Talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. We hung out last weekend, observing his birthday. Jim’s much older than me but some of his tastes coincide with mine. I asked him if he wanted to watch a movie and he said yes, choosing The Graduate, a film released in 1968, the year I was born. I said “cool” thinking this a good choice, being a fan of the story and of its famous soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel. Jim and I had spoken of The Graduate many times in the past. In passing, he’d call it one of the all-time greats, sometimes placing it in his private list of the top ten films ever made. Sometimes that list gets expanded, as there seems to be nearly fifty films, by my estimation, that he says merit inclusion in that list.
Anyway, as we started viewing the Netflix download or whatever he made familiar comments about the film’s stars and its music. The song “Sounds of Silence” sets the tone for a melancholy experience, alongside the image of Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock, looking stoned, bereft, or both coming off a plane and heading for home. He’s the graduate, we’re meant to infer–an unhappy achiever, it seems. Jim didn’t seem to notice or recall this. He just liked the song, and relayed a memory of being at a party wherein this song was played, alongside songs like “Cecilia”, another song from the movie, he said. I used to correct Jim on points like this, but it no longer seems important whether The Graduate and S & G’s final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, are separate entities. When Anne Bancroft (playing the iconic Mrs. Robinson) appears, Jim further enthuses, remarking on her class and style. “She can come to any party of ours,” I quip, referencing one of his signature phrases.
During these early scenes, Jim continues to enjoy the comic or sexy elements of the film: he delights in another famous moment wherein a family friend takes Ben aside at his graduation party (hosted by his parents), and seems to advise him about future investment prospects. “Plastics”, the man says, prodding a finger into Ben’s chest. The future is in plastics. This classic moment of absurdism heralds the social satire in The Graduate, which Jim seems to enjoy but not notice simultaneously. As Mrs. Robinson starts putting her moves on young Ben, Jim laughs, finding the diffidence in Ben hilarious and the sexiness of the older woman classy beyond everything. As Jim appears to find each succeeding moment of Ben’s humiliation amusing, I wonder what kind of sadism or masochism is being played out here. Is Jim identifying via memory with Ben Braddock, and privately recalling a time in which he’d been seduced by a Mrs. Robinson-type. He won’t tell me these things, as he’s quite dismissive of his own romantic past, but he betrays this past anyway, it seems to me, by how he reacts to things.
Jim doesn’t seem to care one way or another about Benjamin Braddock through The Graduate’s first half. Meaning, he doesn’t seem to identify or sympathize with Ben’s wayward manner, or with his implied disillusionment with the American Dream. This film’s criticism of middle-to-upper class Western life, circa 1968, seems either lost on Jim or else it’s a point of indifference. As we enter the film’s middle third, he complains that they’re aren’t enough S & G songs in the film yet, as if he’s becoming bored with the story. His indifference towards Ben turns to dislike, however, in the sequence wherein Katherine Ross, who is playing Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, is introduced to the action. Pressured to ask her out by his parents (because the Robinsons are business partners), Ben begrudgingly agrees, but in doing so he violates a command by Mrs. Robinson, who had previously demanded that he NOT date her daughter. On the surface, it seems reasonable that she, as Ben’s lover, would object to his dating her daughter. But something deeper is happening–something that Ben infers, taking personally her prohibitive demand. “I’m not good enough for her?” he complains.
Now the story is complex, has social and psychological layers that are intertwined, and Jim doesn’t like it. “I don’t like this next part”, he says ominously. That was an understatement. As Ben acts arrogantly and aloof on the forbidden date, taking the Ross character to a strip club among other things, Jim begins a diatribe: “This isn’t right what he’s doing. She doesn’t deserve this. If I had my way, I’d cut his balls off for behaving like this!” At this point, Jim is hot-tempered, as if he has left the fiction and is speaking to something deep within himself. His focus remains external, however. As I carelessly ask, “Do you wonder why he’s doing this?”, he flatly replies, “No. It doesn’t matter”, as if offended by my question. I take a moment to recall that when Jim is annoyed by something, his curiosity abandons him. He’s not interested in Ben’s motivation, or the unconscious wishes or conflict that his behavior is acting out. In this way, Jim and I are quite different.
The remainder of the film passes with an air of disappointment. A few more S & G songs on the soundtrack lighten the tone somewhat, reminding Jim of the groovy vibe he’d once thought this film represented. Otherwise, watching The Graduate has been a disillusionment for him. His past, 1968, or that entire era, perhaps, was not what he thought it was, it seems. It isn’t just a party, this film seems to be saying, of the era in which it was made. I don’t bother inviting this discussion with Jim. Gingerly, I venture that the film is not what he remembers, and he sort of agrees. He didn’t get that it was a satire, he comments. In saying this, he doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand. He means that he chose not to notice that aspect of the film, and he has no problem with that, he is further saying. I hold my tongue on a riposte: that’s like watching Laurel & Hardy not getting that it’s a comedy, I want to say.
I don’t say that. Like I said, talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. So sometimes we just hang out.