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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Post Graduate

You have to hand it to Al Gore. The man never stops finding new ways to combat global warming. Just the other night I was watching an American news program and there he was at the White House, standing right next to President Bush. It was some sort of reception for Nobel Prize winners. The two former presidential rivals were mere inches apart, each smiling awkwardly and looking everywhere but at each other. Even from several thousand miles away, I could feel the temperature in that room drop. Brrr. That alone must have given the climate a few more weeks of viability.

Okay, that was my latest attempt at political humor. Normally, Jay Leno or David Letterman would have been telling that joke, and it would have come out a lot funnier. If you enjoy American topical jokes, like I do, you are probably feeling withdrawal pangs these days, as the writers’ strike grinds on into another week. Worst joke I have heard about the strike was from Dennis Miller’s radio program. It was about a guy who was offering to be a scab for Ugly Betty. Yechhh.

Here are a couple more topical observations, although not necessarily funny. One thought that just occurred to me is why politics is (are?) so darn frustrating. Here’s why. The candidates are like cable TV packages. With cable TV, for every channel you really want, you have to take several you don’t want at all. Similarly, every candidate who takes a position you really support also seems to have a few others you aren’t crazy about. With the cable TV package, it’s annoying but not the end of the world. You don’t have to watch the evangelist channels if you don’t want to, even though you are paying for them. But with presidential candidates, the one who enunciates your perfect foreign policy position, may be fatally compromised by his or her stand on some social issue. Or vice versa. And those positions can have real consequences. Maybe what we need is some elaborate system where we vote on our values and rate them according to importance and a computer program determines which candidate is the best match for the country as a whole. But no one would really like that. First, no one would trust the software (and rightly so) and, more importantly, character and leadership abilities are ultimately more important than mere policy positions. After all, none of us knew in November 2000 that we would be (sort of) electing a leader who would have to deal with 9/11. (Anyone remember when Dubya campaigned on improving the educational system and staying out of foreign entanglements?)

Here’s my other topical observation. First the conservative press, followed by the mainsream press and finally the liberal press, has been noting that the security situation in Iraq has improved rather dramatically. This, of course, is great news. The Iraqi people deserve a break, as do the U.S. service people on the ground. But it’s hard to shake the fear that it won’t last and/or will be squandered by Iraq’s rather lackluster political class. Personally, I am a perennial skeptic, but I saw something two weeks ago that really gave me serious hope. The entertainment trade paper Variety reported that, after a two-year hiatus, a film festival will again be held in the Iraqi capital. The dates for the Baghdad International Film Festival are December 16 through 19, and the fest will feature films mainly from Egypt, Jordan and Iran. It is being organized by a group called the Association of Iraqi Filmmakers Without Borders. Variety reports that, in 2005, a festival of 58 locally made short films “were screened before thronging crowds over six days.” Iraq’s film industry dates back to the 1940s, and the country has had a long tradition of film-going. Cinemas went into decline, however, under U.N. sanctions that followed the 1991 Gulf War and during the turmoil that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

But what I really want to talk about is how darn fast time is flying by. My jaw dropped when I heard on the radio last week that it has been 40 years since the release of the movie The Graduate. National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program devoted its Friday archival show to the movie. Among the interesting tidbits we picked up from old interviews with Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman and Buck Henry was this recollection from Henry, who was one of the two writers who adapted the screenplay from Charles Webb’s novel: the characters played by Hoffman and Katharine Ross were originally envisioned as stereotypically blond and blue-eyed southern Californians. Ross’s parents, said Henry, were seen as “Ronald Reagan and Doris Day types” and, he recollected, that Day was actually approached about the role. (He didn’t think the offer ever got to Reagan.) That would certainly have been a very different movie. Just how many women were offered the role of Mrs. Robinson anyway? As we have noted before, Dark Shadows icon Grayson Hall supposedly had the role sewn up at one point. But, in the end, who could argue with the casting of the wonderful Anne Bancroft? You might argue that the role of Mrs. Robinson made Anne Bancroft, but it’s almost certainly more accurate to say that Anne Bancroft made Mrs. Robinson. The character and the movie may simply not have had the same impact without her. Ditto for the dark-haired younger players who, in hindsight, were clearly the right choices for Ben and Elaine.

As part of the Fresh Air program, critic John Powers reviewed the 40th anniversary edition DVD of The Graduate. He made an observation that a lot of baby boomers can probably identify with. He said that when, as a youth, he saw the movie on its initial release, he identified totally with the Hoffman character and his alienation from his parents’ world and lifestyle. But, on watching the movie 40 years later, he found himself identifying more with Mrs. Robinson. This makes perfect sense. When he saw it the first time, he was closer to Ben’s age (if not to that of Hoffman himself, who was nearly 30 when he played the role). Now, he is at an age where it is easier to identify with the parent, rather than the child. Presumably, boomers are among the large audience that watches, say, Desperate Housewives, which features a cast of characters that are Mrs. Robinson’s direct literary descendants.

It would be easy to attribute Powers’s reaction to the baby boom generation’s vaunted self-absorption, i.e. when boomers are young then young characters are the most important, and when boomers are older then older characters are most important. In other words, it’s always about us. But it also speaks to changes in our culture. In the 1960s, it was still fairly shocking for a woman to bed a man young enough to be her son. Today, not so much. As Powers noted, Mrs. Robinson was ahead of her time. She was the real rebel of the movie (certainly more of a rebel than Ben was) and was badly treated by turning into a caricature by the end of the film.

Many college-age people took The Graduate to heart when it first came out. It seemed to capture that generation’s sense of disorientation with the post-WWII world in which it found itself. But there was a strong sense of déjà vu about this for those college-age people whose curriculum included French literature. The syndrome evoked was le mal du demi-siècle, a term coined to describe people born in France more or less exactly one century before. In the French kids’ case, this so-called disease of the half-century referred to the difficulty of following a generation that had done heroic and historic things (think Napoleon) but found itself in less interesting times and, frankly, more mediocre than their parents. Something similar happened to the those born around the midpoint of the 20th century. They chafed at finding themselves in the safety, comfort and prosperity earned for them by a generation now routinely referred to as “the Greatest” one. The somewhat humorless Benjamin Braddocks of the world were quick to look for the distastefulness of the material comforts being enjoyed by the generation that had gone through the Great Depression and World War II. This longing for something authentic on the part of the youngsters is summed up in the famous scene in which a character called Mr. McGuire corners Ben at a party and says, “I want to say one word to you. Just one word.” That word, of course, was “plastics.”

Walter Brooke, the actor who played Mr. McGuire, was later reported to have remarked that he wished that, after playing that role, he had invested in plastics himself. The year after The Graduate came out, the plastics market went through the roof. And this may illustrate the ultimate irony of the boomer generation. This is the cohort that wears Ben Braddock’s longing for authenticity on its sleeve like a talisman of some over-arching establishment religion. While it decries the idea of plastic, it generates fortunes using it as a manufacturing material and investing in that manufacturing. It embraces Paul Simon’s “The Sounds of Silence,” which was featured on The Graduate’s soundtrack, as an anthem railing against meaningless talk and noise, and then later play the melody on Muzak systems in shopping malls. And boomers indulge to this day in their self-absorption by flagellating themselves with criticism of the sort I have just written.

In the final scenes of The Graduate, Ben Braddock beats against a church window and then picks up a cross in a church and uses it to beat back a crowd of wedding goers. Buck Henry said that this was never intended to be religious symbolism, but that the business with the cross was more of a “vampire thing.” But it’s hard not to read that scene as a young generation waving the values of the previous generation in its face, charging the parents with hypocrisy and with having strayed from the right path. The truth is that, like all previous generations, this one has had its strengths and its weaknesses and is prone to criticism from the next one. And, as with all previous generations, even though it is tempting to generalize about it, it is way more diverse than it, in its callow youth, ever wanted to admit.

-S.L., 29 November 2007

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