Perfection, or even just the concept of perfection, is an alluring thing. It’s seductive.
It’s also boring. Flaws are beautiful. They’re relatable in ways that are beyond hyperbole. Each of us has sinned, and each of us has erred. Still, the idea that perfection can be achieved or attained is tempting. It tries us, and wills us to do better. To be better. It defines our work and our play. Perfection isn’t just a human element, however. Art can strive for perfect – it often does. The most ubiquitous frame of culture we have in the modern age is cinema. Throughout my life, I’ve sought out what I believed to be peerless films. The Citizen Kanes and Casablancas of the world. It wasn’t until recently though that I found it.
“For God’s sake Mrs. Robinson, here we are. You got me into your house, you give me a drink, you put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won’t be home for hours. Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?”
The story of a student who comes home and has a wild summer isn’t a new tale. The Graduate doesn’t try to show the wild side of a Chicago suburb a la Risky Business or the mania of a Chevy Chase adventure in National Lampoon’s Vacation. It’s human.
The Graduate is the story of Ben Braddock – a recent college graduate with mountains of potential who has no idea what he wants to do with his life. The one thing he seems to know for certain is that he doesn’t. Immediately, his inelegance is enamoring. He’s clumsy, and gawky, and playfully weird.
Ben isn’t polished. He isn’t smooth. It’s less James Bond, and more James Franco. It’s quirky. Ben places his hand on Mrs. Robinson’s breast as she tends to her blouse the first time they meet in the Taft Hotel, only to immediately rip it away. He’s derpy in the best possible way.
The Graduate is real. It speaks through music, and emotion. The film is built around Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence, and Scarborough Fair. The two songs not only pace the film, but set the tone for the film’s more biting scenes.
The film isn’t without flaws. Dustin Hoffman is painfully awkward at times, and the dialogue is clunky, but it doesn’t actually matter. Hoffman’s boyish, awkward nature makes Ben affable. He’s the underdog. He has no idea what he’s doing with the rest of his life. He’s scared. He’s relatable. He acts how almost all of us would if we were in love with the daughter of the woman we’d been having an affair with for months. Mike Nichols – the film’s director – wanted Robert Redford to play the title role. Worried that the actor wouldn’t be able to play a loser, he went to Redford with a simple question. “Have you ever struck out with a girl?” he asked. Redford replied with an answer that everyone among us wishes we could give: “What do you mean?”
Hoffman is Ben Braddock. The way he jumps when Mrs. Robinson says Benjamin is realistic. She calls him by his full name. She’s his elder. His superior. He toes the line and doesn’t know how to say no until he absolutely can’t handle it anymore. Ben takes Elaine out to spite her mother, but falls deeply for her. He can’t, and won’t accept her rejection of him, and draws her to the brink of marriage before it all comes crashing down. Braddock spends the entirety of the film stumbling into his future, terrified by what it might hold until he sees a painting of what it might be like – of who it might be with. He needs Elaine, and almost has her.
The finale is beautiful in the rawest of ways. After crashing Elaine’s wedding, Ben escapes with the bride and finds refuge on a passing bus. As Sound of Silence again begins to play, the couple looks back through the window to make sure they haven’t been followed. The other passengers stare at them as their expressions of elation slowly melt into nervousness, and fear, unsure if they’ve made the right decision. Elaine lovingly gazes at her new partner only to see that he’s lost in his own mind. She follows, consumed by reflection.
A perfect movie shouldn’t be perfect. It should be serious, but make you laugh. It should take you over, and force you to look at yourself in a light you never had before. It should command that you too are on the back of a Santa Barbara bus, lost in thought.
The Graduate does that. It’s perfect.