I have a peculiar history with The Graduate. I grew up hearing Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits in my parents’ record collection, which laid a foundation for when, probably during my high school days, I was finally introduced to the movie through what must have been a Blockbuster or Movie Time rental. I remember liking it just fine, comprehending at least some of the dark humor, and understanding it as the story of an everyman-type dude who felt alienated in the upper-middle-class suburbs and did crazy impulsive things to resist turning out like his parents and their friends. (It just happened to have a soundtrack consisting of songs I already knew and liked.) Maybe I thought Ben was relatable and Mrs. Robinson was a little gross but sad. (I don’t recall feeling much of anything regarding Elaine, except maybe admiration of her ability to scarf down French fries.)
The more notable thing I remember is my dad’s connection to the movie. I knew he had been a fan of S&G since their early days performing on college campuses, and that he found the movie to be amusing – but it doesn’t end there. I want to say I remember him watching certain portions of a VHS copy of the film with an id-driven, compulsive frequency. I cannot be sure of the accuracy of my memories, but I seem to recall his childlike, gleeful chuckling at the same scenes of awkward dialogue and subtle physical comedy over and over, as well as his deriving a certain sensual delight from the shots of Benjamin’s Alfa Spider zooming down highways, overlaid with those entrancing S&G refrains. (Peripheral to this is the time when I was in college, or maybe just post-college, and he lamented to me that there wasn’t anyone out “these days” whose songwriting could hold a candle to S&G. I thought about bringing up a few people, once of whom was Conor Oberst, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort.)
Then, a decade ago, I was in a serious relationship with someone who seemed to hate the movie with a pathological fervor. But the times we chatted comfortably about things like that – rather than making assumptions about each other’s characters, engaging in physical acts to avoid unpleasant conversations, or drinking ourselves into disparate headspaces (wait – could there be clues here as to why he hated the movie??) – were few and far between, so I never really learned the source of this hatred.
YouTube dissections of the film tend to mention Roger Ebert’s companion reviews of it, one written in the sixties when he was still at a tender age himself, and one written decades later from a more seasoned perspective. A widely held opinion is that, though his more mature review is not wrong, exactly, Ebert was right the first time about the film’s broad cultural impact, and his later criticism seemed to misunderstand its tone. The fact of the matter is, the film is and has always been a barbed comedy. It’s self-aware, it makes fun of its own conventions in many ways, and it has quite thoroughly whooshed over the heads of anyone who watches its unsettlingly ambiguous closing scene and sees any sort of optimism.
All that said – Mrs. Robinson’s been on my mind lately. I just had another birthday, and I am very aware of being borne steadily toward another impossibly high, round number. (I am also aware that Anne Bancroft herself was younger when she appeared in the film than I am now, a few age-enhancing effects notwithstanding.) I’d be lying if I said a middle-aged thwarted artist, with little control over her environment, setting her sights on a young, malleable male over whom she could exert control isn’t in some way understandable to me.
Though she’s a firmly established villain by the film’s last act, many have looked differently at Mrs. Robinson in recent years. She and Benjamin both, by their very nature, feel out of place in human congress, and they are aimless objects in the grip of the kind of inertia I wrote about in another post recently. They seem similarly dead inside when they begin talking. Their trysts, while empty, are rote endorphin infusions for both of them. When Elaine enters the picture and starts to loom larger and larger, Mrs. Robinson is seized by a terror of losing control in the game she has so deftly engineered – not to mention sad and desperate over the prospect of losing her fix. Meanwhile, Ben is laughably privileged and self-absorbed (even if self-effacing), and manages to psychologically launder himself of all blame. I’m not ready to reduce him to just a rich, entitled brat, as some modern reviews have, but he’s certainly no rebel hero.
Somewhere in the midst of these musings, I got it in my head to cover S&G’s “Mrs. Robinson”, but with some sort of twist to put a personal stamp on it. I became curious what other folks had done with it, so I did some perusing on YouTube. I was surprised to find that, despite the trend of slowing down or otherwise modifying upbeat pop songs, there was next to nothing divergent being offered. Most attempts at coverage involved derivatively peppy guitar-strumming and vocal deliveries that betrayed an over-familiarity and/or lack of connection with the text.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the best crack at a progressive reworking of the song came from Blue Eyes himself, over fifty years ago. Despite Sinatra having little association with feminism, and probably working in opposition to it most of the time, his much-maligned cover comes closest to addressing Mrs. Robinson as a human being, even a peer, whose unconventional preferences make her a target for polite society:
The PTA, Mrs. Robinson,
Won’t OK the way you do your thing,
Ding ding ding
And you’ll get yours, Mrs. Robinson,
Foolin’ with that young stuff like you do
Boo hoo hoo, woo woo woo
So how’s your bird, Mrs. Robinson?
“Dandy”, Mrs. Robinson you’d say
Hey hey hey
Well have you heard, Mrs. Robinson,
Mine is fine as wine, and I should know
Ho ho ho
Speaking of complex characterization/humanization, I started to wonder if Mrs. Robinson was ever given a name, even if only in the source material (a novel by Charles Webb). Some quick research revealed that, indeed, she never was.
Now… I feel weird tacking this on at the end, but there’s a certain amount of serendipity I feel I must acknowledge. By far my favorite analysis of The Graduate I watched yesterday was this video by Eyebrow Cinema, called “The Graduate and the Perpetuation of Loneliness”:
I do take issue with a couple of Eyebrow’s points, particularly the notion that Ben and Elaine already felt a resurgence of their individual loneliness in the back of the getaway bus (more likely what they felt was the creep of uncertainty as they sobered up from their brain chemical high), but I agree that the reprisal of “Sound of Silence” and the reappearance of the window framing device that draws a division between them do not bode well for their future. In any event, perpetual, incurable loneliness was already on my mind when I tuned into SNL last night for the first time in months. Justin Bieber’s first performance of the night, as Bieber performances usually do, struck me as self-serious and unintentionally hilarious… but his second, a song titled “Lonely” that actually seemed to hurtle up from somewhere genuine, was a bit unexpected and seemed apropos of the moment. I couldn’t help but find this fairly articulate cry of longing more interesting coming from the now-very-married Bieber who, last I saw him, couldn’t shut up about how great married sex is. I am sure this was a case of my analytical, English-major-y brain attributing more to pop culture than it deserved, but still – there it was.
Expect my single release, which will consist of a new original song and my cover of “Mrs. Robinson”, out sooner rather than later. It’ll give me something to occupy myself as I wait for news from my audio engineer about the full-length that’s in progress.