Talking Through The Graduate

by Chris & Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I. We Figured Out The Movie


Elizabeth: Can I start?

(silence)

E: So, about five minutes ago, I wrote down: “actresses who turned down the role—why?” because we were looking at the Wikipedia page of actresses who turned down both Mrs. Bancroft … Or, no, not Mrs. Bancroft, that’s not a person, Mrs. Robinson, and—

Chris: I mean, it is a person.

E: —and Elaine. So, I have a theory as to why so many people turned these parts down, but do you—do you have a theory, too?

C: Is this a loaded question?

E: No, I’m just asking—

C: I hate this already.

(pause)

C: Why they turned it down? Well, I understand why a lot of people turned down the part of Elaine. You don’t know why she’s interested in Benjamin, because of all the terrible stuff that’s happened. She’s flirting with the idea of marrying him, and she seems kind of—not out of control, but like, uh—she’s not in control, or—I don’t know what I’m trying to say.

E: Yeah, I was really bothered by—how passive she was?

C: Oh, yeah, passive, that’s the word I’m looking for—

E: Yeah—

C: But that’s—I think that’s on purpose.

E: Exactly! While I was watching it I was getting that feminist reaction of “This movie doesn’t hold up, she’s passive, she makes no decisions for herself, she’s just shepherded”— but now that I’ve watched it again, I feel like that’s on purpose.

C: Yes, I agree. I figured the movie out.

E: Me too.

C: The movie—I figured the movie out finally, which is that: she’s passive and doesn’t make any decisions for herself. But Benjamin is also passive and doesn’t make any decisions for himself.

E: Exactly.

C: Until—well, he kisses Elaine, right?

E: Yes.

C: And then he gets this crazy idea that he’s going to marry Elaine, even though she hates him.

E: Yes.

C: And the whole movie is basically, like, here are two young people who have never made decisions for themselves, and their parents have made all their decisions for them their entire lives, and now they’re going to make a performative gesture of making a big decision in their lives, which is what they do. She’s like “Maybe I will marry you, maybe we should get married,” and he’s like “I’m going to marry this woman,” even though they haven’t thought it through, and I think when he does go to her and interrupt the wedding, and they decide to run off together, it’s the first decision they actually make. You linger on them in the bus at the end, and it’s clear that now they’re entering the adult world, where you make big decisions for yourself and then you live with the doubt that comes with those decisions.

E: Yeah, and that’s why Mrs. Robinson is so happy at the end. She says “He’s doing it!” like, he’s really doing it

C: No, that’s not what she says.

E: Okay, well, my interpretation of it—

C: No, she says—No, that’s wrong

E: Okay, well, can I just finish the thought, because you talked so long—

C: Okay, go ahead—because I talked so long? Okay, finish your thought, which is based onyou not hearing the line correctly from the movie.

E: Okay, I think she’s actually proud of him—

(audible disgusted sigh from Chris)

—for actually acting. But here’s what I—

C: No—

E: —wrote down in my notes: “At least at the end of the movie he’s running and not standing still.” The opening shot of the movie is him standing on that moving sidewalk at LAX, and the way it’s shot is so fascinating, because he’smoving on the moving sidewalk but the camera’s moving with him, so it really just looks stagnant. There are so many images of total stagnation in the film. So at the end of the movie, when he’s running, that’s like the literal—he’s actually taking action. I wrote, “This is not a movie about love, it’s a movie about the exhilaration of having finally made a decision for yourself, which is a total triumph,” and then I wrote, “but not.”

C: That’s great.

C: But—let’s go back to what you just said, which is that you think Mrs. Robinson is proud of him, or happy for him—

E: Yeah.

C: That’s wrong. Because what she says in the church is “He’s too late.” Elaine already got married. She’s the one who rushed the wedding through!

E: I know. But I think, internally—

C: No! She’s not proud—she doesn’t care about Benjamin at all. When she says “He’s too late,” she means he can’t do anything to stop what’s happening. But, of course, he does, and later you see her yelling at him and, you know, you don’t hear the words—and you see Mr. Robinson doing the same thing, and you see the Makeout King, her new husband, doing the same thing. She’s not happy.

E: Can we talk about how that guy would never be the “makeout king,” because he’s theworst, slimiest guy.

C: You don’t know. He has, like, two lines, which are saying hello to Elaine in the zoo and then saying hello to Benjamin.

E: Well, everyone in this movie is pretty gross, actually. And that’s why I thought that Mrs. Robinson was proud of him, because I felt like her emotionscould change that fast. Everyone is so fickle—

C: No! She’s one of them—

E: I believe you! I was also really bothered by how creepy Benjamin is. I would call the police if he stalked me to another city and wrote my name over and over on pages, and then was like “I’m gonna marry you,” even though we’ve been on one date?

C: Okay, but let’s also get into his head space—he’s been fucking Elaine’s mom at her direction, so he’s totally spun out. He’s decided he loves Elaine, but we understand his mental perspective because of what he’s going through.

E: Right. And I think we know—

C: So we don’t just want to call him a creep.

E: —that this relationship isn’t going to work out—

C: Well, we don’t know that! We don’t know!

E: Well, my interpretation of the end of the film is: it’s a happy ending but not because they’re necessarily going to be in love. I don’t think that relationship is going to last more than two weeks. They’ve never had a conversation about anything.

II. Mrs. Robinson


E: Isn’t that idea—of making your own decisions—isn’t that probably what Mrs. Robinson thought when she had sex with Mr. Robinson and got pregnant? Like, “I defied authority and had sex with this man and made my own decision”?

C: No. No, I think that she was in college, and she never got to make any decisions for herself. She went right into being with this man in his car, and then getting pregnant—which was another thing that was decided for her by her own biology—and then she had the baby—so the marriage was decided for her—and now she’s lived her whole life having never made a decision for herself. The first decision Mrs. Robinson makes in her life, you could argue, is when she goes to the party and says “Benjamin, drive me home,” and then “Benjamin, follow me inside,” and then she takes her clothes off in Elaine’s room and says “I want to sleep with you because I find you attractive.” That’s Mrs. Robinson making the first decision she’s ever made in her life.

E: I find her the most sympathetic character, actually.

C: More than Benjamin?

E: Yes, for sure. Because—

C: No, she’s already broken—she’s already in the past—

E: But we can sympathize with her plight, and I find her story the most emotionally engaging—

C: You can understand her—

E: And I feel so sad that she never got to think about art any more—

C: The best villains in movies are ones where you understand where they’re coming from emotionally. You know what I mean? That’s the poignancy of that scene in the hotel where she’s talking about how she had a major but doesn’t think about it any more, and how she and Mr. Robinson conceived Elaine and all of that. You understand where she’s coming from, and you understand how she’s become this kind of manipulative person who is very much into control, because it’s almost an over-correction for her life that has come before all this.

III. Who’s Buck Henry?
 

E: I think all the water in the movie is symbolic of that passiveness. When you’re in the water, you can’t move in the way you do above water. Everything is slowed down, everything is—it’s harder to go anywhere. All the scenes of himfloating—literally and metaphorically, right?—he’s just floating, he’s not actively swimming, he’s just letting waves around him take him wherever they do, and/or he’s in a diver’s suit underwater where he’s completely confined and unable to do anything but look out of this little mask at this little world that other people have decided he should see in this confined way. The first time we see Mrs. Robinson it’s through that fish tank—the camera sees her through the water, which I thought was really interesting—

C: His parents are looking at him in that diving suit kind of like how he’s looking at the monkeys in the monkey house—

E: Yes, and we see the diver in the aquarium in that opening shot of him.

(pause)

C: We should talk about Mike Nichols.

E: Okay.

C: This wasn’t the first movie he directed, was it?

E: Oh, I don’t know.

(looking on Wikipedia)

C: Here we go. He directed this movie when he was 36. Okay, hold on. Filmography. (quietly)Can’t we just—why does Wikipedia do this to you? All right. Okay. Oh! He directed—oh my god. Okay, so I totally blanked on this, but he directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

E: Oh!

C: So that’s fantastic. Okay.

E: So he really believes in marriage.

C: (defensively) Well, I don’t know what his personal life was like. He might have been married and happy.

E: Just kidding.

C: He might have not.

E: God. You’re so confrontational.

C: No I’m not! Would you call this movie a comedy?

E: I think it’s actually funny in parts, yeah.

C: I think it’s a comedy.

E: Like, when he puts the crucifix through the doorway at the end, that’s a funny moment, and when she says “I’m going to call the police,” and she calls the police.

C: Well, just in the way that Dustin Hoffman—in how a lot of this stuff is staged and rehearsed, and the stuff with Buck Henry in the hotel …

E: Who’s Buck Henry?

C: Buck Henry is the writer of the film.

E: Oh.

C: And I pointed him out to you while we were watching it—

E: I forgot his name—

C: and I said “That’s Buck Henry, he’s the screenwriter.”

E: Well, I know that he was the writer.

IV. I Was An Alcoholic
 

E: Did you think it was weird that there was a bar in the home of a former alcoholic? And also, she drinks a martini, so that’s not, like, twelve steps—

C: Did she say, “Did you know I was an alcoholic”?

E: Yeah—

C: But that might imply “I am an alcoholic.”

E: Oh, you think she still is? She doesn’t seem drunk

C: I don’t know if she’s a recovering alcoholic or a current alcoholic… She’s clearly not doing well, if she’s in recovery.

E: No, she’s not. That’s so horrifying, that shot of her in the black dress after she’s been rained on—after Elaine finds out—it looks like a horror movie shot. Where the camera pulls back on her in the hallway? I mean, the film’s a comedy, but it’s also terrifying.

C: She looks completely broken in that scene.

E: She looks dead. She looks corpse-like.

C: Here’s a messed-up thought: Do you think she tells Benjamin that she’s an alcoholic in order to justify this weird kind of screwed-up thing she’s doing with a younger man?

E: Or to get him to feel sympathy for her—and want to care for her in some way.

C: You mean she says that so he could take pity on her?

E: Yeah, possibly. She’s very lonely. And as cognitive as she pretends to be, in seducing him, she’s also scared to have a conversation with him—

C: Well, she draws very clear boundaries with him—

E: Because she’s frightened of actually opening up and having an emotional connection with someone. But at the same time, she doesn’t want him to date her daughter, because shedoes have an emotional connection with him, I think—

C: Yeah, why do you think she doesn’t want him to date—

E: I think she loves him, in a way—

C: You think that Mrs. Robinson loves Benjamin?

E: She certainly has more of a connection with him and more of a reason to love him than Elaine does. Elaine ate a burger with him and cried because she took him to a strip club.

C: I don’t know. That’s interesting. But I wonder if she doesn’t want Benjamin to be with Elaine because Benjamin has been tainted by her world—this bleak, sad world that she drew Benjamin into because she needed someone. And she wants her daughter to not live anything similar to what she’s gone through, to go off and be happy somewhere else, and marry the makeout king—

E: But if she really wants her daughter to be happy, then she wouldn’t force a marriage on her daughter at age 19, the same age she ended up getting married—

C: I think that that’s true, but that’s—I mean, the character’s clearly misguided.

E: I think she may love Benjamin.

C: I think she becomes possessive of him.

E: Yes.

C: But I don’t know if it’s love.

V. Jaws


C: Can we also talk about how Mr. Robinson is the mayor in Jaws? And speaking of actors who are in Jaws

C and E: (simultaneously) Richard Dreyfuss!

C: Richard Dreyfuss shows up for two lines, which are “I’ll call the cops! Do you want me to call the cops?” And that’s all he says in the movie, and then he leaves.

E: Whoa, what if he goes off after that—so he’s at Berkeley in this boarding house, and what if he’s actually learning about marine biology—

C: Okay, this is good, now we’re tying the worlds together—

E: This is actually—

C: This is actually in the same universe as Jaws. So he’s playing the character Matt Hooper. And he’s studying icthyology at Berkeley. Mr. Robinson is so humiliated by what happens with his wife and daughter—

E: He gets a divorce—

C: He gets a divorce, has to change his name, and then he runs for mayor of Amity. He moves back to the East Coast—

E: He remarries—

C: He has a kid, who’s very young, right? Because his son was on the beach—“My son was on that beach, too.” He remarries and changes his name and becomes the mayor of Amity.

E: I love it.

C: Who else is in this movie? Norman Fell is in this film—

E: I don’t know who that is.

C: He’s the landlord. He plays a lot of landlords.

E: I thought that was kind of a silly part. I feel like landlords are either racist caricatures of Asians or just, like, “I don’t want you in my house!”

C: Well, let’s understand that cliches start somewhere, and that this film was made in 1967, so it’s almost 50 years old.

E: Oh, that’s old! I thought it was in, like, ’83.

C: (incredulous) You thought this movie was made in 1983?

E: (laughing) Yeah, I did! Wow, then this film is really advanced.

C: So, wait, this film has gone from being cliched and hackneyed in its portrayal of landlords—they should put that on the poster. “The Graduate: Cliched and Hackneyed in its Portrayal of Landlords” —Elizabeth Cantwell.

VI. The 60s


C: I feel like I would have been extremely irritated in the 60s. The people who are at the drive-thru? The versions of those people I see today, which are 1/100th of what those people are like, still make me want to die inside and run away to the woods.

E: And Elaine and Benjamin don’t fit in with all of that around them.

C: Do you think that’s a product of the story and the actors, or do you think that’s Mike Nichols—who clearly is a generation above the Vietnam protestors—kind of making a judgment about the 60s kids?

E: I don’t know if it was that. I think Nichols wanted to show that there were these two people who felt displaced and isolated in various ways. The whole film feels very claustrophobic. That opening party—the way he shot it, you feel like you want to leave the house with Benjamin. The house feels very small and crowded, and the people’s faces are really big in the camera, and you’re just, like, “fuck, I need some AIR.” There’s a creepy clown picture in the hallway, which is funny, but it’s also like—“I just need to get out.” You get that feeling of claustrophobia in multiple ways. Even the blinds in the hotel room—

C: Benjamin keeps trying to open them—

E: Yes, and you see their shadow across him confining him. He has to roll up the car window when they’re in that drive-thru restaurant because it’s so loud around them—he’s confined behind the glass at the end—he’s in a phone booth—he’s always trapped. 

VII. The Ending
 

C: I heard a story that they’re so tenuous in the bus at the end because Mike Nichols was trying to get something very specific from the two of them, and was doing take after take, and got frustrated, and actually screamed at them really loudly. So they were in a really fatigued place when they rolled on that final take. But I can also see that story being untrue. Either Nichols intentionally yelled at them to get them to that weird place, or he just told them to act that way and they acted it really well. Or it was one of those serendipitous film moments.

E: Or he directed it. They actually literally alternate who’s smiling. They’re never both smiling at the same time. I think that had to be a direction.

C: Oh, you think he was behind the camera going, “You smile. Now you smile”?

E: Yes. Because it was so clearly alternating, showing that they were never in sync.

VIII. The Alfa Romeo
 

C: I guess. Do you think maybe part of Dustin Hoffman’s method [acting] was that he drove an Alfa Romeo up and down the California coast seven times? Can we talk about how dirty the Alfa Romeo was by the time he got to Santa Barbara?

E: I liked how realistic that was.

C: Is that realistic? Because he went up to Berkeley, and then back down to LA, and then Mrs. Robinson calls the cops and then he goes back up to Berkeley, and then he goes down to Santa Barbara. Would that really make your car that filthy?

E: He drives over some yards and stuff, I think.

C: He drives over some yards??

E: Because he’s trying so crazily to get to the church on time. He’s driving, like, through parks—

C: The car runs out of gas on the road!

E: No, but before he gets to the gas station—

C: That is a HUGE assumption, that he is driving through parks and on private land

E: We can deduce from the state of his car and himself: he’s been all over.

C: I think they just dressed the car too dirty, and made him look filthy. I think they drive it home a little bit too much. But it’s still great, because it makes him look so out of place and so desperate by the time he gets to the wedding.

IX. Questions
 

E: Whatever happens to the ring he buys her?

C: Why is the church locked when there’s a wedding going on inside?

E: Is this movie just a judgment on parents? Like, don’t manipulate your child, or don’t over-helicopter parent your child? Let them make their own decisions?

C: Maybe. But I think it’s maybe more a grass-is-always-greener thing. We see things through the perspective of these young adults. They think they’ve been cowed and pushed into corners by their elders. But when they finally don the mantle of decision-making, they see how unwieldy and scary it is to be an adult. If anything, by the end, they finally begin to understand how their parents became the people they became.

E: I think that’s probably true.

C: Do you want to talk about the Simon and Garfunkel of it all? Does anyone give a shit?

E: I don’t know. I mean, you know, it’s nice music. But I don’t know that it always fits the themes of the movie.

C: (laughs) “Its portrayal of landlords is hackneyed and cliched, but, you know, it’s nice music.” —Elizabeth Cantwell, 2014. That’s your Amazon review. I think you can’t have the film without the music. That’s how we know that film. And yeah, even if Paul Simon was working on those songs before, and then they re-purposed some of them for the movie, the way that they laid the tracks down…They clearly went into the studio, especially for the “Mrs. Robinson” renditions, and laid down specific versions that fit with the different driving scenes and the different anxious scenes. I think the music is what makes the movie transcend into something that’s iconic. You have good music like that, and it’s firing on all cylinders, and you have the cool shot of driving over the Bay Bridge and you have, you know, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel…I imagine they were probably watching that shot in a sound stage and laying down the guitar.

X. So That’s The Graduate
 

C: So, that’s The Graduate. And I enjoyed it.

E: By Mike Nichols. In 1967.

C: You should’t say “by Mike Nichols.” I mean, he directed it. But let’s ease off on the auteur theory.

E: By the screenwriter, Ben – Ben – Ben Hurley. What’s his name?

C: Did you just call him Ben Hurley?

E: (laughter) I forgot his name again!

C: When Buck Henry passes away, and we do the retrospective on that for Bright Wall/Dark Room, you are not going to be invited.

E: (still laughing) Okay.

C: You can write an article called “Ben Hurley: We Will Miss You.”

E: I’m on it.

C: “And We Really Liked Your One Show, Get Smort, And That Movie You Wrote.”

E: Okay, let’s go to sleep.

C: (agreeing) Let’s go to sleep.


Chris Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season. Elizabeth Cantwell is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). They live in Los Angeles with their son.