Saturday, June 04, 2016

The Graduate (was your college professor)

"Benjamin," she said, standing up from the chair, "you came her because of me. You sold your car because of me. You changed your entire life because of me and now you're leaving because of me."
"So you make me responsible for you," she said.

KOTCB commencement address for college graduates 2016

As you're about to leave college I'd like to give you some helpful advise for the year to come. The distant future is a mirage and to even suggest that I know what the world might look like in five years is hubris but practical advise for the next 12 months is not a bad thing so here goes:
  1. When you get your diploma do not move back into your parents home (even for just the summer).
  2. If you do move back home, do not put yourself in a position where the wife of your fathers law partner can proposition you (in the nude) to have an affair.
  3. If you're too naive to avoid a nude proposition for a sexual affair from an old family friend and wife of your fathers law partner then under no circumstances should you take the woman up on her offer.
  4. If you are stupid enough to start fornicating with a family friend that you've known all your life and is a long time social acquaintance of your parents and wife of your fathers business partner then it is imperative that you NOT toy with the idea of dating that woman's daughter moments before you jump into bed with her - that's known as being a dumbass motherfucker.
  5. If after threatening to date with your lovers daughter your lover patiently explains that such an idea would not be "right" and makes you promise or "give your word" that you won't be so crass and inhuman as to date her daughter then keep your promise and don't do it.
  6. If you then break your promise and take the daughter out on a date do not kiss her and propose a second date.
  7. If on the second date the mother who you've been having sex with for a few months unloads the truth on her daughter (or anything close to the truth) then take your lumps and write it all off as a mistake born of youthful stupidity which you will never make again.
  8. If you lack the courage and honesty to admit that you've been played but can't figure out how to live with yourself do not choose marrying the daughter as a solution.
  9. Do not stalk the daughter.
  10. Do not ruin the daughters wedding day.
If you do decide to do 3 or more of the 10 things I'm suggesting you NOT do then please, please don't pursue a carrier educating our nations youth. Think of these suggestions as more than mere suggestions but as ten commandments for the modern world - break one or two and you'll probably be okay but break all 10 and eternal damnation will be your just reward - frankly our children deserve better from their teachers.

This code of conduct is derived from the 1963 book The Graduate by Charles Webb and the 1967 film of the same title adapted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Though reading the book and watching the film are very different experiences the basic plot and story line + dialog is shared between the two. In my opinion the book is superior but only because it gives a more accurate portrayal and assessment of the central character - a narcissistic, coddled miscreant named Benjamin Braddock. The casting of Dustin Hoffman in the title role was one of several egregious missteps by director Mike Nichols that transformed a thoughtful reflection on extended adolescence and its pernicious effects on the individual and society into a candy coated fable of baby boomer "liberation." A far superior casting choice for the role of Ben would have been Bruce Dern circa 1967 who would have brought nihilistic ennui to the role instead of Hoffman's bumbling innocence. For kicks Dern's wife at the time, Diane Ladd, should have been cast as Elaine instead of bubblehead Katharine Ross but other than that the casting was perfect - especially Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson.

An important aspect of the book that is completely turned on its head in the film is the motherly sacrifice Mrs. Robinson makes to sabotage any possible romance between Benjamin and her lovely daughter Elaine. The long time family friend and wife of Ben's fathers business partner, Mrs. Robinson has known "the graduate" since he was a boy and discerns his true character better than he does himself. She also knows that her daughter, innocent that she is, can not accurately judge Ben and has a long standing schoolgirl crush on him. A crush that is encouraged by her father and the tight social circle they inhabit in their southern California community. The weight of this social pressure combined with Elaine's womanly devotion to her ideal man (regardless of his actual attributes) conspire to force an eventual union that Mrs. Robinson knows will lead to a lifetime of pain and regret for her daughter. She will do anything, including prostitute herself, to prevent that inevitability from occurring.

The first thing she does once she convinces Ben to drive her home from the graduation party is take him up to Elaine's room and show him a portrait of her daughter in order that she might gage his response - see if there is even a flicker of longing or romantic interest on the part of this potential suitor. Finding the young man completely blasé when he looks at Elaine's likeness on the wall she springs her trap and knowing that he is weak and worthless she gives him several chances to walk out the door and away from her proposition (chances Ben does NOT take her up on) before standing nude before him and inviting an illicit affair. At this point in the story (first chapter part 1) any romantic involvement between Ben and Elaine is untenable. As a man you simply have to write the daughter off your list and look elsewhere because the very real possibility of having sex with her mother is, and always will be, hanging over your head raining down on you for all time.

Of course Benjamin, being the self-centered prick that Mrs. Robinson knows him to be, does take the bait and spends the summer giving her the business at a local hotel. Every clandestine meeting pushes the wedge between Ben and her daughter deeper and deeper so she just keeps it going until one night Ben decides to make conversation and floats the prospect of taking Elaine out on a date. Most women would be flabbergasted that a man could even imagine such a scenario but Mrs. Robinson knows the kind of non-man she's been having sex with for all these months and sternly explains to Ben that her daughter is off limits. Knowing that he's too cynical or too detached from reality to fully comprehend the line he's considering crossing she makes Ben promise that he will not ask Elaine out on a date.

For most people the story would end here but Ben is a 21 year old misanthrope with no ambition and no discernible interest in anything but himself - An intellectual as Elaine informs him later in the book. So inevitably Ben does invite Elaine out on a date and, of course, he "falls in love" with her. This crass and self-centered act compels Mrs. Robinson to go nuclear and spill the beans to Elaine about her affair with Benjamin - not the whole truth because Elaine would never understand it but a somewhat softened version in which Ben takes advantage of her drunkenness and rapes her. The fact that Mrs. Robinson told this lie, a fact revealed much later in the book and movie, make Ben indignant as only the truly self-righteous sinner can be and justifies, in Ben's twisted mind, all the excesses he indulges in up to and including the finale.

The real time of testing comes after Elaine learns the truth when Ben is morosely going through the motions of the Christmas Holidays and processing what just happened to him over the past six months. An honest person would evaluate the step-by-step decisions and the impulses driving these choices along with the outcomes they delivered. He would see how he became undone and the character flaws that led to his demise and shattered dreams. Painful? Hell yes, it's painful and humbling but very illuminating and healing at the same time. But Benjamin, after sulking around the house for a month or two comes to this brilliant conclusion - He's going to marry Elaine! Talk about conformity - talk about fallowing the plan laid out by your mom and dad irregardless of YOUR dreams and aspirations. All Ben want's to do is save face and avoid admitting to himself that he was used like a true red, white and blue American sap (which he is) and the only way to do that is marry Elaine which is what he was supposed to do the whole time. Pathetic.

The last third of the book and the movie is just stupid - who gives a damn what happens to him. I don't. But I am the odd one out because most people love it. Why? How? What did Mike Nichols do to turn this tale of shame and depredation into "one of the most beloved American films of all time with the kind of cultural impact that comes along only once in a generation?" Aside from casting an early incarnation of Rain Man as the lead and thereby scrubbing the dirt off the title role there are a few things worth noting that set the film apart.

The Look
It is claimed by some critics that the book "reads like a screen play"- it doesn't. A Screen play has much more descriptive language about the surroundings and sets than this book does. The story as told in this book is driven through dialog while the places and things - the living environment - gets almost no attention thereby leaving it to the reader to fill in the look of the pool, the hotel, the zoo, the church, etc. using his own imagination. In this way the book takes as a given the media saturation of books, magazines, films and TV that has already populated the readers mind with images of what these places look like. It's a neat trick and Mike Nichols exploited the opportunity to fill in the blanks with some great material.

One moment of the movie narrative that outshines the book is the birthday gift pool scene which brilliantly portrayed suburban alienation and the isolation technology imposes on modern man.

There are many other scenes were the directors choice of location and the framing of shots hit the mark and make the film very compelling. The director, DP, set and costume designer and location manager deserve a lot of credit for pulling this thing off and they did a great job.

The Music
This was (unfortunately) an innovation that to my knowledge had not been employed before The Graduate. This trick of using pop music to drive forward the pacing and transition of a story - Pop music that has absolutely nothing to do with the setting, the people or the cultural matrix in which the story is told - is the favored device of many contemporary auteurs - a sure sign of laziness and desperation.

I am indebted to The Straight Dope and guest contributor bienville for doing the film score breakdown that I would never have the patience to do myself. I generally agree will all the points made in the analysis in this link and will use it's framework to propose my suggestions for alternatives to the Simon and Garfunkel honey that gunks up this picture. My issue being one of time and place rather than distaste for the pop/folk duo from New York who would be the perfect scoring for a film about some loser in Scarsdale schlepping into NYC for his post grad internship at The Village Voice or whatever, but has nothing - NOTHING - to do with SoCal suburbia and a swimming pool. More to the point there was, at the very moment this film was being created two(2) SoCal bands that would have been perfect background music for The Graduate.

The first choice, if one wanted to keep the pop sensibilities and broad audience appeal, is The Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds. Released in 1966 it could have easily been used as the backdrop score for this film and with tunes like "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "God Only Knows" and "I Know There's an Answer" the competition for "theme song" to replace Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson" would have been stiff. This is the authentic music of Ben Braddock and his people who drive up to The Taft for a late night check-in and subsequent hanky-panky. But what if Mike Nichols had wanted to create a true work of art instead of boosting ticket sales through cross promotion with a record label? What music would he have used if he'd wanted to tell the true story of the graduate - the Charles Webb version?

This second choice is obvious - so obvious that the artist and his bands first record seem to have been written with The Graduate in mind. The band is The Mothers of Invention. The record is Freak Out! released in the summer of 1966 just in time to be used as the definitive sound of mid-60's Los Angeles with it's plastic and susie cream cheese ethos. Look at what happens to the movie if you just replace the S&G folk house schmaltz with some raw Zappa and behold...
We open with a close-up of Ben and a voice over: “We are now beginning our descent into Los Angeles.”
Sounds of Silence - Replace with Hungry Freaks, Daddy" Mr. America walk on by your schools that do not teach" while riding on the automated walkway in the airport. It's perfect man, perfect. 
At Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s first meeting in the Hotel room. As Ben closes the door to begin the sexual romp, the screen goes dark and we get a reprisal of
Sounds of Silence - Replace with Motherly Love during which there is a montage showing Ben going through a mundane daily routine then meeting in the hotel room for routine sex. This song is a lay-up and is absolutely perfect for the Ben/Mrs. R romantic interludes that flash across the screen. 
The montage continues into
April Come She Will - Replace with I'm Not Satisfied This would be a tough splice but moving from Motherly Love into I'm Not Satisfied would be the perfect transition for this montage - I'm sure a good editor could pull it off. 
Elaine finds out about Ben and her Mother.
Elaine: “Get out!”
Mrs. Robinson: “Goodbye, Benjamin.”
Scarborough Fair - Replace with How Could I Be Such A Fool with a montage of a lonely Ben stalking the Robinson house. This is the first time Ben has been forced to face reality and you can see how this Zappa music is really filling out the film in a wonderful way. 
Ben determines to marry Elaine and as we watch him drive to Berkley we hear
Scarborough Fair - Replace with Who Are The Brain Police? That's right, who are the brain police? Who put the harebrained idea in your head that you could drive up the Berkeley and stalk your "girlfriend" while she's at University? Again, perfect song. 
Ben accompanies Elaine to the Zoo, where she meets her date and they leave Ben at the Monkey House.
Scarborough Fair - Replace with You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here As Elaine and her date walk off the song starts with a shot of Ben standing alone at the Monkey House- in the background there is a sign that reads: DO NOT TEASE. 
Elaine shows up at Ben’s room. They have a fight, Elaine leaves.
Scarborough Fair - Replace with Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder 
Ben has worn down Elaine’s resistance slightly and he is trying to get her to agree to marry him.
Mrs. Robinson - Replace with wow zowie Ben is happy at this point. 
Mr. Robinson shows up, confronts Ben, and announces that he is taking Elaine away and that Ben is not to see her again. Ben is on the road again back to L.A. to try to catch Elaine.
Mrs. Robinson - Replace with I Ain't Got No Heart 

Ben get to L.A., confronts Mrs. Robinson who tells him that Elaine is not there. Back in the car for the drive to Berkley.
Mrs. Robinson - Replace with Trouble Comin' Everyday Trouble is comin' and it's name is Benjamin. 
Elaine’s fiancé’s fraternity brothers direct Ben to Santa Barbara. Back in the car and the chase resumes so we again are treated to
Mrs. Robinson - Replace with Help, I'm a Rock! This song is all about running out of gas on the way to disrupt a wedding ceremony. 
Ben disrupts the wedding. He and Elaine flee and hop onto the bus and take a seat in the back.
Sounds of Silence - Replace with Any Way The Wind Blows Again, it's like the song was written for this scene in the script. So perfect for the set of events that have transpired and the future that awaits Ben and Elaine.
It is clear that were one to take the film as it stands today and simply replace the Paul Simon music with the Zappa the movie would be transformed into something really interesting - something troubling - and something that tells a much more honest story. But that will probably never happen.

The point is that The Graduate is not a happy story - it is really the story of a man who doesn't graduate in any meaningful way into the world of adulthood. He steps into a trap and than gnaws his leg off rather than face the truth and admit the error of his ways. A baby boomer fable if there ever was one and unfortunately for our society this "educator" has been teaching Americas youth now for two generations. Yes, you graduates of 2016 should know that the kooky old humanities professor who indoctrinated you in TransLit Theory or Deconstructionist Ontology was, in his youth, a fellow named Benjamin Braddock who having learned nothing he decided to pursue a life of teaching.

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