05 February 2009

The Graduate: The Eyes Have It

Wrote this for a class, but I thought be a worthwhile read. Beware. It's long.

Fade in. The camera lingers on Benjamin Braddock’s face. It’s hard to discern what he’s feeling. His expression is a complicated mixture of solemn resignation and complete emotional detachment. The camera pulls back slowly as the presence of other passengers on board a plane is established. Though our protagonist is just one of the travelers in view, the viewer’s eye is still drawn to him as the pilot informs the passengers that he looks forward to seeing them, “in the near future.” He remains in the center of the frame, and the music of Simon and Garfunkel slowly pipes through the soundtrack and into the viewer’s consciousness. Cut to Benjamin walking up to and getting on a moving walkway. The camera follows. His expression hasn’t changed, but there’s an element of anxiety present. He timidly looks up and examines his surroundings. A man passes by, and he looks down, betraying a lack of confidence in his relation to others. The camera stops, but Ben continues on until the frame is filled by just the shadow of his progressing profile.

In this, the first 2 minutes of Mike Nichols’ 1967 The Graduate, and ode to youthful uncertainty and disaffection, the director has already laid the groundwork for the narrative still to unfold. And he’s done it simply, with no dialog, by focusing the camera in on Dustin Hoffman’s face, letting the emotions flitting across it speak volumes about Benjamin’s state of mind. He is, we learn, returning home from college as a star student with big expectations. The question is, what’s the next step? Who is he outside of the academic realm in which he has flourished for the past 4 years? Who will he become? What will come to define his life? Will he, as one of his parent’s friends suggests, find his future in “plastics?” Or is there something else?
It’s an opening Zach Braff would commandeer some 37 years later for his surprisingly successful debut feature, Garden State, though his over reliance on more literal imagery to get the point across would dampen the effect. In the opening of the 2004 film, Andrew Largeman, the film’s protagonist, sits on a turbulent plane, his face devoid of emotional investment even as the other passengers are seen frantic and petrified. Eventually, Braff cuts to Andrew, sprawled in bed like a corpse, draped with a white sheet. It was all a dream.

The basic approach is the same, but whereas Nichols realizes the power inherent in the emotional commitment of an actor’s visage, Braff relies on a clunky, post 9/11 metaphor to get the point across. His mind is troubled with the world and his place in it, as reflected in the rocky and doomed journey of the plane, but he is emotionally incapable or unwilling to come to terms with it. So uncertain is he about the future, if there is a future at all, that he has shut himself off from the very idea of it. He doesn’t understand, as Nichols does, that whether or not an audience is aware, the way a director frames a scene and places actors within it, is a powerful way to convey the aspects and components of a film’s message and effectiveness.

And understand it Nichols certainly does, even in the film’s light hearted moments, crafting the film’s most humorous sequences around a set of camera techniques and reliance on the commitment of his actors to both their characters and the scene. In what is, arguably, one the film’s most effective and certainly its most successfully humorous sequence, Benjamin has driven Anne Bancroft’s now legendary character Mrs. Robinson back to her house from the celebratory graduation party being thrown by his parents, partly to escape the throng of his parent’s well-meaning if pushy friends and partly due to his inability to maneuver out of her clever web of entrapment and insistiveness. He drives her home, but she insists he come inside, as she is afraid to enter a dark house. Once he’s in the house, despite his fumbling insistence to the contrary, she convinces him to stay, belittling him as foolish for refusing to stay with her until her husband returns. It is from this back-and-forth, consisting of the twitchy manifestations of his increasing discomfort and her seeming commitment to both ignoring and mocking them, that Nichols mines the humor of the sequence. Both Bancroft and Hoffman give themselves completely over to the scene- she in a flippant disregard for most anything he has to say in her quest to lure him upstairs and he in his inability to cope with the one situation he hasn’t had much success in previously. Mrs. Robinson recognizes his inexperience, is almost aroused by it, and it is this awareness that constructs the basis of the witty, cat-and-mouse game being played by the characters.

It is also here that Nichols composes the, justifiably, most famous shot in the film and the one that’s significance is undeniable to its next chapter. As Nichols is fond of doing in The Graduate, one character- here, Mrs. Robinson- is in the foreground of a shot while another- Benjamin- is seen in long shot. Mrs. Robinson, seated on a bar stool, props up her leg, and, through the space between her leg and the chair, Benjamin is seen framed when he utters the film’s most infamous line: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” She laughs it off as another of his silly delusions bred out of childish inexperience, belittling him even as she slowly begins to show her true intentions. By framing Benjamin in the shot through Mrs. Robinson’s legs, Nichols is indicating to the viewer that Benjamin’s been caught. Mrs. Robinson’s ensnared him, just as she’s intended, and it is no longer a question of if they will go upstairs, but when. Throughout the film, Nichols uses techniques like this, mining humor from the fact that Benjamin’s caught in a situation he’s not entirely comfortable with but one he’s going to, cautiously and nervously, make the best of. That is, until the arrival of Katharine Ross’ Elaine throws a wrench into the equation, providing the film its final chapter and the one that will, ultimately, prove to be the most significant to the film’s underlying ideas.

At the end of Garden State, Braff again echoes the thematic undertones of Nichols’ film, and, again, he does so in much too literal a scenario. After he has an epiphany and rushes back to reunite with Natalie Portman’s character, he utters the film’s narrative thesis: “So what do we do? What do we do?” Portman shakes her head, at a loss for the answer. They kiss. The music grows. The camera pulls back from them. We see the two reunited lovers slowly recede from view, isolated in the middle of a stark white airport, uncertain of the future but prepared to tackle it head on. The end.

Braff and Nichols want to tell us, essentially, the same thing in their film’s final moments, but, as Garden State draws to a close, Braff wants to make absolutely sure that the audience has understood what it all means. He employs the character of Andrew to spell it all out as he’s spilling his heart in the baggage claim. He has forgotten one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking in his haste to explain himself to the MySpace generation. Film is a visual medium. It’s not what you tell an audience that counts. It’s how you show it.

In The Graduate’s closing sequence, the camera follows Benjamin and Elaine as they rush out of the church after he stops her wedding. A bus is driving by, and they hail it, running to keep up with it as Elaine struggles to keep pace in her wedding dress. The two get on, and we cut to the interior of the bus, following Elaine and Benjamin closely as they make their way to the back, passing confused passengers that watch them as they go. They sit down, and a sense of triumph and giddy exhilaration spreads over their faces. They stare into each other’s eyes for a moment, but Benjamin looks away. Elaine remains looking at him for a brief moment, but soon the two are facing forward, the thrill of the moment faded, replaced by a creeping awkwardness exacerbated by the continuing silence between them. “The Sound of Silence,” the same Simon and Garfunkel song that opened the film, swells up again. He grins a little. She adjusts her dress, and, in her downcast eyes, the viewer sees a small pang of doubt creep in. As Benjamin’s gaze remains steadfastly forward, Elaine takes a long, inquisitive look at him before her head gradually turns away and here eyes go almost blank. The two lovers sit side-by-side, searching their subconscious for a sense of security in what comes next.

For Benjamin, the uncertainty and lack of purpose he felt in those opening shots is renewed. He got the girl. The task he’s devoted his body and soul and mind to for so long has come to an end. Once again, he’s a success. In his eyes and the drooping of his smile, though, the viewer sees that he’s back to square one. He’s on a bus headed for an unknown destination. The road is long and mysterious, and there’s no telling where it’s going or when he’ll get off. Without the pursuit of Elaine defining his every move, he’s at a loss. Who is he outside of the tortured romantic hero? Who will he become? What will come to define his life? Will he, as one of his parent’s friends suggests, find his future in “plastics?” Or is there something else?

As it turns out, Nichols doesn’t have the answers to the questions he asked in the beginning and doesn’t make an attempt to try. Rather, he wants the viewer to recognize and identify with how truly terrifying the future can be to someone faced with absolute uncertainty. Youthful vigor and disillusionment can’t last forever, and, eventually, choices have to be made. As the film ends, Elaine and Benjamin have, indeed, made a major decision in running off together but are now faced with the prospect of discovering what to do once Nichols is through telling their story for them. It’s all up to them now.

The camera cuts to the back of the bus as seen from the out side. We see Elaine and Benjamin through the window, but the audience is no longer part of their story. The drama is over. Life is beginning. The camera follows the bus, slowing even as the bus moves further and further away down the road until the two characters become indistinguishable from smudges on the bus’ back window. Eventually, the camera stops altogether, and the bus continues on, getting smaller and smaller as Elaine and Benjamin face the future, whatever it is, without us. Fade out.

2 comments:

angelia said...

awesome read - thanks

ed said...

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