Spider for graduation and I had to share a fifteen-year-old Honda with my little brother. What, exactly, does he have to feel anxious about?

My problem, like that of Roger Ebert on his first go around, was my inability to see that Benjamin Braddock is not the subject of our empathy in the film. Why should we root for him? After one date, he stalks the object of his affection (Katharine Ross) up the coast of California. As if that is not creepy enough, his insufferable prodding of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) about her personal life (after she rebuffs him) is painful and insensitive. Ten years later, this troubled me on my second viewing and I could still could not make heads or tails of the film (hence one reason why I think film reviews based on one viewing are a bit of a fool’s errand).

A few weeks ago, I watched The Graduate for the third time and it occurred to me in the midst of that painful bedroom scene between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson that she is actually the beating heart of the film. That scene, the dramatic center of the film, reveals a woman closed in by societal expectations. As a young undergraduate, she becomes pregnant by Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) and forced into a marriage to someone she does not particularly care for and the role of housewife and mother. If anyone has the right to be dissatisfied with life, it’s the tragic figure of Mrs. Robinson and she’s raging against the dying of the light in ways that Benjamin cannot comprehend.  She, in my estimation, is the hero of the film.

Justine: Over the years, Mike Nichols has become my favourite American filmmaker. I think his skill is underestimated because he prefers to be understated rather than showy. The first time you watch one of his films, you don’t quite grasp it because we’re so used to taking what character’s say as gospel, when in a Mike Nichols film, it’s often what they’re not saying that’s important. The surface story was always appealing enough that when I was younger, I was still terribly engaged.

What I love about The Graduate is the intimacy. I love the scenes that feel too private to be on any kind of screen. The film isn’t graphic by any means, but Nichols lays his actors so bare that you feel as though you are invading someone’s private moment. It’s titillating but uncomfortable, as he’s exposing truths about love and desire that maybe we don’t want to face.

Also, I think Nichols understands women. While he is often taking a male POV, he focuses as much attention on the needs, wants and fears of women in his film with remarkable insight and sensitivity. Benjamin might be our guide through The Graduate, but I think you can infer far more about his mentality and his environment through Mrs. Robinson and Elaine’s experiences, which paints a pretty solemn picture.

Landon: It seems redundant to heap praise on The Graduate, but the film’s lauded reputation potentially obscures how slyly radical it is in form and content — a takedown of suburban America’s slowly disintegrating postwar image of itself disguised as a comedy of manners. Watch, for instance, the moment in which Mrs. Robinson reveals herself to Benjamin, and Nichols cuts to her torso in a way that seems modeled after the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As with Psycho, you think you see something that you haven’t, and you feel like you’re seeing something you shouldn’t be. This moment is, in one respect, deployed for the film’s situational comedy mode yet is also, on the other hand, disturbing and unnerving, with the frame cutting Mrs. Robinson into pieces and turning Benjamin’s awkward repression into horror.

But this sequence is not necessarily or exclusively used in service of rendering a spectacle of Mrs. Robinson’s body or showing off Nichols’ directorial hand for its own sake. Like Justine, I admire the human touch Nichols gives, that he truly cares about his unheroic characters and refuses to distance the audience from them (a technique of identification that is admittedly fraught in Mrs. Robinson’s case), which emerges from his dedication to performance and rehearsal, an approach that feels palpable onscreen.

Nichols’ merging of performance technique and cinematic technique is a model for its time (and a bit overlooked in his masterful Catch-22). His talents spring from the theater, yet his 60s and early 70s work fits perfectly in a time in which American filmmakers were borrowing liberally from the arthouse and the underground.

Question 1:  What do you think about the reading of Mrs. Robinson as hero?

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Landon: Anne Bancroft is rather astounding as Mrs. Robinson, and in several key ways (if not “the”), she’s the beating heart of the film. That scene that you mention, Drew, shows both Bancroft and Nichols at their best, capturing a performance not through words, but gestures of evasion and glimpses of one’s inner self. But one of the most powerful scenes, for me, is Ben Braddock’s surprise visit from Mr. Robinson in Northern California. This scene, perhaps more than any in the film, pulls back the veil of the upper crust milieu which The Graduate erstwhile deconstructs, revealing a bitterness at the core of the Robinsons’ marriage that prompts me to imagine their relationship as little different from the disaffected parents at the center of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, enjoying all the comforts of suburbia while never benefitting from its revolutions and rebellions. With that said, although I hold this film in higher regard than you, I’ve always been pretty discomfited by Mrs. Robinson’s transition into a villain at the film’s end, a move that breaks the sympathies with which it endeavors to build between the audience and this character. I would love to see a version of this film from her perspective, which would certainly be different in tone. What do the Robinsons’ lives look like after The Graduate’s final scene? While Nichols and Bancroft definitely give us fascinating glimpses into Mrs. Robinson’s life, the movie is ultimately far from her’s. I’m really curious to hear where Justine lands on this.

Justine: Like most Mike Nichols films, The Graduate works best on multiple viewings. Our experience of cinema tells us that Benjamin has to be the protagonist, because that’s how most Hollywood films work. He guides us through the journey, his alienation informs a great deal of the film’s tone and mood, but he is not the hero. Decades removed, the alienation that Benjamin felt seems especially misplaced as the baby boomers took over the world. That brief moment of insecurity should lead to success that neither his parents or his children ever experienced. Lately, I’m really interested by how men — inexperienced and meek — look at older women in movies, seeing Mrs. Robinson through Benjamin’s eyes as an impossible figure. With little experience of the world (and women), how is he meant to take in the nuance of her experience when he barely regards her as the same species? And then, as Drew brings up, you have that scene with the two of them in bed, arguing over turning the light on or off. It dawns on the audience more than it does on Ben: Mrs. Robinson is a real human being with wasted dreams and real depth. I think Landon is right that, to a certain degree, the film moves away from this and paints her as a bit of a villain towards the end. But it’s worth taking into account that, before this moment in bed, Mrs. Robinson was equally one dimensional — not because that’s who she was, but because that’s how Benjamin saw her.

Question 2:  What are your thoughts on the use of music in the film?  

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Landon: It’s certainly a product of its time. To think that the late-60s trend of “composite scoring” (i.e., using pop music amongst an array of existing and composed sources for a film soundtrack) would eventually birth the MTV style of pop synchrony in ‘80s films like Flashdance and Top Gun. However, with The Graduate’s use of Simon and Garfunkel (and comparable “New Hollywood” examples like B.J. Thomas in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Leonard Cohen in McCabe and Mrs. Miller), there’s a patience to behold in Nichols’ editing to music that isn’t exactly comparable to the music/movie trends that would eventually follow. The “Sounds of Silence” sequence is a great example — it is less edited “to” the music than a sequence in which moving image and music merge into a shared language. The conventionalization of these practices often overlooked the gravity and grace that such techniques could bring.

Justine: I am terribly fond of the soundtrack for The Graduate as a part of the on screen experience and apart from it. Generally though, I love this brief era when great musicians met with great filmmakers to create a kind of poetry that you rarely see today. There is a sort of dissonance between the images and audio which doesn’t always work (in The Graduate it does, less so in other films of era), but I respect the failure of the experiment. I find what Landon says incredibly interesting, because I never really noticed before that The ‘Sounds of Silence’ sequence is not edited to the music. These days, pop songs often meet cinema in trailers, and we are so overtly familiar with editing to the beat that there is something almost disconcerting about the fact that Nichols kind of ignores that compositional logic. But, it remarkably works by contributing to the film’s hazy alienation. I’m not sure if either of you have seen Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete yet, but after re-watching The Graduate, I couldn’t help thinking of how Louis uses the sort of spirit and rhythm of Paul Simon’s “flavor” to set the tone of the show. Then, Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” plays in the series finale, which seems to represent the lost idealism of the past. Watching The Graduate (which seemingly holds so little hope for the future), I find this sort of allusion interesting within the scope of Horace and Pete, as the film really exposes the brutality of the past.

Question 3:  Why do you think The Graduate holds such a looming position on the AFI list (7th in 1998, 17th in 2007)?

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Landon: To the extent that The Graduate is, I believe, a satire of the suburban upper crust (“Plastics”) at its core, it’s worth recounting that the earlier 1960s better contextualize this film than the New Hollywood scene it allegedly helped launch alongside Bonnie and Clyde. The 60s of The Graduate is more Mad Men than Haight-Ashbury, still defined by the suburban social pressures and performances of the postwar era. (Frank Rich’s Criterion essay dives into this in detail — moreover, that Benjamin Braddock is a virginal figure, post-college, really speaks to the vast historical chasm between now and then.) While The Graduate is largely received now as a quirky romantic comedy tinged with a soundtrack of the era, its canonization (amongst the AFI list and elsewhere) obscures how radical it is — not just in Nichols’ formal techniques and its pop soundtrack, but its deconstruction of white, suburban social values, specifically around coupling. Braddock leisurely rebels against the values he stands to inherit from his parents through his affair with Mrs. Robinson and his greater “drifting,” yet more importantly, he doesn’t ultimately find something to replace it. He lands matrimony in the end, and Benjamin and Elaine’s sense of brief accomplished revelry eventually fades into ambivalence. It might be cliché to repeat this point, but I really can’t think of a more fitting illustration of the arc of youth culture than this image. Now that we’ve dismantled the norm, what’s next?

Justine: I’m so on board with Landon’s interpretation, the canonization by AFI (among other outlets) largely ignores the radical elements of Nichols’ work. I’d argue that, generally, Nichols’ work is operating on more than one level and many viewers are more than satisfied to take everything at face value. His style reminds me of something like Animal Farm, which can easily be read as a nice surface story about a young man growing up, when it’s something far darker, wrought with adult questions that I don’t think most of us are aware of when we’re Benjamin’s age. While generally I would argue that Mike Nichols is the greatest American filmmaker, I think the high value of The Graduate has more to do with the dominant voice in American criticism still being older white men. The early 1970s represented the first time masses of people were attending film school in the United States, and the majority of those students were around Benjamin’s age when the film came out, and related as much to his alienation as they did Nichols’ powerful direction. In many ways, we’re still riding the wave of that first big boom in film criticism and academia, though we’re slowly moving away. Movies of the 60s and 70s were not better than what came before or after, but they represent a very large demographic experience.

Question 4:  Mike Nichols’s first two films — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate — have a few thematic affinities with one another.  Does his work have a timeless legacy or is it a product of its time?  

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Landon: While both of these films indeed employ commanding uses of film technique, what I’ve enjoyed about Nichols’ films is his work with actors, and the veritable guarantee that I have felt going into any Nichols film that I would be seeing talented performers directed by someone who knows actors. When I was in college, I took a class on directing actors and chose for my final project to stage a scene between Jude Law and Clive Owen’s characters from Closer. I never liked Law’s performance in the film — it felt like he was coasting on residual charm, allowing Owen’s charisma to upstage him all too readily. During rehearsals, I had my “actors” (fellow film students) switch roles — a typical directing exercise — and I found out something new: Law’s character was the far more difficult (and thankless) role. Whether or not I think any one of his films are good, I appreciate that Nichols’ films were the end result of a longer process with actors, and that he came into filmmaking during a brief blip in Hollywood history in which that was possible.

Justine: Nichols is both a product of his time and someone with a timeless legacy. His works from the 60s and 70s are stamped distinctively with the trends of the era. In particular, his rather subtle use of expressionistic editing is just a more restrained version of what someone like Nicholas Roeg was using at the time. I can’t imagine these films being made today, in part, because there is rarely a market for adult themed mid-range budgets. What Landon says about performances is spot on, and like nearly every other aspect of Nichols’ work, they can easily go unnoticed since his filmmaking feels effortless. Thematically, his two first films quite obviously take on issues of intimacy and authenticity. These are also themes present in many of his other films, and part of his timeless legacy is that these ideas are timeless. The world may change but we all struggle with balancing the idea of ourselves with the reality. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?goes deep into that concept with George and Martha’s perverse games and fantasy disrupting any sense of the real. But artfully, Nichols’ finds the heart of Albee’s work and lifts the film from farce. Benjamin, like any dejected young person, becomes obsessed with a sort of authenticity of ambition and desire, but has no real experience to know the difference. As Landon answered in an earlier question about the film’s placement in the canon, Benjamin’s rebellion only goes so far, and he falls into social expectations without much fuss. I think that, in both films, Nichols understands the perspective that comes with age, that you willfully have to push away childlike obsessions with authenticity to live with yourself. I’ve always loved Carnal Knowledge because you see how people change (or don’t change over time), and that authenticity is so tenuous when most of us never become acquainted with our “true” self.

Feel free to continue “The Conversation” on Twitter: Drew Morton (@thecinemadoctor), Landon Palmer (@landonspeak), Justine A. Smith (@redroomrantings).

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