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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Graduate (#7)

Entertainment 150The Graduate (1967)
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft
Written by Calden Willingham and Buck Henry (screenplay), Charles Webb (novel)
Directed by Mike Nichols

The Graduate reminds me an awful lot of Harold and Maude, which came out about four years later. Both feature young, intelligent, sensitive heroes who have no idea what they want out of life but are certain that their well-meaning parents don’t understand them. Both of them strike up unlikely, inappropriate relationships with far older women. And they both have a comedic style that aims to present outrageous situations in the dryest possible way, hoping that the juxtaposition will create a tension that just must be released with laughter. This might have worked back then, but it rubs me the wrong way now.

There’s something about the face of the comic who tries out dry wit while knowing he’s delivering a killer line that just makes me want to punch it. Bud Cort and Dustin Hoffman both have this affectation early in their movies, and it’s a little off-putting until we get to the meat of their stories. While The Graduate ranks much higher than Harold and Maude on AFI’s list of the top 100 movies (number 7 and number 45, respectively), I think I actually like the latter a little better; it had an ultimately more likable protagonist, a more engaging relationship and a better, more genuine ending.

Hoffman, though, is great as Benjamin Braddock, a newly-minted adult who’s just graduated from college. His parents have the next few steps all planned out for him, but Benjamin doesn’t want any of it. The pressure of expectation just makes him nervous and uncomfortable, so he tries to duck out of his graduation party at the earliest possible opportunity. Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), one of his parent’s friends, corners him and insists that he drives her home. Once there, she tries to seduce him.

Benjamin initially rebuffs her advance, but eventually caves. They spend the summer meeting up in a hotel under assumed names and having a lot of sex. A LOT of sex. Unhappy with the way he’s spending his time, Benjamin’s parents set him up with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). They hit it off, which drives Mrs. Robinson just insane with jealousy. The whole thing blows up rather quickly, of course, and the rest of the film follows Benjamin as he tries to put the remnants of his relationship with Elaine back together.

Directed by the great Mike Nichols (this was only his second film; he went on to do Working Girl, The Birdcage, the amazing movie Wit and Charlie Wilson’s War), the film admittedly has plenty of style. Mrs. Robinson’s attempt at seduction is an iconic moment in cinema, and Nichols’ use of Simon & Garfunkel in the soundtrack was a pretty new move at the time. Credit where it’s due — a lot of the tropes we use in our cinema today were first popularized here. It’s a cultural touchstone that people should know about.

But is it enjoyable? That’s a different matter. As likable as Hoffman is, Benjamin Braddock is really a selfish jerk. He has the self-absorption of youth and the boundless capability to make really bad decisions without any sense of purpose. He doesn’t know what he wants, so we really don’t care when he strives for something. There’s a sort of mild amusement at his discomfort, a sympathy for his tendency to flee from the expectations of the adults around him, but no real connection with him. When he chases Elaine through the final hour of the movie, you know they’ll end up together simply because they must, not because Benjamin has gained the things he needs to actually be good for her.

The Graduate is one of those movies that makes me feel how age has crept up to me when I’m not looking. I have less affection for the folly of youth, especially when I see how much it hurts the people around the young. Benjamin’s parents are clueless, but well-meaning and harmless; it’s his privilege to completely disregard their investment in him, their desire to see him mature into the best possible person. He has a mother and father who are willing to give him anything he needs to succeed with his life, and he turns up his nose. It’s surprisingly, fundamentally frustrating. Is it because I grew up poor, or is it because I’m too old to connect with that adolescent ennui? I’m not sure.

Mrs. Robinson is clearly a woman who doesn’t really care about the feelings of the people around her; she’s only concerned with her own pleasure. She uses Benjamin because he’s easily used, and threatens to blow up his life to get her way. When he calls her bluff, it destroys two families. How are we supposed to root for these people?

But this is a comedy; perhaps I’m overthinking it. Why would their behavior be any different from any other black comedy protagonist? I think the difference here is that the read I get from The Graduate is we’re supposed to root for Benjamin. With most black comedies there’s the gentlemen’s agreement that everyone knows these characters are terrible, and we root for the people who can be terrible most artfully. Here, there’s no charisma behind the malice; when Mrs. Robinson confronts Benjamin, we’re very much supposed to feel he’s the victim, even though the only reason he’s breaking off the relationship is so he can actually make a move on her daughter.

Maybe that’s the big disconnect between me and this movie; it feels an affection for its hero that I don’t share. Nichols does a great job with carving out a new, youthful kind of film, and Hoffman plays Benjamin as bewildered, confident, detached and driven by turns — all quite well. And as important as the movie is, it just leaves me kind of cold at the closing credits. Benjamin rides off into the sunset, on towards his new life, where presumably he’ll make the same mistakes he did before. It’s a new life, perhaps, but he’s the same old selfish boy.

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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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The AFI Top 100 Films: Midnight Cowboy (#36)

Entertainment 150Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman
Written by Waldo Salt (screenplay) and James Leo Herlihy (novel)
Directed by John Schlesinger

I have to admit it took me a little while to puzzle this one out. At the end of the Midnight Cowboy you get the sense of closure that comes when a writer tells a complete story; the protagonist’s arc has closed and he’s moved on to another phase of his life, another story. As we watch Joe Buck (Jon Voight, who was young once) staring out of his window on the bus and the sound of the harmonica swells to signal that this is the final image, I’m stuck wondering what the point of it all was. It wasn’t until I talked to Ryan that I got a sense of things, but I’m still not entirely convinced that’s all there is.

Joe Buck is a simple Texas man who decides to leave his dead-end job as a dishwasher and head to New York. He figures that lonely New York socialites don’t see a lot of real American cowboys, and they would gladly pay him for the experience of a tryst. Things don’t quite work out the way he had planned; his first roll in the hay is with a woman who has no idea that he expects to be paid for his work, and the realization of what this is on both ends is both interesting and awkward. Buck learns a lot from the experience, but it leaves him with even less cash in his pocket.

Eating through his finances quickly, Buck manages to run into Rizzo (Hoffman), who turns him on to a man who might be able to help get him established. That fizzles as well, and after that rocky start to the relationship the two end up becoming friends and roommates. Rizzo shows him how to survive a little better in the underworld of New York City, while also forcing Joe to learn how to tolerate his new friend’s less savory characteristics.

The entire time, Joe is trying to fulfill his dream of being a gigolo. Any attempt at a shallow, consequence-free fling ultimately ends up a disappointment, with memories and emotions that tail Joe long after he’s left. He has a trail of these memories he’d like to forget — his closest relationships back in Texas are similarly punctured with feelings of terror, shame and regret. It’s possible that Joe is trying to engage with the world by becoming slick enough that everything rolls right off of him, but that’s a fool’s errand. In order to see the futility in that, he only has to look at his friend and guide, Rizzo.

Rizzo’s lived a scamster’s life for a very long time by the time we meet him, and it doesn’t take long to see that it’s catching up with him. In a lot of ways, we’re catching two men on opposite ends of the same continuum — Joe has come to the city with the dream of gliding through it, fleecing its populace of money with unsavory acts; Rizzo is the man who’s been doing it all along, and all he has to show for it is the detritus he’s collected from other people.

Midnight Cowboy is ultimately kind of depressing, and not just for the story. It actually does a really good job of calling up the peculiar alienation one can feel in a big city, where there are so many people it’s impossible to feel like you stand out, that you matter at all. Joe enters the metropolis with no plans and no connections, and he quickly falls through the cracks to this different community, completely comprised of people just like him. But even that community doesn’t feel true, just someone to share your loneliness with.

Ryan says that Joe’s arc is one of friendship, where he learns to actually put someone else into consideration. There’s something to that — Joe’s naivete at the beginning of the film is a selfish one, and he lights out without telling the people he works with because he genuinely doesn’t believe that his desertion matters. Maybe he was part of that small community in Texas, maybe people had considered him a friend (albeit an odd one); but he never considered that. He couldn’t have, to show up for work one day with a suitcase to announce he was leaving.

My initial take on the movie was that it was a study of what New York City does to people, swallowing them and their dreams whole and spitting them out as disillusioned, but wiser survivors. Joe escapes and throws away his cowboy outfit soon afterwards, and the fact of its significance wasn’t lost on me. When a clerk asks him where he’s from, he says “New York” with a clear Texan accent. He’s taken on the world-weariness, the confusion that comes when you realize you’re not the center of the universe. New York is great at imparting that sort of lesson.

But my ideas about the movie might be heavily influenced by another movie from the top 100, Taxi Driver. It featured the same kind of protagonist, a loner trying to make sense of the society around him, and I don’t think it’s an accident that both movies share the same setting. What’s interesting, I think, is that both the loneliness of Joe Buck and Travis Bickle subvert their desire for connection, their ideals, and it drives it deep down in their psyches only to come out in these twisted ways. Taxi Driver is a lot darker than Midnight Cowboy, but I think that Joe and Travis are kindred spirits that way. The big difference? Joe got out; he’s learned his lesson and he has a chance to apply it. Travis’ fate is…different.

All that being said, while Midnight Cowboy was interesting I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. It takes its time with its story and the narrative looseness makes its meaning a bit of a mystery. Long montages set to late-60s music are punctuated by snippy conversations between Joe and Rizzo, or scenes that end in a setback for our cowboy hero. The pacing is a product of its time, I realize, but I never really caught on to the shorthand of the arthouse cinema in the late 60s/early 70s. It seems they were really big into sequences of quick cuts that melded disturbing images with more-or-less static, calm ones. The idea is to disorient, to shock, and it succeeds in the worst way.

Still, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight both give great performances, and you get the feeling that the movie is shot exactly as Salt and Schlesinger wanted it. That surety of vision is admirable, and it’s quite possible that my distance from it is a personal preference more than a qualitative one.

Rating: 6/10.


Posted by on April 2, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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