Unauthorised item in the bagging area

Friday, 15 October 2021

It's A Little Secret

We watched The Graduate last weekend, the first time I've seen it for many years- it's still a brilliant film I think but it made for discomforting viewing in ways it didn't when I first watched it in the late 80s. Seen through 2021 eyes (and a fifty one year old eyes as well) the seducing of Ben by Mrs Robinson at a party to celebrate him graduating is less seduction and more grooming. Ben's post- college malaise, aimlessness and fear of adulthood was very familiar to me when I first saw the film but his behaviour becomes increasingly extreme as the film goes on and his treatment of Elaine, the Robinson's daughter seems much crueler now. His later and sudden obsession with her also seems much odder now than it did then- Ben's descent coming across more and more like a breakdown, mental health issues surfacing rather than the whims of a young man. At the centre of the film is the empty lie at the heart of the suburban American dream, the existential crisis of people who have it all but have nothing. Mrs Robinson is bored, listless, trapped by manners and society in a marriage she never wanted but ended up in because of a teenage pregnancy. Ben is adrift, literally for much of film, floating round his parents' pool on a lilo. The only place he seems content is at the bottom of the pool in the scuba diving gear, well away from his parents, their friends and an endless round of congratulatory parties. Mr Robinson plays golf and drinks. Ben and Mrs Robinson's relationship (if that's what it is, regular sex in a hotel filling the hole in both their lives) is destroyed when Ben says he wants to talk before they have sex. The conversation throws it wide open and leads to Ben telling Elaine and everything unravelling. When the action shifts to Berkeley and Ben pursues Elaine the film becomes increasingly dark. It's difficult to have much sympathy for Ben at this point- in 1989 I'm sure it was Ben I was supposed to identify with but it's not easy to sympathise or empathise with him very much now. Dustin Hoffman makes him become pretty unlikeable in ways I hadn't really noticed before. Mrs Robinson, crushed by the affair becoming common knowledge, becomes less sympathetic too. Elaine is the most sympathetic character, about to married to a college boyfriend solely to keep her away from Ben. The closing shot of them on the bus chased by Elaine's family is superb, the sinking realisation on both their faces that what they've just done might not be the answer to either of their problems. 

The Graduate was released in 1967, the central year of the 60s, and is at least partly about a generation gap- Ben's behaviour and attitudes and those of his parents in stark contrast. Ben and Elaine question their parent's values -get married, get a good job, settle down, get a car and a house. Mrs Robinson is questioning those values too. Conformity and acquisition lead to deadening boredom. The youth feel confused and lost. These aren't specific to the 60s, they're universal (at least in the modern world). Ben's generation are now in their seventies, the Boomers, many of them comfortable and well off in their retirement. It's a clever and witty film, sly in places and seems to be about a rite of passage, but some of it's central themes came through quite differently watched in 2021. 

It was well worth watching again. The cinematography is brilliant, suburban California captured in mid- 60s technicolour, the enormous houses and swimming pools, the blues really blue and the greens really green. The soundtrack is, it goes without saying, superb. It's a record that has been part of my life since childhood. My mum had a copy and its cover, Ben in the hotel room and Mrs Robinson's stockinged foot sticking out provocatively, was always near the front of her records. Simon and Garfunkel's songs are not just playing with the film, they are woven into it, as central to it as any of the cast. The Sound Of Silence is as bleak as any folk music made during the 60s, the harmonies and reverb unable to distract from the 1960s- the problems caused by lack of communication, the apathy generated by consumer society, neon gods and darkness. Strawberry Fair/ Canticle is another song that's always been there, not least because in the late 80s The Stone Roses turned into a song about getting rid of the Queen. And then there's Mrs Robinson...

Mrs Robinson

Mrs Robinson was re- written for the film after Simon presented it to director Mike Nichols but began life as Mrs Roosevelt, a former First Lady who worked tirelessly for others and rarely did anything for herself. The famous Joe DiMaggio line appeared out of nowhere according to Paul Simon, a moment of inspiration. 

The Lemonheads cover version from 1992 is an oddity, a minor hit that sounds like the band tossed it off in an afternoon, a punk- ish cover that the record company hoped would recoup some money/ smash the charts. Evan Dando reportedly hates it- so apparently does Paul Simon. 


Nick L said...

Interesting post. It's a great film, very much of its time but still stands up today. I always found the shifts in the film as it progresses fascinating. Wonderful soundtrack too. However, The Lemonheads version of Mrs. Robinson can be filed under "early 90's period piece" alongside Teenage Fanclub's scuzzy cover of Like A Virgin, which really isn't as intriguing as it might sound either.

Charity Chic said...

As Nick says an interesting post Adam.Shows how times and attitudes have changed.Thankfully the music remains of the highest quality

Jake Sniper said...

Here's a version by Frank Sinatra,


Rol said...

It's sad how rewatching old films through contemporary eyes can lead to very different readings... part of me wishes we could keep films in a bubble that doesn't allow them to be judged in that way. Part of this is changing times, but I liked that your analysis focused more on the way the viewer (you) has changed. Lots to think about; I should watch this again myself.

Sad to hear that both Evan and Paul hate the Lemonheads cover. I love it, although the original is unbeatable.

Anonymous said...

Sinatra's version sounds like it was tossed it off in 5 minutes

Martin said...

Great post about one of my favourite films. I watched it again recently too. You're right, I think, it that the age and times in which we watch affect our interpretation. We were originally Ben and Elaine - now we're Mr Braddock Sr, and Mrs Robinson.

I will always, always love this film. The dialogue is crisp, still feels fresh and is funny as hell. The soundtrack is perfect, not just the S&G gems but also the Dave Grusin pieces. And I will always be just a little bit smitten with Katherine Ross, especially in the Berkeley scenes. From a modern perspective, yes, Ben stalks Elaine, and we accept that because she doesn't complain. Would the script make it to screen in this way today? Almost certainly not. But I will always love it as a piece of work, and will always watch it when it's on TV, however late the hour - I can't help myself.

We can't mention the Lemonheads cover without noting its inclusion in the lovingly created, shot for shot Graduate spoof towards the end of Wayne's World 2, here.

And finally, because this is turning into a ramble, Charles Webb's book, on which the film is very closely based, is definitely worth a read.

Echorich said...

I think movies like the Graduate are a bit like cultural time capsules. When you open them decades later, they reek of the past they represent and teach us to recognize the future that followed.
I agree that it's hard to watch The Graduate without using contemporary lenses. It holds up to scrutiny, but what was once possibly startling or revealing is now dissectible for the what our culture today deems inexcusable or the product of personal and societal defect.
As for the music, Simon and Garfunkle was just about as contemporary as my parents got with their music collection - save a couple Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield albums. I've always appreciated their very New York point of view; sort of Urban Folk music. Paul Simon would run with that in his solo music of the early 70s until he became of aware of World Music and, for my mind over extended his artistry.

Swiss Adam said...

Top commenting everyone.

Anonymous said...

Great movie, great soundtrack.