Has anyone ever told you that the thing about the Beatles is, they still sound so fresh and new today? So modern? (Maybe it was someone closer to first-time-around age, maybe someone young enough to know better, but either way, I reckon it’s pretty likely you’ve had this experience.) If you’re the kind of person for whom that truism ruined your enjoyment next time you put some Beatles on, then I apologise. I may be about to ruin a great film for you.
I’ve never really agreed about the Beatles thing, in case you couldn’t guess. The Graduate, at forty-four years of age (the same vintage as Sgt Pepper’s, if we’re holding onto that) is the oldest film on this entire list. Still, to me, it feels like it could have been made days ago. It feels positively modern.
This is partly down to how surprisingly well the film has held onto its looks. The camera patiently waits, for characters to re-enter the frame, or for a light to come on. There’s something in me that can’t get enough of the way, in long shots, the camera lays still, letting the action play out in the distance. It won’t move for minutes, and then it will do something clever to segue to the next scene. It picks its angles – often framed through a narrow gap, or the filter of water – carefully, but dismissively, like an experienced woman takes a cigarette from an offered packet.
It’s got the absolute spirit of a modern indie film (which is probably no coincidence, if we wanted to draw a family tree of inspirations and illegitimate progeny) despite being one of the highest-earning films ever. The clever-clever way it uses the camera carries over into the sound. Sure, there’s all that Simon & Garfunkel stuff we’ve come to associate with the film (and it’s probably the thing which ages it the most). But much of the film is soundtracked by just-audible background noise: the sound of rattling floors and walls, planes going overhead, the noise of other people going about their business. The ambient music of suburbia – as a decision, it still feels boldly futuristic.
But the most modern bit is what The Graduate is actually about. The film’s first half is more or less a series of vignettes, loosely tied together, about the embarrassing awkwardness of being a half-grownup boy/man. Screw that: it’s about the humiliating awkwardness of trying to live as a human being. Benjamin’s seduction process is marked with difficult conversations, knees scraped against tables and heads banged in embarrassed frustration against the wall.
You might’ve noticed that I don’t often talk about story in this posts, and when The Graduate tries to cohere into an actual narrative later on, it’s slightly weaker for it. At its best, it’s not about which woman he’ll choose or what’s going to happen next; The Graduate is just about Benjamin navigating the alien, familiar environment around his family home.
Cinema has the power to create an atmosphere, feelings entirely new to you or perfectly familiar, and most of the time, it’s that which interests me more than stories. The moment where Benjamin waits for Mrs Robinson in the hotel - telling awkward lies, wandering back and forth, trying to work out how this strange new world works – captures perfectly the complex sensation of being simultaneously bored and uncomfortable in a public place. It’s a feeling I know well, one that feels particularly modern, and it’s nice to know that it bothered people fifty years ago too.
There’s no word for that feeling, so why not capture it on film?