‘The Graduate’ revisited
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
This is the 50th anniversary for a much beloved yet peculiar film,“The Graduate” (1967), that landed as a sensation in its time, became an adored artifact of the 1960s but has steadily lost some of its stature and allure over the proceeding half-century. I watched it again the other night and while it’s a film I’ve always admired and I still enjoy I can see now that it’s a strange thing to have resonated so deeply in any era, even in its own breaking-the-rules time.
I mean, the new college graduate protagonist Benjamin Braddock sleeps with the mother of a childhood friend and then falls in love with the daughter and interrupts her marriage to run off with her. It’s a preposterous plot line but it works, which is to say we go along with it, because the film is basically a farcical, satirical indictment of the establishment and an embrace of youthful rebellion and following your heart. The performances by a very fine cast mostly hold up. the writing perhaps less so and the direction is, well, needlessly showy. Mike Nichols was a Broadway wunderkind and a fresh force in cinema who helped push American filmmaking more in the direction of the various European New Wave movements with rapid cutting, restless camera, nonlinear structure and frank exposition. He veered dangerously close to going over the top with it all in his first three features – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?,” “The Graduate” and “Catch 22” – I suspect because he was enthralled with the new freedom cinema offered and was just insecure enough not to trust the material to hold our attention without using various tricks. His much later work (“Working Girl,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is far more traditional, visually and technically speaking, but far more satisfying, too.
The best thing about the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It’s a tour de force that sneaks up on you. He is so present and in the moment in every shot and scene and so real and truthful to the buttoned-down character he plays that it seems like he’s doing nothing when in fact he’s doing everything an actor’s called to do. Much of his characterization is done without words. Indeed, his performance reminds me of those of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, only he’s less busy and big.
My take on “The Graduate” today is that if not for Simon and Garfunkel’s music, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as a ’60s counterculture piece. Indeed, other than the music there’s virtually nothing in the film that either overtly or even obliquely refers to the very decade it purportedly speaks to. There’s no mention of civil rights or the war in Vietnam or the burgeoning feminist movement or the end of Camelot or the culture wars ushered in by rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and free love. There’s no reference to politics either. Admittedly, Ben is from a privileged white suburbia world where some of those currents and issues would not be discussed or experienced. But even in those circles things would not have been so sterile or blind or one-dimensional that some of these things didn’t come up or resonate or cause a conflict. The generation gap the film depicts is so generic that it would be easy to forget what decade the film is set in except for that music.
On the other hand, the film is far superior to the vast majority of comedies made in that era, especially the lame youth films of that decade. Even though the men who wrote (Buck Henry and Calder Wilingham) and directed (Nichols) “The Graduate” were much older than the generation they were obviously siding with – even Hoffman was far older than the character he played – they managed to catch a certain ironical spirit of the time that really was a carryover from the 1950s as much as it was a purely ’60s sensibility.
Where the film is perhaps most interesting is in striking an odd but somehow effective balance of the romanticism, even idealism and anger of the ’60s tinged with the cynicism that the ’70s would more fully usher in. The end of the film echoes the beginning in that Ben is searching for his path in life. At the start, he’s alone as he tries finding his way. At the end, he’s with a girl, but still very much alone and adrift. Sure, he’s defied the cookie-cutter, plastic life of his parents and their friends but at a price. He’s lost his naiveté but gained a heavy does of reality that will, as we’ve come to know, likely find him following many of the very Establishment precepts he rejected as a young man.
Looked at today, the movie seems to have some mixed or superficial messages: the hot passions of life are all very ephemeral but desirable; going after what you want is a messy buisness but it’s worth it; conformity equals comfort if not contentment so why settle for less? It kind of sounds like the very things “The Graduate” supposedly rejected. Ben, in middle age, probably ended up in a similar circusmstace as his parents and their freinds, not that you could have convinced him of it at the time. And so it goes…
Glen Campbell’s sweet goodbye
©by Leo Adam Biga
When pop-country crossover music legend Glen Campbell announced that he has Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, he could have retreated into the shadows but instead he made some courageous decisions that put him and the disease quarely in the public eye. First, he went public about his diagnosis. Then he went on an extensive national tour to give himself, his family, his friends and his fans one last chance to savor his talents before the ravages to his mind and body made it too late. This was a farewell tour unlike any other. Start with the fact that audiences knew up front that this Glen Campbell was already damaged goods and so any idea of flawless performances went out the window. This was all about him expressing love to his fans and the fans in turn giving their love right back. Making it all the more poignant was that Campbell’s back up band consisted of some of his adult children and longtime cronies. His wife Kim Wollen was along for the entire 100-plus cities tour.
Campbell also allowed a documentary film crew to accompany him on and off tour as his disease progressed and his faculties diminished. I recently saw that film, “I’ll Be Me,” directed by James Keach on Netflix. It is as intimate and vulnerable a portrait of an artist as I’ve ever seen. The challenges of the disease to the aflicted and to those around him are seen up close and personal but it never seems intrusive or exploitive. It’s all done out of love and public service.
The tributes to Campbell and his artisty in that film put in perspective just how respected he is by his peers, past and present, who recognize his greatness.
The film led me to search online for more things featuring Campbell and through all of it I’ve come away with a much deeper appreciation for the gifts he gave us as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer. He’s a consummate entertainer whose like is rarely seen. He conquered every medium open to pop-country musicians and erased boundaries between styles, genres and categories.
He’s recorded many tunes that became and remain standards in the Great American Songbook. But there’s a particular song, “Gentle On My Mind,” whose lyrics have poignant resonance with his affliction. I have copied and pasted the lyrics below. That song, of course, originated during the peak of Campbell’s career and it’s only now, in light of his condition, that it has this other, deeper meaning.
Not long before Campbell’s mind and motor skills left him, he and producer Julian Raymond co-wrote an original song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” for the documentary and this much acclaimed song, which I only now became aware of, is one of the simplest yet most profound meditations on memory loss to be found anywhere. It is a beautiful heartbreaking ballad that stacks up with the best work this artist ever did. That he had the presence of mind to make this his final message to the world is an act of radical grace. I don’t know of another example of a recording artist who spoke so directly to the very thing that was stealing his mind andvery being even while writing and recording the piece and giving it as a gift to the world. He recorded the tune with some of his old session musician mates from The Wrecking Crew.
The words and music remind me, and I’m sure many others, of some tracks on “Pet Sounds,” the brilliant Beach Boys album he played on during his session or studio musician days.
Just as “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” fearlessly and frankly addresses his disease, his final album,”Ghost on the Canvas” does the same in exploring the ups and downs of a life that’s straight out of a Hollywood move. He went from rural poverty in Arkansas to smallt-time band work and recordings to becoming a session king to breaking big as a solo artist who won Grammys, co-starred in movies, headlined his own prime time TV show, went through four marriages, battled alcohol and drug addiction and then, when he finally got it all together, found his memory going.
The video to “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is breathtakingly moving. Enjoy it here–
Here are the lyrics to “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”:
I’m still here, but yet I’m gone
I don’t play guitar or sing my songs
They never defined who I am
The man that loves you ’til the end
You’re the last person I will love
You’re the last face I will recall
And best of all, I’m not gonna miss you
Not gonna miss you
I’m never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes
It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry
I’m never gonna know what you go through
All the things I say or do
All the hurt and all the pain
One thing selfishly remains
GLEN CAMPBELL, JULIAN RAYMOND
Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
Song Discussions is protected by U.S. Patent 9401941. Other patents pending.
And here are the lyrics to “Gentle On My Mind”:
It’s knowin’ that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleepin’ bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind
It’s not clingin’ to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because
They thought we fit together walkin’
It’s just knowing that the world
Will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re movin’ on the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind
Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see
You walkin’ on the back roads
By the rivers flowin’ gentle on my mind
I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin’ coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ’round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waitin’ from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind
Written by John Hartford • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
And here is Glen performing it–