Film is the theater of the unconscious.
– Mike Nichols
I hate endings. Never liked them; in books, films, sometimes songs (especially fades—what the hell is that?), whatever. This is why my novel has a shitty ending. And I took a lot of guff for that. But it was a sort of my way of protest against “the ending,” seemingly so tacked on and trite, unrealistic stuff.
Happily Ever After.
Nonsense. What’s next? That’s what I want to know.
The grand exception to this is the 1967 film masterwork, The Graduate, which has been without challenge since I first saw it at age 19 my favorite movie of all time.
You know the ending; two college-aged kids, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katherine Ross), mostly alienated, disillusioned, mixed-up and beyond impetuous, having just escaped what would surely be lives trapped in suburban drudgery, sit panting in the back of a bus they board with no real plan. They don’t know where it is going. They just needed a vehicle out of “there.” Elaine, still adorned in a wedding dress, having abandoned the sanctity during its ceremony, and Benjamin, who has spent most of the film screwing Elaine’s mother in a fog of social confusion, her rescuer, sit disheveled. They laugh. They exhale. And then they stare into the abyss. What the hell have they just done? What will become of them? How can anything ever approach normality again? They will literally, as the great Doctor Thompson counseled us, “buy the ticket and take the ride.” The film then cuts to the back of the bus, an exterior of their two heads still staring forward as it rides off into the sunset.
Exactly. No ending. It is maybe the only piece of storytelling, especially Hollywood storytelling, which subverts “the ending.” It ends; well it ends simply because it can’t keep going, as life. You have to live your life. These people have their own problems. Get back to yours.
Mike Nichols, the film’s director—his second in a long distinguished career that included comedy writing, acting, dramatic writing, stage directing and films—who passed away this week, decided during final editing that this amputation of his story was his film’s conclusion; a film about being lost, finding no solace in the things that are determined for us long before we had a choice. It is a film about deceit leading to discovery. A film about how perhaps an entire generation misread the tea leaves on revolution as salvation and ended up with a decade-plus of drug overdoses, narcissistic excesses and 1980s apathy. These kids don’t know. They never know. And maybe they never will.
Nichols presupposes all of this in his art. This is his greatest triumph. This is his Great Gatsby, his Sgt. Pepper’s, you know; his big thing.
And not just the perfect anti-ending ending, but the entire roll-out; from opening scene to final frame, there is not a wasted or throwaway shot in The Graduate. And unlike Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, it is awash in subtext. Shit, the film opens with Benjamin sitting on an airplane (as a bus) staring into the abyss. Then we see him being ushered along a moving sidewalk at the airport, yet he is motionless, being carried along as if a part in a factory; people passing him by in a flurry of activity. The damn opening is a film in itself.
I recently watched it with a young colleague of mine and drove him crazy pointing out the nuances of the thing in every scene. To be honest nuances is cutting it way short; the metaphors in The Graduate are so profound and unapologetically blatant, it’s scary. And since the Buck Henry/Calder Willingham screenplay is a satire bordering on farce, it is something of a miracle that Nichols manages to unveil such a poignant visual assault. There is, as the saying goes, truth behind the humor.
The “messages” Nichols provides with the camera belie the absurdity of the dialogue, a bizarre story of anti-social terrorism, as if the main character is on a personal suicide mission of no discernible purpose but to crash and burn. Maybe, we think, it is because, as the great Warren Zevon once sang, “I rather feel pain than feel nothing at all.”
I realize I am merely using the passing of a great artist to gush about my favorite film, but The Graduate was more than that for me. Steven Spielberg wrote of seeing The Graduate upon the death of Nichols this week as “life-altering,” which I took as one damned brilliant director giving props to the other for inspiring him. But for me it was “life-altering” in the sense that having seen it for the first time as a late-teen and then again in college later the next year (in full wide-screen format, which it must be seen, because when I first viewed it on television it was so cropped half of Nichols’ fantastic visual storytelling was missing), it got inside my psyche. For months afterwards, I had dreams in which I was in the film, the main character (the incredible image of Benjamin forced to wear this ridiculous diving suit his parents give him for a birthday present at the bottom of the pool; alone, submerged, embracing the silence), and others wherein I was seeing the story play out as a voyeur; overhearing conversations, seeing something I was not meant to see, but could not look away.
Nichols once said that film is an unconscious art, and in a very real way, more than any other film, The Graduate got inside me that way. And it has informed my fiction (as little and strangely subversive as the output has been) and formed much of my ho-hum look at what others may consider the seminal moments of our lives. The sense that Nichols’ visuals—beautifully accented by Paul Simon’s wonderful songs, which should never be understated as a major contributor to the work—seem to stay with me long after its immediate effect. I read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road around the same time and it also blew my doors off, but I rarely returned to it later in my maturity. I barely think about it now, other than nostalgically, even as a literary device to inspire. The Graduate has stayed inside me.
A few years ago I took in Nichols’ staging of my favorite American play, Death Of A Salesman, with the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman on Broadway. Nichols was a man of the theater first and considered film an extension of that. There were elements of what I perceived in The Graduate throughout the production, and while I was moved to tears for the first time in a theater, yet, like most of Nichols’ work after The Graduate, it pales. Some good stuff, some not-so, but nothing like that shot-for-shot masterpiece.
Oh, and weirdly enough, speaking of Mike Nichols and “life-altering,” I happened to have kissed my wife for the first time on his property; a horse ranch in Monticello, New York, where my wife’s best friend and later our maid of honor, Pamela, trained and rode his horses for completion.
And so upon his death, I contemplated these things; The Graduate, my impenetrable love for my wife, my impish, almost maddening sense of non-conformity as religion, and thank Mike Nichols for his art.
A worthy ending, indeed.
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