What makes a movie great? Honestly, this question has no answer. That is the difference between art and science; there are no clear-cut theories and formulae in art to explain it. Over the past 100 years or so, a variety of movies have been proclaimed great for a variety of reasons. But there are no patterns, no rules you can follow to make a “great” movie as such. Even personally, I could never explain why I fall in love with one movie but hate the other. Of course, the usual film-making mechanics and technicalities are important, but that alone never does the trick. My simple way of measuring a film’s greatness is gauging my emotional response to it. It could be any response – love, heartache, happiness, anger, hatred, wonder, confusion or even disgust. I have to feel something; anything. Art is worthless if it makes you feel nothing. Unfortunately, that is exactly how I felt watching ‘The Graduate’: nothing.
When Mike Nichols’ coming-of-age drama released back in 1967, it was something of a phenomenon — and it continues to be recognized as one of the finest movies ever made. The movie traces the journey of a 20 something college graduate Benjamin, who in a period of depression about his future, is seduced by his father’s law partner’s wife Mrs Robinson and then goes on to fall in love with her daughter Elaine. Supposedly a commentary on the confusion and disillusionment of the young American middle class, I never understood the fuss around this movie when I first saw it, and I still don’t.
Benjamin has always done what is expected of him as an upper-middle class son, but he still isn’t satisfied. He is disenchanted with his life; there is no excitement or joy. An affair with a married woman old enough to be his mother manages to add some spice into his mundane existence. The concept is pretty interesting, to be honest, but the movie falters from the word go with its lazy writing. The academy nominated screenplay neither has depth nor is it interesting. It is bland and one-dimensional and the characters are either caricatured or boring. Even the romance is monotonous and bleak. The movie takes its ideas a little too seriously and after a while, the novelty wears off. Yeah, both Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft give excellent performances but there is only so much that can be done with such poorly developed characters.
The music of ‘The Graduate’ was considered path breaking when it was released and it continues to be hailed as one of the finest soundtracks in cinema. I couldn’t disagree more. Yeah, the music is excellent but I felt that it was overdone. Great movie soundtracks must always manage to seamlessly merge with narrative instead of over-compensating. After a while, the extensive usage of the music makes it seem forced and contrived — it extrapolates the movie’s unraveling.
Despite all its inadequacies, there are things to admire in the movie. The ending for instance; I felt that for a movie going downhill right from the beginning, the climax becomes a saving grace. And the idea behind the movie is so original, it manages to hold your attention for a while. But once the novelty wears off, nothing can save this films amateurish writing, which completely destroys what could have been a great movie.
Weirdly enough, I do understand to an extent why the film is so popular. There has never been a movie exploring the ideas the movie brings forth. The confusion and doubts that plague people at the onset of adulthood has rarely been explored in cinema, and ‘The Graduate’ manages to tap into that void. But my problem with film is more fundamental: it appears to be a half-baked attempt at film-making. There are serious issues in both its writing and direction — it is neither funny nor thought-provoking. A movie like this should evoke some empathy for its protagonist and his dilemma, but it doesn’t. I have gone through the same emotions that Benjamin is faced with, but somehow, it still doesn’t connect. Both the female leads, Mrs Robinson and Elaine seem like caricatures for Benjamin to engage with — there is neither the emotional heft or depth in their characterizations. And there lies the film’s undoing.
Cinema has rarely portrayed the disillusionment and disenchantment people face in their mundane existence. In that sense, ‘The Graduate’ reminds me of the Antonioni’s masterpiece ‘L’Avventura’. While both movie deals with similar ideas, ‘L’Avventura’ manages to evoke the feeling of desperation and confusion with uncharacteristic brilliance.The narrative is devoid of emotions, but that conveys the boredom of its characters, while the exemplary writing portrays the emotions (or the lack of it) that the characters go through. Unfortunately, ‘The Graduate’ fails on all counts when compared to this great movie; it lacks clarity on what it attempts to convey and that is its failure.
Maybe I am wrong; maybe feeling nothing was the point of the movie. Maybe the generation gap makes the movie less relatable to modern audiences. However, the movie is still considered great, and reading all the praise the film continues to garner, makes me feel somewhat like Tom Hansen from ‘500 Days of Summer’– his relationship with his girlfriend Summer Finn breaks down after he watches ‘The Graduate’ as he feels nothing while his girlfriend is emotionally moved. I know people love this movie, but I don’t understand why. But, that is the beauty of cinema; it speaks differently to different people. I agree that the movie is conceptually brilliant, but to me it is poorly made. Deep down, I want to see a different take on the movie, directed by someone like Richard Linklater. A keen observer of human relationships, I would love to see his take on the film.
Despite my misgivings, I certainly feel that ‘The Graduate’ must be watched, at least to find out how you feel about it if not for anything else. Of course, my opinion may change with time and age, though I wouldn’t count on it. As of today however, I feel that the ‘The Graduate’ is an overrated “classic”, and while you may not agree with me, you sure cannot discount my misgivings.