October 2006

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Made for Moping: The Graduate

So I've been searching for a new soundtrack for my mid-twenties discontent. The music I liked in college feels stale; the new bands and songs all seem destined for obscurity. This leaves me with the past, and this is the long way of explaining why I've been listening to Simon and Garfunkle so much. After all, I believe in doing things the proper way, the way movies taught me, and if you're going to be depressed you could do a lot worse than emulate The Graduate in the process.

I don't know how many people consider The Graduate their favorite movie, and I'm certainly not one of them. The story of  Benjamin Braddock's slow ascent from post-graduation crisis is great and classic in that way few movies can be, and over the past forty years it's wormed its way permanently into the public consciousness, popularizing archetypes that still echo. Plus, 
it's a fine movie for moping, which is hard to come by in happy-ending-driven Hollywood.

The Graduate is also one of those great examples of a film that will endure long past its source material, though it's really no  fault of the book. It's just that the movie, imbued with the nuances of Mike Nichols's direction, fills in the gaping spaces between the lines.

Charles Webb's 1963 novel doesn't wallow in Benjamin's depression, instead using the starkest phrases to detail the slow passing of each day. The dialogue is sharp and fresh, the scenes playing out with awkward pauses and abrupt endings. It's a book you admire for the great conversations and characters, not the florid prose. It reads just a little flat.

Nichols and writers Calder Willingham and Buck Henry were remarkably thorough in the translation of the material. Benjamin in the film is a lot less angry, a lot more awkward -- which is perhaps less a result of adapting the character to be a more likeable protagonist, and more a result of Dustin Hoffman playing to his strengths. But nearly all of the great comedy beats of the movie -- the spinning tassels of the stripper, Benjamin swinging the large cross to fend off wedding guests, "I think you're the most attractive out of all my parents' friends" -- are directly from the text, and there's little alteration to any of the plot. The book places more emphasis on Benjamin's decision to torpedo his scholarship for graduate school, and includes a sequence in which Benjamin decides to Kerouac his way across the country, only to turn back after reaching Barstow, California. But these omissions don't hurt the film at all, and allow more time to flesh out the great small moments of this story, bringing them to life in all their awkward glory. In the book, Mrs. Robinson admitting that she "kind of" lost interest in art is a line without much sting. But when Anne Bancroft reclines in bed with her cigarette, looking far far away from Benjamin, you understand how much it hurts her to admit that -- how much she's lost.

A few years ago, I spent too much money on a single ticket for the London theater production of The Graduate, which was certainly an interesting way to spend an afternoon: modern neb Jason Biggs as Benjamin, a very naked Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson. What I most remember from that performance, though, isn't Turner's fine pair of gazungas, but the art direction. The set walls were constructed of  louvered doors, thick amber sunlight drifting in through the wood slates. A simple, beautiful take on 1960s architecture. A touch totally borrowed from the film's iconographic look. The play, after all, is considered an adaptation of the movie. The book mostly forgotten. Thus, through no real fault of his own, Charles Webb ends up locked into his fate: a credit in a movie, a succession of new novels that will never define a generation in the same way.

Well, it's not the worst of fates.

In the interest of science, I took one for the team and rented Rumor Has It, the Jennifer Aniston/Kevin Costner team-up we'd all been dying to see. Set in 1997 (complete with giant cell phones! it's a period piece!), director Rob Reiner and writer Ted Griffin presuppose that the events of The Graduate were real, but Elaine went back to her husband, Benjamin ended up becoming an Internet millionaire, and thirty years later Elaine's daughter has some questions about what happened right before the wedding. When she tracks down Benjamin, thinking he might be her biological father, he confesses that he's sterile and there's no way he could be her daddy. Boinking thus ensues.

The movie is just as bad as you think it could be, in part because when Aniston mopes and moans about her lack of direction in life, it's completely without irony -- we're legitimately expected to feel sorry for her, which is totally not the point at all. The Graduate works because we have very little pity for Benjamin, only understanding. We don't condone his actions, but we accept them. After all, we've all been there, to some degree, at one point in time -- until someone told us to get over it and move on with our lives. Funks can be very time consuming, after all, and there are too many roads to run down, too many weddings to break up. Too much to do in the world.

So my own funk continues on, but with regular and gradual improvement. Recently, I've been shifting from Simon and Garfunkle to David Bowie. Not quite the present day, but faster beats, fun lyrics. It's a good sign.