Thirty-two years later, the kids still laugh. The pacing is erratic, the humor is pointed but elegantly refined, and the characters are all at least moderately complex. Most of all, the kids still laugh. I will try to avoid the popular assertion that kids these days (those durn kids) are turned on only by the quick high of a low joke, preferring farts over satire, boobies over wit. The virtual bronzing of Adam Sandler is not necessarily emblematic of the downfall of western civilization. This apparent demise in popular American comedy has less to do with the audience than with the medium itself.
Comedy, in film, on stage and even on television, is an exciting work in progress, tinkered with in the desperate hope of becoming more and more innovative and edgy. It has been pared down, to an almost Beckettian extent, into the clearest expression of words and gestures (granted, Beckett’s meanings are not quite so easy to decipher). This clarity of intent is exemplified in the modern teenage raunch comedies, those misfit children of Papa Porky.
In American Pie, the story, which journeys way into Territoria Ridiculoso, is almost completely secondary to the golden shots in the arm: blunt, unveiled examinations of “getting it on” and “masturbating.” Very little is suggested in American Pie, but much is enacted. This brand of risquÃ© comedy, if it maintains its present trajectory, will, I fear, take us further and further into the stone age, to the point where it really will be funny when Oog-oog hits Bonky in the crotch with a big, juicy turkey leg. So maybe we are experiencing the downfall of western civilization. Hmm.
In any case, I was pleasantly surprised at Images on Friday, when The Graduate delivered the goods. Having gained some slight perspective since my first viewing of it in junior high (the intentions were clearer, the veiled humor not so veiled), it was delightful to watch a nicely-sized crowd made up mostly of Williams students laugh out loud at something so wholly of another generation. The jokes were got when they were supposed to be got, not a second too soon. The humor is still sharp, and under Mike Nichols’ remarkably fluid direction, impeccably timed. Afterwards I discovered that a few of my friends considered it their favorite movie—in my snobbish pessimism, I had forgotten how universal The Graduate’s themes were.
The story, based on a novel by Williams alum Charles Webb, follows the awkward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, in his first film) as he comes home from school to find himself alienated from his parents’ posh suburban lifestyle, only to stumble into an affair with the very sexy, very middle-aged Mrs. Robinson. His seduction, possibly the most famous in movie history (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me!”), instantaneously evokes at least a hundred painful moments of maturation, among them lack of refinement, clumsiness with adult ritual and idealism discounted as naivetÃ©.
Benjamin is uncomfortable in his own home, in his own skin really, and Mrs. Robinson offers a sort of shock-comfort. Without Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, though, the shock wouldn’t be nearly so enticing. Her angular pose and rich voice make seduction an offer that short and jittery Dustin Hoffman cannot refuse. We want Benjamin to give in, because we want some of her cool sophistication to rub off on him.
Smart and aesthetically satisfying, the film’s flaws have become, in light of the subsequent careers of Nichols and Hoffman, a little bit easier to detect. Dustin Hoffman’s performance is brilliant—it made him a star—but at times strangely hollow—he never resists going for the joke, the extra squirm or delayed reaction. His Benjamin is more a symbol of youth than a victim (New Yorker critic Pauline Kael believed him to be a “romantic hero” for the upper-middle-class college students of the world, inarticulate yet honest), which can be seen in the way Hoffman’s tense posture shuffles along from scene to scene, like a short-circuited robot who can’t compute the data he’s been given. I loved every word he said, though I believed very little. When he falls for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), I was aware of a disgusting lack of judgment, but I didn’t really care—perhaps Kael was right to assert that turning Mrs. Robinson into a “vindictive witch” was a shrewd commercial ploy, practically forcing us to revolt against those nasty adults, with their perverted sense of community, in favor of earnest, clumsy youth.
Rare is the contemporary youth comedy that inspires such discussion. I implore all Williams students to see The Graduate, not simply because it is wonderful and funny and a landmark of American cinema, but because it can make you see what happens when a film discussing youth and sex and lost innocence (note: these themes are all found in American Pie, as well) resists the explicit. The only money shots in The Graduate are those of sly wit and frustrated ambivalence: an enticing foreground of Mrs. Robinson’s stockings, Benjamin’s sun-soaked body drifting around a swimming pool, and a sports car revving to the “doo doo doo” of Simon and Garfunkel.