Are you comfortably numb?

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Graduate

After many years of curiosity, I finally got round to watching this film last night. I had no idea what to expect; when I got it from Blockbuster it was classified under ‘Comedy’, which I thought must be an error, as the last thing I was expecting was side-splitting entertainment. I suppose I had a vague image in my head of a seedy story with Simon and Garfunkel playing over the top, but it’s supposed to be a classic so I thought there must be more to it than that.

A few minutes in, I was not disappointed. It rapidly became clear that whoever wrote the script was a comedy genius. It was literally a laugh every line in the first few scenes, Hoffman bringing the character of Benjamin, the graduate (no prizes for guessing that), to life in a hilarious, and very watchable, way. The acting in this film leaves nothing to be desired, with brilliant performances from all the leads. Anne Bancroft, particularly, who plays the infamous Mrs Robinson, has that crucial quality belonging to all good actors: the ability to portray a multi-dimensional character. Although Mrs Robinson has the veneer of a strong, seductive woman who is totally in control, Bancroft manages with apparent ease, in the scene in the hotel room, to reveal the vulnerable side of her character. Katharine Ross is perfect for the role of Elaine, the beautiful, spirited and yet mature girl with whom not only Hoffman, but the entire audience falls in love. (See Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for another sterling performance by Ross).

Another aspect of the film that stands out almost immediately is the superb camerawork and screenplay. This is striking even from the first scene, where Ben’s reluctance to be part of the graduation party his parents have thrown for him and desperation to get out is accentuated by the close-up, slightly chaotic camera angles that leave the audience feeling claustrophobic and also wanting to leave. The best example of the camerawork is the scene involving the confrontation between Ben, Elaine and Mrs Robinson, where Elaine discovers the truth about Ben’s affair. I tried to explain the beauty of this shot in text but failed miserably; you will just have to watch it yourself to see.

The film is not only great viewing, it raises and explores several different issues through the portrayal of the various relationships. In some ways it reminded me of ‘The Great Gatsby’, in that it takes a part of society that is obsessed with outer appearances and blows it wide open to expose a far more sinister reality. It is clear from the opening scene of the graduation party that the collection of people pictured are well-to-do people in a well-to-do place. They are successful, high up the pecking order and are celebrating the inauguration of Ben, their friends’ son, into their midst. He has just become “one of them”.

The affair between Ben and Mrs Robinson explodes this myth. Mrs Robinson’s marriage is part of this social pretence, and so by having this outrageous affair with the son of her so-called friends, we see how beneath the supposed social utopia of their society, there lies an uglier truth. It is revealed later in the film that the Robinsons’ marriage is a complete sham; they married because she was pregnant and they do not even sleep in the same bed. This could be perceived as a comment on the artificial nature of relationships in their entire social circle.

The nature of Mrs Robinson’s marriage, and perhaps of the whole social echelon, is reflected even in her affair with Ben. From the very first, her seduction of the young graduate is cold and calculating – “I want you to know that I am available to you”. There is no passion or fire between them, neither emotionally nor physically. The Simon and Garfunkel lyric, “Hello darkness my old friend” strikes a particularly poignant note here. In fact, it is unclear why Ben even enters into the relationship; one possible theory is that it is a way of rebelling against the society he so detests; another is that he is very bored (and curious). The emptiness of their relationship comes to disgust Ben, as is evidenced by the conversation he is so desperate to have mid-film in the hotel room. There is no affection between them, no warmth. Even Mrs Robinson’s own character mirrors the artificiality of society and her marriage. Beneath her powerful, manipulative exterior she is actually weak and quite pathetic as a character whose life is meaningless and in which she is deeply unhappy.

Another function of the affair is to be a starkly contrasting prelude to the relationship between Ben and Elaine. Ben loves Elaine with unbridled passion, emotion and a lack of control – all things which were decidedly lacking in his relations with her mother. Ben and Elaine’s first encounter leads to them talking for hours, sharing mutual feelings and ideas; Ben and Mrs Robinson struggle to manufacture a decidedly self-conscious conversation, which ends in awkwardness and regret. Ben and Elaine do not sleep together at all during the entire film; Ben and Mrs Robinson do nothing but sleep together. Ben cannot change his feelings for Elaine and is totally governed by them; finishing the affair with her mother is as simple as turning off a tap for him and happens as soon as he meets Elaine.

Another compelling facet of the love story between Ben and Elaine is how they relate to the society they are part of (at least by birth). Ironically, at the start of the film, their relationship is conceived of and encouraged by both Ben’s parents and Elaine’s father (obviously her mother had some issues with it). In social terms, it is a good match – it makes sense strategically. Part of the beauty of the love story and its tortuous journey towards fulfilment is the way in which their relationship becomes totally unacceptable, as Ben becomes more and more of a social pariah. It develops the Romeo and Juliet factor, which of course makes it incredibly compelling watching for the audience. It is far more gripping to follow the fate of a couple who love each other against the odds and against society’s mandate, than to watch two people egged on by their parents towards a happy ending!

Any good love story is worth watching, and it seems that as human beings we never tire of them. Yet what makes this one spectacular is the context in which it happens. Furthermore, Hoffman’s portrayal of a man so lost in his own fanatical love that he drives through the night, develops stalker tendencies, and eventually pounds on the glass separating him from Elaine at her own wedding ceremony whilst screaming her name like a madman is so agonising that anyone who has ever been in love, or wants to be, cannot help but watch, entranced.

Of course, this film is also famous for the soundtrack, which thoroughly deserves a mention. Simon and Garfunkel’s poignant lyrics and apt music fit beautifully with the film. They make an already classic film even more enjoyable to watch. If you haven’t seen it already then do.


  • Yeah, good film.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 3:42 pm  

  • Oh and your tales of Cuba make me very jealous >:<

    By Anonymous Dave, at 3:47 pm  

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