18 December 2011

13. THE GRADUATE




Anytime a movie captures the zeitgeist, it's a miracle. The movie business is a slow one, full of long shoots, overdone periods of development, edit jobs that last months. That any movie can capture a cultural moments seems impossible, and yet, some do. This movie, THE GRADUATE, exists so surely in the late 60's, in tone, technique, and theme, that it gives the viewer these 45 years later a window into those times.

We have a hero, Benjamin Braddock, just back in LA from college on the east coast. He defines two archetypes: the prodigal son returning, and the stranger comes to town (even though he's from there, college has clearly changed him enough that he's a stranger to his parents and to his environment). His desire is to get away from his parents, to be left alone to avoid worrying about the future, to "tune in, turn on, and drop out."

But he can't. And at minute 15, we find out why: the mother of a girl he fancies, Mrs. Robinson, seduces him. He resists, but only barely. She tells him to contact her if he changes his mind.

Here we have established the tone of the piece, which is comic and even manic sometimes, but has a heavy sense of seriousness to it. We will drift between those two tones throughout, mostly slowly, but sometimes quickly.

And here we go into the debate section, where we see him drifting: his birthday party, his absent-minded parents, scuba-diving in a backyard pool.

At minute 25, he goes to a hotel and calls Mrs. Robinson. She arrives, and he is fumbling, nervous, unsure; contrast that with her jaded and cool persona. They go to their room and he changes his mind, but she uses reverse psychology to get him into bed, accusing him of being inadequate with women, a virgin. He will not be emasculated, so he fucks her.

This is what's known as the point of no return.

And so now we have the theme: the idea that the younger generation sees the older generation as corrupt, without answers; they will seek their own way, no matter how much fumbling this will take. In other words, this film explores what we now think of as "The Generation Gap".

And now we have the fulfillment of the premise: instantly he's cool, wearing sunglasses, driving a sports car fast around town, smoking, drinking, laying in the pool. He has truly become an aimless member of his generation, he is malaise personified.

Watch how this idea of the Generation Gap is explored in the next section, where we finally see Benjamin interacting not with adults, but with a peer. The various parents insist that he take Elaine Robinson, his lover's daughter, out on a date. She's home from Berkeley and could use the company. He does so, and tanks the date on purpose, taking her to a burlesque show, making her cry. But Benjamin is a nice boy and feels badly, so he makes it up to her by taking her out for real, resetting the date. They have a great time -- and why wouldn't they, they are two similar kids in the prime of their lives -- and Benjamin makes a vow to break it off with Mrs. Robinson.

Before he can, Elaine finds out. She kicks him out of her house, and immediately begins seeing someone new.

Benjamin won't have it. At minute 1:12, Act 3 begins. He goes to Berkeley, stalks her. He discovers that Mrs. Robinson claims that Benjamin raped her, and Elaine is livid. He gets kicked out of his apartment due to her screaming at him, which makes her feel sorry for him, and they make up. He proposes, but she can't make the decision right away.

Finally, he discovers that she's getting married to her proper boyfriend, and he must find out where and stop it. This is the famous ending where he indeed does break up the wedding after speeding around and runs off with Elaine. This ending works so well because it acts as its own separate short film, with a proper beginning, middle and end, but also because it encompasses the film's tone so well (shifting between comedy and drama, and doing it by little more than looks on the actors faces) and gives us one last glimpse at the theme: sure, you have rebelled and called into question the status quo, but to what end? And what's next?

They get on a bus and laugh at what they just went through, until the laughter ends and their real future begins, one that's entirely uncertain.

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