Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Beginnings and endings: The graduate

I'm launching this series of "Beginnings and endings" posts with Mike Nichols' 1967 classic, "The graduate". Based on a novel by Charles Webb and written for the screen by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, "The graduate" has a great opening, and a tremendously iconic ending. (By the way, this post turned out to be very long. my apologies).

The beginning of "The Graduate"

What I like about this beginning is that it dives directly into the story – it's not the common "short story that precedes the actual story" kind of beginning, that's meant mainly to establish the characters and context of the story (Like the high-school sequence in "Something about Mary", or the beginning of "Tootsie" that shows Dustin Hoffman's life before he starts impersonating as a woman). In "The graduate", the characters and the context are established as the story happens. I realize that not every story can begin this way, but I enjoy stories that do.

The first twenty minutes of "The graduate" take place in three different locations: airport, Ben's parents' house, the Robinsons' house. Interestingly enough, all following scenes are built "by the book" (Robert Mckee's book) in terms of conflict: the different characters in each scene have conflicting desires, which means that every scene has a conflict or several conflicts in it:

0:00:00 - 0:02:40 , Opening credits
Ben is at the airport, back home after he graduated college.

0:02:40 - 0:04:07 , Ben tries to avoid his parents' party
Ben sits in his old room at his parents' house. There's a party celebrating his coming home from college. All the guests are Ben's parents' friends and he doesn't want to get out of the room and face them. He feels bothered and confused about his future. His parents make him get out of the room.

0:04:04 - 0:06:15, Ben runs away from his parents' party
Ben joins the party. Different guests congratulate him for the different awards he got in college. They ask about his plans for the future. He's embarrassed. He tries to avoid them. Eventually he runs back to his room.

0:06:15 - 0:08:26, First encounter with Mrs. Robinson
Ben is alone in his room. Mrs. Robinson enters, says she's looking for the bathroom. He tells her where to find them it she stays in the room. After a short conversation in which Ben asks her to leave him alone, she asks him to drive her home because her husband left earlier with their car. Ben unwillingly agrees to take her home.

0:08:26 - 0:12:50, Mrs. Robinson starts seducing Ben
Ben and Mrs. Robinson arrive at her house. She demands he will accompany her inside because she's afraid to enter a dark empty house. He unwillingly agrees. They enter the living room .He wants to leave, she demands he stays till her husband comes home. She pours him a drink, puts on music and tells him she was an alcoholic. Ben panics, accuses her of seducing him, he wants to leave. She tells him to relax, denying any seduction attempt. She offers to show him her daughter's (Elaine) portrait.

0:12:50 - 0:15:57, Mrs. Robinson officially seduces Ben
They're up at Elaine's room. Ben admires the portrait. Mrs. Robinson asks him to unzip her dress because she wants to go to bed. He unwillingly agrees. After opening her zipper he starts heading towards the door. Mrs. Robinson is left with only a bra and a slip on. She asks what is he afraid of, still claiming she is not seducing him. He says if anyone walked in on them, they might get the wrong idea. She walks towards him, asking if he's trying to say that he wants her to seduce him. He says goodbye, walks out of the room and starts getting down the stairs. She asks him to bring up her purse from the living room before he leaves. He unwillingly agrees. He's back upstairs with her purse, in Elaine's room. Mrs. Robinson enters the room naked, blocking the door. He panics. She says she's available to him anytime if he wants to sleep with her, and that she finds him very attractive. He feels nervous and uncomfortable. There's a sound of a car stopping outside the house. Ben understands her husband has come back home, he pushes her from the door, and runs downstairs.

0:15:57 - 0:20:00, Mr. Robinson comes home
Ben is in the living room, holding the drink Mrs. Robinson poured him earlier. Mr. Robinson enters the house. Ben quickly explains he's there because Mrs. Robinson asked him to drive her home, and to wait for him to arrive. Mr. Robinson thanks him. Ben starts to leave, explains he is concerned about his future. Mr. Robinson insists he stays for a drink. He unwillingly stays. Mr. Robinson tells Ben he should take things easier, have a few flings this summer. Mrs. Robinson joins them (dressed). Ben starts leaving. Mr. Robinson asks his wife if she agrees with him that Ben should have some flings this summer. She says yes. They escort him out of the house. Mr. Robinson tells Ben that Elaine is supposed to come for a visit from Berkley, and suggests Ben will call her. Mrs. Robinson reminds Ben to think about her offer. Ben enters his car.

Actions and dialogues

I like that the films starts right at the crucial night of the inciting incident (Mrs. Robinson's act of seduction), and that the dialogues and situations give all the needed information about the characters without drawing attention to it. The opposite would be, for example, the beginning of "The Royal Tenenbaums", where a voice over tells the family history before the actual story begins.

Here are a few examples for dialogues and action that demonstrate character in "The Graduate":
When Ben's father asks him to join the party, he says "these are all our good friends, Ben", which tells us that his parents see him as an extension of themselves, rather than an autonomic entity. Their friends, as they see it, are his friends.

When Mrs. Robinson visits Ben's room and attempts having a conversation with him, she notices he is bothered. She asks him "Is it a girl?", while looking to her left. As a respond, Ben looks at the same direction as she did, searching to see what it is she's looking at: "Is what a girl?". Ben is not only stressed, but he's obviously not squealed enough in conversation nor in flirtation, to understand her.

Seeing his panic and embarrassment during the entire interaction with Mrs. Robinson, the climax being when she enters the room naked, you understand he is basically an inexperienced and clumsy nerd, calculated (what will people think) rather than passionate (young men tend to be horny, so I hear).

The ending of "The Graduate"

The end of the film finds Ben much more assertive. If at the start he had no idea what he wanted (in terms of career), now he knows what he wants – he wants Elaine (he doesn't care about his future career anymore).

He drives to Berkley and asks her to marry him. She almost agrees , though she already agreed to marry another guy. Then Mrs. Robinson (who forbade Ben to see her daughter) tells Elaine that Ben raped her. Elaine believes her and tells Ben she never wants to see him again. Her parents arrange for a quick wedding with that other guy she planned to marry, in order to get Ben out of her life. When Ben finds out about the wedding he drives up to the church to stop it. When he runs out of gas, he starts running. When he get there and realizes they are already married, he still doesn't give up, banging on the church windows, calling "Elaine!". To her parents' and husband's surprise, she answers by crying back "Ben!". She runs towards him, while her parents try to block her and block Ben from reaching her. They manage to escape and run together from the church after leaving everybody else locked in it. They stop the first bus they see and get on it.

A quick search on YouTube shows just how popular this ending scene is. In part, I guess, because it answers Francois Trufaut's advice (as brought by Robert Mckee) - end with memorable images, that incorporate the movie's story and message. The church and the bus scenes both answer that.

"The Graduate" also offers a good example of Sid Field's argument (mentioned previously here), that the beginning and the end should reflect one another. There are a few themes that appear both at the beginning and the end of the film.

The theme of motion and transportation, that demonstrates Ben's transformation: from a naïve and lost young man, to a decisive man who goes publicly against his family and after his own desire.

The movie begins with a shot of Ben sitting in a plane, a face in the crowd (close up of his face, followed by a long shot of him surrounded by other indifferent passengers), traveling back home after graduating college. After landing in L.A., alongside the movie credits ad Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of silence", we see Ben riding the airport's automatic sidewalk for 2 minutes. This opening sequence shows Ben as someone who's being led automatically rather than initiating any action.

At the end, Ben is driving a car, then running, and finally boarding a bus to an unknown destination – all of the above are actions he initiates for himself, not designed by anyone else.

The theme of aquarium and glass: Ben sitting next to the fish aquarium in his room at the beginning vs. Ben hitting the church glass walls at the end, and looking back from the bus window. At the beginning he's clinging to his fishes, avoiding life, while at the end it's his life (or the life he doesn't want) that he's looking at through the glass after defying them.

Mike Nichols' terror

At the very final shot of the movie, Ben and Elaine sit on the back seats of the bus, all the other passengers staring at them with astonishment. Ben and Elaine first laugh, then smile, then just sit there with serious, almost concerned, faces.

When Mike Nichols was a guest at the actors studio, he spoke about the movie's final scene, stating the significant role the unconscious has in making films. Nichols says he actually wanted Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross to laugh all the way till the end of that bus scene, only he had been obnoxious to them that day, yelling at them to laugh (since they stopped traffic for that scene they didn't have time for many takes). As a result, Hoffman and Ross were so afraid of Nichols that they couldn’t manage to maintain the laugh, and so laughter was replaced by terror. When he saw the footage the day after, Nichols understood that this is what the end was really supposed to be like, realizing he unconsciously made them do that.

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