Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Graduate (1967)

There comes a time in your life when, someone needs to sit you down and make you watch The Graduate. That time is different for every person, but, for most people, the time comes right before you graduate from college and go off to the "real world". For me, the time to re-watch The Graduate is now. As I write this review, sitting in a coffee shop in South Korea, with absolutely no idea what I will do with my life when I come home to the states in nine months, I can't help but feel a little bit like Ben at the bottom of a swimming pool in SCUBA gear, harpoon gun in hand. Thematically, the film captures a very complicated part of life in a way that very few movies have, thanks to some top-notch film-making, and it stays relevant and funny even after four decades.

The Graduate is the story of Benjamin Braddock. A recent college graduate, Ben, played by Dustin Hoffman, is quite worried about his future. To make a long, and a much more complicated, story short, he has an affair with the wife of a family friend Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft. This only complicates matters when he falls madly in love with Elaine, Mrs. Robinson's daughter. The film is masterfully directed by Mike Nichols, who won the movie's single Oscar for his work, and is bolstered by a top-notch screenplay. The overall film-making, Nichol's direction, the cinematography and the use of sound, are the true stars here, overshadowing even the superb performances by Hoffman and Bancroft.

The tone of The Graduate, set by Nichols and faithfully followed by everyone involved in the film, is a marvelous film-making achievement. Everything, from the long still shots, to the artful zooms, projects Ben's feelings in a fascinating way. You can read Ben's uncertainty all over his face, but you can also read it through the film making elements. At the beginning of the movie, the shot selection and pacing all scream doubt. Things change around Ben. Things happen to him rather than him making things happen for himself and this is seen in both the film-making and the acting. Ben seems to stay still, but scene's transition past him, and through him, without so much as a flinch. Rarely do the technical aspects of a sequence match the tone as well as they do here. This can be seen again with Ben's single-minded, and slightly creepy, determination to follow Elaine. The camera rarely moves and, even when things are moving fast, what's really important, Ben and Elaine, stays perfectly in focus.

This deep connection between film-making and emotion is also apparent in the use of sound. So few film makers know how to properly use silence that, when you see it done correctly, it is twice as powerful. Nichol's masterfully mutes the film when it's most appropriate and leaves us devoid of score or soundtrack in all the right places. It would be impossible to not mention the constant use of Simon and Garfunkel songs in the film. Most of the time, their use is as masterful as the rest of the production, but they do get a little repetitive at points. The music generally matches the tone perfectly, but you can only hear The Sound of Silence so many times in an hour and forty-five minutes. I'm also conflicted about the way the songs cut in and out at times. A simple fade in and out would have worked wonders.

The technical aspects of the film aren't the only elements that deserve to be applauded. The performances, from Hoffman and Bancroft are both excellent. Hoffman is especially good. His ability to remain sincere, even when what he is doing is insane, and a little bit creepy, keeps the film's feet on the ground. The movie's fantastic script also deserves credit here. It's minimalistic, but extremely funny when it wants to be. The effortless transition The Graduate makes from comedy to drama can be, mostly, attributed to the actors though. The script goes from laugh out loud funny to deeply introspective very quickly and these transitions required artful film-making and performances to work properly. The Graduate gets both of these things and succeeds because of it.

The biggest flaw of The Graduate is that it sags in the middle. The themes are less resounding and it drags more than a movie of it's length should. It's impossible for me to put my finger on what exactly goes wrong, but the middle of the film just doesn't feel right. Luckily, things pick up quite a bit as the movie builds towards one of the most memorable final moments in cinema history. The Graduate is certainly a movie that was before it's time. It's still extremely funny and, maybe, more relevant today than it ever was. It has been, and will remain, required viewing for any film lover that is graduating college or about to embark on a new era of their life.


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